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Chinese provocative and aggressive behavior in the Pacific is placing the US and its allies at great risk of war, given the possibility of a misunderstanding, miscalculation or unintended escalation.
While US-Chinese tensions in the Pacific are by no means new in any sense, they do continue to intensify, and several recent events have led Pentagon leaders to express an unmistakable sense of danger.
Ely Ratner, Assistant Secretary of Defenses for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs, cited a series of what he said were extremely concerning recent events. In one instance, Ratner explained, a Chinese fighter aircraft released defensive “chaff” or countermeasures in the air in close proximity to an Australian aircraft. The fragments of aluminum and other debris from the Chaff were “sucked” into the engine of the Australian aircraft, a Pentagon report explained.
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This incident was followed by another unsafe instance wherein Chinese aircraft intercepted a Canadian aircraft over the East China Sea. In yet another occurrence, a Chinese Naval vessel aimed a laser at an Australian aircraft, indicating a clear and potentially imminent threat.
Many at the Pentagon might still be a bit unclear as to how the US and its allies should interpret China’s recent behavior, raising natural questions regarding Chinese intent. Is this merely intimidation tactics and “saber-rattling,” or could the successive serious incidents and provocation indicate a growing seriousness in Chinese willingness to use force in the Pacific. Perhaps Chinese military leaders think this kind of aggression might function as what they might consider a “deterrent” to be, meaning US and allied presence in the Pacific is itself something which could inspire a Chinese military response.
While it may seem unlikely that China would attack or initiate military conflict in the Pacific, the Pentagon certainly is not dismissing the possibility. This is particularly true in light of China’s fast-growing military and growing resolve to exert its power and influence. Certainly for many years now, China is well known for its expansionist ambitions, which not only include a wish to dominate the Pacific but also rise to a position as the sole largest military power in the world.
Speaking at a think tank event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Ratner said this kind of Chinese behavior has a long history and may indeed be escalating to yet a new level.
"These are not isolated incidents," Ratner said. "Over the last five years, the number of unsafe PLA [People's Liberation Army] intercepts, including U.S. allies and partners operating lawfully in international airspace in the South China Sea has increased dramatically with dozens of dangerous events in the first half of this year alone. In my view, this aggressive and irresponsible behavior represents one of the most significant threats to peace and stability in the region today, including in the South China Sea."
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest and President of Warrior Maven - the Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.