China and its Discontents

Forms of Prayer to be Used at Sea

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Below is a recent article I published on Earth & Altar, an online magazine committed to inclusive orthodoxy.

“They that go down to the sea in ships and occupy their business in great waters,

these men see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep.” Psalm 107:23-4

It is difficult to maintain devotional practices on a warship at sea. The environment seems naturally hostile to contemplation—always loud and often hot, with plentiful opportunities to injure oneself, constant distractions, frustrations small and large littered throughout the day, and a relentless schedule. Warships are exemplars of the concept of entropy; they are in a constant state of degradation and disrepair. The operational necessity to repair the ship creates a steady stream of anxiety, and if there is any emotion more inimical to the religious life, it is anxiety.

Admiral James Stavridis, in his memoirs of serving as commanding officer of USS Barry—my most-recent ship—claimed that a ship at sea was akin to a monastery:

There is little here but work, work, work. A few minor amusements—not dissimilar to the books and quiet games of a modern monastery—but in the end, life on a ship is about devotion to work, conducted for the common good, with an agreed upon construct of rank, structure, order, and purpose. And good shipmates, if it is a good and lucky ship.

To sail in a modern ship of war is not unlike walking into a desert with a few companions. Everywhere around you is nothing but the sky and the distant horizon. There is a little outside input and an endless cycle of work and sleep.

From all of that comes—in some—a contemplation that is not, at the end of the day, unlike the meditations of medieval monks. For others, it is inchoate, unrealized—but it is a rare Sailor indeed who does not find himself or herself at least once a day standing at the rails of the ship, watching the hopeful gentle rise and swell of the ocean, and staring, staring, staring…at what?

At the realization that the sea and the sky roll on forever, unmoved and unmoving for all their motion. It helps keep the day-to-day concerns and frustrations a little bit in perspective, I suspect. (1)

The incongruity here, however, lies in the fact that contemplation and work in a monastic environment has a purpose—it points to something outside of itself, namely God. Work on a warship points to nothing except itself. Yes, warships are maintained so that they can accomplish some larger mission, but I think there are few who would credibly argue that mission has much, if anything, to do with God.

And yet, there is some grace to be found at sea. I find it largely above deck, standing watch on the bridge, often at sunrise or sunset, or on nights where there is at least some illumination from the moon or bioluminescent creatures below the water. When sunlight in varying shades of red, orange, yellow, and purple breaks through tufts of cumulus clouds on the horizon. When the churning ocean crashes over the bow of the ship, dense white streaks of frothy foam and spray are whipped up onto the bridge’s windshields, the ship pitches and rolls, and my hands grip the steel wire above my head that traverses the width of the bridge. Conversely, when the sea is like glass, and even the movement of small flying insects is visible breaking the surface of the ocean. At times like these, Baron Gottfried van Swieten’s quotation of Psalm 19 in the libretto of Haydn’s oratorio, The Creation, comes to mind:

The heavens are telling the glory of God. 

The wonder of his works displays the firmament. 

To day, that is coming, speaks it the day; 

the night, that is gone, to following night. 

In all the land resounds the word, 

never unperceived, ever understood. (2)

Nature does strike me as truly awe-some in those rare, fleeting moments. And contemplation, even some measure of devotion, does ensue.

Natural beauty is not the only motivator of devotional practices at sea. Properly understood, the ocean is a terrifying and dangerous place. Even today, with extensive safeguards and training, shipboard accidents, collisions, and groundings occur frequently among both warships and merchant ships. People die. Mariners of previous generations had an even keener awareness of the dangers of the sea, and more readily connected their safe navigation upon the sea to God’s providential action.

I currently keep three prayer books onboard my ship—the Episcopal Church’s 1979 Book of Common Prayer and 2008 A Prayer Book for the Armed Services, and IVP’s International Edition of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer—but I find myself turning to the 1662 BCP most often. In no small part this is because I am naturally attracted to the archaic vernacular. (3) It is also true that the 1662 BCP provides resources peculiar to my profession not found in the 1979 BCP, or even the 1928 BCP. Towards the back of the 1662 BCP is a section entitled, “Forms of Prayer to be Used at Sea.” The prayers, which supplement Morning and Evening Prayer, recognize the inherent danger of going out to sea, which was all the more dangerous in the seventeenth century at the time these prayers were written. 

Attendant to that danger, “Forms of Prayer to be Used at Sea” echoes many of the themes found in Psalm 107 in emphasizing the contingency and frailty of life, and recognizing God’s providential action upon the sea:

O most powerful and glorious Lord God, at whose command the winds blow, and lift up the waves of the sea, and who stillest the rage thereof; We thy creatures, but miserable sinners, do in this our great distress cry unto thee for help: Save, Lord, or else we perish. We confess, when we have been safe, and seen all things quiet about us, we have forgot thee our God, and refused to hearken to the still voice of thy Word, and to obey thy Commandments: But now we see, how terrible thou art in all thy works of wonder; the great God to be feared above all: And therefore we adore thy Divine Majesty, acknowledging thy power, and imploring thy goodness. Help, Lord, and save us for thy mercy’s sake in Jesus Christ thy Son, our Lord. Amen. (4)

In an age of ever-increasing material comfort for many of us in the developed world, too often we blanket ourselves in that false sense of safety as described by the author of this prayer. We attribute our wealth and success to our own efforts. Some techno-utopians even believe that humanity can save itself and defeat death. Not even a pandemic that has killed millions of people can rid us of these illusions. It is difficult for us to accept that “none of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself. For if we live, we live unto the Lord; and if we die, we die unto the Lord. Whether we live, therefore, or die, we are the Lord’s.” (5)

There is another way in which the danger inherent in getting underway and going out to sea can offer a point of reflection on the Christian faith and devotional practices at sea. In the 2020 film Greyhound—one of the best films ever made about life underway on a warship—Tom Hanks plays the beleaguered commanding officer of a destroyer escorting a merchant convoy across the Atlantic Ocean during the Battle of the Atlantic in World War II, defending the convoy from relentless attacks by Nazi U-boats. During one such attack, three members of the crew, including the captain’s steward, Mess Attendant George Cleveland, dies, and Tom Hanks’ character performs a burial at sea.

The scene  is a brief but profound example of prayerbook spirituality portrayed in popular media. Astonishingly, Tom Hanks’ character reads verbatim “At the Burial of the Dead at Sea,” found in “The Order for the Burial of the Dead” from the 1789 and 1892 editions of the Book of Common Prayer, the text of which echoes Paul in his Letter to the Philippians: (6)

We therefore commit his body to the deep, looking for the general Resurrection in the last day, and the life of the world to come, through our Lord Jesus Christ; at whose second coming in glorious majesty to judge the world, the sea shall give up her dead; and the corruptible bodies of those who sleep in him shall be changed, and made like unto his glorious body; according to the mighty working where by he is able to subdue all things unto himself. (7)

Even in our deepest grief, our common Christian faith gives us hope in the general resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. The character of George Cleveland, who as a black man in a still-racially-segregated military, is serving in one of the few jobs open to him as the equivalent of a servant, dies a painful and violent death, his body mutilated. But not only will George Cleveland be raised from the dead,  his corruptible body will be made like Jesus’ glorious body.

Taken together, life underway at sea, which at first glance seems a godless enterprise, does provide several narratives or images that can help both sailors and non-sailors alike in their devotional practice and to see God in new ways, either reflected in His glorious creation, or as a providential actor in history, or in the person of Jesus outside of history at the eschaton, transformed and transforming us in return. Contra one interpretation, the sea is not “unmoved and unmoving for all [its] motion,” (8) but rather, to paraphrase Paul, moved by the one in whom everything lives and moves and has their being. (9)

  1.  James Stavridis, Destroyer Captain: Lessons of a First Command (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2008), 108-109.
  2. “The Creation (Joseph Haydn),” Choral Public Domain Library, accessed October 17, 2022,
  3.  See Ben Crosby, “In defense of the archaic vernacular in public worship,” Draw Near With Faith (Substack), November 15, 2021,
  4. Samuel L. Bray and Drew Nathaniel Keane, eds., The 1662 Book of Common Prayer: International Edition (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2021), 563.
  5. Rom. 14:7-9 (Authorized Version)
  6. Phil. 3:20-21 (AV)
  7.  “1789 U. S. Book of Common Prayer: The Order for the Burial of the Dead,” The Society of Archbishop Justus, accessed October 17, 2022,  Of note: this text is different from that found in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, and different still from a similar prayer found in “Forms of Prayer to be Used at Sea” in the 1662, 1789, and 1892 editions of the Book of Common Prayer. In using the 1892 prayerbook in a film set in 1942, Tom Hanks’ character appears to be something of a liturgical antiquarian of his day.
  8. James Stavridis, Destroyer Captain: Lessons of a First Command (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2008), 109.
  9.  Acts 17:28 (AV)

Written by Will

December 21st, 2022 at 8:38 am

Posted in Uncategorized

On Death, Grief, and Redemptive Suffering

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Below is a recent article I published on Covenant, the blog of the magazine The Living Church.

My mother died of pancreatic cancer at age fifty-six; I was fifteen. For ten months, she endured chemotherapy and radiation treatment, until she collapsed and was hospitalized. She spent two weeks in the hospital, in and out of consciousness, until she was moved to a hospice facility, where she died.

It is difficult to remember the day-in, day-out experience of her illness — it was all a blur of family coming and going, of waking up to go to school but not really being present there. But I remember the day of her death clearly, as if it had been branded onto my memory with a white-hot poker. I was visiting my aunt for the weekend, and she dropped me off at home before returning to the hospice facility. My father hadn’t returned from running errands when she called. By the time we had arrived at the hospice facility, a white sheet had been laid over her body. Our parish priest came, and we prayed from the Book of Common Prayer.

When we stepped outside, we faced a torrent of rain. It felt as if each drop of rain hit the ground with such force as to indent the pavement; perhaps, collectively, the drops of rain would dissolve the scene in front of us, carrying us away with it. Or perhaps God was crying, too.

I don’t know why, but I wasn’t carrying an umbrella. Or else, the umbrella I was carrying did very little good, because I was soaking wet by the time we ended up at the burger joint across the street. A burger joint — how absurd. The absurd jumbled together with the tragic.

I think about this day often. The memories never “soften” over time — my mother died fourteen years ago and yet she is just as present with me today as she was then. There are no “stages” of grief. I was once asked at an interment whether I felt “closure.” Again, the absurd jumbled together with the tragic.

Modern culture doesn’t just fear death. It smothers grief. Fear of death, after all, is age-old. Our refusal to grieve properly is new. I hear so often of “celebrations of life.” What life is there to celebrate? Similarly, we blunt death’s impact with shallow euphemisms like “passed on” and “at rest.” Passed on to where? Is the person sleeping?

Our culture enforces grief-avoidance like a diktat. Death, and grief especially, are generally ignored by the popular culture; when not ignored they are sensationalized and trivialized, as in crime procedurals and horror movies. Our addiction to screens makes it harder to read books; but it also numbs our emotions, including both joy and grief. Most young people I know who don’t go to church don’t generally socialize with many older people. As a result, they rarely encounter death. This is one way in which church is unique in human society: it is a community which encompasses people of all ages, at all stages of life, from birth, to marriage and child-rearing, to death, and beyond.

Maybe we felt death more keenly when more people died young, when plagues or wars wiped out every other family member. Then again, that is a large price to pay just to remind us of our mortality. Perhaps we moderns have made a worthy trade-off. Or perhaps we’ve merely substituted earthly death for spiritual death.

I can’t help but think that this cultural phenomenon is in part to blame for our easy acceptance of euthanasia. We are told that euthanasia is “death with dignity.” What is a dignified death? What is a dignified life, for that matter? We don’t ask these questions much anymore, except occasionally in freshman seminars at small liberal arts colleges.

It seems to me that “death with dignity” in this context is generically defined as “death without suffering.” Is suffering to be avoided at all costs? Does that then mean that “life with dignity” is the pursuit of pleasure at all costs?

The Christian tradition has its own way of seeing death. As Fleming Rutledge points out,

Christianity does not recommend suffering for its own sake, and it is part of a Christian’s task in the world to alleviate the suffering of others. By no stretch of the imagination, however, could Christianity ever be said to recommend avoidance of suffering in the cause of love and justice. Perhaps the clearest way to sum this up is to say that Christian faith, when anchored in the preaching of the cross, recognizes and accepts the place of suffering in the world for the sake of the kingdom of God. (The Crucifixion, 50)

History and the popular imagination are filled with images of redemptive suffering: the martyr nailed to a cross, or tied to a wheel or stake; the soldier on the field of battle; the heroes of the civil rights movement, though many were bombed and shot and lynched, persisted in bringing about a measure of justice. In each case, suffering is transmuted into some greater ideal, the greatest of which is love. It is Jesus’ death on the cross, though, that truly allows us to see how and why suffering can be redemptive.

The greatest challenge to the idea of redemptive suffering is the absurdity and nihilism implicit in death. There is more than a note of despair and desolation in all tragedies, none more so than the great tragedies of the 20th century — the concentration camps, the gulags, the killing fields, and the people’s communes. What could possibly be redemptive about suffering on so monstrous a scale? The line that “one death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic,” may be misattributed to Stalin — but what could be more true of Stalin’s character, or of our own human nature? I lived in China for two years, and while there, tried to expose myself to the horrors of Maoist China as much as any Westerner could be exposed, and yet I cannot possibly comprehend a million deaths, never mind tens of millions. This is the eternal problem of evil, against which any formal theodicy rings hollow. The only answer I am left with is the Christian demand to have courage in the face of — not in spite of — evil, despair, and suffering.

And, indeed, the way of the cross does not avoid this absurdity. In Matthew and Mark, Christ dies with his plea to God unanswered.

The lesser challenge — but the challenge we more often face in the culture today — is that of shallow pieties, Enlightenment utopianisms, or just plain mindlessness, which can be crudely summarized by the “death with dignity equals the avoidance of suffering/life with dignity equals the pursuit of pleasure” formula. Whether conscious or not, this dichotomy too often characterizes the most naïve forms of secular progressivism and liberal Christianity.

Christians are, of course, called upon to help the distressed and relieve their suffering, but all too often this imperative is twisted such that we ignore our sinfulness, God’s judgment, and the eschatological hope for the Kingdom of God. We reduce suffering and its alleviation to a purely political problem, to be resolved with better policy and technique. But if all the church has to offer is yet another political program, then we are offering thin gruel, indeed.

In the end, this brand of liberal Christianity is worse than thin gruel, because it actually impedes meaningful action in the cause of justice. Without the cross, what is the point? The cross leads us to take real and substantive action for justice, because it recognizes the true depths of our problem.

I started with my mother. What does this have to do with her? Shortly before she was moved to the hospice facility, my father made the difficult decision to remove parenteral (intravenous) nutrition. While even the Roman Catholic Church recognizes the licitness of removing the nutrition of a patient who is close to death, I still have to reckon with the fact that she survived sixteen more days without nutrition, her pain palliated only by a tremendous amount of morphine.

In situations like these, most academic or theological discussions of end-of-life care or euthanasia fall flat. It is easy to say generically that all life has inherent dignity and that euthanasia violates that inherent dignity. But it is harder to see why pain in specific situations becomes morally necessary — after all, at a certain point, any additional morphine stands a chance of accidentally killing the patient.

As before, I am left with only one recourse: Jesus’ passion, death, resurrection, and ascension, in which Jesus both identifies with and participates in our suffering, and inaugurates our common Christian hope.

In dying, my Mom showed me how to live. Her death was a sacrifice in the pure sense of the term. And I think this is generally true of those we love. Grief constitutes immense suffering, and yet without it, are we even human? When we insulate and immunize ourselves against death and its effects, we make death cheap and life a commodity. This warps not only how we view death, but ultimately, how we live.

Written by Will

April 16th, 2020 at 9:18 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Aerial Challenges in the South China Sea

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The below article was published at The Navalist.

Surprisingly, this month’s close-encounter near Scarborough Shoal between a US Navy P-3C and a PLAAF KJ-200 AWACS aircraft received a relatively mild reaction from the Chinese government and little attention in Chinese media. China’s Ministry of National Defense released a statement to the Global Times that repeated common talking points (China’s behavior was “legal and professional,” the US’ behavior is the “root cause” of these unexpected incidents), while the Ministry of Foreign Affairs declined to comment. In contrast, official Chinese spokespersons have generally used harsher language to describe similar incidents, such as China’s intercept of a USN EP-3 last May or its intercept of a USAF RC-135 last June, claiming US behavior “seriously threatens” China’s airspace and maritime security and that the US “deliberately hypes” such incidents (China’s reaction to its August 2014 intercept of a USN P-8 was even stronger).

This change is partially the result of the nature of the incident: USN officials described the encounter as “inadvertent”—unlike other aerial encounters in which China deliberately sent fighter jets to intercept US reconnaissance aircraft, this incident appeared accidental and involved a much slower-moving AWACS aircraft.

Perhaps more importantly, other issues have simply overshadowed this incident:

  • James Mattis’ first official trip as Secretary of Defense to the ROK (where he reaffirmed the deployment of THAAD—a popular punching bag for China) and Japan (where he reaffirmed that Article 5 of the US-Japan Security Treaty, and thus the US’ defense commitment to Japan, applies to the Senkaku Islands (yet another punching bag);
  • President Trump’s letter and then phone call with Xi Jinping reaffirming the “one China policy” (a useful propaganda narrative for China);
  • Prime Minister Abe’s visit to the US;
  • And North Korea’s sudden ballistic missile test.

Nevertheless, there was some interesting Chinese commentary on the incident. Most commentary simply reiterated the official Chinese narrative on all such incidents: Shi Hong, executive editor of Shipboard Weapons magazine, promised such incidents will continue in the future until the “root cause” (the US military’s close-in surveillance) is eliminated; while Senior Captain Zhang Junshe, deputy director of the PLAN’s Naval Research Institute, complained that the only reason the US released news of the incident was to “hype” the South China Sea issue while it remains relatively stable.

Song Zhongping, a popular military commentator and former professor at the PLA Second Artillery Engineering Academy, took the provocative step of declaring that the airspace around Scarborough Shoal is China’s “territorial airspace,” and that the US was “intentionally trampling on peripheral red lines.” What those “red lines” actually consist of is impossible to say—while popular military commentators can give outside observers an unvarnished look into the PLA’s thinking on any given issue, they should not be interpreted as authoritative or reflecting the Chinese government’s official position. Regardless, this most recent close-encounter adds yet another data point demonstrating China’s tacit rejection of bilateral and multilateral crisis management mechanisms.

Written by Will

February 21st, 2017 at 11:01 am

Posted in China,Foreign Policy

Uncharted Waters: The Sobering Implications of the Chinese UUV Seizure

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The below article was published at The Navalist.

China’s recent seizure of a US unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) as the USNS Bowditch was attempting to retrieve it has been roundly condemned by the US government and legal experts as a violation of US sovereignty and freedom of navigation. But in a move that portends ominously for future Sino-US mil-mil encounters in the air and at sea, the Chinese government, state media, and popular PLA commentators have sought not only to legitimate the seizure but portray it as a commendable action worthy of repetition under similar circumstances in the future, and even tout it as a standard operating procedure.

First, the official response. The statement issued by the PRC Ministry of Defense spokesperson was noteworthy in two respects: first, that it made the spurious claim that the PLA Navy seized an “unidentified device” out of respect for navigational safety; and second, that the statement complained about the US military’s close-in reconnaissance of China (implying that the UUV was conducting said reconnaissance), demanding that the reconnaissance activities stop and vowing to “take necessary measures in response.”

Although the first claim is a complete fabrication—the USNS Bowditch was in sight of and radioed the Chinese ship—state media and PLA commentators commonly repeated it. Senior Captain Cao Weidong of the PLA Naval Research Institute (NRI) claimed that the PLAN’s identification and verification to prove the UUV “didn’t have any explosives and wouldn’t harm any personnel” showed China’s “responsible attitude to navigational safety.” Senior Captain Fan Jinfa (an associate professor at the PLA National Defense University’s Information Operations and Command Training Teaching and Research Department, and previous commander of the PLAN South Sea Fleet destroyers Guangzhou and Lanzhouaccused the US Navy of “unprofessional behavior” for “losing” the UUV, saying that it could have struck the bow or damaged the aft propeller of a ship traveling at high speed.

Some commentators went even further, claiming that China’s behavior explicitly upheld international law while US behavior violated it. Liu Haiyang, a research fellow at Nanjing University’s Collaborative Innovation Center of South China Sea Studies (CICSCSS), argued that the seizure showed China “bearing its responsibility to carry out its duties” according to UNCLOS, the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, and other international treaties. Both a quasi-authoritative commentary in the People’s Daily Overseas Edition and Teng Jianqun of the MFA-affiliated China Institute of International Studies (CIIS) claimed that China had unspecified “jurisdiction” over the relevant body of water, a ludicrous claim given that the site of the incident falls outside even China’s baseless and illegal Nine-Dash Line.

Conversely, Senior Colonel Chen Hu, Editor-In-Chief of Xinhua’s World Military Affairs magazine, called the US’ claims to international law regarding the incident “shameless” expressions of “hegemonic” and “colonialist” behavior. Yu Zhirong, a researcher at the China Ocean Development Research Center (co-sponsored by the State Oceanic Administration and Ministry of Education) and whose career in the China Marine Surveillance (CMS) ended as deputy fleet commander of the CMS East Sea Fleet, argued that the US exploited the term “international waters” to “violate others rights,” and that the term is a “false proposition” and “fundamentally has no basis” because UNCLOS only uses the term “high seas” (despite the common sense understanding that they are synonyms).

Echoing the second part of China’s official response, Chinese commentary overwhelmingly made the case that the seizure was implicitly legitimate due to the perceived threats US UUVs and survey vessels (or according to Zhu Feng, director of CICSCSS, “spy ships”) like the USNS Bowditch pose to China’s maritime security. PLA commentators argued that US UUV measurements with regard to “marine geology, marine hydrography, and the acoustic operational environment” threaten the security of PLAN submarines and surface ships, and was in essence, “preparing the battlefield”and making the undersea domain “transparent”for a future conflict.

Senior Captain Fan gave the most detailed explanation, saying that:

• The US could exploit measurements of marine geological features such as seabed topography to conceal submarines or magnetic forces to conduct anti-submarine warfare;

• that measurements of marine hydrography (temperature, salinity, depth, and ocean currents) influenced the “operational effectiveness of sonar,” “submarine dives and depth control,” and whether submarines could accurately determine their position using their own inertial navigation system while concealed;

• and that UUV measurements of the acoustic operational environment greatly enabled the US in “submarine search/anti-submarine warfare, covert navigation of submarines, torpedo guidance, mine laying, mine clearance, underwater acoustic reconnaissance, underwater acoustic communication, and underwater acoustic navigation.”

This last point was echoed by retired RADM Yin Zhuo, director of the PLA Navy’s Cyber Security and Informatization Expert Consulting Committee, who said that the data collected by UUVs could be used to identify Chinese submarines by their “acoustic fingerprint.” Of course, no PLA commentator has acknowledged that seizing the UUV could help the PLAN develop similar technology for use against the US.

Most ominously for the future of Sino-US mil-mil encounters and the future viability of agreements like CUESthe MOU on the Rules of Behavior for Safety of Air and Maritime Encounters, and the MOU’s Air-to-Air annex, Chinese commentary not only legitimated China’s behavior but held it up as a sterling example to be imitated in the future. Official Chinese sources use the same language to describe China’s behavior in both air and maritime encounters: Chinese ships and aircraft “track and monitor” [跟踪监视], “identify and verify” [识别查证], and then “warn and drive away” [警告驱离] foreign targets that China perceives to be violating its sovereignty or rights.

Chinese commentators used the same language in comparing this incident with previous ones. Yu Zhirong recounted receiving orders as captain of a CMS ship to drive away the USNS Bowditch from the Yellow Sea in March 2000 (the USNS Bowditch suffered a similar incident in September 2002 when CMS ships also attempted to drive away the Bowditch, and Chinese fishing ships—or more likely, Chinese maritime militia—snagged the Bowditch’s towed-sonar array). When asked what countermeasures China should implement, RADM (ret.) Yin responded by saying that if tracking and warning were insufficient, then additional “measures taken in self-defense” would be needed, concluding, “The USNS Impeccable incident is our response.” (thus implicitly acknowledging the role of the Chinese maritime militia in China’s overall strategy to counter US ships and aircraft) Later, Yin even explicitly acknowledged that China had seized the UUV in part to exploit the data therein:

“We don’t verify what kind of object it is, but what has been recorded on it. Then we decrypt it. And then when you deploy these things in the future, we will track it and salvage it. And then we will verify what you have been up to. If it’s recorded something else, we’ll see. We’ll find out how big of a threat it is, what kind of secrets have been stolen.”

All of this suggests that China’s response in each incident is part of a repeated pattern based on conscious, premeditated decisions by senior civilian and military leaders, and not the result of rogue local PLA units. Indeed, Senior Captain Cao explicitly said that the UUV incident “lays down relevant operating standards for the occurrence of similar events in the future,” and that he hoped that the above response cycle (track and monitor, identify and verify, warn and drive away) would become “preconditions” for resolving this kind of problem in the future.This should deeply trouble the US, especially given Senior Captain Cao’s role as a thought leader, and the NRI’s institutional role, within the PLAN. It also calls into question whether the US’ attempts to reduce the escalatory tension associated with these incidents (CUES, the 2014 MOU) ever had any viability or future.

Addendum: Perhaps surprisingly, President-elect Trump was not a major theme in Chinese coverage of the incident. PLAAF propagandist MG Qiao Liang called the seizure a “signal” sent in response to Trump’s phone call with Tsai Ying-wen; the Global Times made fun of Trump’s “unpresidented” tweet; and on Trump’s response, the People’s Daily Overseas Edition commented that it was “hard to figure out [Trump’s] true psychology.” But overall it was hardly mentioned.

Written by Will

December 21st, 2016 at 7:22 pm

Posted in China,Foreign Policy

Review of “China’s Crisis Behavior: Political Survival and Foreign Policy after the Cold War”

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Below is a recent book review of mine published by H-Diplo.

Kai He. China’s Crisis Behavior: Political Survival and Foreign Policy after the Cold War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. 186 pp. $99.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-107-14198-8.

Reviewed by William Yale (American Security Project)
Published on H-Diplo (December, 2016)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach

In China’s Crisis Behavior: Political Survival and Foreign Policy after the Cold War, Kai He introduces a novel and analytically useful methodology to explain the decision-making process of Chinese leaders during international crises following the Cold War. In his “political survival-prospect” model, He draws on both neoclassical realism and prospect theory—a well-established behavioral psychology and economics theory pioneered by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky.[1]

He argues that Chinese leaders are above all concerned with their individual political survival amid competing intra-Chinese Communist Party (CCP) factional competition and that the policy preferences of Chinese leaders during international crises aim at shoring up their domestic political positions. Furthermore, He uses prospect theory to argue that during international crises, Chinese leaders are more likely, on the one hand, to act conservatively (implement “accommodative” policies) when they feel their political survival is secure, and on the other hand, to escalate crises (implement “risk-acceptant” policies) when they feel their political survival is insecure. A good analogy is that of a gambler—playing conservatively to protect one’s winnings when the chips are up, but taking risks to regain one’s losses when the chips are down.

He further delineates Chinese leadership decision making by pointing to three factors that contribute to a given leader’s assessments of their own political survival: the severity of a given crisis, where more severe crises negatively affect political survival and lead to greater risk-taking; leadership authority, where leaders who feel more secure vice their potential factional competitors are more likely to take an accommodative stance; and international pressure, where diplomatic or military coercion on the part of the United States or other East Asian countries make Chinese leaders feel less secure in their political survival and more likely to take risks. In addition, He identifies four major policy choices Chinese leaders can make during international crises, depending on their level of perceived political survival: full accommodation, conditional accommodation, diplomatic coercion, and military coercion.

Finally, He chooses ten case studies: the 1993 Yinhe incident, 1995-96 Taiwan Straits Crisis, the 1999 Belgrade embassy bombing, the 2001 EP-3 midair collision incident, the 2009 Impeccable incident, the 2010 China-Japan boat collision crisis, the 2012 Scarborough Shoal crisis with the Philippines, the 2012 Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands nationalization crisis with Japan, and briefly, the 2014 China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) oil rig crisis with Vietnam and the 2014 P-8 interception incident. He then conducts a congruence test for each case study, analyzing the levels of crisis severity, leadership authority, and international pressure in a given case, predicting Chinese leadership behavior according to the “political survival-prospect” model, and matching the predicted behavior against actual behavior.

He’s book excels in articulating a compelling methodological approach. It seems intuitively true that Chinese leaders are obsessed with their own political survival. This is especially the case because, compared with leaders of liberal democracies who only have to worry about electoral failures and public embarrassment, the leaders of the CCP must worry about loss of wealth and perquisites, imprisonment, or even execution if they lose out in intra-party factional infighting (as we have seen recently in the cases of such figures as Bo Xilai, Zhou Yongkang, Xu Caihou, and many others). Thus, as He points out, a leader’s individual interests must be disassociated from the party’s interests, and even China’s national interests (which, on reflection, should be cause for alarm). He is also correct in drawing attention to the danger of “near-crises” as opposed to full-fledged militarized crises, of which there are scant, if any, examples involving China in the post-Cold War era. Near-crises also pose serious potential escalatory consequences. Finally, although He is careful to qualify his argument by saying that he seeks to supplement, and not supplant, rational or cultural approaches to explain Chinese crisis behavior, He correctly points out that purely rational models fail to take into account the incomplete information, cognitive biases, and lack of time that characterize crises, and that purely cultural approaches are both indeterminate (how culture influences Chinese behavior is hotly contested) and overly deterministic (not taking into account variations in Chinese behavior over time).

Unfortunately, He’s methodology breaks down when applied to specific cases. The first major problem is that the level of crisis severity is almost always defined subjectively by Chinese leaders themselves and not by external, objective factors. He briefly addresses this problem—that of endogeneity—acknowledging that China is apt to escalate a crisis with its own actions, thus negatively affecting Chinese leaders’ assessments of their own political survival. He points out as an example the 1995-96 Taiwan Straits Crisis, where China’s strategic and premeditated decision to launch missile tests and military exercises ahead of Taiwan’s first-ever democratic elections escalated what had been a diplomatic dispute over Lee Teng-hui’s 1995 visit to the United States. Despite acknowledging the problem of endogeneity, He gives it short shrift. The larger problem is that Chinese leaders are both the product of and flag-bearers for an intellectual environment sharply defined by propaganda, education, and party indoctrination systems intentionally created by the CCP in order to bolster regime legitimacy in the eyes of the Chinese people.[2] To revisit the gambling analogy, a gambler can’t change the cards dealt no matter how much he might wish to; whereas Chinese leaders often subjectively interpret the crises dealt to them so that they are more severe and thus more escalatory.

He’s analysis of the severity of each crisis is defined predominantly by ideational factors—individual and collective perceptions based overwhelmingly on this party-constructed ideological complex. Just a few examples include: when He claims China felt “threatened” by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) humanitarian intervention in the former Yugoslavia because of China and Yugoslavia’s “common anti-fascist history” and fears that China could face a similar humanitarian intervention in Tibet, Xinjiang, or Taiwan (p. 70); when He describes China’s propaganda campaign portraying the United States as a “hegemonic bully” during the Impeccable incident (p. 95); when an unnamed Chinese scholar says that during the 2012 China-Japan boat collision crisis, Hu Jintao was “riding a tiger” and had been “hijacked” by nationalist pressures (p. 106); when He claims that the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute is for China an “unforgettable scar from China’s ‘century of humiliation’: a constant reminder of the invasions and bullies of both Western countries and Japan toward China” (pp. 123-124); when an unnamed Chinese scholar says the Philippines “robbed” China during the Scarborough Shoal crisis while Japan “raped” China during the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands crisis (p. 124); and when He states that the “CCP’s legitimacy is also set on the belief that only the CCP can save the Chinese people from Western invasions and bullies” (p. 124). All of these examples indicate that despite He’s rejection of cultural approaches to understanding Chinese crisis behavior, He pervasively draws on factors that are inherently cultural to explain Chinese leadership decision making during crises. This suggests that while He’s theory is not wrong on a superficial level, there are deeper, more compelling causal mechanisms at play.

Second, He claims that international pressure has the most “stable and predictable impact” on Chinese crisis behavior—that in all cases, international pressure inevitably weakens the leadership authority of Chinese leaders and leads to China escalating crises (p. 151). In making this claim, He completely denies the role of deterrence in reducing escalation in crises. Isn’t it probable that President Bill Clinton’s decision to send two carrier strike groups to the Taiwan Strait in March 1996 influenced Chinese leaders to deescalate the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis, as they did by ending military exercises in the Taiwan Strait later that month? Similarly, couldn’t the United States’ decision to send an escort for the USNS Impeccable have dissuaded China from further interference in the Impeccable’s operations? Conversely, did the Philippines’ lack of deterrent contribute to its loss of effective control over Scarborough Shoal in 2012?[3] All of these hypotheticals are rejected by He’s theory. Furthermore, He implicitly rules out the role of deterrence in restraining conflict generally. He exhorts the United States and other countries to “treat Chinese leaders as a friend” (p. 151). To rephrase in slightly different terms, is it really an imperative for the United States to make China safe from the world? If the United States withdrew its military from the Western Pacific, would China actually reduce its coercive behavior? I am somewhat skeptical.

There are a number of other criticisms of China’s Crisis Behavior unrelated to the core arguments of the book. First, He quotes party-approved sources uncritically—primarily a biography of Jiang Zemin by Robert Kuhn, who now hosts his own show on CCTV, Closer to China with R. L. Kuhn. He says we need to treat Kuhn’s book with some skepticism, but in practice, Kuhn’s claims are quoted without any challenge. It is undeniable that party-approved sources in English are designed to manage perceptions or even mislead Western audiences. A good example of this is Kuhn’s depiction of Jiang as a great man of history with “strategic vision” striding above a nationalist public and factional party politics; in reality, all Chinese leaders are embroiled in nationalist fervor and party factionalism (p. 72). I believe this portrait of Jiang subtly influences the way He frames all other Chinese leaders.

China’s Crisis Behavior also portrays a false equivalence between the United States and China, frequently claiming China was the victim in international crises when it was in fact the initiator. The only times He recognizes China as the aggressor was in the 2009 Impeccable incident, the 2014 CNOOC oil rig crisis with Vietnam, and the 2014 P-8 interception incident. This false equivalence extends to competing US and Chinese legal interpretations of surveillance conducted by ships or airplanes within a country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ)—of which China’s criticism now looks hypocritical following its decision to send an Electronic Reconnaissance Ship (AGI) within the United States’ EEZ around Hawaii to conduct surveillance during the Rim of the Pacific exercise (RIMPAC) 2014.[4] Furthermore, He denies Chinese leaders agency: He ignores compelling evidence that during the Belgrade embassy bombing crisis, top Chinese leaders did not just approve protests against US diplomatic facilities or even bus students over, they actively organized and incited them.[5] In addition, He claims that during the Impeccable crisis local military officials may have gone “rogue” and that top Chinese leaders may not have been directly involved, ignoring more compelling evidence that top Chinese leaders have taken personal interest in the development of the same maritime law enforcement and maritime militia forces that were involved in the Impeccable incident and many others (pp. 87, 93).[6] These false equivalences, the denial of Chinese leaders’ agency, and a focus on short-term leadership decision making obscure the degree to which China’s long-term strategic campaign to undermine international norms, delegitimize competing territorial claims, and modernize and expand the mission set of the People’s Liberation Army increases the number and severity of crises. In retrospect, events such as the Impeccable incident or the Scarborough Shoal incident look like the beginning of a long-term Chinese strategy, not one-offs.

Despite all of these flaws, He’s original research “puzzle” motivating the book is an intensely interesting and useful one: why do Chinese leaders choose different strategies in different crises, and under what conditions and when will Chinese leaders adopt accommodative versus coercive polices (p. 4)? He argues that a linear relationship between nationalism and leadership behavior is “too simple to be true” (p. 43). While the level of nationalist outrage does not automatically lead to hawkish Chinese leadership behavior, the ideological influences (which, should be noted, transcend simple nationalism) certainly delimit acceptable potential outcomes. If ideological influences are held constant, what then explains variations in Chinese crisis behavior over time? The answer is beyond the scope of this book review, but may boil down to simply, in an anarchic international system, Chinese leaders will push their prerogative as long as they can get away with it.


[1]. For a popular explication of prospect theory, see Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011). He also cites Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, “Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision under Risk,” Econometrica 47 (1979): 263-291.

[2]. The alternatives, that Chinese nationalism arises ex nihilo or that it is purely the product of pre-1949 historical grievances, are not plausible. Chinese leaders are “true believers,” having been conditioned from birth to approach the outside world with certain ideological and historical assumptions. For more on the ways in which the party-driven intellectual environment influences Chinese foreign policy behavior, see Zheng Wang, Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012); or Michael Pillsbury, The Hundred Year Marathon (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2015).

[3]. To use Yang Jiechi’s now infamous quotation (“China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact”), the military balance disfavoring “small countries” like the Philippines would seem to make China more risk acceptant. John Pomfret, “U.S. takes a tougher tone with China,” The Washington Post, July 30, 2010,

[4]. Sam LaGrone, “China Sends Uninvited Spy Ship to RIMPAC,” USNI News, July 18, 2014,

[5]. Zong Hairen, “The Bombing of China’s Embassy in Yugoslavia,” Chinese Law and Government 35, no. 1 (February 2002): 76-77.

[6]. Andrew S. Erickson and Conor M. Kennedy, “China’s Maritime Militia,” The CNA Corporation, March 7, 2016,

Written by Will

December 10th, 2016 at 11:59 am

Posted in China,Foreign Policy

AIIB: China’s ‘Phase Zero Operation’?

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This piece was originally published at The Diplomat.

A month after controversy erupted over the announcement that multiple U.S. allies will join China’s new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), the Obama administration’s response was clearly misguided. Concerned that the AIIB represented a power play by China for influence in the rest of the world at the expense of the U.S., administration officials criticized the bank for not adhering to the “high standards” required of U.S. and Western-led international institutions such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.

In contrast, there was a clear alternative for the United States: welcome China’s contribution to economic development in the developing countries of Asia and even join the bank itself. Indeed, U.S. officials, intellectuals, and pundits of all stripes repeatedly complain that China has not lived up to its obligations as a major power to provide the “global public goods” that help prop up the international system. At face value, the AIIB seems like it will exemplify the kind of role in the world the U.S. would like China to play.

This narrative, however, is complicated by the fact that there are serious double standards present when China claims it is providing global public goods. At a recent conference sponsored by a new (and somewhat mysterious) China-funded think tank based in DC, Ambassador Cui Tiankai echoed statements by Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Hua Chunying that the real purpose of China’s island-building campaign in the South China Sea is to provide public goods for all countries in the region:

[China’s maintenance and construction work on Nansha islands and reefs] is well within China’s sovereignty. It does not impact or target any other country. The main purpose is to improve the functions of facilities there so as to provide services to ships of China, neighboring countries and other countries that sail across the South China Sea. Such services will include shelter for ships, navigation aid, search and rescue, marine meteorological observation, fishery service and many others. Emphasis will also be put on marine environment protection.

 Of course there will be defense facilities. This is only natural and necessary and they are purely for defensive purposes. If these facilities could not even defend themselves, how can they render service to others? If China could not safeguard its own sovereignty, how can it shoulder greater responsibilities for international stability? Therefore, building-up of China’s capabilities in the South China Sea provides public goods to all and serves the interests of maintaining security, stability and freedom of navigation there.

To Western audiences, this rhetoric sounds hollow and hypocritical. Contrary to fervent Chinese statements, China’s position on territorial sovereignty has not been “clear and consistent over many decades”; China’s unstable behavior in its periphery within the past decade has in fact deeply troubled the U.S. and countries in the region. China hasn’t exercised “best restraint in handling disputes with others”; the PLAN and PLAAF, the China Coast Guard, and even civilian fishing vessels routinely play games of brinksmanship and threaten freedom of the seas and skies. And when China complains about the “unjustifiable demands of certain parties” and that others can’t impose a “unilateral status quo,” China seems tone-deaf and engages in fantastical somersaults of rhetoric and logic that would make Orwell blush.

Later in the conference after Ambassador Cui’s remarks, a U.S. expert on maritime security law pointed out that questions regarding the restriction of military activities within a state’s exclusive economic zone (a pet issue of China’s) can be answered empirically, not normatively; there are detailed records of decades-old UNCLOS negotiations that show a majority of signatory states disagreed with China’s position and voted down such restrictions. There cannot be room for an alternate interpretation, which would actually make the law meaningless.

China’s actions to delegitimize accepted international law while claiming it acts for the good of mankind is an example of what the U.S. military calls “Phase Zero Operations,” or actions conducted in peacetime that affect the strategic environment. Unfortunately, U.S. civilian policymakers have not really adopted this mindset for either the conduct of U.S. national strategy or understanding China’s behavior.

U.S. policymakers should work with China to uphold the existing international system using select issues in which U.S. and Chinese interests are aligned, including the AIIB. This does not mean the U.S. and China cooperate for cooperation’s sake—too often the U.S. pushes for concrete items of engagement while China dithers on abstract diplomatic statements, and the U.S. cannot give away the farm on particular mil-mil engagements where China stands to gain much more than the U.S. in learning specific operational art. But the U.S. must also somehow disentangle China’s double-speak and effectively deliver a counter-narrative to countries in the region.

Ultimately, U.S. strategy will succeed or fail based on perceptions influenced by these competing narratives. The ultimate test of U.S. strategy, and whether the U.S. and China can in the end maintain a stable deterrence relationship, is not whether the U.S. could in the abstract match its ways and means to its ends, but whether all sides actually believe the U.S. will follow through on its commitments.

Written by Will

April 24th, 2015 at 1:55 pm

Posted in China

China’s Maritime Silk Road Gamble

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This post was originally published at the SAIS Foreign Policy Institute, and republished at CIMSEC NextWar, East by Southeast, and The Diplomat.

Ever since Xi Jinping announced the creation of a Maritime Silk Road in an October 2013 speech to the Indonesian parliament, China’s vision for “one road” running through Southeast and South Asia has driven a significant portion of Chinese foreign policy in its periphery. This has led to both the controversial Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) (announced in the same speech) and complementary investment funds such as the Maritime Silk Road Bank, as well as high-level diplomatic visits by Chinese leaders to countries in the region. In addition, China sees its “Silk Road Economic Belt” among its Central Asian neighbors as indivisible from the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road,” as seen by China’s slogan 一带一路 (“one belt, one road”) and its public diplomacy effort to promote both policies together. All of this indicates that, like many Chinese foreign policy initiatives, the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road” is multi-pronged: it is intended to serve diplomatic, economic, and strategic purposes.

First and foremost, the Maritime Silk Road is designed to pacify neighboring countries threatened by China’s aggressive territorial claims in the South China Sea. Curiously, China has attempted to both aggravate tensions among its Southeast Asian neighbors and soothe them at the same time, contrary to its normal pattern of swinging back and forth between aggressive brinksmanship and diplomatic rapprochement (such as in China’s relationship with Taiwan or its cutting off and then reestablishing of military-to-military ties with the United States). Despite the idealistic claims of “peaceful economic development absent political strings” made by Chinese leaders and state media about the Maritime Silk Road, China has continued unabated to strengthen its unilateral claim to vast maritime territory in the South China Sea, turning reefs and other undersea maritime features into full-fledged islands, complete with airstrips that could be used by the People’s Liberation Army.

Conversely, the Maritime Silk Road is also designed to cement relationships with countries that are tacitly friendly to China such as Malaysia, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan. This will be accomplished primarily through economic incentives like infrastructure development and trade deals. In this sense, the Maritime Silk Road not only stands side by side with the Silk Road Economic Belt, but also as part of a historical continuum that includes China’s past investment in maritime-related infrastructure, which has been referred to by some as a “String of Pearls” policy. If one wants to know what kind of infrastructure projects China will fund in the future, look to what it has done in the past: oil and natural gas links to Myanmar’s port in Sittwe, ports in Sri Lanka such as the Hambantota and Colombo Port City projects, and the Pakistani port in Gwadar. Indeed, China and Malaysia have already announced a joint port project in Malacca. Meanwhile, China, which is already the largest trading partner for most countries in Southeast and South Asia, is also signing new free trade agreements with countries such as Sri Lanka.

Chinese infrastructure investment, intended primarily to strengthen China’s energy security and increase trade between China and its neighbors, will now get a huge boost with the creation of both the AIIB and more specialized investment vehicles such as the Maritime Silk Road Bank and the Silk Road Fund. While the AIIB has had the flashiest rollout, with China contributing $50 billion to a planned $100 billion USD in capital, the other two funds are no slouches: the Silk Road Fund has plans for $40 billion in capital, while the Maritime Silk Road Bank hopes to attract 100 billion RMB ($16 billion) in investment.

Finally, unmentioned in authoritative Chinese sources is that the Maritime Silk Road, and especially Chinese infrastructure investment, is implicitly intended to facilitate more frequent People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) deployments in the Indian Ocean and beyond. The PLAN needs reliable logistics chains across Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) throughout Southeast and South Asia; ships cannot go far without a reliable supply of fuel, food, and armaments. But for the foreseeable future, China is at a serious disadvantage in this regard: the U.S. Navy and allied navies have such a preponderance of force and ability to project power throughout the region that the PLAN is ill-equipped to compete. Given the PLAN’s current capabilities, China’s logistics capacity would only be dependable during peacetime; they would not survive in a contested environment, particularly if the U.S. decided to close off key chokepoints like the Malacca and Sunda Straits.

Therefore, the first step to strengthen the PLAN’s capabilities is to build reliable logistical infrastructure in key friendly states, such as the aforementioned projects in Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan. These logistical links would still be quite vulnerable in a conflict scenario, given the tenuous relationship China would have with even putatively friendly countries if China went to war. Therefore, the primary benefit for the PLAN is to demonstrate presence in peacetime, and to show that it can operate far from its own shores.

The Maritime Silk Road, along with the attendant Silk Road Economic Belt, is truly a multi-headed dragon, so large that it is difficult to disaggregate its many parts. The most difficult challenge for China, however, will not be building infrastructure and signing trade deals — these are no doubt massive undertakings, but they are fundamentally instrumental tasks that will not receive much opposition from countries in the region. The more difficult objective for China is translating investment and trade into building a coalition of states in the region that align their values and foreign policy goals with those of China, and indeed identify with China at the expense of competitors like the U.S. China will likely find this kind of bandwagoning hard to pull off — when it comes down to it, the Maritime Silk Road may wash away like sand.

Written by Will

March 24th, 2015 at 3:13 pm

Posted in China

Towards a More Intelligent Debate over Air-Sea Battle

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This is a repost from an article I published at the CIMSEC NextWar blog.

One of the curious aspects of the debate over Air-Sea Battle has been that the arguments taking place often dwell not on substance, but on definitional disagreements. For example, one side will critique ASB out of concerns of strategy or the nature of our relationship with China; the other side will rightly complain that these concerns belong in a separate, well-deserved debate because ASB is an operational concept, not a strategy. CIMSEC has commissioned an entire week on ASB in the hope that we can move past this inescapable logic-loop. On that note, I recently came across two pieces (both published journal articles) that are stand-ins for where we do and do not want this debate to go.

One is a recent article published in the journal Military Review, entitled “A Role for Land Warfare Forces in Overcoming A2/AD,” written by COL Vincent Alcazar and COL Thomas Lafleur, formerly Air Force co-lead and Army strategist for the Air-Sea Battle Office, respectively. Sounds promising! Unfortunately, what followed was a jargon-laced, logically questionable, and utterly indefensible article. In a sentence, they argued that ASB is not sufficient to meet the A2/AD challenge of the future. Instead we should land a Brigade Combat Team on the soil of our future putative enemies to conduct reconnaissance, raids, and seizures of key A2/AD capabilities. What an incredible argument! Without any reference to actual scenarios, concrete adversaries, or political costs this is not just a useless argument, it is a dangerous one, because someone somewhere out there might actually take it seriously. Beyond substantively bad ideas, this article is also marred by poor writing. For example:

Land warfare forces are not an invasion or long-term occupation force, or utilized as the vanguard of a nation-building effort; even “kicking in the door” comes later. Early land warfare force employment against A2/AD is about tailored BCTs and slices of BCTs that enter the neighborhood to shape its places for the joint force subsequently to kick in the doors to the key houses, which themselves constitute key opponent targets. (p. 80)

If you can understand that, I’m not sure I can congratulate you. The entire article reads like this. A final problem is that the article bizarrely confuses strategy, operations, and tactics. One choice quotation: “Nations employing A2/AD have four goals; however, it is inaccurate to conflate these ‘goals’ with ends. Rather, these goals are considered a framework to explain the strategic and operational so what of A2/AD.” (ital. original) (p. 82-83) How are the authors distinguishing “goals” from “ends?” How can you even talk about strategy without referring to specific countries? What does the term “so what” mean? In sum this article indicates to me that even within the ASBO itself people are still confused over definitions, and basic logic. Pardon the overwrought nautical metaphor, but it does not instill in me much confidence that the ship is being steered in the right direction.

Striking a completely different tone, Jonathan Solomon’s recent article published in Strategic Studies Quarterly“Demystifying Conventional Deterrence: Great-Power Conflict and East Asian Peace,” was a tour de force. Even though I do not necessarily agree with his conclusions, Solomon expertly defends the necessity of Air-Sea Battle and long-range conventional strike systems through a clear and logical (if dense) elucidation of conventional deterrence theory. He also makes criticisms of blockades that proponents of competitors to ASB, like Offshore Control, must contend with: that over-land blockade running or rationing could thwart a blockade; that a blockade might harm third-party allied countries; and that an adversary could put the US in a situation where it had to choose between further escalation or compromising the integrity of the blockade.

But I still have issues with an article even as well written as this. First, the author is largely talking about an “end of the world” scenario in which China initiates a premeditated first strike a la Pearl Harbor. Solomon spends comparatively little time addressing lower-order conventional deterrence/crisis escalation scenarios, except to say that high-end conventional deterrence is still useful between levels of escalation and that U.S. and allied constabulary functions are still necessary. While some argue that China has an incentive in certain situations to conduct a preemptive strike, it seems likely that such a strike would come in the context of an ongoing political crisis rather than as a bolt out of the blue attack. In this case, lower-end deterrence (defusing the crisis) would be more important than higher-end deterrence.

Second, Solomon intelligently lays out example after example of how both conventional and nuclear deterrence could fail due to strategic misperceptions, psychological issues, China becoming more volatile, and the U.S. fiscal situation weakening, etc. But then he pins the solution on confidence-building measures and multi-track diplomacy. But what happens when multi-track diplomacy does NOT work and China continually rejects confidence-building measures? I am actually one of the biggest proponents of Sino-U.S. mil-mil cooperation, but I am NOT confident that, as Solomon puts it, the United States and China “educate” each other about “their respective escalatory threshold perceptions.” (p. 133)

This is why it is important to craft a more conservative deterrence policy that does not depend on having perfect knowledge of the adversaries’ intentions, doctrine, strategic culture, or leadership psychology. As is well documented by history, intelligence has often been catastrophically wrong, and signaling has been imperfectly interpreted or outright failed—such as the fine-tuned signaling intended by U.S. strategic bombing during the Vietnam War, or when the United States thought it was fighting an anti-communist war in Vietnam while the Vietnamese thought they were fighting a nationalist and anti-colonialist war. We absolutely must try to increase transparency and mutual understanding, but we also have to be aware that we could fail, with catastrophic results. It seems as if Solomon is well aware of these issues, but at times he contradicts himself; there is even one section where he suggests “overt, predeclared ‘automaticity’ in [the] deterrent posture,” which clashes with his warnings against misperceptions, etc. (p. 136)

Finally, the author rightly points out that a Chinese first-strike would inflame the Clausewitzian passions of the U.S. and allied publics and would provide a psychological boost to our side. Why then wouldn’t U.S. retaliatory strikes against mainland targets (even if they are only against counterforce targets) not inflame the passions of the Chinese public, making de-escalation on the Chinese side that much more difficult? We have ample evidence of the nationalist sentiments of the Chinese public, and the below-the-surface antipathy towards the United States that could erupt (e.g. the Belgrade embassy bombing). CCP leaders could fear popular revolt if they capitulated, even if they understood themselves to be in a long-term losing situation. The CCP’s interest in maintaining their leadership position may not be the same as China’s national interest. That is a scary thing to consider.

These two articles seem to strike out two different future intellectual trajectories for the military and our national security apparatus. In one, alternative strategies are debated with an eye towards academic theory, well-informed history, and sound logic. In the other, a gob of reheated mush is coated in incomprehensible jargon and delivered to us as “fresh thinking.” Which direction do we want to go? We can have intelligent or unintelligent debates about ASB. The choice will directly influence our national security, and whether we stumble into yet more undesired wars or keep an uneasy peace. It is my hope that this week at CIMSEC will steer us in the right direction.

Written by Will

February 10th, 2014 at 11:54 am

The “Mighty Moo” Maneuvers Around Trouble

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This is a repost from an article I published at the CIMSEC NextWar blog.

The recent near-collision of a PLA Navy tank landing ship and the missile-guided cruiser USS Cowpens in the South China Sea represents yet another incident in a long line of instances of Chinese gamesmanship with the US Navy extending back to the March 2009 harassment of the USNS Impeccable and the 2001 downing of an EP-3. In each of these cases, the Chinese took issue with the United State conducting surveillance of Chinese military targets at sea or on the Chinese mainland (in this case, the Cowpens was conducting surveillance of the PLAN aircraft carrier Liaoning, which was for the first time conducting exercises in the South China Sea).

All three occurred in the South China Sea, although it is not currently clear from media reports where exactly the most recent confrontation took place. This could prove to be an important distinction. Previously, Beijing justified its escalatory responses to US actions by saying that they interpreted U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to mean that military activities within the Chinese exclusive economic zone (EEZ) were prohibited without the consent of China. The EP-3 and Impeccable incidents both occurred near Hainan Island, inside the Chinese EEZ. If this most recent escalatory move occurred outside the EEZ, it will be particularly interesting to see how China justifies itself. Are they expanding their legal interpretation further by claiming that all military activities conducted in waters within the so-called “nine-dash line” must receive Chinese approval? This of course is conjecture—especially given that as of this writing it also appears from a cursory glance of Chinese-language news websites that neither the PLA nor the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has yet made a statement. At that point this issue will require the analysis of individuals better trained in the vagaries of Chinese territorial legal disputes than I.

Also pertinent to this debate is the recent admission at this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue (by a Chinese military officer no less!) that the PLAN was itself already conducting surveillance of U.S. military installations on Guam and Hawaii within U.S. EEZs around those islands. As Rory Medcalf points out, this clearly contradicts the Chinese legal position on the matter. At what point will this hypocrisy actually catch up with the PLA and necessitate a change in China’s legal position?

Last week at an event at the Wilson Center, Oriana Skylar Mastro suggested that China’s recent announcement of the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) fits into a pattern of Chinese “coercive diplomacy,” in which China manipulates risk and intentionally raises the risk of an accident, a view echoed by other analysts in an approach known as salami tactics. In this way, China stops just short of further escalation, and achieves its objectives of slowly chipping away at opposing territorial positions and international legal norms. This analysis is clearly simpatico with her earlier published work regarding the Impeccable incident and the most recent confrontation involving the USS Cowpens. In her paper, Dr. Mastro identified a coordinated Chinese media campaign and legal challenge that accompanied the PLA’s military provocation. She also recommended that in order to prevent further Chinese attempts at escalation, the United States should publicize these events, directly challenge the Chinese legal position, and maintain a strong presence in the area, all things which the United States is now doing (specifically in the Cowpens case, the Department of Defense broke the story).

These are sound responses to Chinese attempts to delegitimize lawful operations in international waters. What should the United States not do? In an article published by the Washington Free Beacon, Bill Gertz quotes a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, Rick Fisher, who suggests that China in this incident is intentionally “looking for a fight” that will “cow the Americans,” and that the United States and Japan should heavily fortify the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in response. Aside from the fact that China certainly is not “looking for a fight,” fortifying the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands would be a terrible idea. The U.S. government does not even take an official position on the islands’ sovereignty! The U.S. response should certainly be firm in insisting that surveillance within foreign EEZs is completely legitimate and lawful; but turning this issue into about something other than surveillance in international waters would be blowing it out of all proportion. The United States should, in contrast to the ways in which China’s behavior is perceived, proceed carefully but resolutely and stick to its guns.

Air-Sea Battle Isn’t Misunderstood

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This is a re-post from my article at The Diplomat.

Harry Kazianis recently sought to refute an article I wrote for The Diplomat criticizing Air-Sea Battle (ASB). In his response to my article, Kazianis argued 1) ASB is misunderstood; 2) ASB is not about China; 3) ASB has other ways to defeat A2/AD than relying on long-range strikes against ballistic missile launchers, radar sites, and command and control (C2) networks; and 4) A blockade against China, which I had proposed as an alternative to ASB, doesn’t work for countries other than China. Some of these critiques are eminently fair; others are less so.

First: is ASB misunderstood? Is ASB really not about China? These arguments are predicated on the notion that both the Department of Defense and prominent defense think tanks have done a poor job of explaining the operational concept. As General Hoss Cartwright put it: “To some, [ASB is] becoming the Holy Grail…[But] it’s neither a doctrine nor a scenario and it’s trying to be all things to all people.” According to this argument, ASB is about perfecting basic “blocking and tackling” in a joint operational space, the aspects that most assumed the U.S. military could execute successfully but in reality has allowed its capabilities to wane in.

One such example of this, as highlighted by Sam LaGrone, was when a P-3 Orion ASW aircraft and an A-10 Thunderbolt II were jointly controlled by a U.S. destroyer to mop up Libya’s small coastal forces during Operation Odyssey Dawn. Neither aircraft normally works with the other: one hunts submarines; the other takes out tanks and conducts close air support missions. But they were the assets that were on hand, and they effectively eliminated the threat. In the future, the ASB office could advise the services in how to improve these kinds of ad-hoc operations.

Let me state unambiguously: I support such operations. Many of these examples (like making sure U.S. cyber networks are secure and can maintain ISR or logistics in a contested space) are defensive in nature and are just good common sense. Joint C2 has a wide variety of applications and is one of the great force multipliers of the U.S. military. Hunting submarines and clearing mines are a vital capability that shouldn’t be allowed to wither away. These are all operations that could be particularly useful in a military conflict with China or Iran, but they are not specifically aimed at China or Iran.

But then we get back to long-range strikes. Mr. Kazianis contends that long-range strikes on the Chinese mainland are but one option among many that the U.S. could use in an “escalation dominance” ASB framework, and that “it seems silly to dismiss ASB outright as escalatory based on one possible use of the concept.” This is an insufficient rebuttal. Eliminating adversaries’ central weapon systems through the use of penetrating strike assets—such as cruise missiles fired from a Virginia-class submarine with an enhanced payload module, smart bombs dropped from a Long-Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B), or Conventional Prompt Global Strike (CPGS)— is a central component of ASB.

In fact, this is acknowledged by the Joint Operational Access Concept (JOAC) and the Air-Sea Battle Office’s May 2013 report, both of which refer to such strikes as “attack-in-depth.” As the JOAC puts it:

“The potentially escalatory effects of strikes into an adversary’s homeland must be carefully weighed against U.S. political objectives and acceptable risk. Such escalation is particularly likely when the conflict is distant from the US homeland, and there has been no corresponding attack on U.S. territory. In these cases, the probability and risk of reprisal attacks against the continental United States must be considered.”

My argument is that the political risk vis-à-vis China will, under any reasonable scenario, always be too high; no president, unless faced with an existential threat, will authorize these kinds of strikes against the Chinese mainland.

Furthermore, as Matthew Hipple argued in a recent War on the Rocks article, a U.S.-China war would most likely start in situations “not where strategic interests bring [the] parties into conflict, but where tactical and operational level controls are accidentally engaged and rational escalatory responses are executed.” I agree that unintentional escalation is far more likely than a premeditated, first strike that leads to total war. In this situation, the U.S. would want to deescalate the war and slow down the tempo of operations, not significantly escalate the situation. A blockade would meet such objectives.

ASB does the opposite: it assumes that the U.S. will be subjected to a surprise attack, and that U.S. forces must provide an “immediate and effective response” through “high-tempo operations” to disrupt enemy A2/AD capabilities. ASB supporters, however, claim that the U.S. could control the level of escalation. But, as Hipple points out, “interest and intention are often overwhelmed by circumstance and procedure.” It is not really the development of strike capabilities itself that makes ASB dangerous; it is the way in which such capabilities would be used in a potential war. JOAC warns of the risks of a strike on an adversaries’ homeland, but does not even consider that the national command authority may be unable to rationally assess the risks of escalation. The question becomes: will war between the U.S. and China begin like World War I or World War II? A random event that leads to uncontrollable escalation, or a premeditated first strike? I would strongly argue the former.

It is entirely possible that penetrating strike assets might have utility in other scenarios such as North Korea or Iran, both of which have advanced air defense networks. Similarly, I don’t doubt that a blockade might prove useless against relatively isolated countries like North Korea or Iran. But if the U.S. is developing long-range strike capabilities for these adversaries and not China, this needs to be stated explicitly.