China and its Discontents

Archive for the ‘PLA’ tag

The “Mighty Moo” Maneuvers Around Trouble

one comment

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. Disregarding 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: A Dangerous, Unaffordable Threat

leave a comment

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.

Review of “A Contest for Supremacy” by Aaron Friedberg

leave a comment

Want to read the ultimate hawkish view of the US-China relationship? Read Aaron Friedberg’s recent book, “A Contest for Supremacy.” Throughout the book Friedberg emphasizes that the US-China relationship is inevitably heading down a dark road, that China is forsworn to become a hegemon and direct competitor, and that US policy is currently overweighted on the side of diplomatic engagement rather than military balancing. For a man who wants more balancing, his book is seriously unbalanced. What follows is not so much a review, but a list of grievances, in no particular order. Here’s what’s wrong with the book:

  1. Underrates internal threats to China’s rise. Friedberg mentions them briefly (demographic problems, impending environmental catastrophe, failing economic models), but doesn’t let them get in the way of predicting a Chinese juggernaut. Friedberg also sketches some possible Chinese futures, concluding that a truculent, hyper-nationalist China is more likely than either the status quo or democratic regime change. Granted, I agree with him that a hyper-nationalist China is more likely than a peaceful democratic China, but a more likely scenario than either is a future where China’s internal problems derail any of the global ambitions he ascribes to it.
  2. Mistakenly casts Chinese foreign policy thinking as more or less monolithic. Yes, no Chinese political leader currently or will likely in the future call for the demonopolization of the CCP’s power. But beyond that, there is serious political disagreement within the CCP. Economic and political reform are not settled within the party. Neither is foreign policy. The very lack of any coherent grand strategy (which Friedberg mentions) should tell him this.
  3. Underrates human leadership as making a difference in the US-China relationship. Is foreign policy merely the product of impersonal, historical forces, or can individuals play a role in shaping history? Friedberg seems to believe almost entirely in the former. I think this does not accurately reflect reality. Automatons don’t make foreign policy, human beings do.
  4. Unnecessarily combative and essentially labels everyone else defeatist appeasers. Seriously, he labels everyone who disagrees with him with these sorts of names. It’s unnecessary, especially because it’s not true. Probably no one he attacks would argue that the US shouldn’t maintain its qualitative military edge; the debate is in how to do this. He derides the idea that Sino-US cooperation can be borne on the back of issues like climate change, trade, etc. Why not? These are legitimately problematic issues, and we need China’s help to solve them, or else we are screwed. He doesn’t even mention climate change in his last chapter.
  5. Makes assertions about hypotheticals that are ungrounded from reality. Friedberg does this all over the book. The basic model is: what if China becomes a global superpower, projecting force all over the world to secure its interests, while the US de-arms, weakens, and appeases China according to our worst neoconservative fears? These are not credible hypotheticals, and they lead to baseless fear-mongering.
  6. And finally and most importantly, he underrates the effectiveness of current US policy. Throughout this entire book, Friedberg ascribes no less than the future collapse of all US interests related to China and the Asia Pacific to the Democrats and the current administration’s policies. But Democrats are not the feckless appeasers Friedberg is crudely making them out to be. Of course, just shortly after this book’s publication, the Obama administration announced the pivot/rebalance to Asia. But many of the policy proposals Friedberg advances, including the development of Prompt Global Strike and the Next-Generation Stealth Bomber, have been in the pipeline for a long time. And to be quite honest, the rebalance is not so much a quantitative shift as it is a qualitative shift; the difference is a matter of emphasis, not really a matter of resources. With or without the rebalance, US policy towards China continues a long tradition that has not been upset since the Tiananmen Massacre. It’s worked surprisingly well, and is a sound strategy going into the future.

Friedberg miscalculates both American and Chinese strategy. Engagement and balancing are not goals in of themselves; they are means to an end. That end is a peaceful, strong and rising China that is integrated into the international system. He pays lip service to this, but advocates absolutely zero proposals to make China as it is today more integrated. Everything he proposes is designed to deter the Chinese from overturning America as the global superpower. But this is also a miscalculation of Chinese strategy. China doesn’t want conflict with the US. It’s not building a military that can project force globally. It is developing relatively limited capabilities that would defeat adversaries in a Taiwan conflict and deter an American attack against the mainland. Is this going to change in the future? Very unlikely. China’s integration into the world economy, and its dependence on the US Navy to secure trade and energy shipments, make the calculus fall far in favor of peace and development. Conflict on any mass scale would cause chaos and misery for the Chinese people (think about how current CCP leaders shudder when they hear the words, “Cultural Revolution”). The CCP could very well lose power because of it. And for any foreseeable timeline into the future, the PLA would lose any conflict with the US military. Hands down.

What about the Chinese Leadership Scares Me? This.

leave a comment

Dr Zheng believes that the leaders who promote a nationalist discourse are not driven simply by a cynical search for legitimacy. He argues the top Chinese leadership has internalised nationalist views – and the rather paranoid opinion of foreign powers that goes along with them. In a fascinating passage, he quotes extensively from leaked discussions held among the country’s leaders, in the aftermath of the Nato bombing of China’s embassy in Belgrade in 1999. Even in private, none of the leaders accepted America’s explanation that the bombing had been an accident – all saw it as a deliberate challenge to Chinese national honour, and some saw it as a plot to provoke and undermine China.

This from the Financial Times, reviewing Never Forget National Humiliation, by Zheng Wang of the Whitehead School. The existence of the “Century of Humiliation” in the national political discourse is obvious to any observer of China. It is to some extent “true” (however one defines that term–although it of course does not define the modern international system), and it seems a natural reaction by the political elite to the perceived sense that the CCP is losing legitimacy after the evaporation of any cohesive ideology and elimination of the Cult of Mao. What else could credibly replace socialism or rationalize the continuing necessity of CCP rule? It is one tool in the vast array of propaganda and educational materials available to the CCP. I had previously thought, as the article mentions, that of course the CCP elite understands the “Century of Humiliation” merely as a tool to preserve both their institutional political power and personal perquisites.

But if the CCP elite believe it writ large? Then the U.S., and really the world, have some serious problems on their hands. If this is true, there can be no set of arguments in favor of China’s ultimate integration into the current internationalist system that would convince the Chinese. If this is true, what you read in the Global Times and in incendiary PLA publications really do reflect what the Chinese leadership thinks. Of course, there are many examples to the contrary: most famously, Zheng Bijian, and indeed, many official statements coming out of the mouths of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao.

I will have to read the book itself to get a more thorough understanding of the argument (and I would like to know how the author got leaked politburo discussions following the Belgrade bombing–maybe the same source as the Tiananmen Papers?). Even taking the point at face value, like any political system, it is impossible to conceive of the CCP in monolithic terms–there are factions of leftist conservatives and liberal reformers, cultural internationalists and nativist reactionaries. But if accurate, this argument might truly represent a profound ideological undercurrent driving US-China conflict, one that, even if not shared by all Chinese leadership, can do significant damage to prospects for peace if propagated through internal CCP training, rectification, “struggle sessions,” and self-criticism.

China’s New Diplomatic Strategy: Divide and Conquer

leave a comment

The Financial Times’ recent article on China, “Beijing Considers Stronger Foreign Ties,” was a fascinating peak into possible Chinese foreign policy strategies into the future. For the past thirty years China has chosen non-alignment and non-intervention in other states’ internal affairs, largely because China was still too weak for stronger engagement and was wary of other states intervening in China’s own internal affairs. But FT speculates that China’s latest ploy, involving Cambodia blocking a final statement from the latest ASEAN Summit at Beijing’s behest, represents a new Chinese foreign policy of stronger alliances. FT goes even further, throwing out the possibility that China will also seek stronger military alliances, quoting Yan Xuetong, dean of the Institute of Modern International Relations at Tsinghua University:

“We live in an international order dominated by the US’ military alliances,” he said. “China is not offering its neighbours security guarantees, so as China is rising, fears are emerging among them as to what our intentions might be.”

Two problems arise out of the strategies detailed in the FT article. First, the Cambodia ploy is, in the words of State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland, a “divide and conquer” strategy. Successful alliances that abide by international norms don’t generally consist of one-sided exploitative relationships that foil mediation in disputes and anger the rest of the international community.

Second, if China were to offer a string of “security guarantees,” to not only its next-door neighbors but to states as far away as Sri Lanka, Pakistan, or even in Africa, it would have to actually back them up militarily. This is troubling, because it represents a strong departure from traditional Chinese military doctrine and capabilities. The PLA’s historical mission and capabilities have been geared towards defending its own territory and a large swath of its maritime claims within the First Island Chain. To extend its reach, it would need to develop a forward-deployed navy similar to the U.S. Navy. This would be quite a threatening move, and would overturn many of the assumptions I made in my previous post on AirSea Battle.

Ultimately, the question the Chinese need to ask is: what’s the point? Who would China be protecting a state like Pakistan from? India? Does China really want to get that deeply involved in such a messy and dangerous relationship? What are China’s real interests? I would posit that China is/should be mainly concerned with commercial shipping and its growing energy requirements. And the type of China-bloc envisioned by FT and Yan Xuetong is simply unnecessary to guarantee those interests. Yes–China will probably increase its naval presence in the Indian Ocean in the coming decades; but it should focus on securing free trade and a strong international system, not on alliances with client states that will blow up in their faces.

Written by Will

August 18th, 2012 at 9:50 am