Only China Can Contain China

Only China Can Contain China”
Joseph Nye

The Huffington Post
11 May 2015

Ariana Huffington’s eponymous clickbait factory is so often a cloaca of journalistic offal that it is almost painful to cite it, but this piece by Joseph Nye is an important exception, if for no other reason than its source.

Nye is a calming voice of reason, suggesting that despite China’s frequent and heavily-covered displays of bad-actor behavior, the interests that bind China, Europe, and the U.S. run deep and are often overlooked. His point is well-taken, and generally that approach offers a foundation for diplomacy for both President Obama and his successor.

But Nye the strategic optimist slips into Pollyanna territory when he notes:

Some analysts see China as a revisionist state eager to overthrow the established international order as its strength increases. But China is not a full-fledged revisionist state like Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union in the last century. While it has joined in the creation of a BRICS development bank, and promotes regional organizations that suit its needs, China has benefited greatly from, and is not eager to destroy, existing international institutions such as the UN, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization — as well as many others. American allies help shape the environment that encourages responsible behavior, and China cares about its reputation.

China does care about its reputation, but Nye appears to summarily dismiss the possibility that China sees its reputation best served not as a conformist participant in a “Western” new order, but as the power that exploited that order, demonstrated its fundamental weaknesses, and then replaced it with an ostensibly superior international system rooted in Beijing’s own ethos.

China, in short, may not appear today to be a “full-fledged” revisionist state like the Third Reich, the USSR, or interbellum Japan. But even Nye must acknowledge that Germany and Japan both appeared to operate as troublesome participants of the post-Versailles system until at least the Marco Polo Bridge incident in 1937 (for Japan) and the Sudetenland crisis in 1938 (for Germany). Revisionist powers do not always start the game (as did the USSR) in open opposition. Some operate within it until they must reveal their true intentions.

Nye, for all of his wisdom, is no more privy to the thinking of Beijing’s highest councils than we.  At the same time, a wise and cautious observer will find in the pattern of Beijing’s actions over time evinces a design to displace – if not actually replace – the global international order with one of its own making. At the very least, we must prepare for a future when China finds its participation in the current liberal global system more a hindrance than a help, dividing the world into competing systems if not upending the existing order altogether.

The PLAN figures out expeditionary logistics

Sustained Support: the PLAN Evolves its Expeditionary Logistics Strategy | Andrew S. Erickson

The old saw about military affairs still applies: “amateurs study tactics, armchair generals study strategy, and true professionals study logistics.”

The prolific and erudite Andrew Erickson now delves into the most important question surrounding China’s growing naval expeditionary operations: how it is handling logistics. For a military lacking a significant history of operations with globe-spanning supply lines, the speed with which China can learn this craft will do much to determine both the sustainability and effectiveness of deployments abroad.

It’s not easy to strike that balance and do so cost-effectively: the recent prosecution of USN Captain Donald Dusek underscores the dangers of running an overseas logistics procurement operation, and shipping supplies from home will be expensive and tricky. Projecting power abroad will, for China’s armed forces, prove itself to be a cluster of unanticipated challenges.

Review Essay: An Unbetter China

Chinese armies defeating the Dzungar prior to the genocide.

There is a growing chorus of voices, mostly Sinophilic or Russo-philic, who attempt to bestow upon China a mantle of moral superiority in its dealings with the wider world for the sole reason that it has not waged any form of expeditionary warfare in its recent history.

This forum and this writer have criticized many of America’s forays into overseas military engagements over the past 50 years. That said, there is no moral standard of which this writer is aware that bestows moral ascendancy upon a country that systematically slaughters its own citizens over another country that engages in misguided adventures abroad.

It is possible to deplore most or even all major exercises of American military power abroad since the cessation of hostilities in Korea in 1953, to see them as misguided and their outcomes to be awful, and yet to acknowledge that with a few exceptions the intentions were neither evil, nefarious, nor malicious. As an historian, you judge the decisions of the past in the context of the times, on that basis this writer would argue that that on the balance the US mostly acted in good faith, with notable and egregious exceptions in Chile, Iraq and Afghanistan.

China’s history leaves the nation much for which it must answer, including the “red on its ledger” from the nation’s imperial period that has not been entirely expunged by decades of foreign incursion, Republican rule, civil war, and Communist rule. Indeed, in the period following the revolution, the Chinese Communist Party has continued some of the tendencies that characterized the worst behaviors of its emperors.

Explore, if you will, how a middling agrarian kingdom actually managed to expand to dominate the continent. I’ll give you a hint: they weren’t invited by their subject peoples, Han or otherwise. Dig, if you dare, into the the gritty details of China’s imperial tributary system, which was outwardly peaceful but often ugly and violent, involving the stationing of military forces beyond China’s borders. Ask the Koreans, Mongolians, and Russians how their histories see China as a “ good neighbor.”

Consider the forcible takeover of the Tibetan region in the 1950s, China’s war with India, and its attack on Vietnam in 1977. And finally, look at the background of the 20+ territorial disputes in which China is currently engaged, including China’s extraordinary claim to the overwhelming majority of the South China Sea, and it’s effort to buy vast swaths of land in Africa and elsewhere. China has been, and is once again, an Imperial Power with 21st Century Characteristics.

Both China and the US have done great things, and both have done atrocious things. But we do ourselves and those countries a disservice by exaggerating the good or whitewashing the bad of either. And if China appears to be under more of a microscope at the moment, there is good cause. For if we accept the premise proffered by scholars both within and outside of China that America is entering a period of relative decline in its international power and China is in a period of relative ascendancy, we must use extreme care in bestowing moral superiority over a nation whose record is distinctly mixed. Doing so only grants it license to engage in much more of the same.

Why China is Playing Nice in the East China Sea

Analyzing China’s support for a crisis management mechanism in the East China Sea” 
Mathieu Duchâtel
SIPRI

SIPRI’s Mathieu Duchatel offers this short paper on why China went from confrontation to conversation in the East China sea, thus defusing an increasingly tense situation of its own manufacture.

He identifies and evaluates several hypotheses as to why the change has taken place, and underscores why this may – or may not – signal even bigger foreign policy changes in Beijing.

China and the Arctic Long Game

China and the Arctic: Objectives and Obstacles,” Caitlin Campbell, U.S. China Economic and Security Council Review Commission, Washington, April 13, 2012

China’s Arctic Aspirations, Linda Jakobson and Jingchao Peng, SIPRI Policy Paper 34, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Stockholm, Sweden, November 2012

China’s New Arctic Stratagem: A Strategic Buyer’s Approach to the Arctic,” Timothy Curtis Wright, Journal of Military and Strategic Studies, Volume 15, Issue 1, 2013

The Dragon Eyes the Top of the World: Arctic Policy Debate and Discussion in China, David Curtis Wright, China Maritime Studies Institute, United States Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island, August 2011

Polar Bearings: China Pursues its Interests in the North” The Economist, July 12, 2014

Race to the North: China’s Arctic Strategy and its Implications,” Shiloh Rainwater, Naval War College Review, Providence, RI, Spring 2013, Vol. 66, No. 2

Will China Purchase a Piece of the Arctic?” Mark Strauss, io9.com, April 29, 2014

 

China holds no territory or coastal waters that encroach upon the Arctic, and the closest the nation gets to being an arctic nation is a point of land in Heilongjiang province some 53 degrees north of the Equator and some 1,500 kilometers south of the Arctic Circle.

Those inconvenient facts have not prevented China from beginning a measured, multi-faceted campaign to establish claims on the region and its resources. There has as yet been no definitive statement on the nation’s policy in the region, but Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) noted in March of 2010 “The Arctic belongs to all the people around the world, as no nation has sovereignty over it. . . . China must plan an indispensable role in Arctic exploration as we have one-fifth of the world’s population.”

The Chinese government has not distanced itself from Admiral Yin’s position, and China’s efforts since – launching two large icebreakers, establishing an Arctic research station in Norway, and politicking hard to get itself admitted (albeit as an observer) to the Arctic Council suggest that his quote may well serve as de-facto policy. That Admiral Yin’s statement is in direct contravention of the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS, to which China is a signatory) should not be ignored.

China is playing a long-term game in the Arctic, but its end game should be clear. The only question should be whether the world is prepared to grant China its wish: a major change in the rules governing and protecting one of the world’s last great frontiers.

Is China Playing Straight in the East China Sea?

The Japan-China Maritime and Air Communication Mechanism: Operational and Strategic Considerations
Marta McLellan Ross

Japan Institute of International Affairs

Recent tensions in the South China sea have raised the possibility that confrontational behavior designed to make a point can all too easily escalate into something far more dangerous.

Apparently eager to avoid this scenario, China and Japan have begun developing a series of protocols to ensure that both countries can make their points in the standoff without things spinning out of control. Marta McLellan Ross of the Council of Foreign Affairs suggests in this paper, however, that these ostensibly laudable efforts may be nothing more than a Chinese tactic to neutralize Japan.

A fascinating read.

Greek Vote opens the door for China and Russia

China State Official Hints Beijing May Bailout Greece”
Tyler Durden
Zero Hedge
2
 July 2015

While Europe (and much of the west) shakes their heads at Greece’s referendum vote against the EU bailout offer, in the east, the aparatchiki and the mandarins are likely rubbing their hands together in anticipation of a foreign policy coup.

The always thoughtful and often weird folks at Zero Hedge have hinted that Beijing may be planning to step into the Greek Breach with loans, and recently suggested that Russia and China may together form Greece’s bailout.

My bet is that this has been the plan for some time, and that the referendum has simply been a play to lay the domestic political groundwork for that plan to be put into action. When the time comes that there are no more terms to be had from Europe, Alex Tsipras can present the Asian superpowers as the answer to the EU’s austere terms. It would be a fair wager that the Greek people are unlikely to be too picky, as long as they don’t need to cough up any lifestyle changes.

The geopolitical opportunities of having Greece in either a Russian sphere of influence, an Chinese one, or in both are significant. At the very least it would ensure that the Russian Navy and the PLAN would have forward operating bases in the Mediterranean.

This may not happen overnight, or on this round. But Russia and China are playing a long game with Athens (and vice-versa,) one that the EU will likely not ignore as it debates terms for Greece and contemplates problems in Italy and Iberia as well.

Understanding the South China Sea

Historical Truths and Lies: Scarborough Shoal in Ancient Maps

This essay offers a thoughtful review from the Philippine point of view of the history of territorial claims in the South China Sea. The site, from the Institute of Maritime and Ocean Affairs, was built around a 2014 lecture by Senior Associate Justice Antonio C. Carpio of the Supreme Court of the Philippines.

The Philippines is not a neutral arbiter in the issues surrounding the South China Sea, and even the nation’s Supreme Court is not above nationalistic impulses. Source notwithstanding, the depth of the site demonstrates that the arguments against China’s claims cannot be as casually dismissed as Beijing might wish.

Understanding “Tao Guang Yang Hui”

A phrase that is making the rounds among China watchers is “tao guang yang hui.” I will not attempt to explain the concept: any brief explanation would hide too many nuances, and nuances are important here. I just watched an online debate amongst some of my more scholarly friends, and the battle was about different interpreteations of of the phrase.

One interpretation of the phrase is captured in Deng Xiaoping’s maxim “keep a low profile and bide your time, while also getting something accomplished.” Given the noises China has been making in the South China Sea, the East China Sea, the Indian frontier, and Hong Kong, it appears to some that China has abandoned the tao guang yang hui strategy altogether.

Others, however, suggest that the strategy was not abandoned, but that Deng’s intention all along was to wait for a time when China was ready to assert itself in the global sphere, not simply lay low forever.

Yang Wenchang, President of the Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs, offers his interpretation in “My Views about ‘Tao Guang Yang Hui.” It is a worthwhile read, and an important one: not only does he provide an erudite explanation of the idom’s roots, his interpretation of the phrase seems to be at odds with China’s current foreign policy.

The entire debate may seem a petty tempest among the cognoscienti. If China is becoming more assertive globally, what does it matter whether this is Xi’s own policy or a continuation of the past?

In truth, it does matter: the answer to the question of whether this is part of a long-standing plan or whether this is Xi rejecting Dengist strategy would help us better predict where China is likely to jump next. We are unlikely to get clarification from the leadership compound at Zhongnanhai: Xi will want to seem unpredictable so as to keep his percieved opponents, both at home and abroad, guessing as to his intentions, leaving him with the initiative. Hence a better understanding of his strategic approach is essential to ensure that Asia and the west are not caught unawares by China’s next Great Leap Outwards.

 

China and the Limits of History

Some things we used to know about china’s past and present but, now, not so much” 
Alice Lyman Miller
Proceedings of the USC US-China Institute Symposium, “History and China’s Foreign Relations: The Achievements and Contradictions of American Scholarship”,
Feb. 16-17, 2008

Stanford’s Alice Miller is one of those China scholars who prefers not to mince words. Whether it was her sixteen years with the CIA or the cumulative effect of four decades studying China, she is direct and still unfailingly scholarly in her assessments and, as a result is, a joy to read.

Her paper at a USC symposium above is an excellent example. There is a school of China scholarship that attempts to parse Beijing’s politics and foreign policy through a prism of China’s imperial past. To those scholars, the CCP is just another dynasty in China dynastic cycle, its current leaders just emperors in new clothes, and China wants to turn the rest of the world into tributary powers.  As a history buff with late-life aspirations to historianship, these parallels are appealing to me, and they are clearly appealing to others, else Miller would not feel the need to debunk the approach.

And debunk she does. Offering ample examples from current scholarship and public discourse, she makes a convincing case that while the history has some general value as background in understanding Chinese strategic thinking, past behavior is no template for current or future action.

A must-read for any China-watcher, it surprises me that this paper has not received more attention, but perhaps it shouldn’t: as a longtime purveyor of the “China is more nuanced than that” approach, I know that people are not looking for nuance: they’re looking for easy. Miller makes it clear that this sort of intellectual laziness is a hazard to be avoided.

History, however, is not the bunk that Henry Ford thought. I side with Cicero: ignorance of history is the hallmark of intellectual immaturity. Miller is correct in saying that we should not rely on history too much. It is important to caution that we ignore it at our peril.

India Looks at Xi

“Taking Stock of Chinese Leader Xi Jinping’s One Year Rule,” R.S. Kalha, IDSA Comment, December 20, 2013. Kalha, of the Institute of Defense Studies and Analysis in India, takes a look at the first year of Xi Jinping’s rule from a security policy perspective. His takeaway: by focusing on Japan, Xi picked the right nemesis, managing to demonstrate the real limits to the US commitment to the security of its allies in the region. More adventurism can be expected as a result.

Is China a Revisionist Power?

“Understanding Chinese Revisionism in International Affairs”
Matthew Stinson
April 2, 2014

Whenever I start to think I know something about international relations (my major in school three decades ago, and my predilection ever since), I need only read something by Matthew Stinson to send me, humbled and chastened, back to the library.

Stinson, who is on the faculty at Tianjin Polytechnic University in China, is not a paid political scientist, but he writes like one, albeit rather more clearly than most. It pains me to note that much of his output is in the form of Facebook posts, a fine way to engage his friends, but not so much to give him the profile he deserves.

The most recent entry in his blog Like Cooking a Small Fish is a happy exception. In an wide-ranging and highly erudite article, Stinson explains in detail how China is changing the rules of international relations simply by refusing to play by those established by the U.S. and European powers over the last two centuries. He concludes:

In 1996, the popular Chinese nationalist book China Can Say No advanced the concept that China should no longer follow America’s lead in world affairs. Roughly twenty years later, we may be reaching a point where, thanks to Chinese power, authoritarian regimes of the Global South can also “say no” to the West and pay no penalties for it.

Thought-provoking, and for those of us who place value in the international system as it currently stands. What Stinson suggests that we face is not a future of bad actors, but one in which we will have two systems operating by separate rulesets operating side-by-side. It is the perfect recipe for global conflict.

The Other Side of the Pivot

“Economics and the Rebalance”
Matthew P. Goodman
Global Economics Monthly
Volume II, Issue 12
December 2013

To this point, discussion of Obama’s strategic pivot to East Asia has focused primarily on the military and political aspects of that shift. But as Matthew Goodman of CSIS notes, the administration has placed economics at the center of the rebalance, and has made its biggest bet on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the trade agreement designed to link Asia and the Americas in a free-trade zone.

Goodman is emphatic: based on Obama’s approach, success of the economic end of the pivot – and of the pivot itself – depends on success of the TPP:

Without TPP, the rebalance would contain little of substance that is new and would be perceived in the region as driven primarily by military considerations.

What is more, success of the TPP depends, he notes, on Congress getting behind it. Thus, it stands to reason, the success of the pivot depends on Congress. Goodman offers recommendations for the Congress, but gently dodges the elephant in the room: will the Republicans in Congress support anything that is important to the President?

A thoughtful read, and one that offers persuasive food for thought on the administration’s Asia foreign policy.

Towards a New Model of Major Power Relations

Towards a New Model of Major Power Relations
John Podesta, C.H. Tung, Sandy Berger, Wang Jisi
CHINA US Focus
Center for American Progress

February 2014

Growing concern about the state of the US-China relationship is bringing the pundits out in force. Former Clinton Administration officials John Podesta and Sandy Berger got together with former Hong Kong Chief Executive C.H. Tung and Peking University’s Wang Jisi to try to figure out a new framework for the relationship.

In Towards a New Model of Major Power Relations, published by the Center for American Progress, they have produced a list of recommendations for US and Chinese diplomats to follow in an effort to stabilize the relationship.

The report makes for thoughtful reading, and offers hope for those who despair of the current state of play between the two countries. It will no doubt attract its share of criticism.

The most obvious problem is that the report gives but passing acknowledgement to the importance of domestic politics in both countries in setting the tone of the bi-lateral relationship. This is unrealistic What we need is a framework that is not based on domestic politics the way we wish they would be and that treats them as an afterthought, but that begins with our respective domestic challenges and mutual misperceptions and grows from there.

The second problem is that there seems to be an implicit assumption in the document that China actually wants a positive relationship with the US, and vice-versa. That remains unclear. China appears to be moving beyond the era of the “Peaceful Rise” to what I wild call “Assertive Breakout.” It is based in part on a perception of a declining US that recent US actions would appear to support.

As such, these recommendations are premature. Until both sides signal that they are really ready to sit down, we need a path to get to where Podesta, Tung, Berger, and Wang seem to think we are.

China and the New African Great Game

A Trilateral Dialogue on the United States, China, and Africa
Conference Papers
May 13, 2013

There is a massive literature on China in Africa, and over the next few weeks I am going to be posting links to some of the better, more interesting resources in that regard. This particular Brookings conference paper, which frames a “trilateral” dialogue between the US, China, and Africa, is thought-provoking piece. Africa’s challenges are certainly large enough that they must be addressed by the locals and the world’s two largest powers, and even then, there is no guarantee that they would be addressed.

Despite points of light like South Africa, the continent seems to have fallen into something of a holding pattern. Progress remains, well, moderately paced. Poverty, AIDS, environmental degradation, and politics that put Byzantium to shame offer China a fertile field for political and commercial engagement, but the problems that hold the continent down remain intractable.

You could start a good fight at a cocktail party in Beijing by suggesting that China is just the latest boot on the collective neck of the people in Africa. Yes, the assertion is hyperbolic, but it raise the question of whether Beijing’s engagement has been any better for the people of Africa than colonial exploitation or the misguided foreign aid regime promulgated by the US since the 1960s. Indeed, a read through this paper offers the unappealing suggestion that just as we in the west are questioning the value of aid, China is doubling down on handouts. China, it seems, has not learned much about what works in Africa since its own ill-fated ventures there in the 1960s. If what China is practicing in Africa is not some variety of mercantilist neocolonialism, I would be pleased to know what to call it.

And the US is no white hat, here. In fact, it is starting to look like we have already passed the high-water mark of engagement with Africa beyond the ongoing terrorist hunt. The Obama-Hegel review of defense spending makes it apparent that the Department of Defense will gut the Africa Command (AFRICOM) in the coming years, and I would bet on the DoD standing down the command before 2020. As it must be: given the resources available the US is arguably best off returning to a hemispheric strategy, allowing Beijing (and possibly Delhi) to fall into the Imperial Overreach trap.

As recent events in Libya and Mali demonstrate, Europe remains better positioned historically and otherwise to engage in Africa than the US. But ongoing economic issues – and Russia’s growing adventurism – means that the focus of European defense will most likely shift east again, even if the economies of Europe and Africa become increasingly interlocked through immigration and trade.

The real story for Africa will be how to balance the growing influence of China with that of India. The Middle East, while the destination of many African exports, is (as Europe) set on its own Via Dolorosa as the politics of the region evolve. India and China, with robust economies and growing competition, look to be the next players in the African Great Game.

The question now is what form that great game will take. Brookings is appropriately concerned that the continent will become increasingly dependent on its emerging market trading partners. The nations of Africa need political stability, economic growth, and a population able to spend money. Those things will not happen if Africa once again finds itself on the wrong end of a mercantile economy, in particular if corrupt elites and bureaucracies can lean on their opportunistic Chinese and Indian patrons for support.

For the PLA, Has War Already Begun?

“China’s ‘Three Warfares’ and India”
Abhijit Singh
Journal of Defence Studies
October-December 2013
pp. 27-46

Cymraeg: Sun Tzu. mwl: Sun Tzu. Português: Sun...

Sun Tzu (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The author, who is a research fellow at India’s Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, offers up a highly readable paper with a fascinating proposition: China is already at war with India.

Singh calls out what he calls China’s “Three Warfares” (3Ws) strategy, by which China wages war against an adversary by influencing public opinion, conducting psychological operations, and laying the legal groundwork to support its territorial claims. The PLA, through “work regulations” issued in 2010, is now focusing that effort on India.

It does not demand much effort to see that China is pursuing the same approach in the South China Sea and the East China Sea. What is disturbing is that this effort is not directed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but by the PLA. This is not diplomacy as far as the Party is concerned: this is asymmetrical warfare.

The paper is a fascinating, short, and essential read for those looking to understand China’s near-abroad foreign policy, and who inside of Beijing’s guarded compounds is actually running the show.

The PLA’s Political War

The People’s Liberation Army General Political Department: Political Warfare with Chinese Characteristics, by Mark Stokes and Russell Hsiao, offers look at how the PLA has updated its doctrine of political warfare to target not just Taiwan, but countries all around the world. The book also examines how the PLA’s General Political Department/Liaison Department engages in political warfare, and why the GPD/LD should not be lumped together with China’s intelligence apparatus.

How Deep are China’s Investments in the Carribbean?

English: Map of the Caribbean by the CIA World...

Map of the Caribbean from the CIA World Factbook (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

China’s Rising Investment Profile in the Caribbean:
Richard L. Bernal
Inter American Dialogue Economics Brief
October 2013

While we hear a lot about China’s focus on Latin America, especially Peru, Chile, Venezuela, and Cuba, you don’t read quite as much about China’s efforts in the Caribbean Basin at large. that is starting to change.

In this paper, Richard Bernal, former Jamaican ambassador to the United States and a permanent representative to the Organization of American States, is largely symathetic to China. He notes that investing in small island republics is probably not as attractive to China as plays on the Latin American Mainland, and statistics back him up. Chinese mining companies have already pledged over $7 billion in direct investment to Per, but total investment in the 13 nations in the Caribbean, including Cuba, has been a comparatively paltry $2.6 billion since 2003.

Bernal admonishes regional leaders that they must work harder to make their countries more attractive to Chinese investment. He’s right, of course, but one wonders whether state leaders in the Caribbean all share Bernal’s implicit optimism about the upside of Chinese FDI.

The PLAN and Mahan

Alfred thayer mahan

China’s new strategist? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is no coincidence that the officers of the Chinese navy have taken to studying the writings of American naval historian and strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan, and in particular his 1890 opus, The Influence of Seapower Upon History, 1660-1773. That Mahan’s thesis – that countries with greater naval power will have greater global influence – strikes a chord with these officers is understandable: China’s navy has been the nation’s junior service since long before the revolution, and the Sino-sailors would probably like that to end. (The official name of the force alone is testament to the naval arm’s third-class status: “People’s Liberation Army Navy.” Cue sympathetic cringe.)

But there is more to this than inter-service rivalry. What makes their fascination important to note is that it reflects a much deeper change in China. Mahan’s focus on control of commerce by sea is cut to fit a nation that is increasingly dependent on inputs from abroad and manufactured exports. Consider the facts:

  • China’s most developed regions lie on or near the coast or its major riverine arteries. In an age of standoff weapons, defending those shores needs to take place far from shore.
  • Despite huge investments in domestic road, air, and rail transport, coastwise shipping still carries a huge percentage of China’s internal trade. Unlike the US, China faces other nations across its coastal seas, some of which are latently hostile;
  • Fishing and aquaculture are becoming more important to the nation’s effort to feed itself, but the defilement of coastal fisheries by pollution and toxic runoff has forced the nation’s fishing fleet to range well beyond coastal waters;
  • China can no longer feed itself, finding itself thus increasingly dependent on the flow of foodstuffs arriving by sea from Canada, Australia, Africa, and the U.S.
  • China is becoming increasingly dependent on energy from abroad. While a good portion of that is from Eurasia (think Iran and Iraq,) regional instability makes overland shipment impractical.
  • Many of China’s key industries are reliant on from inputs from abroad. Some comes by air, but minerals and commodities flow in by sea.

Look at that list carefully, and you realize that as the PRC emerges from its underdevelopment and its generation-long stint as the world’s factory floor, it has become something different. It is now looking more like the US in the late 19th century and Japan in the early-mid 20th century than many of us recognize. China is now a mercantilist economy.

Xi Jinping gets the implications. Zach Keck at The Diplomat quotes Chinese state media summarizing part of one of the president’s recent speeches in a tone that nearly apes Mahan word-for-word: “In the 21st Century, oceans and seas have and seas have an increasingly important role to play in a country’s economic development and opening up to the outside world.”

China has been – and remains – a continental power focused on its long land frontiers. It is across those borders that have come nearly all of its historic enemies, with the notable exception of the European powers during the declining days of the Qing empire. But that history is not destiny. China is more dependent on the outside world today than it ever has been, and that realization cannot but focus the minds of China’s leaders and defenders as they start to understand the new importance of coastal defense, sea frontiers, and protecting sea lines of communication (SLOCs).

Recognizing necessity, The PRC has set itself on the course to become a maritime power. The last Asian nation to set itself on a Mahanian course was Japan. Anyone interested in understanding where China and Asia are headed could do worse than read Mahan, if not his books, than his more readable journal articles.

What the World Thinks about China and the US

America’s Global Image Remains More Positive than China’s
Pew Global Attitudes Project

July 18, 2013

The Pew Research Center has released the full text and backup materials for a report that the Center interprets as saying that the US is still largely seen in a better light than China worldwide.

The entire report is worth a read, but I came away with a few interesting tidbits after diving into the data a bit.

There are chunks of Asia that view China more favorably than others, and that view the US more favorably. Distance, it seems, lends enchantment: Koreans, Japanese, Filipinos, and Australians prefer the US, while the Indonesians, Malaysians, and Pakistanis favor China. The reasons for these preferences are likely complex, but they hint at the possible emergence of rival spheres of influence in the region.

It is also fascinating that the nations preferring China are predominantly Muslim. This gets even more interesting when you note that China is viewed far more favorably than the US in the Middle East – and in no other region. At first blush, China seems to have avoided Muslim approbation for its handling of its Uighur population. At the same time, the comparison is deceiving. Diving into the data, it is clear that the people of the Mideast are divided at best over whether China is a positive or negative influence.

One other matter that caught the eye was that Europeans believe that China is already the world’s dominant economy, but the rest of the world agrees that China has not yet passed the US. Again, divining reasons for such perceptions is difficult, but recent Chinese dollar diplomacy in the EU could not have hurt.

The report is available for free download, but for those without a lot of time, there is a slideshow available for a quick peruse.

A Glance at the World through the Dragon’s Eye

Shadow Monk

Shadow Monk (Photo credit: AkumAPRIME)

China Threat? The Challenges, Myths, and Realities of China’s Rise
Lionel Vairon
CNTimes Books
August, 2013
160pp

As any follower of China, of global geopolitics, or The Peking Review will attest, the most troubling question about the future of China is whether or not the Middle Kingdom poses a threat to the security of its neighbors, or to any other country in the world. Ink aplenty has been split arguing both ways, and some authors (most notably Bill Gertz at the Washington Times) have made careers painting China as the inevitable adversary, our new foil in a new cold war.

For its part, China’s leaders have done little to clear the air, choosing obfuscation over transparency whenever possible. There are three possible reasons for this: Beijing may see fostering strategic uncertainty as a viable strategy while it builds national strength; the leaders may yet be unaware that it devolves on a major power to telegraph its intentions in the name of peace; or it just may be the case that there is yet no consensus or clarity in Beijing about China’s grand strategy.

Actions bespeak the same confusion. On the day after China injected itself into the fraught Mideast peace process, the People’s Daily escalated uncertainty on its doorstep by calling into question Japan’s claim of sovereignty over Okinawa.

It is into this fraught milieu that former French diplomat Lionel Vairon wades in his new book China Threat? The Challenges, Myths, and Realities of China’s Rise. Vairon pulls no punches, but he is no panda-slugger. On the contrary, some readers will be tempted to brand him a Sinopologist after reading the introduction:

“The May 2008 Sichuan earthquake, with its toll of over 80,000 dead and over fifteen million displaced, was “karma”—well deserved—for crimes supposedly committed by the Chinese against the Tibetans. This statement by American actress Sharon Stone, made at the Cannes International Film Festival in France that same month, illustrates perfectly the level of insensitivity, propaganda, and growing, gratuitous hostility that characterized the attitude of some of the Western public in the face of the successes achieved by the Chinese and their leaders after thirty years of hard work.”

To quickly dismiss Vairon with such an easy ad hominem “j’accuse” would be unwise. There is substance to his argument that, if nothing else, invites a little honest self-examination from the rest of us. Harkening to Jean-Francois Revel and his parallel examination of the ugly roots of Anti-Americanism, Vairon probes whether there may not be a similarly-motivated Anti-sinicism growing in the West.

Paradoxically, the anti-Chinese frenzy that swept over Western media and politicians at the time, in anticipation of the Olympic Games in Beijing, seems to mark the beginning of a new historical period in light of China’s rise, which may comport to some extent with Revel’s statement. This exploitation of the visible manifestations of Chinese power achieved its aim, first planting a seed of doubt in public opinion regarding the true designs of Chinese leaders behind their usually appeasing discourse before the international community, then transforming that doubt into a growing conviction that behind this façade of cooperation lurked solid hegemonic ambitions.

And therein lies Vairon’s theme: are we reading into China’s words and behaviors a veiled intent, or is that interpretation merely the projection of our own fears of decline and irrelevance? Do we not come to the whole question of China with a mille-fuille of personal biases?

Fair questions. Yet Vairon dives into even more uncomfortable territory. Do we not fear China’s implicit challenge to our Western secular ethos of ultraliberalism and globalization? A half-century after the decolonization of Africa, do our criticism’s of China’s African ventures not taste faintly of hypocrisy?

Vairon peppers his essay – for that is what this book is, an extended essay – with a series of jarring, now-wait-just-a-damned-minute assertions that provoke the American reader almost to the point of turning the book/Kindle into a lethal projectile hurled across a room. There are moments where you want to say “hey, Lionel, mon ami, can we look at what China is doing beneath all of this?”

Slogging through ninety-thousand odd words of this is hard on the preconceptions, but for any of us who care about the role of China in the future and who pride ourselves in a degree of intellectual honesty, it is essential tempering. And Vairon provides an unusually well-articulated look at the most important bi-lateral relationship in the world from the other side of the table.

Barring the unthinkable, a long road lies ahead in the relationship between China and the West. The time to ask hard questions not just about how we percieve China, but also about the nature and roots of our prejudices, is now. If we re-emerge after an honest assessment and find Bill Gertz’s voice speaking most loudly in our heads, then at least we have asked. But if we come out the other end after encountering a card-house of ill-formed opinion, then we will have been driven back to, as Deng Xiaoping once said, seek truth from facts.

And, if nothing else, we will have had a precious opportunity to see the worldview from Beijing. That can only be a good thing as we move forward. It might provide the beginnings of the empathy necessary to cross the gap between East and West. Or, in the worst of all cases, we will at least better know our enemy.

Why TPP is Not a Four-Letter Word

Strategic Implications of TPP: Answering the Critics”
Ellen Frost
East-West Center 

July 9, 2013

The East-West Center’s Ellen West explains how TPP is a good thing not only for Japan and Korea, but for the entire region. In so doing she explains – concisely – why we shouldn’t be worried about Beijing’s reaction to the treaty.

Doing Better at Doing Well

Lessons from Department of Defense Disaster Relief Efforts in the Asia-Pacific Region
Jennifer D. P. Moroney, Stephanie Pezard, Laurel E. Miller, Jeffrey Engstrom, Abby Doll

RAND
2013
147pp.

 

US Air Force personnel deliver relief supplies...

US Air Force personnel deliver relief supplies to Burma (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If there is a unifying thread across the string of natural and human disasters that have torn across the Asia-Pacific region in the past eight years, it is that in each instance large chunks of the U.S. military dropped what they were doing at the time and placed their resources in the service of the governments trying to save lives, save property, recover the dead, and lay the groundwork for a speedy recovery.

There has to now not been an assessment of the effectiveness of that work, nor of the lessons learned. The RAND Corporation has taken on the task of making that assessment, and the results are now available in this concise volume. Taking into account four cases – that of Cyclone Nargis in Burma in 2008; the Padang earthquake in Indonesia in 2009, the monsoon floods in Pakistan in 2010, and the Tohuku earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011 – the study offers some thought-provoking conclusions.

It will come as no surprise to anyone that, left on its own to conduct operations, the US armed forces show a remarkable degree of improvisation and can-do spirit that often overcomes the lack of preparation, and provides the basis for the kind of flexibility that evolving disasters demand. What the study suggests is that not all of this improvisation is necessary, and that with the proper salting of expertise and experience, time and lives could be saved when lessons don’t have to be relearned by different units and personnel in similar situations.

The RAND experts also note that the military needs help playing nicely with others. In this, they echo the oft-repeated entreaties of grand strategist Thomas P.M. Barnett. While the military has learned to overcome its parochial service-first thinking at lower and lower levels of command, this process took over 60 years. Now, however, the military must start thinking not just “mulit-service,” but also “multi-agency” and “multi-national.” The military may be alone on the battlefield, but when the mission is saving people and property, they work best when they work smoothly with the UN, with the Red Cross, local governments, and the Department of State, to name a few.

To the credit of our people in uniform, that stuff is hard, and it is even hard when civilian agencies try to play nice. This is exactly what the study argues. It’s hard, but we have to do it, and better we start now training leaders and operators at every level of the armed forces how to work in an environment like this.

That conclusion seems intuitive to civilians. But to someone in the military – especially someone who has to train people in the face of tightening resources and limited time – it seems like another unfunded mandate from “experts” who have no idea of the challenges in the field. Cross-training a medic is easy. Cross-training a 19 year-old airman third class who specializes in operating a helicopter sonar how to conduct humanitarian tasks is a lot more time-consuming. And what should the military do? Spend more time getting that kid proficient at his highly technical job, given they’re only likely to have him for another couple of years? Or interrupt that time to teach him how to perform technical rescues?

The RAND study, to its credit, doesn’t try to overtask the military, but offers some simple and clever solutions to the problem.

This book is a great read, a must for disaster geeks (I admit to being one) and to anyone with an interest in how we can all get better at saving people after “the Big One.” And for those of us with an interest in China and soft power, it is a silent reflection on how far China must come before its aircraft carriers mean more than menace in Asia.

Do U.S. Overtures to ASEAN Matter?

English: A screen shot from this White House v...

President Obama attends a working lunch with leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations around the United Nations General Assembly Meeting in New York City. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“US-ASEAN Relations: Advances Made But Challenges Remain”
Prashanth Parameswaran
East-West Center
December 13, 2012

As a part of his “grand pivot tour” last fall, Barack Obama engaged with the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in an effort to rejuvenate ties that had gone fallow for nearly a decade and a half.

While progress was made, as the author of this paper points out, the bigger questions are the continuing relevance of both the U.S. and ASEAN to the futures of the nations in the region. Regional trade ties are supplanting both Europe and the United States in economic importance. The U.S. realistically does not have a lot of diplomatic bandwidth for the region. And in the face of a series of more relevant groupings, like the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP,) ASEAN is starting to look dated, much as SEATO became in the wake of the fall of South Vietnam.

All of this complicates U.S. foreign policy, but it plays into the hands of a China looking to define Asia outside the grasp of the United States, Russia, and Europe. For the first time since the Second World War, then, the region is starting to wonder what it needs America for in the first place. Perhaps it is time the U.S. began reassessing our own interests in the region.