专家:促使美国三思的可能是中国庞大的军力


中美关系处于自由落体状态。这很危险。美国国防部长埃斯珀(Mark Esper)表示希望年内访华,说明五角大楼对此感到担忧。8月,中国国防部长魏凤和与埃斯珀先生进行了长时间的通话,这表明北京也感到担忧。两人均同意保持沟通,并在风险出现时努力降低风险。

关键问题是:怎么做?

7月,美国国务卿蓬佩奥(Mike Pompeo)将里根(Ronald Reagan)关于前苏联的名言—“信任但验证”篡改成针对中国要“不信任但验证”。华盛顿怀疑中国越来越咄咄逼人,希望将美国赶出印太地区。

与此同时,北京认为美国担心其全球霸主地位失落,已完全放弃其在南海问题上应有的中立。特朗普(Donald Trump)总统受经济衰退和疫情困扰,又拼命想要连任,也将对抗中国作为击败对手拜登的最后一招。

因此,出错的风险很高。两国相互指责是一回事;如果军舰在南海发生碰撞,引发直接冲突,那就完全是另一回事了。2019年,美国海军在南海进行的“航行自由行动”创历史纪录。埃斯珀先生誓言今年要保持同样的节奏。

迄今为止,每当美国军舰接近中国的岛礁时,中国军舰都会对其进行监视,并警告其离开。

如果双方就这样相安无事,彼此都不失面子,倒也罢了。美国可以声称其航行自由行动挑战了中国对该地区的“军事化”。中国也可以说,它已经将入侵者赶出了自己的水域。

但这可能引发不测。 2001年,一架美国侦察机与一架中国喷气式战斗机相撞,造成一名中国飞行员丧生。 2018年,美国迪凯特号驱逐舰和中国兰州号驱逐舰仅距41米,险些相撞。

双方都承诺过相遇时保持安全距离。但是,安全距离到底是多少?

美国认为,中国的岛礁是人工吹填而成,因此美国军舰可以合法驶入到距离岛礁500米处。但北京认为,这些是自然的中国领土,中方所做的仅仅是拓展而已。在吹填之前这些岛礁拥有的名字就证明它们不是人工岛。根据中国法律,外国军舰进入领海需要得到中国政府的批准。

中美两国甚至可以援引同一部国际法互相打架。华盛顿引用《联合国海洋法公约》第58条为其航行和飞越自由权辩护。但北京可引用同一条款指出,“各国应适当顾及沿海国的权利和义务。”

如何化解一场双方都不想要,然而却有可能糊里糊涂发生的冲突?

冷战期间,美国和苏联通过代理人战争进行竞争,避免了直接冲突。如果今天出现类似的竞争,美国的亚洲盟友很可能不会跟随美国与其邻国开战,毕竟这个邻国拥有核武器,还是它们最大的贸易伙伴。

与此同时,如果美国舰艇和飞机继续保持对南海的高强度侦察,那么对抗的风险就始终存在。北京没有占领华盛顿的计划。从北京的角度来看,是美国在中国周边滋事挑衅。

最终,促使美国三思的可能是中国庞大的军力。中国军队至少享有地利之便。就军舰和潜艇而言,其数量也超过了美国海军,尽管美国舰队的武备更加精良。美国印度-太平洋司令部司令戴维森上将(Philip S Davison)承认,“不能保证”美国今后一定能在与中国冲突时获胜。

中国外交部长王毅表示,北京将以“冷静和理智”来面对美国的“冲动和焦躁”。但在很多方面,蓬佩奥等对华鹰派人士的所作所为已经使后续政府很难让美国与中国的竞争缓和下来。

因此,我们有理由问:埃斯珀先生今年的中国之行会有什么不同?但是访问本身即是在交流沟通和降低风险方面迈出的宝贵一步。各说各话也比完全不对话要好。

(文/周波 清华大学战略与安全中心客座研究员、中国论坛特约专家,译/韩桦 中国论坛执委。原文首发于2020年8月25日《金融时报》,翻页阅读英文原文)

The risk of China-US military conflict is worryingly high

The relationship between China and the US is in freefall. That is dangerous. US defense secretary Mark Esper has said he wants to visitChina this year, which shows the Pentagon is worried. That Wei Fenghe, China’s defense minister, spokeat length with Mr. Esper in August shows that Beijing is worried too. Both men have agreed to keep communications open and to work to reduce risks as they arise.

The crucial question is: how?

In July, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo inverteda famous line of Ronald Reagan about the Soviet Union and applied it to China: “trust but verify” became “distrust but verify”. Washington suspects that an increasingly coercive China wants to drive the US out of the Indo-Pacific.

Beijing meanwhile believes that the US, worried about its global primacy, has fully abandoned its supposed neutralityon the South China Sea. Haunted by economic recession and the pandemic, and desperate for re-election, President Donald Trump has also made confronting China his last-straw strategy to beat his opponent, Joe Biden.

The risk of a mistake is therefore high. It is one thing for the two countries to point their fingers at each other. It is quite another if naval vessels collide in the South China Sea, triggering a DIRECT conflict. In 2019, the US navy conducted a recordnumber of freedom of navigation operations there. Mr. Esper has vowed to keep up the pace this year.

So far, whenever a US ship has come close to China-controlled islands, Chinese naval ships have monitored it and warned it to leave.

This pattern might continue without accident, allowing both sides to “save face”. The US can claim its freedom of navigation operations have challenged China’s “militarisation” of the area. China can also say it has driven away intruders from its waters.

But that ignores the chance of mishap. The air collision in 2001 between a Chinese jet fighter and a US reconnaissance plane caused the death of one Chinese pilot. In 2018, the USS Decatur and Chinese destroyer Lanzhou escaped collision by just 41 metres.

Both sides have pledged to keep at a safe distance during these encounters. Yet what is a safe distance exactly?

For the US, the Chinese islands are artificial land reclamations, so a US warship can legally sail as close as 500 metres. But for Beijing, these are natural Chinese territories that China has chosen to enlarge, and that they had names before land reclamation are proof they are not artificial. Under Chinese law, a foreign military vessel’s entry into territorial seas needs government approval.

China and the US could then even fight each other under the same international laws. Washington cites Article 58 of the UN conventionon the law of the sea to justify its right of freedom of navigation and overflight. But Beijing can quote the same article, which says: “States shall have due regard to the rights and duties of the coastal State.”

How to de-risk the chance of a conflict that neither side wants but which they could nevertheless sleepwalk into?

During the cold war, the US and USSR competed via proxy wars, avoiding direct conflict. Should a similar competition arise today, America’s Asian allies most probably wouldn’t follow the US into war with a neighbour that has nuclear weapons and is their biggest trading partner.

Meanwhile, if US ships and aircraft continue to maintain high-intensity surveillance of the South China Sea, there is always the POTENTIAL of a confrontation. Beijing has no plan to take Washington. From Beijing’s point of view, it is the US that comes provocatively close to China.

Eventually, it may be that the sheer size of China’s military prompts a US rethink. The Chinese army enjoys the convenience of geography, to say the least. Its navy also outnumbers the US navy in terms of warships and submarines, although the US fleet is more heavily armed. Admiral Philip S Davison, commander of the US’s Indo-Pacific Command, has acknowledged that there is “no guarantee” the US would win a future conflict against China.

China’s foreign minister Wang Yi has said Beijing will remain “cool headed” when there are “impulsive moves” from the US. But in many ways, China hawks such as Mr Pompeo have made it hard for subsequent administrations to de-escalate US competition with China.

It is therefore reasonable to ask: what difference will Mr Esper’s trip to China this year make? But the visit itself is a valuable step forward in communication and risk reduction. Talking past each other is better than not talking at all.

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