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More Differing Views on China


Good counterpoints to my previous post:

Wiggins, whose orientation toward strategy is Wohlstetterian, offers a critique.

Opposed Systems DesignThe trauma of constrained ascendancy

….Mark correctly identifies a shift in Chinese behavior over the the past year or so. Where Mark’s analysis falls short lies in presuming that incompetence or short-sighted factions are responsible for this shift. The international relations theory of power cycles offers a richer way of understanding China’s position in the international system and how that has produced a change in its behavior.

Briefly, China’s relative rate of growth has begun to slow. After roughly 30 years of (accelerating) relatively faster growth than the major powers in the system, this trend has reversed itself. This is confusing, since in absolute terms China continues to grow and – by these same absolute measures – it came through the global financial crisis much better than the U.S. In tension with these trends, however, are a host of systemic factors that are constraining its growth (including demographic shifts, environmental degradation and inefficient capital allocations). The transition from early to late stage growth (or from labor-intensive to extensive or innovation-based growth) confronts China with new challenges. It becomes harder to accurately discern its place in the system and its trajectory of growth. This leads to more internal dissent among leaders trying to interpret these disparate trends and creates incentives to discard the cautionary policies of Deng (hide brightness, nourish obscurity). Before the first inflection point, time was on China’s side. A post-first inflection point China, on the other hand, begins to feel pressure to realize some of its ambitions before its window of opportunity closes. Hence, we begin to see cracks forming in the implementation of Deng’s strategy.

I have only read one paper on power cycles, recommended to me by Wiggins himself in his non-internet persona, so I am not qualified to comment on it’s theoretical strengths and weaknesses as an evaluative tool ( it would also help if were a quant rather than a qual academic). I will say that, as a rule of thumb, selective relative changes, those that are marginal in nature, are often perceived more acutely in terms of political angst than are absolute changes in real terms.

For example, agrarian populists in 19th century America were absolutely furious about the effects of a deflationary gold standard on crop prices relative to debt, liquidity and access to credit but not so exercised about the increases in purchasing power and access to consumer goods that farmers enjoyed that were unknown a generation earlier. Perhaps somewhere, there is a Chinese William Jennings Bryan in Shaanxi waiting to burst on the scene. 🙂 Or a von Tirpitz.  So there may be merit, in a macro-systemic sense, to Wiggins criticism of my post.

Dr. Thomas P.M. BarnettThe “rising near peer” returns the paranoid favor

….And we wonder why the Chinese military seem to think we’re their number one enemy?  Are we honestly that clueless or has our disingenuity broken through to some higher, slightly irrational plane?

Follow me into this brave, alternative world:

  • Imagine the Chinese navy holding multinational exercises with the Cubans and Venezuelans and Nicaraguans (a silly sight, I know) in the waters around Cuba, while Beijing warns us subtly that their 1979 Cuba Defense Act will be pursued to the ultimate vigor required, including the sale of advanced attack aircraft to the Cuban air force.  
  • Imagine Chinese carriers conducting such operations, sporting aircraft and weaponry that could rain destruction over most of the continental U.S. at a moment’s notice.  
  • Imagine Chinese spy craft patrolling the edge of our local waters and flying around the rim of our airspace.  
  • Imagine the Chinese selling all sorts of missile defense to Venezuela and other allies “scared of rising American militarism.”
  • Imagine weapons purchases throughout Latin America doubling in five years time, with China supplying most of the goods.  
  • Imagine Chinese naval bases and marine barracks doting the Latin American landscape and Caribbean archipelago.
  • Imagine a Cuban missile crisis-like event in the mid-1990s, which led the Chinese military to propose a new evolution in their warfare since.  
  • Imagine the Chinese military conducting regime toppling events in the Middle East, involving countries upon whom our energy dependency is dramatically and permanently rising, while China actually gets the vast bulk of its oil from non-Persian Gulf sources like Canada, Mexico, Latin America, Africa and itself.  
  • Imagine the Chinese government demanding that the Chinese military produce an elaborate report every year detailing the “disturbing” rise of U.S. military power.  
  • Imagine the Chinese military announcing their new military doctrine of attack from the sea and air, with their documents chock full of bombing maps of U.S. military installations that are widely dispersed across the entirety of the continental United States, meaning their new war doctrine has–at its core–the complete destruction of U.S. military assets on our territory as the opening bid.
  • Imagine the U.S. military stating that this new doctrine of attacking the entirety of the U.S. territory is necessary to maintaining the regional balance of power in the Western hemisphere, because the U.S. Navy has–in an “unprovoked” and “provocative” manner, begun significant patrolling operations in the Caribbean Basin, whose waters constitute a “profound” national interest to the Chinese.
  • Imagine this series of developments unfolding over close to two decades, as China, having lost its familiar great-power war foe, the Soviet Union, firmly glommed onto the U.S. as a replacement enemy image.
  • Imagine all that, and then imagine how the U.S. military views the Chinese military.  
  • Imagine if the Chinese military offered military-to-military ties under such conditions.  

What do you think the U.S. Congress would say to that?  Would it be considered “caving in” to Chinese pressure?

In backchannel, .mil circles, Tom is sometimes accused of being a “panda hugger” but I think that is attributable to the poverty of genuine strategic thinking that prevails in our national security community. A prerequisite in constructing a strategy is being able to “see the board” from the perspective of the other fellows shoes. If you can’t do that, you are stuck at the tactical-reactive level of analysis. Seeing another side’s perspective is an iterative advantage, not a weakness or evidence of sympathy. If you can game out their best moves before they can, then you are a strategist who has the ability to wrest maximum concessions at minimum cost to your own side.

We need more of that kind of thinking, not less; we’d make fewer mistakes ( like the kind the Chinese are making of late).

2 Responses to “More Differing Views on China”

  1. Wiggins Says:

    Exactly.  The power cycle framework connects systemic (and generally more quantitative) assessments and micro (and generally more qualitative) assessments.  The way I apply it, it is not reductive; it synthesizes material and analysis from different disciplines.

  2. Fabius Maximus Says:

    Note that China’s growth curve is closely following that of the Asian Tigers:  S Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore.  From memory, aprox 20 years of low-double digit growth followed by gradual slowing as their economy matures.  Nothing unusual in this.
    Mobilization of inefficiently used resources (esp labor) fuels the first growth phase of emerging nations.  Then improved "total factor productivity" must shift from a secondary to the primary driver of growth.  So growth slows.  This transition can go slowly or quickly, easily or painfully — depending to a large extent on their public policy choices.  This is the debate taking place now among China’s leaders, almost invisible to us.  We can see only the results, which are as yet minor.

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