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

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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

Four aspects of the USS Cowpens incident in South China Sea

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1) Timing and pattern. It occurred while US Vice President Joe Biden was on a state visit to China, with reports from one media source suggesting he delayed meeting with Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao once he was informed of the incident. Biden “abruptly disappeared into a side room with only his security detail shortly before he was about to shake hands with Li for the cameras outside the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse…It has not been confirmed whether Biden’s unexpected detour was related to the South China Sea encounter, though Duowei suggests that there must have been a serious reason for Biden to make his host and Chinese counterpart wait for him.” 

The timing issue echoes a similar pattern of embarrassments orchestrated by China’s military…

In January 2011, when then-US Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrived in Beijing for talks, China surprised the world (and certainly Gates) by testing its stealth fighter jet, the J-20. The test of the plane “overshadowed” the visit, according to the NYTimes, and had the effect of “apparently catching China’s civilian leadership off guard.”

Cast your mind back to the January 11, 2007 when China destroyed the defunct Fengyun-1C weather satellite, sending shockwaves through the international space community. The satellite’s destruction, which cast a layer of damaging debris into the earth’s orbit, came just months before a UN Institute for Disarmament Research held a symposium in Geneva on space security – an event attended by and funded in part by China.

As one US diplomat said, in discussing the satellite’s destruction: “The contradiction between China’s statements and actions in this area raise questions about the credibility of China’s declaratory policies and commitments in other areas of national security affairs.”  That contradiction hasn’t changed.

But surprise has emerged as a consistent pattern: The PLA Navy has also closely followed and then surprised the USS Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier group in the Pacific in 2006.

By the way, these diplomatic and military jolts are what came to mind when Ed Snowden appeared in Hong Kong while Xi Jinping was meeting with Obama in California.

Nonetheless, the Cowpens is the second such US-China ship run-in that has received a lot of attention. There was another in 2009 with the USNS Impeccable in the South China Sea. In both cases, reports stated China harassed US ships. But take a breath here: that’s both the reported cases. A US Navy person suggested such encounters are not uncommon and so it would be unwise to “overhype” the Cowpens run-in. In any case, the Cowpens run-in is one of the most significant confrontations between the US and China in years.

2) Effect on US-Japan relations: No matter the timing, the Cowpens incident goes against notion that China is trying to split the US and Japan alliance. If China wanted to do this – as some like Eurasia’s Ian Bremmer suggests  – why tangle with the Americans at sea at the same time as disputes with Japan fester? Doesn’t that galvanize the US and Japan to work more closely with each other?

3) Strategy in South China Sea: If confrontations with the US reinforce the Japan-US alliance, you have to ask how effective the escalation is for China’s presumed goal of turning up the heat on neighboring powers through constant but gradual pressure. This deliberate strategy which applies pressure up to – but never over the point of crisis – has been described as a “Salami-slicing” strategy by Robert Haddick of the Small Wars Journal. The strategy is so called because of the “the slow accumulation of small actions, none of which is a casus belli (reason for war), but which add up over time to a major strategic change.” Yet getting in front of a the USS Cowpens may undermine China’s prospects by putting a test of Chinese resolve on the line. If the ultimate goal is to push all other nations out of the East China Sea and South China sea, indirect pressure building would be more effective, rather than targeting the incumbent power. As in all of these matters at sea, unless unedited video footage of the full event is released, it will be hard to know the specifics.

4) PLA Navy control: The other implication around the Cowpens incident is that there are still rogue elements operating in the PLA Navy. Despite Xi’s appointments of generals and frequent meetings with the military, there is no guarantee Xi’s command of the military extends to the ship that tried to stop the Cowpens. China’s military and civilian government suffer from dysfunction. Both are immense organizations. Dysfunctional organizations are rarely reformed and made effective quickly, certainly not in the time since Xi asuumed control of the top military decision-making body, the Chinese Military Council. The media has tended to describe Xi’s assumption of power as a waving of a magic wand, bringing the military under his sway. In reality, he must struggle to bring forces within the military to heel. That means the captain of the Chinese ship may have been acting on his own authority. As David Finkelstein of the Center for Naval Analysis told the Washington Post about the Cowpens incident: “My gut would suggest to me that this dangerous and uncalled-for activity was a local initiative by the local Chinese commanders.”

Conclusion: Obviously points 1 and 4 can’t both be correct. If there was a conscious decision to cause a flap at seas, it would preclude a captain acting alone. Another possibility is that the PLA Navy was on high alert because Biden was in the country. In any case, the list lays out some of the contradictions the event brings to mind.

Photo: Yes, it is that famous pattern.

An American message – made in China: Biden and media freedom

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Is it just me or is Biden growing more confrontational in his approach to China?

The word from China was that there would be no budging on the air defense identification zone after five and a half hours of talks between Biden and Xi, which ran overtime. Although early reports also suggest there has been some face-saving de-escalation on both sides, too. Frankly, China can make a case for maintaining its ABIZ, as the US and other nation’s do.

What seems to bother the world about the ABIZ is:

1) China’s decision to include the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands firmly in the map.
2) Moreso, the abruptness of the announcement. And here, China is either disingenuous to claim they had no idea other countries would care. It’s just as likely this is an example of China more or less addicted to surprise as a tactic.

Nonetheless, the zone likely took up considerable amounts of Biden’s time with Xi. And with the roll-out of the ABIZ and the inflexible attitude from Beijing has sent shudders through the region and beyond, arousing memories of past countries who asserted their will on their neighbors and looked for acommodation in response. Possibly the growing recognition from Biden that China, for all its talk of “peaceful rise” is a one-way train on issues like this, has begun to look for other levers to pull.

I can’t imagine the PRC being pleased by Biden’s decision to meet with US journalists who are about to get their work visas cancelled for unfavorable coverage of the government and Communist Party. Never a good look. But don’t expect CCTV and Xinhua to show pictures of Biden meeting with American journalists excluded from China. Nonetheless, it’s a powerful message, made in China, for external consumption.

And it’s another dividing line between China and US. It’s a barrier in an era of open borders.

If the outside would can’t prevail in getting China to abandon its policy of diplomacy by surprise and slow erosion of Japan’s place in the East China Sea, the US has little incentive to keep quiet about media freedom.

Rather, the US has more incentive to talk up the fundamental disagreement on media freedom in China. In fact, media freedom increasingly acts an issue with very little downside to the US, even as political masters in China (and Russia for that matter) cringe at its mention.

Based on the images of Biden, you could be forgiven for concluding the trip was a success, and a fun one at that.

But in this way, Biden is the classic American politician armed with an inscrutable smile – a grin not unlike Obama’s in St Petersburg days after cancelling the US-Russia summit amid the Snowden affair.

In the case of Biden, going mano-a-mano with Xi over the air defense while smiling broadly for all the cameras gives a hint of what kind of happy warrior he would likely be as president. Biden recognizes that China is a trade issue, a security issue, a civil society issue. It won’t be going away anytime soon, certainly not before the 2016 presidential campaign. So for now, he can only grin hard for the cameras and grapple with it.

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China’s response to B-52 overfly of the senkaku/Diaoyu Islands

China has not responded with one voice after the US sent planes over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. But of the mix of reactions, one stands out to me. The WallStreet Journal ChinaRealTime blog contains a post called “Chinese Bloggers Turn Fire on Beijing Amid U.S. B-52 Challenge

The blog notes the criticism of the PLA by China’s legion of bloggers on Weibo. Of those reactions, two quotes are the most intriguing.

“The immediate reaction (from U.S.) with both words and action shows the adventurism in China’s decision over the air defense zone, and the passive and embarrassing consequence resulting from that,” Pan Jiazhu, a well-known columnist on military issues who goes by Zhao Chu on his verified Weibo account, wrote.

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So China is embarrassed by the B-52 flyover. But it’s “military hardliners” who made the decision on the no-fly zone.

“Military hardliners created this situation and made a no-fly zone, thinking they can play with little Japan, which has brought out U.S. bombers and slapped hardliners in the face,” art and culture critic Wu Zuolai wrote. “Where’s the hardliners’ spokesman? How do we end this?”

And it points to this split within China between the civilian and military rule. Surely, a decision as provocative as the creation of the air defense identification zone would be flagged to leaders outside the military. But maybe it wasn’t. And if it wasn’t, it suggests that Xi doesn’t have complete control over the military. Parts of the military can still freelance on these territorial issues. Hence, the confusing decision to spring the ADIZ on the world as well as the conflicted response from China in its aftermath. 

I think this is at the heart of the US unease about China’s power in Asia. It’s not necessarily that China is going to supplant the US as the world’s number one economy. Rather it’s that China remains a developing country riven by internal divisions, making its future course at home and in the region incredibly difficult to predict.