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

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

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.

New Post at East by Southeast: Myanmar Ethnic Reconciliation is Impossible Without Chinese Cooperation

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The group blog East by Southeast, curated by my friend Brian Eyler, director of IES Kunming, has published an article I wrote. Here it is reproduced.

Just outside of Yangon lies the “National Races Village,” a park laid out as a geographical representation of Myanmar, with real-sized model minority homes dotted around the park next to miniature lakes and mountains. The park feels quite similar to the Chinese Ethnic Culture Park in Beijing; both represent slightly bizarre attempts to paper over inter-ethnic conflict, as if both countries are trying to live out some sort of “big socialist family” of yesteryear.

Unfortunately Myanmar also seems to have copied much of China’s policies towards ethnic minorities. Sixty years ago, China promised its ethnic minorities that if they cooperated with the CCP, they would be granted self-autonomy. Myanmar promised the same thing in the form of the 1947 Panglong Agreement, which called for power sharing between the majority Bamar and ethnic minority groups. Both countries failed to live up to their promises. In China, the CCP has engaged in a campaign to eradicate traditional cultures and languages, and has kept minority areas under tight control by party officials. In Myanmar, Ne Win’s military coup in 1961 gave rise to centralized, authoritarian control, and to ethnic rebel groups who fought the military for decades.

But China hasn’t just been a bad model for Myanmar to follow; in fact, China’s involvement in Myanmar has directly contributed to bad ethnic relations and violence there. Most prominent is China’s long support for the United Wa State, previously known as the Burma Communist Party (BCP). China’s support for the BCP began under Mao as an armed insurgency against the Tatmadaw, the Burmese military. After the BCP collapsed in 1989, the organization was retooled as the United Wa State Party (USWP) and Army (USWA), and signed a ceasefire agreement with the Myanmar government. It also transformed itself from a revolutionary group into the largest drug-trafficking organization in all of SE Asia and one of the biggest heroin producers in the world. To this day, China has continued to fund and arm this practically-Chinese private militia, which organizationally seems to model itself after the CCP and draws off of Chinese electricity, cell phone service, etc. If anything, China’s support for the USWA has only intensified in recent years, because it wants to retain its influence in Myanmar and does not want the USWA to be defeated by the Tatmadaw, as it seems the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) will inevitably be. Just recently it was reported that China has provided the USWA with helicopters armed with air-to-air missiles.

And what of China’s efforts earlier this year to facilitate a ceasefire agreement between the Myanmar government and the KIA? China is playing multiple games here. It wants Myanmar to be stable enough so that its state-owned corporations can successfully strip the country of its natural resources, but it doesn’t want the country to adopt wholesale political reconciliation, lest its contracts come under scrutiny and it gets kicked out of the country. Like many of China’s actions, this is a shortsighted move to retain influence; the long-term effects are counter to China’s actual interests. China sees only the current resource-extraction deals it has with the government, and the potential cancelation of such deals if the Burmese people, including ethnic minorities, have a greater say in that government’s policies. But what it does not seem to see is that as Myanmar’s GDP per capita rises from its current abysmally low figure, China is going to be Myanmar’s main source of finished products and investment capital. If China continues on its current path, then the Myanmar people, who are already fed up with China’s exploitative practices, will protest and force a change in the situation. In that situation, China would massively lose. This possibility is especially unfortunate given how much China could gain from a prosperous Myanmar, and how positively China could influence the country.

If China cooperates, it would be difficult, but not impossible to negotiate a Panglong 2 Agreement implementing political reconciliation. The current government insists that any political reform operate under the current constitution, which is still heavily biased towards the military and wouldn’t be a good framework for a federal governmental structure. In addition, Aung San Suu Kyi is not universally liked by ethnic minorities nor seen as their democratic savior; she is mainly a Bamar political figure. But the current government also realizes that if Myanmar does not deal with its ethnic problem, then the West will sour on Myanmar’s reform and the prospects for economic growth will wither away. This is a strong positive incentive to get it right. Let’s hope China agrees.

Sino-US Crisis Planning vis-a-vis North Korea Needed

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This morning Situation Report quoted Bonnie Glaser on Gen. Dempsey’s upcoming trip to China to meet the new Chief of the PLA General Staff Fang Fenghui:

The CSIS’ Bonnie Glaser tells Situation Report that Dempsey will take advantage of an increasingly engaging military-to-military relationship with China. She thinks Dempsey will be talking with the PLA about nuclear and cyber issues and also, of course, about Korea. “I’m pretty sure that one of the things that will be discussed is a very long desire to try to launch a dialogue with the Chinese about the potential for instability in North Korea and what the responses might be,” she said. “The potential for chaos, insecure WMD facilities and of course the risk” of a conflict on the Korean Peninsula between the Republic of Korea, the U.S. and the Chinese are all top concerns. Past attempts to address the potential failure of the North Korean regime have failed. But now may be the time because the Chinese have grown impatient at North Korea’s noise-making, and talking with the U.S. could send a strong signal to the North Korean leader, she said.

“I think that what we have now is a window of opportunity with China’s high level of frustration with the North Koreans and their provocations,” she said.

It would be a very good thing if this were true. Whereas China only recently became willing to credibly enforce sanctions on its erstwhile ally, it has so far not engaged in crisis planning with the U.S. over potential North Korean instability. At some point a crisis on the Korean peninsula will rear its head, war will break out, and the DPRK will collapse, and this lack of joint-planning will make an already-bad situation ten times worse. If a crisis does occur, my bet is that the PLA will cross the Yalu River in order to secure their borders, prevent a massive flow of people into China, secure WMDs, and stabilize the area. What will be different from the original Korean War will be that, even though both the U.S. and China will be heavily involved in North Korea, neither side will want nor intend conflict with the other. This makes planning and communication essential.

Written by Will

April 19th, 2013 at 11:55 pm

Chinese State Capitalism Exported Abroad, and How the U.S. Should Respond

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The China Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC) is about to commence a copper mine at Mes Aynak, Afghanistan: 

This site is called Mes Aynak and is nothing short of awe-inspiring: a massive walled-in Buddhist city featuring massive temples, monasteries, and thousands of Buddhist statues that managed to survive looters and the Taliban. Holding a key position on the Silk Road, Mes Aynak was also an international hub for traders and pilgrims from all over Asia.

Hundreds of fragile manuscripts detailing daily life at the site are still yet to be excavated. Beneath the Buddhist dwellings is an even older yet-unearthed Bronze age site indicated by several recent archaeological findings.

Mes Aynak is set for destruction at the end of December 2012. All of the temples, monasteries, statues as well as the Bronze age material will all be destroyed by a Chinese government-owned company called China Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC). Six villages and the mountain range will also be destroyed to create a massive open-pit style copper mine.

The $3 billion mining deal, signed in 2007, represents the largest foreign investment in Afghanistan’s history.

Source: Xinhua

Meanwhile, Zhou Yongkang, Politburo Standing Committee member, head of the Politics and Law Commission/law enforcement, and supposed erstwhile ally of Bo Xilai (tip: be highly skeptical of sensationalist news coming out of Taiwan or the Falun Gong) just made a surprise visit to Afghanistan. Is there a direct connection? Hard to say.

But the mining deal and Zhou Yongkang’s surprise visit is emblematic of a few things relevant to Chinese foreign policy in Central Asia, and the developing world in general. China’s interests in Afghanistan and the rest of Central Asia involve: co-opting corrupt, crony capitalist elites in neighboring authoritarian states so that Chinese state-owned corporations (and Chinese workers, protected by armed Chinese security guards) can extract resources; developing alternative supply chains to the Persian Gulf-Indian Ocean-Malacca Straits shipping route, especially by building oil pipelines from Kazakhstan into Xinjiang; and cooperating with said Central Asian states (especially through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) to fight terrorism aimed at splitting Xinjiang from China. China’s interests in Africa and other parts of the developing world are similar, minus the fighting terrorism part.

In my mind, all of this very invasive economic activity calls into question the entire bedrock of Chinese foreign policy: non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs. Apparently, MCC’s actions have incited Afghani villagers near Anyak to partner with the Taliban to attack the mine and the archaeologists still working to preserve the Buddhist site. China, through its state-owned enterprises (SOEs), simultaneously lends military support to various odious regimes (including Sudan, Iran, Zimbabwe, Venezuela, obviously North Korea, and to some extent, although this is now changing, Burma), enriches the elites of those and other countries with vast resource extraction deals, and screws over locals by almost exclusively employing imported Chinese workers and spoiling the local environment. In return, the Chinese compensate in-country locals with a few infrastructure projects, worth far less in proportion to the benefit China accrues from such deals. China cannot hide behind any facade–China’s SOEs are implements of Chinese foreign policy.

The U.S. and other interested partners need to work more actively to call out not only China’s abusive actions in the developing world, but also this obvious contradiction in China’s foreign policy. China is particularly weak ideologically on this front, given that its policy of non-interference aims to thwart others who would interfere in China’s own internal affairs. Forcing China to explain its actions and apparent hypocrisy would:

  1. Strengthen the U.S. case for Chinese participation in greater sanctions against Iran (which it apparently has not been successful at doing).
  2. Reduce threats to U.S. interests and human rights generally through squeezing supply chains to China’s client states.
  3. Improve the competitive advantage of U.S. corporations in bidding against Chinese SOEs. If U.S. corporations can present themselves as environmentally-friendly and ethically/socially-responsible in an environment where developing countries are pressured to value those things, then they can win contracts even when Chinese SOEs underbid them. This could possibly improve the U.S. domestic economy (unless most profits are held overseas).
  4. Generally improve U.S. relations with the developing world, and set up a stark contrast between U.S. and Chinese actions in the minds of the Global South. U.S.-China relations are not necessarily zero-sum, but in Africa and elsewhere, every resources-for-infrastructure deal the Chinese sign is a deal not made by the U.S.. The Chinese, with the help of locally-based state-owned media such as Xinhua and CCTV, are telling one narrative to the populations of their trading partners. We can tell a different narrative, especially if our actions respect the environment, improve the local economy, and maintain local culture.
  5. And possibly (however unlikely), push China to revise its stated foreign policy to align with its actual practices, which would remove the ideological pretense behind its arguments on a whole host of issues, including humanitarian interventions, territorial disputes, and U.S. policies in East Asia.

The U.S. should use the U.N. as an outlet and work with human rights and minerals-certification NGOs, but it must also speak to the American domestic audience. Mark Landler’s recent piece in the New York Times describes the Obama administration’s tougher stance on China, especially in regards to US-China trade and the Pivot to Asia. The Obama administration needs to add this issue to the growing list of arguments made in front of domestic audiences, because average Americans can also play a pivotal role in an influence campaign (and it would of course also improve President Obama’s reelection chances).

Even if China doesn’t revise its foreign policy wholesale (which again, is nigh impossible in the short term), the U.S. can advance its interests in credible and measurable ways. Not to call China out on its hypocrisy abroad would be a huge missed opportunity.