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 attempts to halt US Navy ship in South China Sea

uss cowpens

According to the Washington Times, the PLA Navy tried to block the USS Cowpens, a guided missile ship, from proceeding through South China Sea on December 5. The story is here.

What is interesting is that the incident marks an escalation of China’s confrontational strategy in the seas surrounding its coast. That is significant because:

1) It shows that the “Salami-Slicing” strategy is more Western theory of China’s actions than China’s actual strategy. I.e. The incrementalism appears to be a plan in Western eyes. But in reality China’s PLA Navy is taking a much more rapid approach.

2) It suggests that policy is being led not by Xi Jinping or the Chinese Communist Party, but by China’s military and Coast Guard itself – which has been the case in the East China Sea and South China Sea all along

3) If point number 2 is correct, it brings forward the timing of a potential clash between China and a foreign navy, including the US’s.

But having said that there are two notes of caution:

1) The incident is not the first time the US Navy and Chinese vessels have had stand-offs on the sea.

2) This story has added weight because of the Air Defense Identification Zone story in the East China Sea over the past few weeks. The world’s eyes are already fixed on this issue, so on the face of it, the near-miss may look more alarming than it is.

(Photo of USS Cowpens, Courtesy USNavy)

China’s aircraft carrier contradiction

Something to think about: If China is simultaneously moving ahead with new aircraft carriers AND anti-aircraft carrier missiles, there is an inherent contradiction. Let’s say for the sake of argument that the DF-21D carrier killer missiles make US aircraft carriers useless in the Pacific. Wouldn’t it follow that the US pursue similar technology to degrade the capability of future Chinese aircraft carriers? So, why would the PLA Navy pursue both? My first thought is lack of strategic foresight and fiefdoms within the PLA and PLA Navy. I.e. the guys working on the carrier killers, which would mark an evolution in sea warfare, can’t stop the guys who want more PLA Navy air craft carriers pursuing more aircraft carriers.
From the US side, it might be hard to imagine a world without aircraft carriers but that may be the way technology is headed. A few years ago, it would have been hard to imagine pilotless drones. These days it barely makes sense to have billion dollar jet fighters controlled by humans making dicey landings on air craft carriers. I suppose the challenge in the US would be to get military planners to embrace this new world where carrier-killer missiles, and drone technology severely change the rules of engagement.

Bloomberg notes the drive for the US to examine a similar technology, if only to test its capabilities.

Key line:

Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon’s director of operational testing, warned in his January 2012 annual report that the Navy lacked a target needed to check its defenses against the DF-21D. The Navy had an “immediate need” for a test missile able to replicate the DF-21D’s trajectory, Gilmore said.

Australian military “balancing” between China, US

Australia trying to balance closer military ties with both China and the US: the Wall Street Journal

“A trio of Chinese warships made a rare visit to Australia Tuesday, capping a year that has seen the country balance closer military ties with both the U.S. and China,” according to the WSJ.

From the Australian Department of Defence:

“As Chinese Minister for National Defence General Liang Guanglie and I announced in June, our navies will share the lessons learned on counter-piracy operations during this visit.”

I’m sure the Australians can learn a thing or two about piracy from the Chinese.

Pictured: the 3 ships in China in July (Courtesy Xinhua)Image