Jeez louise department (China and right-wing bloggers)

Late last night China time, joining in via Skype on an institution I had not been aware of before: a "Bloggers Roundtable" phone call from the Pentagon, discussing the newly released report on Chinese military power. I don't know who else is on the phone call, except for two officials who were supposed to be identified as "a Defense official." OK.

About the report, nothing to say until I have looked at it more closely. About other questions from other people, not my place to characterize them -- tempting as it is to give verbatim the tendentious line of argument / "questioning" from one right wing blogger in particular. But since this same guy (whose boss I have repeatedly mocked) has made it his business to mischaracterize what I said, let me take the unwise step of trying to set a blog record straight.

One big theme in this Pentagon report is a continuing "large" increase in Chinese military spending. Large "compared with what?" is the obvious question here -- compared with U.S. spending and capability? (Explicitly not the subject of the study, "a Defense official" said.) Compared with their GDP? Compared with their limited previous levels? Compared with what it would take to invade Taiwan? With the concerns, interests, and capabilities of Russia -- or Japan? And so on.

The other theme in the report was intention and "transparency." Intention: why are they spending more money? (Because they have it, and are spending more money on everything? Because of resource concerns and ambitions? To challenge Taiwan? To project power and become the world's new titan? Etc.) Transparency: what will they disclose about their motives? Given the nature of the Chinese regime, this is a big problem generally. (See: what can Americans know about how the Chinese are using their new hoard of dollars?) And of course it's a particular problem concerning the People's Liberation Army, about which the Chinese are more close-mouthed than most of their other institutions.

Transparency is one reason why the recent announcement of a "hot line" between the DC and Beijing defense headquarters is modest good news, along with continued visits by each military leadership to the other's country. (I will set aside the mocking banter by a right-wing blogger on this call over which Chinese soldier, by name, would be picking up the phone.) It is also a reason why China's anti-satellite test a year ago and its refusal to deny port-call rights to U.S. ships over the last year have been so alarming. What were they thinking? That's what no one outside could be sure

So on my turn I tried to ask an intention and a transparency question. On the transparency one, where I was genuinely looking for new information, "the official" basically never engaged. (I was trying to get at: What do we now know about the anti-satellite test, and the port calls, that would clarify what was going on? The idea is to clarify: were these deliberate provocations? Signs of internal disagreement? Rogue elements at work? To the best of my knowledge, no one outside is sure. The answer was a recitation of the episodes and some comment about the White House having decided to "put it behind us." OK: but what do we know about why they did it? Were the Chinese trying to send a signal, or did they make a mistake?)

And as for intention, I was trying to clarify what seemed an amazingly careless piece of terminology in the presentation. Earlier one of "the official"s had said that the increase in Chinese spending was especially puzzling, given the lack of any direct "threat to Chinese territory." Now, if this is a request for action and explanation from the Chinese, it's foolish because the entire premise of their internal propaganda and their exernal military policy is that Taiwan IS "Chinese territory." Obviously Americans don't have to agree with them -- and the U.S. has retained artful ambiguity on this "one China" point now under seven straight presidents, starting with Nixon -- but to state the point in these exact words is to suggest you don't know anything about Chinese dynamics. That is: if anyone actually wants to explore and assess the motives behind China's buildup, posing the question talking about "threat to China's territory" guarantees a giant waste of time, since it is the point on which the Chinese have the least sense of humor and the most thoroughly prepared contrary line.

One official started to give an answer about Taiwan being a source of tension and so on, which everyone knows and is the basic fact in US-China military relations. So I realized I hadn't conveyed my question well and tried to re-state it: why place things in this "no threat to the territory" formulation, given the certainty of China's rejecting the very terms of that question?

On the whole, the experience confirmed my experience about the hazy value of mass press "ops," as opposed to (a) reading reports, papers, blogs, etc on your own and (b) discussing things in person and at length one-on-one with informed sources. Also, about the intellectual honesty of the right-wing blog realm.