How We Talk War When We Talk With China Now
But these are the same old gripes that have bedeviled the bilateral military relationship for years now, keeping it frighteningly stillborn — at least relative to the immense buildup of economic connectivity between our countries in just the last decade. Admiral Mullen is right to be depressed about this uneven state of affairs, because typically it’s the military-to-military relationship that’s steadier than the financial one. Usually, it’s the “glue” that survives the petty political flare-ups and nagging economic disagreements, but here it’s the frequent victim of such squabbles and that should make both sides nervous.
Why? Besides all those trillions of U.S. dollars sitting in Beijing’s coffers, there’s the historic argument about how the international system always has a hard time integrating a rising global power — especially when the longtime “sole superpower” is in relative decline. (And we’ll see how relative that is come default D-day.) But since America and its military actually are the force for good around this planet, we want to continue doing the right thing while asking China to step up and help — instead of just “free riding” on our global policing efforts. But because we’re a rather nervous Number One right now, we want to keep a wary eye on everything China does with its military, while keeping our big-war powder dry.
In short, Washington can’t make up its our mind on China — the “threat” version, anyway — and so it seeks to have it both ways by brandishing sticks and carrots. Unsurprisingly, single-party-state China returns the favor, and for some reason, that perplexes our leadership! The Pentagon finds Beijing oddly schizophrenic in the generals-to-generals realm, when, of course, Washington itself consistently presents any number of contradictory strategic personalities, talking out of all sides of its mouth at once.
Here’s my rundown of the six major approaches that America currently employs to deal with Chinese military might. See if you can spot the internal inconsistencies.
1. The Knock-Off Stalemate
For some reason, the Chinese military is super-secretive. It simply doesn’t want to advertize its technological and operational shortcomings to the world’s uber-battle-tested military superpower. Go figure! Instead, it spends a lot of its time trying to steal Number One’s best military technologies, which it then regurgitates in “new” platforms that look suspiciously like knock-offs of America’s most fearsome weapons systems — like that fifth-generation stealth fighter jet that the People’s Liberation Army just so happened to unveil during a recent visit by Robert Gates.
Sometimes these efforts are hilariously self-contradictory in their own right, like when the Chinese military trots out its new design for an aircraft carrier while simultaneously letting it slip that it’s testing a new “carrier killer” missile. Hmm, such an inscrutable combination. Sort of like coming out with the ultimate in body armor and the latest-and-greatest in armor-piercing bullets… at the same time!
But frankly, expecting the People’s Liberation Army to stop behaving in this way — so long as the Pentagon explicitly plots its future big-war capabilities against those of the Chinese — is simply unrealistic. China’s military won’t go transparent until it’s demonstrably better than the U.S. military — a situation that’s inconceivably hard to imagine given Beijing’s reluctance to use its military anyway except off its shore, which gets me to America’s second face….
2. The (False) Supply and (Big) Demand
Washington doesn’t need a “containment” strategy for China; China sets one in motion all by its lonesome. Every time Beijing starts bullying its smaller neighbors with its unreasonable claims on the South China Sea, you can just hear the West’s military-industrial complex’s cash registers start ka-chinging. China’s neighbors have collectively doubled their arms purchases in the last half-decade — a totally delightful tonic for an American defense industry facing tighter Pentagon budgets.
Then there’s the Pentagon’s new AirSea Battle Concept — basically a big-war wish list for our Navy and Air Force, both of which have long felt budgetarily slighted by the boots-on-the-ground-centric “long war” against radical Islam. Sure, at least we’re transparent about our military goals (you can actually find defense think-tank maps on the Internet listing all the Chinese military facilities we plan to bomb in the opening days of the blitzkrieg-like war over Taiwan), but if your main goal here is to intimidate the Chinese military with your brilliant schemes, then why should you expect them to give in to your demands for transparency?
3. The Silent Partner
Washington doesn’t want you to know this, but the biggest beneficiary of the “war on terror” has been the Chinese. We take down the Taliban and a decade later, who’s made the biggest foreign direct investment in Afghanistan? The Chinese, of course, plopping $3 billion-plus of our exported capital on a giant copper mine. Then we take down Saddam in Iraq and guess whose national oil companies have contracts in both the Kurdish north and Arab south? Again, the dollar-gorged Chinese.
If you’re China, you have to love the American’s obsession with terrorism, because U.S. military efforts are making the world safe for Chinese resource plundering. I mean, why buy the cow when you can walk away with the milk — at zero military casualties?
4. The Cuban Confusion Crisis
Yes, we still regularly sell advanced weaponry to a small “break-away” island off China’s coast. We even have a law that mandates it — in so many words. Imagine China doing the same with Cuba, or conducting naval exercises with Venezuela and Mexico in the Gulf, or conducting military spy flights along the California coast. Simply put, we do things in China’s front yard that we’d never tolerate from anybody in our own, and if China pushes back at all, we label that provocative… and then sell that many more arms to all of its neighbors — you know, to keep things “balanced.”
5. The Eager Engager
And, yes, we do our best to try and draw the Chinese military into cooperative engagements elsewhere in the world, like in our multinational anti-piracy effort off the coast of Somalia (touted by Mullen). We’d also like China to fix North Korea for us, and lean on Tehran regarding its nuclear efforts, and make sure north Sudan doesn’t restart its civil war with fledgling South Sudan, and… the list goes on and on. We’ve got a lot of messes around the world where we’d like Chinese help. But guess what? When you’re all worried about America’s attempts to keep your military bottled up in East Asia, you kind of like the idea of Washington facing all sorts of intractable — and draining — military interventions elsewhere in the world. And so you’re not at all eager to lighten America’s global load.
6. The Clueless Bystander
China is easily the most active integrating agent in globalization today. Far and away, it’s the most dynamic force across both Central Asia and Africa, two regions into which this “long war” will logically flow as the forces of radical Islam continue to lose and/or grow more irrelevant across the Arab world. In both instances, the level of U.S. security cooperation with the Chinese is non-existent. We set up our Africa Command and pretend we run some sort of security show there, when it’s Chinese investment that’s revolutionizing the socio-economic landscape. Could our “chocolate” mix with their “peanut butter”? Of course it could — to the benefit of both, but look back over the five other strategic personalities we present to the Chinese and ask yourself why Beijing should stick its neck out anywhere when the U.S. seems so intent on containing China’s military rise back in Asia?
Don’t expect any of this to change any time soon. Our multiple-personalities approach has long been enshrined in the diplomatic “wisdom” of “separate tracks.” Simply put, Washington has no desire to engage in any significant horse-trading with Beijing. As such, expect the same mournful op-ed from the next outgoing Chairman four years hence.
We are simply too set in our ways to behave otherwise.