China and its Discontents

Archive for the ‘PLAN’ 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.

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

leave a comment

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

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.

AirSea Battle Concept Lacks Strategy and Political Purpose

leave a comment

Writing in The National Interest website, James Holmes gives a characteristically excellent explication of the still officially-undefined AirSea Battle Concept, the theory behind A2/AD, and U.S. and Chinese naval deficiencies. From a military perspective, Holmes is completely on point. I gripe, however, with some of the implications of his article if taken from a political perspective:

1) The title is “Preparing for a War with China” (subtle)

2) The off-handed throw-away line “From a political standpoint, war with China is neither inevitable nor all that likely.”

3) Holmes’ assumption that the PLAN wants or needs to operate in the far seas at the same level of the USN.

I gripe because at some point tactics have to be constrained by some sense of strategy and political purpose. I don’t see that happening with the developing AirSea Battle Concept. DoD should absolutely prepare for the worst-case scenario–to do otherwise would be folly. But don’t political considerations deserve more than a one-sentence dismissal?

According to the Defense Strategic Guidance released in January, U.S. interests lie in maintaining a “rules-based international order that ensures underlying stability and encourages the peaceful rise of new powers, economic dynamism, and constructive defense cooperation,” and protecting access to the global commons.

The official rhetoric coming from China is hardly that different. According to China’s most recent National Defense whitepaper published in 2010, China seeks to promote “economic development and regional stability” in the Asia-Pacific. Furthermore, the paper identifies China’s main national security interests as “preserving China’s territorial integrity and maritime rights and interests…” and “safeguarding national sovereignty.” Far-flung military excursions or humanitarian interventions are explicitly left off the table.

Should we put any stock in what the Chinese government says? We have to on some level. We can’t complain in the Defense Strategic Guidance that “the growth of China’’s military power must be accompanied by greater clarity of its strategic intentions in order to avoid causing friction in the region,” and then ignore when China attempts to clarify its strategic intentions.

Ultimately, China fighting a war with the U.S. is not in Chinese interests and would be completely counterproductive, undermining their economy and growth. China currently relies on the U.S. Navy to preserve its access to oil and commercial shipping in the Indian Ocean, and its economy would crumble without international trade. Economic warfare between China and the U.S. would leave both hobbled; the resulting “mutually assured destruction” of this era would be nearly as bad as the M.A.D. of the nuclear era.

It is also hard to believe that the Chinese have an interest in operating in the far seas anywhere near the capability of the USN. They have very little to gain from it. First, it currently has zero capability to engage in wars outside of its periphery. Second, such an aspiration contradicts the prime aspect of their foreign policy: non-intervention in other states’ internal affairs. The wars it has fought in the 20th century and will continue to fight in the future are about stability, integrity, and sovereignty (as the 2010 National Defense whitepaper acknowledges), fought close to China’s borders (historically, Korea, India, Vietnam, and in the future, countries around its maritime claims). The A2/AD strategy is to win a war in the South China Sea, not in the far seas. As even James Holmes notes, Chinese A2/AD capability is premised on China’s ability to whittle away at USN forces before they get close to China, using naval assets close to shore and numerous land-based jets, missiles, and other assets. The PLAN has conducted some operations away from the near seas recently (evacuation of Chinese citizens from Libya and participation in an international taskforce hunting Somali pirates), but it is not credible to assert that China has the desire or capabilities to move more aggressively into the far seas.

As Cheng Li and Kenneth Lieberthal note in their Brookings report “Addressing U.S.-China Strategic Distrust,” “[AirSea Battle/JOAC and China’s ‘securing the near seas’ concept] are increasingly being couched in terms that can easily justify escalating military expenditures as both militaries attempt to achieve basically unattainable levels of certainty.” They conclude that both sides will have to ask the uncomfortable question of “what array of military deployments and normal operations will permit China to defend its core security interests and at the same time allow America to continue to meet fully its obligations to its allies and friends in the region?” The primary solution to this deadlock, the two authors say, is “mutual restraint on new capabilities,”–involving new dialogues and direct governmental and military exchanges designed to prevent an arms race.

On the U.S. side, the rhetoric surrounding the AirSea Battle concept seems untempered by these very basic political and strategic considerations raised by Cheng Li and Kenneth Lieberthal. Echoing Thoreau, our rapidly developing military capabilities seem only to be “improved means to an unimproved end.” It is certainly not practical for the U.S. to restrain itself unilaterally–but DoD and State should be actively clarifying its intentions and working with the Chinese to restrain the potential for conflict, just as we demand that the PLA and MFA do the same.

The Chinese have also at times acted belligerently: the current situation in the South China Sea and the Diaoyu Islands—China pushing for complete territorial control against a number of states friendly to the U.S.—does not advance the stability China prioritizes. China’s strategic necessity to secure domestic sources of oil and natural gas to hedge against their current dependence on the Middle East is butting up against their other priority to maintain stability. This confused strategy must also be clarified.

The U.S. should, however, continue the rest of our “Pivot to Asia” agenda, including engagement in multilateral institutions and diplomatic, security, and economic partnerships, and other parts of the Defense Strategic Guidance, such as, “develop[ing] innovative, low-cost, and small-footprint approaches to achieve our security objectives, relying on exercises, rotational presence, and advisory capabilities.” These kinds of initiatives are less-threatening and appropriate measures in an era of fiscal restraint.

The PLA is developing PLAN, 2nd Artillery Corps, and space-based capabilities that should and do worry the U.S. government. In addition, the DoD should develop the requisite capabilities to secure our interests. But before this rising competition gets out of hand and evolves into something neither side wants, political leadership on both sides of the Pacific need to work out each country’s future position in relation to one another.

In another time and against a different competitor, George Kennan once said: “[the US-Soviet arms race] has no foundation in real interests–no foundation, in fact, but in fear, and in an essentially irrational fear at that. It is carried not by any reason to believe that the other side would, but only by a hypnotic fascination with the fact that it could. It is simply an institutionalized force of habit. If someone could suddenly make the two sides realize that it has no purpose and if they were then to desist, the world would presumably go on, in all important respects, just as it is going on today.” (ital original) What a country says ultimately determines how they act, and vice versa, how a country acts inevitably shapes the political discourse and constrains political choice. Preparing for a future war with China without clarifying our fundamentally peaceful aims makes war more inevitable. The U.S. needs to break that “inevitable cycle.”

Finally Some Straight Talk from the Global Times


The Global Times published an op-ed yesterday that “offered support” for the actions of Chinese activists landing on the Diaoyu Islands, but to my relief stated clearly that “Chinese need to be clear that China cannot retrieve the Islands now. This would mean a large-scale war, which is not in China’s interests,” and that declining to send PLAN ships to escort activists to the Diaoyu Islands does not indicate China’s weakness.

This rhetoric stands in sharp contrast to the overly nationalistic op-ed published a month ago (that I also commented on around the same time), which called on China to challenge Japan’s sovereignty over Okinawa as a psychological ploy to capture the Diaoyu Islands. It is encouraging that Chinese state media is explicitly acknowledging that going to war (of whatever magnitude) over a few piddling pieces of rock is not in their national interests.

I can only hope that they will extend this message to also include the various islands and shoals in the South China Sea. Certainly the strategic calculus is mostly the same–conflict with either Japan or any of the states surrounding the South China Sea would not only severely disrupt trade and shipping, but would also inevitably involve the United States.

Written by Will

August 17th, 2012 at 6:54 am

Geopolitical Risk Analysis of a Cold War Between the US and China?

leave a comment

Ian Bremmer, President of the Eurasia Group, gives a great interview at the World Economic Forum blog, summarizing the possibilities for conflict between the U.S. and China. Currency adjustments, cybersecurity, trade disagreements, and North Korea are all mentioned, although China’s naval expansion and relations with Burma, Iran, and various states in Africa are all suspiciously left out. This, however, will never happen:

If the Chinese suddenly decide, we are moving away from the dollar and into the euro, but we are going to demand strong conditions, political and economical conditionality in return for us bailing these guys out. That could be the end of NATO. This would certainly be the end of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency, and would completely change the way we think about global geopolitics.

I cannot accept this will ever happen. NATO members would never accept any conditions that would result in the breakup of NATO. That’s because these conditions wouldn’t just result in the breakup of NATO–it would mean a significant loss of trust between the U.S. and its European allies. Who would Europe depend on then? China? That’s ludicrous.