Why America—and Its Political Leaders—Should Think Twice about Poking ChinaPosted: March 28, 2017
Politicians should carefully consider the impact that their words may have on America’s international relationships.
Jared McKinney March 26, 2017
The first rule of rational thinking is that one should not assume what one hopes to prove. The first rule of international politics is that misperception is rampant. And the first rule of strategy is that the adversary gets a vote too. Sadly, Rep. Ted Yoho violates all three of these rules in his March 22 analysis titled “How America Should Confront China’s Unchecked Maritime Bullying.” The result is an empty shell of words masquerading as strategic advice. Isolated, this could be ignored; more worryingly—and more difficult to ignore—is that Rep. Yoho’s article nicely represents the resentful, unreflective, incurious and superficial rhetoric that is increasingly coming to dominate Washington’s view of China.
Assuming What We Claim to Prove
Rep. Yoho begins his article by commenting on the economic importance of maritime Asia. Undisputedly, a large amount of commerce passes through these waters. He then suggests this commerce may be threatened by China, which has “possibly” indicated its “ambition to exclude foreign vessels from China’s near seas at will.” His evidence? The increasing strength of the People’s Liberation Army and Chinese investments in Anti-Access/Area Denial weapons.
Confronted with the fact that China has sought to strengthen its military since Deng Xiaoping launched his “four modernizations,” an intellectually curious person might posit a variety of explanations. These might include Chinese embarrassment over its poor performance in the 1979 war with Vietnam, a desire to be recognized as a great power by the United States and Russia, and a commitment to defending China’s territorial interests, particularly given the humiliation it suffered in the 1995–96 Taiwan Straits Crisis. Indeed, if a person took the trouble to speak with some Chinese military officers, or even merely read some standard histories of China’s rise, then that person would discover that this last explanation is particularly salient. China desires the ability to defend its territorial integrity and sovereignty. Since U.S. actions have threatened—and could once again threaten—these objectives, China is making investments intended to preserve its interests. Here we have the origins of China’s A2/AD investments, and an explanation for Chinese strategy.
But this is not what Rep. Yoho does in his analysis. Instead, he connects China’s growing military power to the possible “ambition to exclude foreign vessels from China’s near seas at will.” This connection is not impossible, and if it were something China was capable of doing, and if it was something China was likely to do, given the region’s importance, then this would be a big deal. But Rep. Yoho never completes that argument. He never informs us why it is likely that China might exclude trading vessels from the region, thereby injuring global commerce.
Risk is calculated by multiplying the probability of an event occurring by the estimated consequence of that event. When probability is extremely low, even when the consequence is high, risk is low. This formula must lie at the heart of all strategic thinking. When it does not, the results are not just irrational but dangerous.
So what is the likelihood that China would disrupt the “$5 trillion” in commerce that moves across the Asia-Pacific region? Most of this commerce is coming from China, going to China, passing through a Chinese port, or ultimately destined for China in one capacity or another. This is a good place to start: disrupting this commerce would be contrary to China’s most important interests.
Seemingly aware of this fact, Rep. Yoho moves on to discuss energy supplies for nations like Japan and South Korea. Perhaps China would intercept those? And what does Rep. Yoho think would happen to the Chinese economy if the economies of two of its closest neighbors collapsed at China’s behest? Does Rep. Yoho understand that a disabled Chinese economy would destroy the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party? Does he know that oil can be sold on a spot market (sometimes as many as thirty times on one journey), making it difficult for a blockading force to tell where oil is ultimately destined? Does he know that transshipment of oil from Southeast Asia would be impossible to prevent? Has he calculated China’s ability to impose such a blockade? Does he know that the South China Sea is a “tough neighborhood for hegemonies” because it lacks any dominating geographical features? Is he aware that China’s neighbors could respond with their own A2/AD networks, locking China out of the region’s seas? Does he realize the United States could easily respond tit-for-tat in the Persian Gulf, for China, too, is dependent on oil imports? And has he considered that such a move would forever alienate China’s neighbors and most of the globe’s respectable powers? The answer to all these questions is an apparent “no.” But if someone did bother to answer them, then that person would come to the realization that it would be literally suicidal for China to disrupt the commerce of the Asia-Pacific region. Further reflection would likely yield the conclusion that China could not effectively do so even if it so desired.
Where then is the evidence that China’s military investments are intended to disrupt the commerce of the Asia-Pacific region? None has been offered. What Rep. Yoho desires to prove he has merely assumed. Until evidence is provided to the contrary, the risk of China destroying the maritime commerce of the Asia-Pacific region should be assessed as close to nonexistent.
Misperception Is Rampant
Rep. Yoho seems to believe that Chinese “belligerence” is running in a straight line, and as a result of the Obama administration’s failure to “impose costs,” China is running rampant, bullying its neighbors. This view misperceives the extent to which the situation in the South China Sea has stabilized. Indeed, in the last year, both the Philippines and Vietnam have ended their open rivalry with China and engaged in bilateral negotiations. Knowledgeable diplomats believe an Association of Southeast Asian Code of Conduct will be agreed upon this year, and Chinese insiders have told me that China is committed to seeing it through. China is no longer building the types of islands that so concern Rep. Yoho and Filipino fishermen are back at Scarborough Shoal. In East and Southeast Asia, foreign-policy elites are now more worried about being dragged into a U.S.-China conflict than Chinese “assertiveness.” Japanese nationalism, naturally, remains alive and well, and the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense issue has made China-South Korea ties the worst in recent history, but these are separate issues.
Yet even if interactions in the South China Sea have stabilized, there remains plenty of room for misperception. For example, Rep. Yoho claims that China’s seizure of America’s unmanned underwater vehicle in December 2016 was “a transparent attempt to deliberately engineer an international incident.” This is an assertion, but not an argument (see point one above). Furthermore, this statement assumes a good many things about China that may not, in fact, be true. Why would China want to engineer a conflict with the incoming Trump administration, which has not yet decided how it’s going to deal with China? Is Rep. Yoho aware, as I have previously argued, that it could be that the United States was the actual engineer of this international incident? Even more significantly, as I have recently learned from conversations with two dozen Chinese foreign-policy experts, within China there is a sound consensus that the seizure of the unmanned underwater vehicle was not authorized by China’s political leaders. If this is the case, then Rep. Yoho is perceiving an unauthorized Chinese move as an intentional political challenge. In other words, that is a common case of misperception.
The Adversary Gets a Vote Too
The single most extraordinary fact about Rep. Yoho’s article is that he never once considers whether his solution for Chinese “belligerence”—imposing costs—will, in fact, change Chinese behavior in the way he intends. Anticipating an adversary’s response is the most basic rule of strategy. This rule is endemic to human interaction, and highlighted in certain games, such as chess. Only a fool would move first and consider consequences later.
Yet this is what Rep. Yoho would have us do. He suggests a series of moves: more freedom of navigation operations, commercial sanctions, punishing (though expressed in more diplomatic terms) the Philippines for its realignment and disinviting China from the 2018 Rim of the Pacific naval exercise while inviting Taiwan. Rep. Yoho merely assumes these moves will result in his preferred outcome. Yet there are alternative possible outcomes. One is that such moves change nothing. Minor pokes are not going to force China to fundamentally alter its strategy. Another alternative is that China escalates tensions, but in its own way. Perhaps it more closely tails U.S. forces in the region. Perhaps it increases its long-term military investments. Or perhaps it punishes American “allies,” such as Taiwan.
The most likely outcome need not be assessed in this essay. My present plea is only that we—as Americans—reorient our thinking. If the United States is going to formulate intelligent strategies in this increasingly complicated time, simple assertions need to be excised from our strategic discourse. The National Interest and other serious foreign-policy publications should not publish a single new essay on the theme of changing U.S. strategy towards China unless that essay carefully considers how China (and other regional actors) would respond to such a change. Strategic interactions are dynamic, and, like good chess players, we must model probable action-reaction cycles to the best of our ability. In the realm of international politics, the rules are not as certain as those of chess, but that is no excuse. In real life, our decisions could result in conflict or even war. As chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, Rep. Yoho has a particularly weighty responsibility in this regard—one that his piece in the National Interest sadly neglects.
I have been forced to take a negative tone in this article, but I do so for a constructive purpose: we can do better than this. Indeed, if peace is going to be preserved in the coming decade, we must do better. Doing better means formulating thoughtful arguments. That means justifying assumptions, considering alternative explanations and being genuinely curious about discovering the truth. Doing better means realizing that misperception is common in international politics, and doing what we can to mitigate this fact. Signals can be ambiguous; states often aren’t unitary rational actors; and situations evolve constantly. Finally, doing better means realizing that strategy is a dynamic process, and actions can have short- and long-term effects. In 1996, did anyone consider that by projecting force around China in such a humiliating manner that the United States would stimulate a huge Chinese military buildup, including A2/AD investments and an aircraft carrier program? Perhaps not, but that is the point. The Chinese are here to play the long game, and if Washington elites are going to make a habit of publishing articles calling on the United States to poke the dragon, then they should at least consider whether the dragon, in fact, needs to be poked and how the dragon might respond both today and a decade hence.
Jared McKinney is a nonresident fellow at the Pangoal Institution (Beijing) and a PhD Student at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University (Singapore).
Source: National Interest “Why America—and Its Political Leaders—Should Think Twice about Poking China”
Note: This is National Interest’s article I post here for readers’ information. It does not mean that I agree or disagree with the article’s views.