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The 'China' syndrome

"China. There, I said it."

So begins Virginia Rep. Randy Forbes, the House's top China-tracker, in a column he penned this week for the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Too many people in the U.S. national security establishment won't just go ahead and drop the C-bomb, Forbes argues, and their hesitance, or politeness, or fear, is hurting Washington's ability to figure out which way to go.

There is an unmistakable reticence: Instead of talking about Chinese cyber-snooping and cyber attacks; the need to pace the threat of new Chinese weapons; or China's aspirations for anti-access and area denial, the Pentagon's leaders usually talk in code. They refer to "rising powers," or "peer competitors" or "advanced adversaires," but almost never to "China," by name.

There are many reasons for this, but Forbes sets them up and knocks them down:

Writing about the need to speak more frankly about the nature of the competition will be deemed by some as unnecessarily provocative. First, critics will contend that, like during the 1990s, if we use terminology to describe China as a competitor, this could lead to further competition and the potential for arms racing and conflict. But China is already competing with us. Their military modernization effort of the last 15 years, combined with open-source doctrine and strategic publications, reflects a clear intention to focus on undermining traditional US military advantages.

Indeed, Rear Adm. Yang Yi, former director of the PLA National Defense University’s Institute for Strategic Studies, has gone so far as to remark that “We hope the competition will be healthy competition.” More importantly, we must recognize that the best way to avoid great-power conflict is to remain vigilantly prepared. This means being less reluctant to discuss the actions China is taking that leave us concerned: most notably their rapid military modernization, more assertive diplomatic posture (especially when it concerns freedom of navigation), cyber activities, aggressive espionage, and support for regimes like North Korea, Sudan, Iran, and Syria.

Critics are also likely to complain that discussing China in these terms will be a return to a “Cold War mentality.” Far from it. The US and China are not in an ideological competition on the scale of the Cold War and they share one of the largest trade relationships in the world. In fact, the United States has actively worked to enable China’s success over the last three decades. However, contrary to the belief that the end of the Cold War was also the end of great-power competition, today the US and China do find themselves in competition in specific geographic, economic, and strategic areas. This does not mean it will lead to conflict. Nor should it necessitate an overreaction. But because these areas of competition are not likely to subside, we must think carefully about how the United States can position itself for success.

Clear speaking will lead to clear thinking and vice versa, Forbes argues, and you can never have too much clarity on the U.S. and China. A lot of the open-source discussion about China in the U.S. is full of euphemisms, winks, nods, eyebrow raises and shrugs. A lot of it has more to do with castration anxiety on the part of American writers, or wallowing in fashionable declinism, than it does with looking squarely at problems. But for as pleasant as it is to daydream of a Washington in which foreign policy and national security types spoke simply and candidly, that will probably remain a daydream.

There is a case to be made that circumspection about China helps prevent the onset of an assumption that it will inevitably become a full-scale enemy of the U.S. A generation of European military officers expected and even looked forward to the conflict that became World War I; all they wondered about was which powers would align. Their sense of inevitability about the war helped make sure it took place. Even if some Chinese military thinkers talk openly about fighting the U.S. inside the family, that doesn't mean American officers need to do the same.

It is frustrating, however, to hear the Pentagon talk about Air-Sea Battle, and see Secretary Panetta make a trip to Asia, and all the while tiptoe around what everyone knows to be obvious. People feel almost insulted when the chiefs of the Navy and Air Force insist that their long-term plans aren't designed to defeat the challenges posed by the "advanced adversary" with its capital in Beijing. At least in the bad old days you could say: "If the balloon goes up and the 39th Guards Motor Rifle Division comes rolling through the Gap, we've got to have an AirLand Battle doctrine to help us even the odds." Or you could say: "If the Soviets push the button, we'll have about 15 minutes' warning before the missiles get here."

In that sense, maybe talking openly could be the best antidote to a potential war. At very least, it could air out the musty old attic of truisms and doublespeak about potential sources of conflict. Is America's sometime commitment to Taiwan really worth World War III? How many sailors and airmen is it willing to sacrifice for the principle of "freedom of navigation" against a no-kidding adversary, as opposed to a joke like the 1980s-era Moammar Qadhafi? How could an America reduced to pulling its pockets inside-out go to war against one of its largest creditors?

The China discussion often fizzles out well short of these and other crucial questions, perhaps because war is too terrible to contemplate. The U.S. couldn't fight a laid back, autopilot, what-else-is-on? war with China as it has with Iraq and Afghanistan. The American public would actually have to get involved, and it might actually have to pay -- in blood or treasure or both -- which raises the stakes considerably.

Should Washington leaders drop their hesitance about calling out China and start getting real, or is there value in certain kinds of politeness and discretion? What do you think?

NOTEThe photo that accompanies this post is an official Marine Corps image depicting the opening of a Marine recruiting post in New York's Chinatown neighborhood. According to its official cutline, it includes "Chinese community" representatives who appeared with the Marines and American veterans who attended the opening. The image was chosen to illustrate the Defense Department's official narrative that it does not consider China or the Chinese to be its enemies -- quite the opposite, that it makes the effort to reach out and build relationships. The image is a counterpoint to the argument made in the column quoted in the post, that DoD and others in the Washington national security sphere should talk candidly about a potential or perceived threat from China.

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