Why China might be exaggerating their military’s development

Anyone who cares about China’s potential military threat should read this article by Gregory Kulacki, who raises the possibility that China is exaggerating its military power to gain a strategic advantage over the US. While some believe China uses ‘un- witting’ pro-Beijing US analysts to manipulate policy, it’s just as likely other analysts in the US are overestimating China’s military power.

Kulacki helpfully divides the US analysts into a “blue team” that “claim they see through” China’s deceptions to a much larger military, and a “red team”…”of U.S. experts who are either coerced or duped into downplaying the China threat.”

He then gives the example of an ancient Chinese strategist Zhuge Liang who used “straw boats to catch arrows,” and by tracing the provenance of a particular piece of “exclusive” US reporting on China’s defense capabilities, shows how threats can be hyped.

I have long wondered about this possibility. Obviously, secrecy is central to the authoritarian regime, and what one leader says, may not necessarily be so.

But there are three other things at work with Kulacki’s ideas that make his hypothesis possible.

1) There is a natural US tendency to overemphasize a country’s military hardware threat, while underplaying the political resolve of an adversary. You can see this in the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan right back to Vietnam. All of those countries inferior militaries and hardware and look what happened.

2) China’s top leadership is reportedly obsessed by not making the mistakes the Soviet Union made leading to its collapse.

One of those mistakes would surely be plowing too much money into the military at the expense of the domestic economy. If China wants to avoid that outcome, they would need to assure they don’t overspend on a military, particularly when 500 million people are still waiting to move up on the economic later.

3) Conversely, studying the downfall of the USSR, one can’t help but make parallels to the US whose government is hugely indebted after two long and costly wars. It could be possible that the Chinese, by telegraphing huge new weapons capabilities, would hope to dupe the US into costly spending that would eventually weaken it permanently.

It could be a case that China realizes its power is actually greater by not spending too much on the military. Ironically, the exact same is true for the US.

 

Freedom from coercion a goal in Australia’s 2013 Defense White Paper

Australia has released its 2013 Defense White Paper, and it’s a subtle and contradictory thing. There has been a lot of discussion about what kind of message the White Paper contains, especially compared to the 2009 White Paper that contained more explicit descriptions of threats to Australia in the Asian-Pacific region.

This time around, all of that alarmist language linked to China has been scrubbed. But a couple things stand out.

In the first paragraph of the section three, entitled Australia’s Strategic Policy Approach, the very first line lays out something I’ve seen little discussion in the media analysis.

“Australia’s national security interests are based on protecting Australia’s sovereignty – which includes freedom from coercion by other states – people and assets, building sustainable security in our region, and shaping a favourable international environment.” (Italics mine.)

That line, to me, would be aimed at China more than any other country. Even a causal observer of what’s going on the South China Sea sees bullying from China. And coercion is by no means limited to China’s dealings with developing countries like the Philippines, Vietnam. A more powerful China takes on more powerful, developed countries like Japan, Britain (if this story is true) and arguably the US with China’s industrial scale cyber theft.

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There is every reason to believe China would pursue a similar path with Australia, if it hasn’t already in the detention of China-born Australian citizens, for example.

Second, the much-discussed Future Submarine Program to support the creation of 12 new subs has elements of a sort of ‘moonshot’ effort, from my reading, at least. The paper says it represents “the largest and most complex project ever undertaken in Australia’s history.”

Under a section called “Greater linkages between Industry and the Education Sector” the White Paper notes falling enrollments in science, technology, engineering and math courses undermine defense industry capabilities.

To address the skills shortfall the government in the 2012-13 budget has already devoted $54 million over four years to increase study in those areas. Australia’s government is also sponsoring programs to build skills critical for the success of Future Submarine Program.

Note the implicit dismissal of free-trade in this matter. Similar efforts in the US – from outside the government – are underway now, twinning a need for a secure defense industry with the need of rebuilding industry as a whole.

Australia is – obviously – not gearing up for occasional skirmishes on the seas by adding here and there to its fleet. This isn’t a tactical, but strategic paper. What’s missing, as everyone notes, is money.

But Australian defense planners, using very diplomatic language, are laying the groundwork for a longer-term maritime competition in the region. And with good cause: while Australia’s military tolerates some dependence on global supply chain, should the seas surrounding Australia become contested, the country will be well-served if it can shoulder more of its own naval ship production.

The most diplomatic angle to the document is the reframing of Australia’s region of concern.

Australia calls the Indo-Pacific region, rather than the Asia-Pacific region (used in the title of the 2009 White Paper) as its core area of strategic concern. “Over time, Australia’s security environment will be significantly influenced by how the Indo-Pacific and its architecture evolves,” the paper states. Yet, Australia’s re-focus on the band stretching from Japan to India, sends a subtle message to Beijing that Australia doesn’t place itself in the middle of a Pacific-focused China-US cross current. At the same time, the paper explicitly reaffirms the Australian security alliance/reliance with/on the US. A big contradiction, handled very well in the writing of the paper – which itself is a product of the times.

…More on the cyber defense elements in another post.

(photo: Chinese sailors seeing off an Australian Navy ship. Courtesy Defence.gov.au)

 

Internet nationalism?

I have been an admirer of Bruce Schneier for a while but I think he misses the point on this piece about nationalism on the internet.

Yes, he is correct that companies will try to profiteer from any cyberwar. Citizens should be vigilant. Especially after the war profiteering around the US invasion of Iraq and the global war on terror.

Yes, the government must be kept in check to prevent an assault on the privacy of its citizen – in the name of security. And that is a full time effort.

But if Schneier thinks the biggest risk in the situation arises from nefarious corporations in West, he needs to take a closer look at the implications of State owned Enterprises in China, which are neither fully private companies, nor fully the government.

SOEs’ fist-in-glove relationship with the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party really blur the lines of responsibility in any matter of privacy and profiteering.

The challenge in the West is that capitalism has corroded democracy in recent years. But trend is being corrected by a rise in participation in democracy and a more vocal civil society movement. The path back to sanity in the West is restoring the boundaries between government and business which eroded during the rise of freemarket fundamentalism. The cure is more oversight and accountability.

SOEs by their design run counter to those ideas. And in fact, it’s the mix of the Chinese military, cyber-thieving on an industrialized scale, only to share the spoils with China’s businesses (no doubt through well-connected SOEs) that forms the threat for Western economies, businesses and citizens.

I’m not sure Schneier takes this into account in his piece. He writes in the same anachronistic tone that many people do, who assume US power in these areas is uncontested. US power in the cyber-industrial realm is very much contested these days, from many fronts, by the biggest single challenge, I would guess, is the new model coming out of China.

Another interesting point Schneier touches on and that we have considered for some time at Cold War Daily, is the possibility of a Balkanized internet. Schneier writes:

We’ve started to see increased concern about the country of origin of IT products and services; U.S. companies are worried about hardware from China; European companies are worried about cloud services in the U.S; no one is sure whether to trust hardware and software from Israel; Russia and China might each be building their own operating systems out of concern about using foreign ones.

It sounds like science fiction now but if the Internet truly becomes Balkanized, you can expect the technology to follow. Some authoritarian governments have a deep interest in making their systems inoperable with the wider internet. Why wouldn’t that extend to the hardware, too? It sounds far fetched but it shouldn’t. There was a time, in the not too distant past, when there were two models of many pieces of hardware. The kind seen in the West, often underpinned by the R&D and industrial policies of those countries; and another version found behind the Iron Curtain. A similar trend could come in the future.