Keeping the USS Cowpens away from the Liaoning: Four reasons the US may be misreading China’s military


The recent incident in the South China Sea, in which a China PLA Navy ship manouevered to block a US Navy ship, the USS Cowpens, from trailing the newly fitted out Liaoning aircraft carrier brings to light many of the issues surrounding China’s militarization. The incident also serves as a small scale model of the larger mysteries of China’s military capabilities, an issue China arguably cultivates for strategic reasons. Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu’s famously said that in war a goal should be to “subdue the enemy without fighting. ”

Below is a list of four issues regarding the US’s reading of China’s military rise.

1) The DF-21D aircraft carrier-killer missile vs aircraft carrier riddle

Either China is investing aircraft carriers, or it is investing in carrier-killer missiles – but it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which it is investing in both. It’s possible that China wants carriers for its seas but expects its carrier-killers to keep foreign navies far from those seas.  It’s also possible that China’s defense planning is confused and riven by internal fiefdoms, where the carrier guys get to build carriers and the missile guys get to build missiles – but there is no unifying armaments strategy. This lack of coordination in weapons making actually happened in Germany during WWII. Why wouldn’t it be possible in China during peacetime? If that’s the case, it’s a revealing sign of the mismanagement and corruption within China’s military establishment. The final possibility is that either the missiles aren’t as “killer” as feared or the intention to build carriers are not real. Look at this leaked gem from RT: A report the Chinese will build a super-carrier of 80,000 or 111,000 tones by 2020.  Again: why would China do this, if it’s strategy for the sea relies on carrier-killers that the US would surely match? Until this confected riddle is resolved, no one should assume too much about China’s future hard power capabilities.

2) China overstating military spending

China, though its networks of defense bloggers and media outlets, is overstating its military build up in the desire (whether conscious or otherwise) to help drive up US spending, sapping the US economy in much the same way as the Soviet Union. Canadian journalist J. Michael Cole makes a similar point in a piece looking at the possibility that there is a combined effort to achieve this goal by far flung Chinese and Russian deployments. Sun Tzu would be smiling.

3) China likely knows the Soviet Union overspent

Another reason that lends weight to this view is the awareness China’s leadership has of the end of the Soviet Union. Media reports suggest China’s leadership is obsessed with the conditions leading up to the fall of the Soviet Union – and surely they wouldn’t miss one of the contributing factors – the onerous spending on military while domestic needs went unaddressed.

“It’s hard to overstate how obsessed they are with the Soviet Union,” said David Shambaugh, a George Washington University expert who spent years meeting Chinese officials and reading internal party documents for a book on the subject. “They wake up in the morning and go to sleep at night thinking about it. It hangs over every major decision.” The obsession is fueled by the fear that, with a few wrong steps, China’s Communist Party would face a similar fate.

It’s hard to believe that at the highest levels China’s leadership isn’t aware of this risk of overspending on the military -both for China and the US. That may also explain how they price the cost of two aircraft carriers at $US9 billion. (Compare $13.5 billion for latest US carrier). I don’t see a price on China’s supposed supercarrier based on a Soviet design.

Further, the dramatic industrialization of China has taken the Chinese Communist Party leadership into uncharted territory. So it’s natural that of all the risks China’s leaders would consider, one of them would be overspending on military while domestic discord mounts. Meanwhile, in the aftermath of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars US overspending on the military is no secret.

4) Confusion cultivated

Finally, if there is any confusion about these matters of China’s military intentions, it’s because China may well want the confusion. Discussing recent Chinese pressure on Western media, US academic Perry Link, nails it:

If there is a silver lining in the predicament of the New York Times and Bloomberg, it is that the West may finally be getting a direct sense of the political culture at the top in China. It is a shrewd and inveterately competitive culture, drawn far less from Karl Marx than from China’s classic novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” in which outsmarting the opponent by whatever means is the most admired of achievements. When U.S. policymakers use terms like “strategic partner” and “responsible stakeholder” for the people at the top in Beijing, they are out of their depth. (my emphasis)

For the US look on the USS Cowpens incident as an anomaly, or somehow outside the pattern of normal naval, is likely to be wishful Western-thinking steeped in the notion of treaties, conventions, norms. Nations – like people – make time for what’s important to them. If China didn’t want the USS Cowpens incident to occur they would have either reined in their freelancing ships captains or issued orders to prevent this sort of thing from happening. But a government and military that is opaque gives China leeway in how it wants to portray these incidents. The solution may not be for the US to “get tough” with China but rather to adopt some of its strategies. This makes the prospect of dummy armies deployed by the US in the Indo-Pacific a much more intriguing option – it would certainly be more cost effective than real armies.

To come: Top reasons for a smaller US military

China feeding a resurgent nationalism with mischief-making: New York Times

Do I detect another faint new geopolitical border etching its way across the world? Have the US elites who held out for a better world with China had a change of heart?

The New York Times on China’s role in the South China Sea in August 2013

A confrontational approach is unwise for a country that prizes stability and development and needs to focus on its serious domestic problems, including an increasingly troubled economy. Instead of feeding a resurgent nationalism with mischief-making, Beijing should be working with its neighbors to ease competing claims and to pursue joint development of natural resources.

It wasn’t that long ago that the Gray Lady was urging the US allow China to join the WTO because (provided China adhere to rules) the whole world would benefit.

“For Americans to reject a trade agreement that benefits everyone is misguided. Provided China meets all the conditions, a deal could actually improve the possibility of dialogue on other contentious issues.”

When did the New York Times learn? When they found out their computers were being hacked constantly by the PLA? Tremendous irony here – and I hate to lay it all at the feet of the New York Times – but now the wealthy and elites of America can make out the shape of the leviathan that the working class and middle class of American saw a good decade earlier and protested against. (Yes, the last link is also from the New York Times, which is to their credit).  


NYTimes asks the $64 billion question regarding the US, China and the global economy

In the story on the US government explicitly naming China as a source of cyber-espionage, David Sanger points out the conundrum for the US.

But the report does not address how the Obama administration should deal with that problem in an economically interconnected world where the United States encourages those investments, and its own in China, to create jobs and deepen the relationship between the world’s No. 1 and No. 2 economies. Some experts have argued that the threat from China has been exaggerated. They point out that the Chinese government — unlike, say, Iran or North Korea — has such deep investments in the United States that it cannot afford to mount a crippling cyberstrike on the country.

What do you do when you learn your trade partner is using the very technology you sold them against you? What do you do when you learn that China’s economy is growing in a way that undermines the US? As an Australian sailor once quipped, regarding Australia and China: “We’re selling China heaps of iron ore. You have to wonder how much of it they’re using to make weapons they will eventually aim against us?”

Good question, Australian sailor.

Take the same conundrum use it for the basis of understanding the China-US relationship. As Jarod Cohen tweeted:

The Obama administration, to their credit, is doing everything they can to alert and awake the American people. And yes, as Sanger notes, the US also has robust cyber-attack capabilities, such as those used against Iran’s nuclear program. But the difference between China and the US is that the US’s Cyber Command is not fused to Wall Street, scanning the world’s computers to siphon off all the trade data, inventions, intellectual property, data bases of valuable information it can. China because of this, and because of its scale, is unique in this way. So it’s a unique threat.

That puts to bed the false equivalence of the US Cyber Command and what China does.

But the biggest question is of course: how to ruggedize the US economy for this kind of world, where your biggest trade partner is your biggest thief. There are a couple options. As the US economy restructures and climbs back from years of low growth and unemployment, it needs the kind of industrial policy that makes it more impervious to China’s tactics.

This is doable. But I’d say one of the first ways to facilitate it is to kill a couple sacred cows.

One is that, while yes, Americans support a free market, they must recognize they are competing against economies that favor government intervention where it aides the national goal of development. In some areas, such as coordinating against external threats, US companies must work alongside the government for the benefit of the whole.

This kind of thing would have happened during the cold war in a number industries.

But in order to do that, US companies must resolve an identity crisis that has come about during the peak of globalization. That is: these companies must recognize whether they’re American and they benefit from the economy and laws of America, or they’re truly globalized institutions with loyalty only to the most advantageous market.

What could possibly cause this change in thinking? It would have to be something big and threatening for Americans?

Maybe, possibly it would be something like the rise of an aggressive superpower across the Pacific. Just a thought.

Unit 61398 – Remember that number…(More on Chinese hacking)

An interesting element in the New York Times story is the US’s increasing impatience with the Chinese in this matter.

The story says:

The United States government is planning to begin a more aggressive defense against Chinese hacking groups, starting on Tuesday. Under a directive signed by President Obama last week, the government plans to share with American Internet providers information it has gathered about the unique digital signatures of the largest of the groups, including Comment Crew and others emanating from near where Unit 61398 is based.

It goes on to note:

Obama administration officials say they are planning to tell China’s new leaders in coming weeks that the volume and sophistication of the attacks have become so intense that they threaten the fundamental relationship between Washington and Beijing.

This is where the landscape of relations between China and the US could rapidly change – if Obama’s administration takes the step. Someone in the White House must be doing the math on what kind of systemic risk this sort of hacking is to the US economy – and doing it in a time when the number of intrusions on US agencies alone rose: almost ninefold, to 48,562 in fiscal 2012 from 5,503 in 2006, according to Bloomberg.

This has to be looked at against the wider backdrop. China’s strategy is to quietly overwhelm the US in many areas of competition – economic, technological, trade. Having the freedom to tap into the US’s critical infrastructure gives Beijing great strategic leverage. Stealing data and designs by the terabyte underpins the innovative burst in many of China’s industries.

For years, part of the issue for US companies was their unwillingness to talk about getting hacked for fear that it reflected poorly on their own corporate practices. That changes when you realise everyone is getting hosed down by the same guy. By illuminating the issue, US media helps put China’s real role in the systematic hacking of whole systems for plunder and gain under closer examination.

The more public this issue becomes, the more potential it has to enter into the dynamics of global diplomacy and security. It has implications far beyond China and the US, as well. If Obama’s Admin is willing to act, it will embolden less powerful countries with similar grievances, some of which could possibly be tied back to Unit 61398 in Shanghai. It becomes a talking point right alongside trade, security, currency, etc.

Basically, we’ve just exited the Kumbaya phase of globalisation. Now it’s clear that the global linkages which have been sold to people around the world brings linkages that are direct threats to the well-being of a lot of nations.