How China's Security Commission Can Manage Crises By Learning from the Past

U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (2L) shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping (3rd L) during a meeting at the Great Hall of the People April 9, 2014 in Beijing, China. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The first meeting Tuesday of China’s National Security Commission draws great attention to the thin line in Northeast Asia between conflict and cooperation. This body offers a new weight, however slight, on the scale toward preventing conflict in Asia. But, with significant mistrust among Northeast Asian nations, there are also many weights on the other side of the scale.

Today, a conflict that reverses the many gains of economic and political cooperation in Asia is only an accident away. We know accidents can happen because they’ve happened before. On April 1, 2001, a U.S. Navy EP-3 surveillance plane collided with a Chinese F-8 fighter plane, sending the damaged American plane to land on Chinese territory and the Chinese pilot to his death.

In the EP-3 crisis, bad communication, interagency management challenges, and lack of message discipline on both sides of the Pacific fostered a crisis that resisted resolution. For the first 12 hours, U.S. and Chinese leaders were never in contact. And, as information rose unchallenged through its bureaucracy, the Chinese policy solidified around an account of U.S. fault that the United States and independent analysts disputed.

As a result, instead of quickly finding a compromise, Beijing and Washington engaged for two weeks in a pitched rhetorical dispute that could have easily escalated. The first public U.S. comment was from Admiral Dennis Blair, commander of U.S. Pacific forces, who said, “It’s pretty obvious as to who bumped into whom ... It’s not a normal practice to play bumper cars in the air.” But, on April 3, Chinese President Jiang Zemin said the U.S. should “bear full responsibilities” for the collision and demanded an apology, an explanation of the incident, compensation, and the halt to all future reconnaissance flights. It took 12 days to reach a compromise, in the form of an ambiguous U.S. apology.

A National Security Commission in China could have helped resolve this crisis at its outset, without risking conflict for nearly two weeks. To be successful in managing the EP-3 crises of the future, China’s National Security Commission must constantly foster five difficult but crucial practices in its operation.

1. Set membership of the body to encourage a diversity of opinions. There is a built-in logic and momentum in the heat of crises that risks escalation. Take the Cuban Missile Crisis, perhaps the archetype for successful crisis management. President John F. Kennedy’s National Security Council was forced to sit repeatedly as the President pushed for better options than a military strike (which, in any case, his advisers told him could not fully work) or mere acquiescence. A diversity of views doesn’t necessarily come from negotiation-minded diplomats contending with the action-focused military: in the Cuban Missile Crisis, at the outset, civilian military leaders tried to temper action, and diplomatic leaders were initially more strident.

When debate fails, the risk of policy failure vastly increases, and the results can be catastrophic. The enduring critiques of the U.S. National Security Council system at low points in U.S. foreign policy—the U.S. decision to invade Iraq in 2003 and the escalation of the war in Vietnam in 1965—center on failures to consider alternative views and inconvenient facts.

2. Use the Commission to respond more quickly to crises, while maintaining coordination. Through the crises of the 1990s and 2000s, Chinese officials tended to respond slowly, as they built consensus. The lack of responsiveness in crisis risks confusion and, possibly, escalation. After the U.S. bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999, President Bill Clinton issued an apology many Chinese found inadequately contrite. Immediately following his statement, Clinton attempted to call Jiang—a conversation that perhaps could have calmed the crisis, before protesting crowds surrounded and threw rocks at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. But, Chinese leaders did not take the call.

3. Better coordinate implementation across agencies. This is challenging in China, where the administrative functions of government are organizationally separate from the Chinese Communist Party’s political structure, and where the implementers as a result are not necessarily at the table. In the United States, the National Security Act of 1947 created the National Security Council to include specific positions—the Secretaries of Defense and State, among others. In the EP-3 case, there were organizational challenges with a policy-making process that exhibited some chaos on April 1. As information moved to the top in the Chinese military, a position solidified that the EP-3 had turned into the F-8, and had done so in Chinese airspace. Considering alternative narratives may have helped.

4. Encourage participants to engage regularly with their counterparts from the United States and beyond. Though exchanges between the United States and China (and between China and other countries) have expanded since the 1990s crises, they are still uneven, in particular between the nations’ militaries. Crisis managers would do well to understand their interlocutors, and there is no substitute for direct contact.

5. Understand that the Commission’s core purpose is paradoxically to make its crisis-management function unnecessary. Good policy coordination and discussion can help develop new policies that more adeptly achieve peace and stability, and anticipate the consequences of actions China finds it must undertake to advance its interests, even when it expects criticism. The Chinese approaches that have sparked the greatest international concern—unilateral, unanticipated actions like the recent announcement of an air defense zone that includes islands claimed by Japan and Korea, a 2011 test of a new stealth fighter while U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was in Beijing, a 2007 anti-satellite test, and recent patterns of assertiveness in the East China Sea and South China Sea—are more likely to remain irritants and not become international crises if they are carefully considered, coordinated, and communicated.

There are certainly differences between the structure, customs, and practices of the U.S. and Chinese governments. But experience across both countries indicates that attention to these five imperatives can vastly improve the impact of China’s National Security Commission in advancing the stability and peace that all of the region’s countries profess to seek.

About the Author

Profile picture for user Matt Stumpf
Matt Stumpf is Asia Society D.C. Office Director and former Special Asst to the USAID Administrator, State Dept nonproliferation expert and MacArthur Foundation Program Officer for Asian Security.