China’s hawks and their on-again, off-again bluster

A nice wrap from Reuters on China’s hawks and some trends with them

The article mentions the notion that a robust debate about national defense is normal in a major power, although the article also goes onto to describe how these 20 hawks are media darlings. Outside of Colin Powell, the recently deceased Normal Schwartzkopf and David Petraeus, I think most Americans would struggle to name a recent American general. And that’s after a decade of protracted engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This article seems to suggest Chinese generals and colonels whip up the public in part to supplement their modest PLA pensions.

…As long as everyone’s heart is in the right place.

To me the article underscores the dilemma for Obama. He hears comments such as Chinese hawk Dai Xu conclude “the US is bluffing in the East China Sea” and that China should “respond to these empty provocations with something real.” Dai Xu has also called for short, sharp wars like China’s border clash with India to establish China’s power in the region.

But Obama is leading a country that is in no way China-independent. In the area of trade, the US has far to go. The US and like-minded nations can at least batten down their cyber hatches from the Chinese. And that’s the sort of thing we’re seeing from the US.

Obama has said “cyber threat is one of the most serious economic and national security challenges we face as a nation” and that the country’s “economic prosperity in the 21st century will depend on cybersecurity.”

Also of note in this Reuters article is the observation from RAND, who know a thing or two about long-term strategy, that when needed the PLA pundits can be silenced. I’m sure there is lots of bargaining between the CPC and the PLA about who speaks to the outside world and when. But the key quote for me is: “All of a sudden, bam, these guys got turned off.”

If that is the case, the mixed signals China is sending could be on purpose. If that sounds like a suspicion it is. Nothing about China is transparent. So it breeds suspicion. The only question is whether the country cultivates this, or it is, as Luttwak says, a sign of China’s autism in these affairs.

China’s mixed messages

China’s foreign minister called on Japan’s newly elected PM Shinzo Abe to meet Beijing “halfway” and improve relations which have been damaged by the Senkaku-Diaoyu island dispute.

“We hope the new Japanese administration will meet the Chinese side halfway and make concrete efforts to overcome difficulties in bilateral relations,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters, according to AFP.

This would all be well and good if China itself had not sent a plane over the disputed islands three days before the December election in Japan. It was first such incursion by a Chinese state plane into Japanese airspace in the modern era.  

If China was serious about improved relations, why would China do anything to further aggrevate the already tense relationship? Plainly there are conflicting authorities within China, sending out highly contradictory messages to Japan.

The military is its own political power within China, and operates more or less independently of the Communist Party of China for any matters related to China’s disputed borders.

And so a vision of China emerges of a country that has undergone tremendous growth, while the fiefdoms within -the CPC and the military along with all the other internal poles of power – have maintained their own autonomy from each other. That’s true even with Xi Jinping taking the reins of the military. 

So the CPC and military can’t coordinate a consistent message between each other. In this way China is, in the words of Edward Luttwak, “autistic.” He believes there is “no strategy at all” underpinning China’s rise. Recent events suggest that is the case.

To extend Hugh White’s phrasing about the risk of misunderstandings between nations, one of the greatest ongoing “misunderstandings” may be between China’s communist party leadership and its military leaders.