Zen at War on the Rocks on China and Avoiding War

Chinese Navy

Chinese Navy

[by Mark Safranski, a.k. a. “zen“]

The editors of the excellent War of the Rocks invited me to post a short rebuttal to the op-ed “How Not to Go to War With China”, by Scott Cheney-Peters, which appears in their “Hasty Ambush” section:

UNDERSTANDING CHINA: THE REAL KEY TO AVOIDING WAR

….A place to begin our efforts in avoiding war with China might be avoiding engagement in some of the same incorrect mirror-imaging assumptions we once made about the Soviet Union, not least of which was MAD.  As a doctrine, Soviet leaders never accepted MAD and the Red Army general staff ignored it in drafting war plans to fight and prevail in any nuclear war. While the Soviets had no choice but to tackle the logic of deterrence as we did, the operative Soviet assumptions were predicated on a different strategic calculus, a different force structure and above all, different policy goals from their American counterparts.  A dangerous gap between American assumptions of Soviet intentions and the reality of these intentions came to light when in 1983 the Reagan administrationdiscovered to their alarm that Soviet leaders had interpreted the NATO exercise Abel Archer 83 as preparations for a real, imminent nuclear first strike on the USSR and ordered Soviet nuclear forces on high alert.

The military-to-military confidence-building initiatives outlined by Cheney-Peters intended to construct “habits of cooperation” are not entirely useless. There is some value in ensuring that high-ranking American military officers have personal and limited operational familiarity with their Chinese counterparts in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), but as potential game-changers, they need to be taken with a grain of salt. Such a policy misses the essential strategic and political centers of gravity in the Sino-American relationship.  Namely that for the first time in 600 years, China is building a blue water Navy that will foster power projection as far away as the Indian ocean and Australia.  Secondly, this naval expansion, coupled with a new Chinese foreign policy, aggressively presses grandiose territorial demands on nearly all of its neighbors, including India and Japan.  These are fundamental conflicts with American interests that cannot be explained away or papered over by banquet toasts with visiting delegations of Chinese admirals. […]

Read the rest here.

Also read another WotR  China piece “99 Red Balloons: How War with China would Start” by Matthew Hipple

9 comments on this post.
  1. Madhu:

    Zen,
    .
    I just posted the following at SWJ:
    .
    While I think there is some truth to all of that, such behavior on our part also allows a lot of buck passing. The US is increasingly getting a bum deal in the cost/benefit calculus, IMO. In particular, while we were busy, the Chinese worked the system (and how!), worked hard, and became wealthy. Nationally, anyway, if not always distributed equally. Sounds familiar.
    .
    “I always thought the US was over-invested in the Middle East and welcomed a rebalancing to Asia based on changing demographics and economic realites, etc. But I had imagined a larger diplomatic overture within which various specific proposals, including military-to-military relations, would be embedded.

    Now I’m worried as I watch a certain vacuum (or drift) being filled with military planning and overtures in place of a larger diplomatic focus.

    I hope a militarized pivot doesn’t become the Carter Doctrine of the 21st century. ”
    .
    And then I saw your piece. Posted a link in comments for discussion. I am a suspicious person by nature as you all know and I worry that if we go through the motions and look at everything through a domestic American lens (either hawk or dove, mirror imaging) we may be completely off track. Interesting piece. I don’t know what to think except that I find a lot of the jargon in pieces about AirSea Battle to be off-putting. Wasn’t COIN meant to be something discussed operationally and not strategically early on? Remember those arguments by proponents?
    .
    Still working this out…. 

  2. Madhu:

    Er, that came out choppy. Not referring to your piece with ASB.

  3. Madhu:

    Zen,
    .
    The last para of your piece reminds me of American CEO’s congratulating themselves for their business prowess while off-shoring with abandon (not an anti globalist or free trader here, but it’s as you say in your piece: the details matter). 

  4. Madhu:

    anit-free trader. I am on a serial commenting kick which means “get out of here, Madhu.”

  5. Charles Cameron:

    Hi Zen:
    .
    Good to see you in WotR — War on the Rocks? or is that War of the Rings?
    .

    I’m very interested in your phrase “the operative Soviet assumptions were predicated on a different strategic calculus” — I recognize that “calculus” may be a metaphorical use, but it still makes me think of rules-based modeling, and as we move deeper into “big data” times, I get a little worried that differing rule sets could have disastrous consequences. 
    .
    To shift that observation into a less combative key, you remember the time NASA lost a Mars Climate Orbiter?
    .
    CNN:

    NASA lost a $125 million Mars orbiter because a Lockheed Martin engineering team used English units of measurement while the agency’s team used the more conventional metric system for a key spacecraft operation… 

    Okay, back to combat. The data can be big and quant or small and qualit, I guess. Today’s Telegraph story, Al-Qaeda-linked rebels apologise after cutting off head of wrong person, suggests the unhappy decapitation was based on “misunderstood comments Mr Fares made referring to the Imams Ali and Hussein, the founding fathers of Shiism.”
    .
    I’ll try to post separately on the religious aspect of the story, time permitting, but my point here is simply that “coupled differences” at the ideational level (verbal or  numerical, quantitative or qualitative, interpersonal or diplomatic) can have serious consequences at the level of praxis.

  6. Lexington Green:

    Good point about MAD and how the Soviets never believed in it.  I met Paul Warnke once in the early 80s. I was an undergrad, and he was giving a speech.  He was as arrogant as you’d expect him to be.  I remember him saying “MAD is not a theory, it is a fact.”  What he meant was “I’m smart and the Russians are smart like me, and Reagan is an idiot.”  That’s nice.  But the Soviet military didn’t think his “fact” was a fact.  So, he was not so smart, Reagan may have been at least some kind of right, and the Soviets, let’s just say it, were nuts.  Adversaries who make nutty decisions do come along from time to time.  And even if they are not expecting the immediate de-occultation of the 12th Imam, even if they talk like they are very scientific, and wear tailored suits, dress shirts and Louis Vuitton ties, they can still be by our standards nuts.  All that said, the Chinese may figure we are not going to trade Los Angeles to defend Taipei, that we will never go nuclear, so they will never have to, and a fait accompli is a possibility.  That may be a huge mistake.  If the Chinese were to initiate a war and sink a bunch of US ships and kill a lot of US sailors they would be in for a storm of Jacksonian hatred that they may not grasp in advance.  Primordial anger indeed.  Let’s hope none of this ever happens.  
     

  7. zen:

    Howdy all,
    .
    Doc Madhu –  My last para is about a need for reciprocity as a barometer. Diplomatic engagement is a two way street. When one side does “confidence building measures” by making concessions, handing out gifts and according (unearned) prestige and the other side collects the goodies without any corresponding gestures and then goes out of their way to signal indirect but consistent insults, the former side is only fooling itself. It is a sign non-Chinese speaking, non area expert American admirals, defense and state department officials, White House political aides are all having an evidence-free conversation among themselves to avoid acknowledging this unrequited courtship ritual substituting for a China policy is not working. The Chinese are not stupid, they know how to reciprocate very well – they are choosing not to do so as a sign they are unhappy with the United States and/or have conflicting interests that matter more to them than good relations (or good atmospherics) with Washington.
    .
    I am not sure if we are deliberately ignoring this in order to not have yet another negative media issue or having cut out high level officials with real Chinese expertise from the China policy loop, the administration no longer has anyone to tell them they and the US Navy look like a horse’s ass to Beijing 
    .
    There’s nothing wrong with a “pivot” to Asia by the administration. I will give them some credit here. It is a belated recognition of what was seen by John Hay, Elihu Root, Frederick Turner and Teddy Roosevelt a hundred plus years ago that eventually the global center of gravity would shift toward Asia once Asia modernized. As a policy though, it is inchoate, partly because the budget is a mess so everyone is wary of adhering to specific (bilateral) long term commitments. Some of the moves, drawing closer to Australia and wooing India and Indonesia are definitely correct, if weakly executed. Too much, too soon in too many places, OTOH, would backfire regionally by making us look aggressive rather than slowly responding to China’s foolish decision to alienate every major country in Asia except Pakistan, North Korea and Cambodia
    .
    Charles – You wrote:
    .
    I recognize that “calculus” may be a metaphorical use, but it still makes me think of rules-based modeling, and as we move deeper into “big data” times, I get a little worried that differing rule sets could have disastrous consequences. 
    .
    The Soviets liked to use a heuristic “correlation of forces”. While some of that was Marxist-Leninist cant for Politburo meetings, it really did have some utility interpreted as “comparative net power”. From Khrushchev through around 1979, the Soviets optimistically believed “the world was going our way” and politically it was, but circa 1980-83 the geoeconomic ground shifted under the USSR. The Soviet economy began contracting just as the information revolution took off in the West and America’s economy began to boom. The correlation of forces had the Soviets on the defensive by 1983 and desperate by 1988.
    .
    But how the Sovs reacted could have been infinitely worse. Gorbachev gets credit for greater empiricism in his mental tool kit which drove his determination to change and made him realize that monstrous brute force of a Stalin or Mao would not solve his country’s problems despite the fact that every Soviet leader had been molded their whole career to try to preserve the system at all costs. He escaped the hold of ideology, to a degree and that was enough to prevent some terrifying outcomes ( like a full scale civil war in a 12 time zone nation festooned with nuclear warheads ans biochemical WMD).
    .
    The sunni radicals, from AQ to various Salafi and Deobandi currents – do they have it within their cognitive map to do that?  This is an interesting question. I was listening to Robert Baer today speak about Iran and the topic of comparative extremism between Sunni and Shia came up and he sees different rationalities at work in Hezbollah/IRGC vice al Qaida or Pakistani groups with the latter much more on an eschatological, civilizational conflict logic. I think there might be a lot to that point, that the Iranian extremism is modern and instrumental in most of its assumptions and Sunni is primitive and protean.
    .
    Lex –  you wrote:
    .
     So, he was not so smart, Reagan may have been at least some kind of right, and the Soviets, let’s just say it, were nuts.  Adversaries who make nutty decisions do come along from time to time.  And even if they are not expecting the immediate de-occultation of the 12th Imam, even if they talk like they are very scientific, and wear tailored suits, dress shirts and Louis Vuitton ties, they can still be by our standards nuts.  

    This is a good play off of Charles’ concern.
    .
    How nuts is nuts? Or is a high degree of crazy within sharply defined parameters better, being more predictable, than a lower average level of crazy without a known stopping point?  More uncertainty. Greater chance for Black Swans?
    .
    The Soviets were the lower level of crazy, having painted themselves into a corner ideologically it was impossible to have honest discussions even about fundamental problems ( like not growing enough food) even at the highest level. Stalin had the unchallenged authority during a crisis to say “can the bullshit” but for his successors, faithful recitation of the bullshit was their sword and shield against political rivals and was indispensible, even in extremis.
    .
    I suspect what we are seeing with Mr. Xi is the recourse to ideology to buttress his position early, much faster than Hu Jintao or Jiang Zemin did but if it continues as a theme for Xi’s time in power it will warp China’s internal debates further from reality and probably dominate the succession to the 6th generation

  8. larrydunbar:

    “the founding fathers of Shiism.”

    *
    The founding fathers of Shiism, really? The founding fathers were more about who was to command and who was in control, the sons or the cousins. In other words, the foundation of Shiism was set on ideals, not a single person.

  9. J.ScottShipman:

    Depending on how you look at, we were/are very fortunate that most of the Soviet military is pickled after 1900 in the evening, and probably sleeping. Alcoholism is rampant; so from a timing perspective, we had only to worry about them about 14 hours/day. I know that may sound simplistic, but in their culture (and int he early 90’s), the spirit “vodka” ruled.