In January 2012, a Florida man shot and killed his perceived aggressor and ignited a nationwide debate on self-defense. George Zimmerman’s shooting of Trayvon Martin quickly became one of the most hotly contested and publicly scrutinized cases in the US since OJ Simpson’s alleged murder of his wife in 1994. At the heart of the controversy was a legal principle known as “Stand Your Ground,” which states that in cases of self-defense, even in public areas, those who feel threatened are not obligated to first attempt to deescalate the situation or seek safety before resorting to force. Even though he knew of the law’s existence, Zimmerman did not, in fact, actually make his case based on this principle – nor did the prosecution seek to show that he had even had an opportunity to retreat – but nonetheless the public debate surrounding the case primarily focused on the law in part because the judge specifically ordered the jury to consider its implications in their deliberations. Florida’s law received a great deal of attention throughout the case, but this law is not unique to Florida: more than thirty states in the US have some type of Stand Your Ground law, either explicitly or through case law precedent, while nearly all fifty US states have some variant of the similar but more moderate “castle law,” which applies only to one’s home instead of any area. Critics of Stand Your Ground laws worry that the assurance of legal protection for reacting to any perceived threat legitimizes and enables aggression since the law (in Florida’s case) disregards completely the circumstances which led up to the confrontation; all that matters is that responding to a perceived threat is legitimate. According to Attorney General Eric Holder, Stand Your Ground laws negatively impact public safety and security “by allowing – and perhaps encouraging – violent situations to escalate in public.” Holder’s (and others’) concern is that under the protection of this law, Americans might, by escalating situations in ways that are nor overtly illegal or openly aggressive, deliberately allow confrontations to develop to the point where they will have a justifiable excuse to respond with force simply because they provoked their opponents into drawing first blood.
The text of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law reads, “A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.” In the Zimmerman case, many observers reluctantly concluded that although Zimmerman’s actions were arguably not truly in the spirit of self-defense due to the larger context of the confrontation, according to the wording of the law no legal outcome other than acquittal was ever likely. Juror B29 stated after the trial that Zimmerman “got away with murder… but the law couldn’t prove it… You can’t put the man in jail even though in our hearts we felt he was guilty. But we had to grab our hearts and put it aside and look at the evidence.” Even though evidence in the developing case indicated that it was highly likely that Martin was the first to actually use force by grabbing Zimmerman, striking him, and bashing his head against the ground, supporters of Martin stressed repeatedly that the confrontation would never have occurred in the first place if Zimmerman had not made the decision to leave his car and investigate a figure whom he subjectively deemed to be a suspicious person, which he had no authority to do and was told by 911 responders not to do. In sum, Zimmerman independently sought out and created a situation in which he then had a legal opportunity to respond with lethal force; the crux of the issue is that none of it would ever have occurred if Zimmerman had simply minded his own business rather than going out of his way to create a threatening situation to which he then felt obliged to respond. This principle is arguably the essence of China’s regional foreign policy as exhibited by its newly expanded Air Defense Identification Zone.
Since at least the 1990s, Beijing has been gradually escalating tensions resulting from contradictory territorial claims, but always in ways that are neither overtly aggressive nor blatantly illegal in order to maintain the carefully constructed appearance of non-aggression and “peaceful rise.” China and its neighbors have routinely patrolled contested waters in the South China and East China Seas in order to reinforce their control over the regions, but China has when possible taken the opportunity to subvert these attempts without being openly aggressive. In 1995, after a severe storm that forced Philippine naval vessels to withdraw from the contested Mischief Reef in order to seek safety, Chinese vessels quickly took over the area before the Philippine ships could return and – over the loud but ultimately ignored protests of Manila – constructed platforms to secure its ownership and control. More recently, Beijing employed a similar tactic when it double-crossed Manila after a mutual agreement to withdraw from Scarborough Shoal in the spring of 2012, claiming never to have signed the agreement, sending vessels to reclaim the area after both fleets had withdrawn. Beijing has also made use of this “salami-slicing” strategy on its western borders in disputes that are less widely reported in mainstream media but no less hotly contested: in areas whose ownership India also claims, China has sent troops to first secure control and then later construct camps and roads as a means of demonstrating ownership, a practice that has been utilized in the region since at least the 1950s. To date, Chinese salami-slicing has mostly consisted of moving into disputed but vacant territory and essentially planting a flag and maintaining a presence in order to be the new king of the mountain; since these areas have all had unclear legal ownership and no direct pushing out of foreign forces, China has been able to avoid actively initiating conflict and thus maintain its claim of “peaceful rise” with the exceptions of small border wars in the mid-late twentieth century.
More recently, however, Beijing has begun to display the kind of behavior that could arguably be characterized by the concerns reflected in Attorney General Holder’s comments above. As China has more aggressively begun to realize what it believes is its destiny of East Asian dominance, its tactics have shifted from claiming disputed territories that are closer to its sphere of control through minimally confrontational means to now beginning to stake claims in regions where their arguments are much weaker or even totally baseless. When Japan mused on the possibility of shooting down Chinese drones that illegally entered its airspace, Beijing was quick to declare that it would consider such a response an act of war and would respond with force – even though Beijing’s illegal activity would have pushed Japan to protect its own sovereignty in the first place. In China’s eyes, its retaliation in this case would be an act of self-defense because it would not view itself as the aggressor in spite of its trespassing. Beijing has recently raised even more eyebrows with its newly expanded Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea, which now explicitly includes the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands even though Japan arguably has the stronger historical claim and also conflicts with Japan’s previously established zone (there is no internationally agreed-upon basis for establishing such zones). China also was upset by Japan’s installation of anti-ship missiles in Okinawa this month, islands whose control is completely in Japanese hands. The missiles were installed to send a message regarding China’s aggressive encroaching on Japanese territory, which Japan intends to defend. China’s behavior has strayed toward the risk of creating conflicts in which it would then be obliged to defend itself, squarely placing the blame on the other country for initiating. This is the essence of the Stand Your Ground principle as it is reflected in Florida’s statute: considering a retaliatory use of force a legitimate instance of self-defense regardless of the events that lead up to violence, even if the party that claims self-defense deliberately escalates and creates its own confrontation throughout the encounter. As China acts increasingly aggressively in its claims on territory that is decreasingly in dispute and increasingly in control of its rivals, it seems likely that it will eventually force their hands in pushing back, which may be just what Beijing wants: the excuse to claim aggrieved status and retaliate even though the conflict was completely avoidable. In order to show firm support for freedom of navigation in open areas, which is a core policy driver for Washington (and to show support for its ally, Japan), the United States deliberately sent two bombers on a flight through China’s new air defense identification zone on Tuesday, demonstrating that the type of aggression demonstrated in the zone’s recent expansion – which threatens to dangerously upset the status quo – will not be tolerated.
Beijing’s rhetoric has consistently claimed that China’s is a “peaceful” rise, but such behavior is not in the spirit of peace or cooperation. If a person aggressively invades another’s space in an intimidating manner and dares him or her to “make his day” so that he has an excuse to hit back, we would not say that this person is acting peacefully. If a person breaks into another’s home and kills the inhabitant in response to the latter’s use of force under a castle doctrine, we would not say that this intruder is acting in self-defense. Protecting sovereignty is as much a fundamental right of countries as protecting life and limb is a fundamental right of individuals, but deliberately blurring the lines of what counts as self-defense is dangerous in either case. In international relations, just as on the level of individuals, the right to stand one’s ground even after being the one responsible for creating the confrontation in the first place should not come at the expense of others’ rights to true self-defense, which should emphasize deescalation and appropriate, justifiable use of force. When aggressive people learn that they can get away with initiating and escalating violent confrontations simply by claiming self-defense, what incentive do they have to act differently in the future?
Alexander Bowe has an MA in International Studies from the Korbel School and is currently a doctoral candidate in Political Science at Tsinghua University.