History has demonstrated the perils of focusing too much on stability at the expense of deterrence. The Cuban missile crisis, the modern world's closest brush with the apocalypse, was precipitated by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev's perception that the United States, especially President John F. Kennedy, was overly concerned about stability and cooling tensions between the superpowers. Khrushchev's sense that America could be pushed was formed by Kennedy's cautious reactions to assertive Soviet moves toward Berlin, as well as Khrushchev's measure of Kennedy at the 1961 Vienna superpower summit as "weak" and accommodating.
Taking a cue from history, the United States needs to inject a healthy degree of risk into Beijing's calculus, even as it searches for ways to cooperate with China. This does not mean abandoning engagement or trying to contain China, let alone fomenting conflict. But it does mean communicating that Beijing has less ability to control escalation than it seems to think. China must understand that attempts to roil the waters could result in precisely the kinds of costs and conflicts it seeks to avoid.
To make this work, the United States should pursue policies that actually elevate the risks -- political, economic, or otherwise -- to Beijing of acting assertively. On the high seas, the focal point for the region's territorial disputes, China has bullied its neighbors by relying on non-military vessels. China is using its rapidly expanding coast guard to assert its expansive sovereignty claims by harassing non-Chinese fishermen, oil companies, and military vessels that pass through contested waters in the East and South China seas. This has the benefit of exploiting China's dominant numerical advantage while keeping the U.S. Navy on the sidelines.
Washington should blur the false distinction between non-military and military ships by stating that it will respond to physical coercion and the use of force as deemed appropriate -- regardless of whether the perpetrator is a white- or gray-hulled ship. Exercises that practice U.S. naval operations against aggressive non-military vessels would be a good place to start.