How to Respond to China's Coercive Behavior

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How to Respond to China's Coercive Behavior

April 18, 2001 20 min read
Larry Wortzel
Larry Wortzel
Adjunct Research Professor at the U.S. Army War College

Dr. Larry M. Wortzel no longer works for the Heritage Foundation.

As representatives of the Bush Administration begin meeting with the Chinese government to resolve issues over the collision of a Chinese F-8 fighter jet with a U.S. reconnaissance plane on April 1, Members of Congress-indeed, all Americans-are reevaluating just how far the United States should go to improve relations with an increasingly belligerent Beijing. The 10-day detention and coercive questioning of the 24 crew members of the downed U.S. Navy EP-3 aircraft, as well as the detention and arrest of Americans in China who are primarily educators and researchers, demonstrates that China is embarking on a path of intimidation and coercion aimed at forcing America and other countries to meet its demands.

The landing of the EP-3 on Hainan Island was unavoidable after the collision between the aircraft and the Chinese fighter. Yet Beijing chose to detain the American crew until April 11 for the formal reason of exacting an apology from President George Bush and a promise to stop U.S. reconnaissance flights off China's coast. President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell appropriately expressed America's regret for the loss of the Chinese pilot's life from the collision. However, because the incident was accidental and the United States was neither negligent nor responsible, the President rightly refused to apologize. Furthermore, the Administration has made it clear that it will resume surveillance flights. Such flights serve national security needs without violating international law, which recognizes the rights of all nations to transit international airspace and waters.

China's initial refusal to accept the Administration's expressions of regret over the loss of the Chinese pilot may reflect Beijing's attempt to exert pressure over the Administration's upcoming decision to sell defensive arms to Taiwan-a matter of law under the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 (P.L. 96-8). Such coercive intent is even more troubling when viewed in conjunction with the deliberate campaign of intimidation being waged by China's internal security services against U.S. citizens and permanent American residents of Chinese descent, who are being arrested on trumped-up charges of espionage. These arrests stifle academic inquiry and discourage travel to Taiwan.

The United States must rethink its relationship with China. Congress must decide whether normal trade relations are appropriate with a country that seems to treat the rule of law as a tool of convenience. Some in Congress have even begun to consider measures to block permanent normal trade status for China, but that alone would not make it clear to China that America and the international community expect it to abide by its obligations under international consular treaties and to function as a mature nation that abides by international laws. Strict controls must remain on American exports to China to ensure that U.S. high-tech trade does not inadvertently improve the capabilities of China's military.

In addition, the State Department should warn Americans traveling or studying in China that they are in danger of detention at the whim of China's security services. Appropriate defensive arms should be sold to Taiwan according to the Taiwan Relations Act to deter China, which has threatened to attack the island. A strong U.S. military presence must be maintained in the Asia-Pacific region to protect America's vital interests. And the United States should make it clear that China's record of human rights abuses and violations of norms of international behavior will be an issue in considering whether to support China as host of the 2008 Olympics.

Reconnaissance and International Law
The United States routinely conducts reconnaissance flights in East Asia to support its vital national security interests. Whether carried out by the U.S. Navy or the U.S. Air Force, these flights are conducted over international waters according to the accepted rules of aviation safety and norms of international law. The intelligence information collected about China's increasing military activities in the South China Sea and Western Pacific is important to protecting those interests.

Like freedom of navigation exercises conducted by the U.S. Navy, reconnaissance flights demonstrate that the United States and all other nations have unrestricted access to international waters in the region and the airspace above them. If the United States were to scale back or change the routine nature of these flights to conduct them only when full exercises are underway or in periods of heightened tension, the flights would become more provocative and more dangerous.

China is now claiming large portions of the South China Sea, the Gulf of Tonkin, and the East China Sea as its own territorial waters. The United States and the international community dispute these expansive claims, but America has made every effort to remain neutral in territorial disputes between China and other Asian nations. However, curtailing reconnaissance flights over or transit of these disputed waters by U.S. ships would amount to tacit acceptance of China's maritime claims. For that reason, President Bush should not halt surveillance activity in the vicinity of China as China demands.

China also continues to threaten to use force against Taiwan and is increasing its own military capacity to do so. It is imperative that the U.S. military and intelligence community keep abreast of Beijing's military buildup through reconnaissance flights. These flights are not intrusive and, because they are conducted in international air space, constitute no direct threat to China. Beijing has the right to monitor these flights and conduct its own surveillance of them, adhering of course to accepted norms of air safety.

In the case of the EP-3 collision, it appears that the Chinese pilot, Wang Wei, a member of the People's Liberation Army Naval Air Forces,  had challenged those safe practices. While it was appropriate for America to express regret and sorrow that any life was lost in the collision, the President of the United States should not apologize for the lack of discipline and the daredevil antics of a Chinese aviator in an F-8 jet, which can travel two to three times faster than the much larger EP-3. The President instead should object to Beijing's attempts to blame the United States and twist the facts. He should point out, for example, that General Chi Haotian, who denied that pilot Wang Wei was responsible for the airplane collision, is the same leader who claimed that no one was killed on Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989.

The United States has expressed sorrow for past mistakes that have caused the loss of life. It apologized, for example, for the inadvertent sinking of the Japanese fishing vessel Ehime Maru off Hawaii and for the accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, in 1998. In these two cases, the United States was clearly negligent. In the case of the EP-3, however, the United States was not at fault.

The EP-3 crew was forced to seek immediate refuge for their damaged aircraft by entering Chinese air space and landing at a Chinese airfield on Hainan Island. International rules of aviation allow for such emergency actions to save lives and avert further disaster. The EP-3 pilot could barely keep the aircraft flying after it collided with the Chinese fighter jet. He reportedly radioed for permission to land but received no response. Beijing's response, and its treatment of the crewmembers-subjecting them to classic communist interrogation tactics that included sleep deprivation and demands for a confession-bring into question China's commitment to rules-based behavior in the international arena.

China's Increasing Belligerence Toward Americans
The detention of the EP-3 aircrew is not the first instance in which American citizens have been detained in China under dubious circumstances. Consider these other examples:

  • In August 2000, three Taiwan-born American citizens were arrested and detained for "activities incompatible with the tourist status under which they entered China."   Henry Chu, his wife Sandy Lin, and Patricia Lan were members of a Christian evangelical group based in San Jose, California. They were held for two days for questioning and then released.
  • On February 11, 2001, Chinese security officials arrested American University researcher Gao Zhan at a Beijing airport. She has been in detention in China since that time. China's security agents also grabbed her husband, Xue Donghua, and her son Andrew at the same time. Andrew Xue is a U.S. citizen, and both Gao and Xue Donghua are permanent U.S. residents; Mr. Xue has since been granted U.S. citizenship. According to Mr. Xue, "They (the Chinese security agents) blindfolded me and drove for two hours to an unknown place and they questioned me about my wife's research…. They were using my son as a hostage to push me to say something against my wife."4 In violation of the Consular Treaty between the United States and China, the U.S. embassy in Beijing was not notified of these detentions.
  • On February 25, Chinese security agents detained Li Shaomin, an American professor of business marketing at the City University of Hong Kong. Li is the son of a dissident who was active in the democracy movement in China in the late 1980s. A naturalized Chinese citizen, Li was arrested after crossing from Hong Kong to Shanzhen, a border town in South China.5 According to one Western diplomat, "the [Chinese] Ministry of State Security might have been given freedom to act against U.S.-based scholars because the Chinese leadership perceives a security threat."6
  • China also arrested eight American citizens of Chinese descent who were engaged in the health and spiritual practice of Falun Gong-which Chinese Premier Jiang Zemin has labeled a cult that must be suppressed. They were arrested in Beijing along with a small group of Chinese Falun Gong practitioners.7

Some critics believe China has calculated that it can engage in the harassment and random detention of Americans because it has already secured permanent normal trade relations from the United States in anticipation of its entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO). China's communist leaders may approve of intimidating Americans and permanent U.S. residents of Chinese descent as a calculated campaign to stop academic inquiry into China's society. It is clear that they pay particular attention to anyone who has dealings with Taiwan. Regardless of the reasons, China's behavior appears to be coordinated carefully within the Communist Party ranks in Beijing.

The Broader International Context
Clearly, Beijing's behavior over the air collision and its increasing arrests of Americans raise reservations about the wisdom of pursuing open trade relations with China. China's unwillingness to abide by ratified treaties and international norms raises serious doubts about whether it can be counted on to meet its obligations as a member of the WTO. American companies doing business in China should be concerned about whether Beijing is committed to its agreements and whether its judicial system would resolve contractual disputes objectively and justly.

Business decisions must be built on the assumption that the partners will abide by their contracts. The accumulation of private property is the motivating force of a market economy, and the rule of law is vital to a functioning efficient market.8 China's recent behavior calls into question its leaders' commitment to such principles. Without the rule of law and respect for property, the political and business risks of doing business in China increase, and corporate managers and stockholders are right to be concerned.

Indeed, the same American companies and business organizations that have lobbied for permanent normal trade relations with China in the past should now be pressing China to comply with international norms of conduct and rules-based behavior. Americans are growing weary of Beijing's threats and intimidation, and they will vote with their pocketbooks by purchasing products made in countries other than China if these belligerent activities continue. Beijing also should realize that if the risk of doing business in China becomes too high, American manufacturing operations could shift to places like Malaysia, India, Vietnam, or the Philippines.

The concerns about Beijing's adherence to the rule of law should also apply to the 2008 Olympics. Recent Olympics have been marred by bomb threats and drug scandals. If China's military officials willingly fabricate stories as General Chi Haotian has done, would Beijing fabricate a conspiracy at the Olympics, say, if its athletes were performing poorly in a competition in which they normally excel, in order to detain foreign athletes and tip the competitive balance back in their favor?

China's dismal behavior as host of international fora was clearly demonstrated during the International Women's Conference in Beijing in 1995. Beijing, which had failed to complete many of the facilities it had promised to build for that event, isolated all of the women delegates from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in a remote satellite town. China's communist leaders feared that the activists might create a disturbance if they were housed or allowed to hold their meetings in Beijing. When then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright attempted to speak with one group of disabled NGO women delegates in the satellite town of Huairou, the Chinese conference organizers cut power to her microphone and stationed a band of performing "traditional Chinese opera singers" next to the site where Albright was speaking to drown out what she was trying to say.

Finally, Beijing's assertive language has increased in recent years. In particular, China issued a white paper on Taiwan on February 21, 2000, that threatened an attack on the island if its leaders did not recognize Beijing's formula for "one China." Such language, and incidents such as the interrogation and detention of the U.S. EP-3 aircrew, place increasing strain on U.S.-China relations, particularly over the issue of U.S. defensive support for Taiwan.

Arms Sales to Taiwan
Beijing's coercive behavior toward Taiwan has increased markedly and has the direct consequence of causing the very actions Beijing hopes to deter-U.S. defensive arms sales to Taiwan. The upcoming decision of the United States on whether to sell Taiwan such arms is quite likely the impetus for Beijing's detaining the U.S. aircrew.

The Bush Administration and Congress now face a difficult decision: If they hold back on selling Taiwan any of the items it has requested (see the Appendix), they could be accused of making some unprincipled side bargain with Beijing to secure the release of the EP-3 air crew. If they provide an appropriately robust arms sales package to Taiwan, they risk being accused of having done so to punish Beijing.

Certainly, China's coercive behavior and threats have changed the dynamic on Capitol Hill and the attitudes of the American people toward the issue of defensive arms sales to Taiwan. As appealing as it may be to approve the entire list of items Taiwan has requested, the correct response should be to approve what the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 requires under its strict criteria: "The President and the Congress shall determine the nature and quantity of such defense articles based solely upon their judgment of the needs of Taiwan."9 An objective assessment of Taiwan's needs is difficult under the present circumstances, but necessary nevertheless. Taiwan's defensive needs are growing based on China's well-documented military buildup across the Taiwan Strait.

Over the past 10 years, the People's Republic of China (PRC) has deployed over 300 new short-range ballistic missiles against Taiwan. Its Dong Feng-6 and Dong Feng-7, with ranges below 300 miles, are capable of carrying nuclear warheads and can be transported on mobile launchers. If fired with conventional warheads, they could wreak havoc on the Taiwanese population. Admiral Dennis Blair of the U.S. Pacific Command has characterized them as "terror weapons."

In addition, the PRC has purchased a number of new weapons systems from Russia. It has stationed opposite Taiwan some 75 Russian Su-27 fighters with advanced air-to-air missiles, and it will assemble another 125 fighters with Russian help. China also has purchased 40 Su-30 fighters, each of which can provide radar targeting through a data link to four Su-27s.

Of particular concern is China's purchase of four Russian Kilo submarines and two Sovremenny-class destroyers. The S-N-22/Sunburn ("Moskit") anti-ship cruise missile on these destroyers is designed specifically to attack U.S. aircraft carrier battlegroups and to defeat the U.S. Navy's Aegis air-defense system. It operates at supersonic speed, making it particularly deadly. The Su-30 fighter can carry the "Moskit" anti-ship missile as well as advanced air-to-air missiles that can travel farther than the 100 miles across the Taiwan Strait.

The PRC also has bought new surface-to-air missiles and is using some of these to protect its ballistic missiles from attack. In addition, Russia is providing the Chinese Air Force with airborne warning and control aircraft in order to coordinate air and sea attacks.

Defending against this buildup will require Taiwan to receive a robust arms sales package from the United States.

How America Should Respond
China's behavior after the EP-3 collided with one of its fighter jets and its intimidation of Americans in China make it imperative that Washington institute a range of measures designed to discourage such behavior. For example:

The United States should continue to exercise its right to the free navigation of international waters and air space.
Reconnaissance flights should continue. If China's military continues to threaten these flights, the U.S. aircraft should be accompanied and protected by combat aircraft.

Congress should review China's normal trade relations and attach measures to ensure that high-tech trade does not improve the Chinese military.
A revision of the Export Administration Act of 1979 (P.L. 96-52) and a strengthening of export control regulations by the President will ensure that trade with China does not increase the capabilities of the Chinese military. The provisions of legislation such as the Thompson-Torrecelli Act, introduced last year as parallel legislation during consideration of the granting of permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) for China, should be introduced again.10

The State Department should press for the release of other Americans detained in China and warn Americans about travel to China.
American citizens and scholars who wish to travel to China for tourism or study should understand that China's security services are engaged in a campaign of intimidation that targets Americans of Chinese descent or naturalized citizens. With the approach of the summer season, when thousands of American tourists contemplate travel to China and U.S. students consider summer study at China's universities, this becomes especially critical.

Military contacts should focus only on high-level bilateral confidence-building measures.
The Secretary of Defense should deny requests from U.S. military leaders for joint exercises with the Chinese armed forces that show PLA officers how to fight more effectively. Defense attachés should be retained at each country's embassy to provide routine channels of communication.

The United States should ensure that Taiwan is secure from intimidation.
An arms sales package that provides adequate responses to China's military buildup is important at this time. The United States has strong interests in assuring that China resolves its differences with the democratic Republic of China on Taiwan peacefully.

The United States should oppose holding the Olympics in China until a sustained record of respect for human rights and individual liberties can be shown.
At the present time, it is clear that China is not willing to allow groups of people to gather and express themselves, and there is no evidence that this situation is likely to change by 2008.

The United States should maintain a strong military presence in Asia to deter and respond to China's coercion.
A strong, forward-deployed American military presence in Asia that is protected by adequate missile defenses will provide the security glue that allows democracies and free trade to prosper. By contrast, a withdrawal of forces would result in a major arms race in the region as countries attempt to assure their own security, which is now assured by the U.S. presence.

The EP-3 crisis and the arrests of American scholars in China should cause all Americans to reevaluate just how far the United States is willing to go to improve relations with Beijing. A series of measured responses, such as those outlined above, is needed to deal with Beijing when it ignores its obligations under international consular treaties and international law.

Dr. Larry M. Wortzel is Director of the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.

What Taiwan Seeks for Defensive Arms

Taiwan's defense strategy calls for stopping an invasion by the mainland before it reaches the shore. The Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, which states that America's relationship with the PRC "rests upon the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means,"11 requires the United States to make available to Taiwan "such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability."12 It also requires the Administration "to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people of Taiwan." Finally, it specifies that "The President and the Congress shall determine the nature and quantity of such defense articles and services based solely upon their judgment of the needs of Taiwan…."13

However, negotiations over such arms sales should be confidential matters between the two governments. Conducting them in public enables the PRC both to comment on the negotiations and to lobby against elements of the arms package, as happened during Chinese Vice Premier Qian Qichen's visit to Washington in late March. The list of weapons Taiwan has requested apparently was leaked to the press. According to the March 15, 2001, issue of the Taipei Times, Taiwan is seeking:

  • Four Aegis-class destroyers with the Spy-1D radar and Navy Standard Missile, which are expected to be available in 2009. The Aegis system is capable of tracking 100 targets at a time, including aircraft, cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles. It can transmit the target data to other ships, shore-based defense systems, and air defense aircraft. More important, its interceptor missiles could form the basis of a ballistic missile defense system for the future. This missile defense system could later be integrated with one deployed by the United States in Northeast Asia.
  • Four Kidd-class destroyers, which are one generation older than the Arleigh Burke-class Aegis destroyers. They are very effective for air defense and have anti-submarine warfare systems. They could go into service very quickly, and their advanced technology would provide Taiwan's Navy with practical experience in operating an integrated air defense system.
  • P-3 submarine-hunting aircraft similar to the Navy EP-3 that collided with the Chinese fighter. The P-3 carries a range of anti-submarine and anti-ship weapons, ranging from depth charges to anti-ship missiles. These planes are both large and slow-moving, however, and-as demonstrated by the EP-3 incident-would therefore be easy targets for Chinese fighters in the Taiwan Strait. Another option would be to offer Taiwan submarine detection systems mounted on helicopters, which would be more survivable and in greater quantity but at less cost.
  • High-speed anti-radiation (HARM) missiles, which home in and knock out an enemy radar that guides anti-aircraft missiles.
  • Joint direct attack munitions (JDAM) and long-range guided bombs capable of attacking missile positions inside China. China is aiming several hundred short-range ballistic missiles at Taiwan. JDAMs and guided bombs would permit Taiwan's Air Force to attack China's launchers and storage sites without requiring bombers to fly over the mainland. These weapons, however, could also be used for "pre-emptive defense," which makes their sale more controversial.
  • AIM-120 air-to-air missiles based in Taiwan. This medium-range missile can hit targets 50 miles or more away. Taiwan wants them to counter the new R-77 or AA-12 missiles on China's new Su-27 and Su-30 aircraft purchased from Russia. Storing them in Taiwan would make them readily available for defense in case China were to launch an attack, which it has threatened to do.
  • Aircraft identification transponders for the Air Force. These emit coded electronic signals that permit an aircraft to check whether another aircraft it detects on radar is friendly or hostile.
  • Night vision goggles to improve maneuverability of aircraft at night.
  • Radar warning sensors for aircraft and ships. These defensive high-technology systems provide some indication that a hostile weapons-guidance radar is trained on the ship or plane. With such a warning, Taiwan's military could employ countermeasures to reduce the threat and thereby lessen the likelihood of attack.
  • Naval ship-to-ship missiles, which can be used to defend Taiwan's ships from Chinese missile attack boats, frigates, and destroyers. The type under consideration could be launched from aircraft.
  • Diesel submarines to lessen the threat of a blockade from China. The United States has not manufactured diesel submarines for over 40 years; a consortium of Dutch, German, and American firms has offered to build them for Taiwan at an American shipyard. There is a low likelihood that this would be approved. Taiwan could be assisted instead in purchasing them from manufacturers in other countries.
  • Long-range accurate artillery and shells, especially artillery fuses that detect and identify targets, to enable Taiwan to attack amphibious tanks and landing craft as they approach the island.
  • Advanced armor vehicles to blunt an invasion should the PLA gain a beachhead.
  • Long-range radar systems to detect aircraft and ballistic missiles. Defensive weapons must be fully integrated in a command, control, and early warning system.
  • Missile warning data-sharing with the United States.
  • An integrated command-and-control system to enable Taiwan's armed forces to coordinate operations.


1 The People's Liberation Army (PLA) is the collective term for all the branches of the Chinese military, including its Air Force, Navy, strategic rocket forces, and ground forces. The PLA Navy has its own dedicated air arm of fighters and bombers.

2 Marc Lacey and Steven Lee Myers, "With Crew in U.S., Bush Sharpens Tone Toward China," The New York Times, April 13, 2001, p. A1.

3 "Taiwanese-American Evangelists Released in China," Agence France Press, August 28, 2000.

4 Bill Sammons, "China Hit for Detaining U.S. Boy: Bush Chides Visiting Beijing Envoy Behind Closed Doors," The Washington Times, March 23, 2001, p. 1.

5 Asia/Pacific News, "China Seizes American Professor/ Son of Dissident and Scholar," The Houston Chronicle, March 31, 2001.

6 Ibid.

7 AP Wire, "Eight Local Falun Gong Arrested in China, Family Members Pressure for Release," Associated Press Newswires, March 7, 2001.

8 Kim R. Holmes, Bryan T. Johnson, and Melanie Kirkpatrick, 1997 Index of Economic Freedom (Washington, D.C.: The Heritage Foundation and Dow Jones & Company, Inc., 1997), p. 42.

9 P.L. 96-8, Section 3(b).

10 S. 2645, the China Non-Proliferation Act, was introduced on May 25, 2000, by Senators Fred Thompson (R-TN) and Robert Torricelli (D-NJ). See also Larry M. Wortzel, Ph.D., "National Security Concerns and the China Trade Debate," Heritage Foundation Executive Memorandum No. 678, June 5, 2000.

11 Taiwan Relations Act, Section 2(b)(3).

12 Ibid., Section 3(a).

13 Ibid., Section 3(b) (emphasis added).


Larry Wortzel
Larry Wortzel

Adjunct Research Professor at the U.S. Army War College


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