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.

Sisci argues that if the United States really wanted to make trouble for China, it would -- paradoxically -- greatly pull back its military presence in Asia, and avoid steps like immediately sending its B-52s to challenge the new Chinese ADIZ. I'll leave the rest of the explanation to him, but his main point is that without the buffering U.S. presence, all other countries in the region would already be reacting more nervously, harshly, and dangerously to Chinese moves. Eg:

When China declared this ADIZ, what would have happened if America were not in the region? Japan would have had to defy the ADIZ to prove that it was not under the Chinese thumb, and even if Japan didn't, many others would have come up with ways to counter the new Chinese ambition...

China would then have to consider countermeasures; things could easily spin out of control. The fact that America decided to fly its planes in the area is a way of softening the Japanese reaction, and it immediately took hold of the situation... If it were Japan defying China, Chinese domestic opinion would put a lot of pressure on the leadership to respond to Tokyo.

3) To wrap up for the day, let's bring in our friend Mike Lofgren, author of The Party is Over and long-time Republican congressional staffer:

1. Geography: China, for all its economic clout, is an incredibly constricted country geographically. What are its natural routes to the world? North into Siberia is hardly an attractive trade route. All through the northwest, west, and southwest of the country, it is flanked by a semicircle of some of the highest mountains on earth. It has a long coastline, but this access to the open ocean is constricted by (from north to south): the Korean peninsula, Japan, Japan’s long extension of the Ryukyu chain, Taiwan, the Philippines, the Malaysian/Indonesian archipelago. The coastline is much longer, but strategically it is just as hemmed in as imperial Germany’s route to the open ocean was. These unalterable geographic factors will always constrict China’s strategic military reach, regardless of whether they build a technologically proficient and well-trained navy (which they emphatically do not have now).
2. Trade patterns: China possesses six of the world’s ten busiest container terminals. This is in itself a staggering fact which tells us a lot about the thrust of world industrial and trade development. But in the present context it also suggests an extreme strategic vulnerability, given the inflexible nature of geography. This is a windpipe that could easily be closed.
3. Comparative strategic advantage: Now and for the foreseeable future, the U.S. Navy paradoxically has easier strategic access to the East and South China seas than does Beijing.
4. Conclusion: China’s only rational option is to pursue an exclusively peaceful commercial path to greatness, as did Germany after 1945. The other alternative for Germany had unpleasant consequences, as a glance at twentieth century history demonstrates. Of course, the peaceful path requires rationality among China’s neighbors and the United States as well, which is not a given. The Pentagon’s “pivot to Asia” is unnecessary, because there is no vulnerability to be addressed. The last thing the world needs is a tit-for-tat competition between the U.S. and China in the manner of the Anglo-German naval competition prior to World War I.

Obviously there are some interesting connections and implications among the three perspectives shown above. But if I take time to spell them out, I will never get this finished. And I'll turn a minus into a plus by remembering the wisdom of Billy Wilder (left), as relayed to Cameron Crowe: "Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever."