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August 7, 2012


Building an Enemy

by Mike M

After a hiatus imposed by travel and family duties, the blog returns for a hopefully extended run to the promised end of the 2012 strategic transition moment.

In the endless discussion about U.S.-China policy, two recent stories offer bookends that frame perhaps the most serious flaw in the current U.S. approach—balanced and nuanced though it has sought to be, all the way back to the Clinton years.

One is the issuance of a new CSIS report on U.S. posture in the Asia-Pacific region.  So many such things pump out standard ambiguous jargon straddling the line between deterring China and embracing it.  This one is different.  It concludes fairly unambiguously that “[T]he top priority of U.S. strategy in Asia is not to prepare for a conflict with China; rather, it is to shape the environment so that such a conflict is never necessary and perhaps someday inconceivable.”  In their congressional testimony launching the report, the CSIS authors said it straight again.  “U.S. strategy is not to prepare for a fight with China,” they argued.  “Indeed, the United States and China have a stake in each other’s success, as the president put it early last year.  The strategy must therefore be to ‘win the peace’ by building a relationship with China that makes conflict virtually unthinkable and cooperation mutually attractive.”

This is refreshing stuff.  It makes clear that U.S. national interests demand an engaged China, not an angry, nationalistic and “contained” one; that we are much more likely to get the long-term results we seek by trying to befriend rather than confront this rising power; that containment is anyway infeasible because China, thoroughly integrated into the region and with deep cultural and historical ties to neighbors going back centuries, is not the Soviet Union.

If one took these ideas seriously, one would presumably conclude that Washington needs to get busy—with specific initiatives and policies—to make that more positive outcome a reality.  Unfortunately, the CSIS report proceeds to make a number of fairly narrow recommendations focused on shoring up the U.S. posture in Asia and offers no detailed ideas for how to put into effect its preferred strategy of “winning the peace.”

Like all the conventional wisdom, for example, it strongly re-endorses the importance of U.S. regional forward presence.  Fair enough, but the question is whether Washington should busily augment that presence to match perceived Chinese military expansion, to essentially preserve the “America deters China” paradigm.  The report seems to endorse this; there are strong arguments, however, that the strategy is unaffordable in the long-term, and the whole paradigm reaffirms the very containment mindset that will make “winning the peace” less possible.

The report (which, to be fair, was commissioned to respond to some very specific questions for DoD) then makes some painfully meticulous suggestions for enhancing the “alignment” of PACOM strategy in the region.  It says things like “Transition U.S. Army I-Corps into a PACOM-aligned Joint Task Force, bringing with it corps-level planning capability.”  It argues for solidifying security accords with Japan and Korea.  It proposes “add[ing] additional capabilities to the PACOM AOR”—more submarines, more tankers, building up munitions stockpiles.

And so in the end, the CSIS report ends up joining the tidal wave of dialogue on Asia and China policy:  A head nod to the fact that long-term interests are best served by building cooperation with an admittedly difficult, assertive, at times belligerent China—followed by a laundry list of recommendations whose upshot would be to exacerbate an already fractious relationship.  This is the sort of stuff that is rapidly convincing many Chinese, in circles official and unofficial, that the United States seeks the containment and destabilization of their system.  And once such a perception grabs hold of a people and certain key elements of a ruling elite (cf Pakistan), it’s awfully hard to dislodge.

What won’t make it any easier is publishing doctrines that presume an onrushing conflict and suggest fantastically bellicose strategies for fighting them—which gets to the second recent story, a Post report on the origins and details of the AirSea Battle concept, which the story claims took life in DoD’s Office of Net Assessment.  According to the Post report, under AirSea Battle, if a conflict were to erupt, “Stealthy American bombers and submarines would knock out China’s long-range surveillance radar and precision missile systems located deep inside the country.  The initial ‘blinding campaign’ would be followed by a larger air and naval assault.”

Such expansive notions thrill the services, because they provide the content for wish lists of weapons, force structure and other things that energize budgets.  Pretty soon the Pentagon is awash in Powerpoint presentations on “FYXX requirements” and the Hill is hearing that the Navy “needs” X carriers, XX destroyers and so forth, or it “is in danger of falling short of force structure necessary to carry out essential mission requirements.”  Trouble is, nobody digs deeper to ask where the “mission requirements” come from.  If they stem from am overambitious, unaffordable, unnecessary, and pointlessly provocative concept that never should have been taken up in the first place, then the U.S. military really has no shortfall whatsoever.

The level of thinking behind this whole concept harks back to the worst of Cold War arms racing.  “We want to put enough uncertainty in the minds of Chinese military planners that they would not want to take us on,” a “senior Navy official” is quoted in the Post piece as claiming.  “Air-Sea Battle is all about convincing the Chinese that we will win this competition.”  And what competition is that—military spending?  Does that imply that we’ll keep upping the ante as long as Chinese spending grows?  I wonder if this senior officer has glanced at relative GDP growth trends; and where exactly he expects, in the debt-riddled U.S. budget, to get the money to “win” a spending contest with China.  I wonder if such officials realize that the operational contest is not an even one–Washington is trying to project power into Beijing’s backyard, meaning every military task is X+1 as difficult for us as for China.  The United States is going to need a much more clever way to manage this unfolding relationship than a promise of mutual economic self-destruction and increasingly infeasible force projection.

This is all headed in a self-defeating and unnecessary direction.  The Soviet Union began life as a totalitarian offense to humanity and gradually mellowed, but always bore watching as a possible threat.  Today’s China has evolved out of a Communist state into some sort of hybrid that has staked its prosperity and, more important, the credibility and legitimacy of its rule on integration into an advancing, globalizing world system.  It is not an unappeasable power, as Hitler was, or an ideologically driven, inherently expansionist and untrustworthy one, as was the Soviet Union.  Hoary doctrines of “strength,” “credibility” and “deterrence” can be kept safely at arm’s length, at least for now.

China looks set to become more politically riven, more nationalist, more economically and environmentally challenged—in other words, more of a handful than it has been.  It owns a proud, assertive and at times belligerent military.  Despite all that, there remains a very substantial chance for the United States, the region and the world (critically, working together, for China, too, unlike the USSR, has no empire and no ring of allies or satellites to boost its own power base) to develop meaningful, if tough and fractious, cooperative ties to a rising China.  For U.S. and regional interests, this is the vastly preferable course.

In David Sanger’s new book on the Obama foreign policy, an unnamed senior administration official is quoted as saying (paraphrase here), “We face a lot of issues—but if we get China wrong, nothing else will much matter in fifty years.”  Perhaps the leading way to get China wrong is to refuse to take seriously the need for a concrete and serious agenda to put into practice the advice of the CSIS report, and every other sensible analysis:  Not anything approaching a bipolar condominium, but to “win the peace” with a Beijing drawn into a range of collaborative projects and mutual solutions to problems.

So where are the powerful initiatives attempting to bring it about?  Where is the counterpart to AirSea Battle with the well-funded exchange programs?  Where is the bold new diplomatic idea to turn South China Sea anger into win-win settlements? All of this is painfully hard to do with a China that often balks.  But that doesn’t mean it is impossible.  The bottom line is that the relative emphasis we have been giving to enhancing relationships is not nearly where it should be.  Every hour we have spent to design and implement the idea of shuttling some Marines into Australia to enhance regional deterrence could have been far more profitably spent on developing ideas for even low-level U.S.-China partnerships.

If the legacy of initiatives on U.S.-China relations is the patently unaffordable and pointlessly provocative Air-Sea Battle concept and a few hundred Marines running around Australian training sites, in the quest to “get China right,” these years will have been seriously misspent.

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. M Jones
    Aug 7 2012

    Great to see you back on the “job!”

    • Mike M
      Aug 9 2012

      Thanks! Nice to be back.

  2. Aug 7 2012

    I’m alarmed at how common is the view among my colleagues in the Pentagon, that China is the new looming threat – to prepare for, contain, plan against, defend against, and arm against. No analysis, debate, discussion, or imagination, much less critical thinking on the subject. And I’m mindful of the old truism: “A lie unchallenged becomes the truth.” And it’s also true that if we keep saying China is the enemy, they’ll eventually become precisely that.

    This kind of writing inspires me because I see that there are folks with clear presence of mind and vision. Yet I am becoming more convinced that we will accomplish little in the way of altering our strategic direction if we write for one another in these limited circles. The only way to change course is by way of citizen outrage. This requires our citizens to be shown the fallacies in logic of our present course, even the downright fatal consequences of pursuing it.

    So how do we do that?

    • Mike M
      Aug 9 2012

      It does seem to be becoming the unquestioned assumption, which I think is the danger. Not sure if citizens are any more equipped to question such things. The propoertion of citizens willing to question a claimed threat seems to me to have become vanishingly small …

      • Aug 9 2012

        Of course they’re not equipped, if by “equipped” we mean informed. But then how well “equipped” are our elected officials? And if our elected officials are better “equipped,” how has that benefitted us? Not much, by my estimation. The fact remains that without popular demand, our elected officials and the non-elected who serve them will continue the status quo.

        So the challenge remains, how to energize our citizenry to demand change? This is what stymies me. People don’t reach a level of outrage to the point of action unless they see a direct link between an issue and their personal welfare. Like: trumping up China as an enemy means we’re going to war against them, which means your son is gonna die. Now that makes it real enough for Joe Citizen to act.

  3. M Jones
    Aug 7 2012

    I’m similarly disturbed by the unreflective “China threat” tone of much of what passes for strategic analysis these days. I’m almost equally concerned, however, by the opposite “China is no problem,” or “China will likely collapse of its own weight before it becomes a problem” approaches that bubble up in response to the alarmist position. China is one of an interrelated set of major issues that cry out not only for critical thinking but, as Andres notes, for political action driven by sensible strategy. None of that is happening right now. I recently got around to reading Friedman’s Hot, Flat, and Crowded, closely followed by Friedman and Mandelbaum’s That Used to Be Us (I guess I was feeling Friedman-deprived since I’ve stopped paying much attention to the NYT), and was pleased to see that Friedman has belatedly awoken to the fact that while the world may be flat, it is also changing rapidly in ways that don’t favor fat, ignorant people living in a politically dysfunctional society. That’s about as far as I’ll go as long as I’m on active duty, but Andres is right that the citizenry needs to mobilize behind some collective action and collective sacrifice in pursuit of major goals (restoring, or maintaining, perhaps, if you are an eternal optimist, economic competitiveness, chief among them) that support the bases of U.S. power. Conversations like this can contribute, but they need to expand to reach more people both in and outside of the defense community.

    • Mike M
      Aug 9 2012

      Could not agree more. Personal view … underneath all the national issues is a national attitude … a couple of recent Bill Keller columns in NYT got to it. Anyone who raises the issue gets the $#@! kicked out of them, and perhaps rightly so because of the necessary generalization. I hesitate because of the number of people I know and stories I see of beleaguered, hard-working folks carrying two and three jobs … but there is, spanning three generations, absolutely a sense of entitlement, an attitude that a certain set of things is “expected,” etc. Off the track of China a bit … but essential to the reawakening of the US critical to geopolitical context. Could we see a politician that would speak hard truths, say we all–businesses, unions, everyone–have to make serious sacrifices, that we have all grown too fat & happy? Not sure. Such messages generally get shot down.

  4. Godfree
    Aug 20 2012

    “China looks set to become more politically riven, more nationalist, more economically and environmentally challenged”. Really? In the Western media, perhaps, but not in the real world. It’s the least politically ‘riven’ country on the planet, with 85%–95% trust and support ratings from its people (Pew, Edelman, Harvard), government censorship is keeping nationalism in check (that’s it’s main raison d’etre), its economy is right on plan and on budget and will grow at the desired 7.5% for at least the next 10 years and, finally, they are addressing their environmental challenges at precisely the same point in their development cycle as Europe, the USA and Japan.

    • Mike M
      Aug 21 2012

      Good points, fair points. I still tend to see growing political disputes as issues like housing, environmental concerns (big cities are not so well tended as I think you suggest), rich-poor gap, coastal-interior gap, etc hit home. “More” doesn’t mean dramatically, but I still think substantially more than it has been. But your points are well taken … it’ll be interesting to see where the dramatic growth in consumerism and money-centered culture (plus widespread corruption) takes them in terms of some of the trust and support qualities … I think some of the small-scale village- and town-level protests we’ve seen over the last years imply the first sense of a growing disaffection with the current situation. But again it needs to be a balanced picture. Thanks for the comment.


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  1. Today's China Readings August 20, 2012 | Sinocism

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