New Report Sheds Light on People's Liberation Army’s Role in Escalating Indo-Pacific Tensions

New Report Sheds Light on People's Liberation Army’s Role in Escalating Indo-Pacific Tensions

Through case studies on the People's Liberation Army’s close encounters with the militaries of Australia, India, Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam, a new National Bureau of Asian Research report edited by Oriana Skylar Mastro assesses the strategic calculus behind the PLA's actions and implications for regional conflict and deterrence.
A Chinese Coast Guard ship fires a water cannon at a Philippine Navy chartered vessel in the South China Sea A Chinese Coast Guard ship fires a water cannon at Unaizah, a Philippine Navy chartered vessel conducting a routine resupply mission to troops stationed aboard BRP Sierra Madre, a grounded Navy ship that serves as the country's outpost in Second Thomas Shoal, on March 5, 2024, in the South China Sea. Photo credit: Ezra Acayan/ Getty Images.

In recent years, China's military modernization and assertive actions have led to more frequent and dangerous encounters between the People's Liberation Army (PLA) and the militaries of key regional players in the Indo-Pacific. Each encounter heightens the chance of a military conflict in the region. A new report published by the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR) assesses the PLA’s strategic thinking on escalation control, analyzing the potential for conflict in the region and exploring regional responses and implications for deterrence.

Military ships in the South China Sea on a cover of an NBR report.

Edited by Chinese military expert Oriana Skylar Mastro, a center fellow at APARC and the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, the report, "Encounters and Escalation in the Indo-Pacific: Perspectives on China’s Military and Implications for Regional Security," comprises six essays, each detailing an encounter with the PLA. These case studies include China’s maritime disputes with Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam and its increasingly aggressive military activities vis-à-vis Australia, India, and Taiwan.

The authors of the essays are current and former practitioners with insight into their government’s experiences and thinking. Their assessments emphasize the need for Asia-Pacific countries to reevaluate their defense capabilities and adopt clear and consistent policy approaches to navigate the complex geopolitical landscape in the region.

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There is a consensus among the authors of this report that China harbors problematic intentions and is using increasingly aggressive and risk-acceptant tactics to accomplish its goals.
Oriana Skylar Mastro

Tactics, Intentions, and Shared Threat Perceptions

As the PLA adopts a more assertive approach beyond its maritime boundaries, nations across the Indo-Pacific region have increasingly experienced perilous encounters with the Chinese military. For example, the PLA's intensifying aggression around Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea led to several incidents of maritime tension with the Philippines. Likewise, a Chinese fighter aircraft intercepted an Australian surveillance aircraft during its routine activity in international airspace over the South China Sea, posing a safety risk to the Australian aircraft and its crew.

The authors of the six case studies in the NBR report agree "that China harbors problematic intentions and is using increasingly aggressive and risk-acceptant tactics to accomplish its goals." While they show that China uses different tactics in different situations and differ in their evaluations of the most troublesome tactics for their respective countries, their analyses share several common themes, which Mastro reviews in her introduction to the report, titled "Close Encounters with the PLA: Regional Experiences and Implications for Deterrence."

First, “China doctrinally does not take any responsibility for the deterioration in the strategic environment,” writes Mastro. “All six case studies mention China’s tendency to publicly blame the other country for whatever crisis unfolded.”

China also sees crises as opportunities, Mastro explains, and most case studies indicate that the crises at stake were deliberate acts of PLA escalation. All case studies also reflect Chinese strategic thinking on deterrence as serving dual purposes: firstly, to discourage adversaries from certain actions, and secondly, to influence their behavior in line with the deterrer's intentions, ultimately requiring them to comply with the deterrer's preferences.

Across all nations studied in this report, there is a recognized need for partnership with and support from the United States and other like-minded countries to effectively address security concerns and deter potential threats from China.
Oriana Skylar Mastro

Another common theme is that the PLA's assertive actions have prompted all six nations studied in the report to boost security cooperation with the United States and other regional powers, albeit to varying extents. For example, in addition to enhancing its strategic partnership with the United States, India has enhanced its defense ties with the two other Quad members (Japan and Australia) and regional partners such as Vietnam, Singapore, and the Philippines.

Moreover, based on their encounters with the PLA, almost all regional players have concluded that strengthening their military capabilities will discourage Chinese aggressive behavior in the future, Mastro says, noting that “changes in defense posture have perhaps been the most drastic in Japan.”

Policy Implications

The report's case studies offer policy recommendations for deterring China, emphasizing the importance of a consistent approach that includes strengthening deterrence capabilities through military modernization, firm stances on border disputes, and close security cooperation with the United States, its allies, and other like-minded nations. While there is consensus that military deterrence needs to be balanced with diplomatic engagements to reduce tensions, each regional player views the effectiveness of diplomacy and cooperation with China differently.

“Ultimately,” Mastro concludes, “the path forward for maintaining peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region requires a cohesive strategy that prioritizes long-term security interests, demonstrating the essential role of international cooperation and the strategic interplay between military readiness and diplomatic efforts in navigating China’s aggression.”

Learn more about the report and download Mastro’s introductory essay > 

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