Chessmaster or Pawn: Now, It's China's Turn

Is the Chinese government falling into traps? Or setting them for others?

Everyone knows the "chessmaster or pawn" puzzle. As applied to President Obama's leadership style, it's the question of whether he is thinking five steps ahead of his adversaries, luring them into self-destructive over-reach -- or whether, on the contrary, he is the one always falling into traps. Here was my best attempt to wrestle with that topic as of early last year.

The same question applies to the Chinese government in its international dealings. Some people think that any step it makes reflects the far-sighted shrewdness of Chinese strategists from Sun Tzu (at right) onward. For whatever reason, such an outlook is particularly popular among Australian analysts. Eg this about the ADIZ and this more generally, though here is one from an American.

Others note that foreign policy is usually the lowest-priority item on the Chinese leadership's (collective) mind. What really matters in Zhongnanhai, the Communist Party's command center, is domestic security, stability, and growth, with anything beyond that as an afterthought. By this logic, China's foreign-policy and defense moves, far from fitting into a decades-long master plan, often seem ad-hoc at best and self-defeating at worst.

I'm in the second camp. On the grandest of all grand-strategic levels, I do think that both China and the United States have done an impressive job keeping their relationship as positive and cooperative as it has been these past 35+ years, despite the obvious conflicts and disagreements. No joke, I think that administrations from Nixon's onward on the U.S. side, and Deng's onward on the Chinese, deserve recognition for managing the relationship much better than anyone might have expected when Nixon first meet Chairman Mao.

But when it comes to moves below this grand-strategic level, I'm skeptical of interpretations that assume a seamlessly executed Chinese master plan.

Let's apply this to the current ADIZ flap, previously here, here, here, here.

1) "They're bad at predicting foreign reaction (as a result of only being able to read slanted news)." From a person I've known over the years, and who has an extensive background in U.S.-Chinese security issues. He starts by referring to the flap over China's test of an anti-satellite weapon six years ago: 

Just came across this [from the original post]:  " The most closely studied example of "creating new realities" was the Chinese test of an anti-satellite weapon in 2007, which left debris in the path of other satellites and was roundly criticized worldwide. Even now people debate who exactly gave the go-ahead for this move: someone inside the PLA, or the civilian leadership of then-president Hu Jintao."

I got to interview several PLA officers (including a couple at flag rank) and Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials about the ASAT [anti-satellite] decision.  The version I heard was that the decision to launch went through military channels to the CMC [Central Military Commission, the highest command-level of the military], but was not coordinated with any civilian agency including MFA (which learned about it from reading the newspapers the next day).  

One PLAN [Navy] Admiral told me “we have nothing like your National Security Council” and that stovepiped decision-making was common and a potential source of miscalculation.  All of the members of the CMC are military except for the Chair (Hu, In this case).  It would be like a much more insular Joints Chief of Staff making decisions without consulting State or the economic agencies.

It’s a decision-making process designed to miscalculate and it may explain the recent decision to create a National Security Commission - they've been thinking about this on and off for 20 years.   To put that in context, we’ve been struggling to find Chinese counterparts to [Pentagon] civilians – they don’t exist.  The Party exercises oversight, not the government.  In one meeting one of my colleagues said “what about civilian control of the military and a Chinese official snapped back “that will never happen here.” ...

Stove-piped decision-making (along with insular views) is a major source of risk for relations with China. Another interesting part was that having used an insular, stove-piped process to decide to launch the ASAT, the Chinese told me that they were surprised at the outcry.  They’re bad at predicting foreign reaction (a result of being able to read only slanted news).  Sounds like the ADIZ decision.   

2) I highly recommend this analysis by Francesco Sisci, an Italian writer who has reported for a very long time from China. It opens with the same genius-or-blunder question about the ADIZ:

If it was part of a strategy, well, this is almost useless to think about because this strategy would be self-defeating and bound to take China down the path of self-destruction because it has too many powerful neighbors to try to expand at their expense.... 

If it was a gross mistake, then China's poor assessment of the balance of power starts with miscomprehension of the strategic importance of the American presence in Asia. 

The reason I hope you'll go on to read Sisci's whole essay is that he builds to an important and non-obvious point. He observes that every level of the Chinese leadership still harbors "strategic mistrust" of American intentions. Yes, yes, those smiling Americans may begin every speech saying that "America welcomes China's rise." But deep down they must still be plotting to block its way forward and impede its progress. 

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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