China and its Discontents

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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.

Immediate Thoughts on China’s ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zone)

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First, it is already US policy to ignore the ADIZs of other countries if a plane does not intend to enter territorial airspace, and vice versa (for example, a plane flying parallel to a country’s territorial airspace):

“The United States does not recognize the right of a coastal nation to apply its ADIZ procedures to foreign aircraft not intending to enter national airspace nor does the United States apply its ADIZ procedures to foreign aircraft not intending to enter U.S. airspace. Accordingly, U.S. military aircraft not intending to enter national airspace should not identify themselves or otherwise comply with ADIZ procedures established by other nations, unless the United States has specifically agreed to do so.”

But while the establishment of a Chinese ADIZ may not deter the US from any actions, it might affect smaller players like Japan, South Korea, or others (if China decides to establish a South China Sea ADIZ).

Second, China has not been clear how the ADIZ will be enforced. Initial statements emphasized ‘scrambling PLAAF fighters’ to any and all undeclared planes in the ADIZ, but recent comments from a PLAN admiral suggests otherwise (that it operates similar to the US interpretation).

There have been relatively hyperbolic responses to this event, and more reasonable ones (from Jim Fallows and Rory Medcalf). The central problem is not the ADIZ itself (after all, many countries, including the US, have one), but the conditions under which it was established. China’s establishment of an ADIZ that includes the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands and one that requires identification from all planes, even those flying parallel to Chinese territory, is profoundly destabilizing and escalatory. China’s actions are ridiculous and it will probably get more than it bargained for. The US needs to make its existing policy crystal clear.

If on the other hand our PLAN admiral (above) is correct and China has simply set up an ADIZ that complies with international norms, then US and allied undeclared overflights should not bother China.

Written by Will

November 27th, 2013 at 8:54 pm

Air-Sea Battle: A Dangerous, Unaffordable Threat

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Below is a cross-post of an essay I published in The Diplomat.

It is an obvious statement that war between the U.S. and China would be catastrophic, wasteful, and a colossal failure of both countries’ grand strategies. The consequences would be difficult to quantify — massive repercussions to the global economy, loss of life, and possible escalation to nuclear war. Neither the U.S. nor China could possibly “win” from such a war, at least using any rational definition of victory.

How then has this reality affected debates over Air-Sea Battle (ASB)? Proponents of ASB are careful to note that war with China is unlikely and unwanted, and that ASB exists to deter war with China. But these studied responses paper over some logical problems with the battle concept.

One major assumption proponents make is that ASB is the only deterrent that will prevent a revisionist China from attacking first. Under this calculus, perceived intentions are often ignored. As the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments’ Andrew Krepinevich writes in one of the first public reports on ASB: “While both countries profess benign intentions, it is an old military maxim that since intentions can change overnight—especially in authoritarian regimes—one must focus on the military capabilities of other states.”

But one doesn’t have to rely on Chinese intentions to assess how competing strategies would alter its strategic calculus. For China, a more limited U.S. strategy such as a Sea Denial campaign or T.X. Hammes’ Offshore Control would make war a failure before it began:

  1. A U.S. blockade and other war-induced economic crises at home would severely reduce the Chinese industrial capacity and mobilization, and force China to back down before it started to affect the popular legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party. Interdicting shipping along the Malacca and Sunda Straits, and in the Indian Ocean, would cut off about 80 percent of China’s oil imports, or about 45 percent of total supply. Remaining overland pipelines could also be targeted. This would leave the PLA with limited domestic production, 90 days worth of oil in their Strategic Petroleum Reserve, and severe rationing among the Chinese population. The PLA would be able to survive with that level of supply, but Chinese industry would grind to a halt.
  2. In wartime China would be surrounded by U.S. allies (Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia, and Taiwan) and states hostile to Chinese ambitions (Vietnam, India). If China attacked first, China would lose any propaganda/psychological campaign targeting international public opinion.
  3. A2/AD is a strategy aimed at degrading an opposing force as it reaches closer to the Chinese mainland—not projecting power. If it started a war it would not have the capabilities to finish it and break out of a crippling blockade.

These factors all suggest that a more limited military strategy towards China would be sufficient. More limited military strategies look especially desirable when one considers the high-risks of ASB. ASB, and particularly its long-range strikes deep within the Chinese mainland, are highly escalatory and offer no good way to end a limited war. In all likelihood, an emphasis on long-range strike platforms would result in a long-term arms race that would culminate in warfare with more expansive aims far out of proportion to those desired. The U.S. should not under any circumstances directly contest the CCP’s control of the Chinese state, the PLA, or its nuclear forces (i.e. the command and control structure) with long-range strike platforms. This would “back them into a corner” and spin the conflict off into an extremely dangerous, unpredictable direction.

These platforms­ — especially Prompt Global Strike, the Long-Range Strike Bomber and other classified programs — are wasteful in a time of steep defense cuts. In planning for the China scenario, the U.S. should be focusing on acquiring weapon systems that have low-visibility, low-escalation potential, high-survivability, and high-deterrence value, which would allow the U.S. military to conduct a blockade (lower-end surface combatants sitting outside of China’s reach) and deny the PLA Navy the ability to sail in their neighborhood (Virginia-class submarines).

The impulse to plan for and win a decisive, high-technology war against China represents a basic bias within the US military: as former PACOM commander ADM Timothy Keating remarked, in reference to China, “[PACOM] must retain the ability to dominate in any scenario, in all environments, without exception.” This is understandable because it is the job of the military to decisively win wars. But this also often leads to a confusion of ends and means, and a focus on military victory to the detriment of achieving political aims. This is why it is the job of Congress and the White House — the elected political leaders — to set political constraints on the use of military force. As Amitai Etzioni points out in a recent article in the Yale Journal of International Affairs, neither the White House nor Congress has done due diligence in reviewing ASB or opened up the necessary public debate regarding actual strategies toward China.

But the U.S. military has another, less recognized bias, and it’s the same one that has infected much of political science as an academic discipline over the past couple of decades. Just as many political scientists have embraced scientism, favoring quantitative approaches, statistics, and models over the study of ideas, people and cultures, many strategists have embraced a kind of fatalistic, geopolitical game theory. This approach treats military capabilities as the only relevant facts, as if you could plug every opposing weapons system into a computer and derive the perfect strategy. This is a form of hubris that B.H. Liddell Hart rightly criticized when noting how the psychological influences on warfare show that mathematical approaches to strategy are “a fallacy” and “shallow.”

To be fair, ASB is not mainly being driven by such a highly quantitative approach; rather, ASB has its roots in Net Assessment, which attempts to be a more holistic discipline. As Paul Bracken puts it, Net Assessment tries to “model simple and think complex,” thinking about the balance between two countries not only in terms of capabilities, but also doctrine, psychology, and the like. It is neither an art nor a science, but perhaps a mix of both.

But strategists could push the bounds of their imagination further. George Kennan, for example, strongly believed that the best foundation of strategy and diplomacy was not social science but history, art, and literature. This led him to be more humble about the limits of what strategy can accomplish. As John Lewis Gaddis quotes George Kennan: “Strategy [is] ‘outstandingly a question of form and of style.’ Because ‘few of us can see very far into the future,’ all would be safer ‘if we take principles of conduct which we know we can live with, and at least stick to those,’ rather than ‘try to chart our vast schemes.’”

This is exactly how we ought to be thinking about the prospect of a Sino-U.S. conflict. This is especially true because, as Avery Goldstein argues in recent articles in International Security and Foreign Affairs, the most pressing Sino-U.S. strategic problem is not the threat of war decades away, but the current danger of crisis instability creating a conflict spiral.

Having fought two wars in the last decade that diminished its national power, and now facing sharply contracting defense budgets for the foreseeable future, the US cannot blindly step into another major conflict. It needs to adopt a conservative strategy, that keeps its means within its limited ends, and thinks about “principles of conduct,” not “vast schemes,” by which a war with China can be avoided.