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

aircraft

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

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.

 

Japan to “embrace” China?

This New York Times piece, on a report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, concludes that US power in the Western Pacific will slowly be eroded by China’s growing military might. But

At the same time…China’s economic interdependence with the United States and the rest of Asia would probably prevent it from becoming a full-blown, cold-war-style foe, or from using military force to try to drive the United States from the region.

Curiously, I see more of a case for a break in the US-China interdependence. But more on that some other time.

As for Japan, the options will grow more stark, the CEIS report says:

The report found that in most projections, Japan would probably respond to China’s growing power by clinging more closely to the United States, as it has done recently during a heated argument with China over the islands in the East China Sea that both countries claim.

At the same time, despite the stance of its hawkish new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, Japan’s fiscal troubles and political paralysis will probably prevent it from significantly bolstering military spending, as some in Washington have hoped it will do to help offset China’s increasing capabilities, the report said.

In the most extreme instances, the report predicted, doubts about the ability or commitment of the United States to remain the region’s dominant military power could one day grow strong enough to drive Japan to more drastic measures, like either embracing China or building its own independent deterrent, including nuclear weapons.

Far be it from me to question the CEIP, but the notion of Japan embracing China seems a bit of a stretch. In a strategic sense, the geography supports a Japan-China cooperation, of course, but if Japan’s culture-apart identity is any guide, a China-Japan link up seems highly unlikely. So important is Japanese self-identity that it has not allowed the immigration that would have helped its economy decades ago. I can’t image that culture turning and “embracing China.”

But who knows what the future holds? I don’t see the US retreating from Asia any time soon and I don’t see the economic trajectories assumed today as etched in stone, either. Economy-shifting technology may begin to advance again in a meaningful way for industry. Also, surely, at a certain level the US could benefit from giving into an isolationist streak and focusing on its own. My thought about China is that it’s not a mature enough modern-day political unit to promise peace in Asia.

Also, I doubt the conclusion in the report that  “for the foreseeable future, China would not follow the former Soviet Union in becoming a global rival to the United States.” Not sure where the reporter or the authors of the report are getting this notion from. Maybe it’s just retail-level rhetoric. But China seems to motivate itself by becoming the next number one.