“Death by Blue Water Navy” Distracts from China’s Real Military Focus

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(Editor's Note: Please see "China's Real Blue Water Navy" and Greg Autry's response.)

Greg Autry’s passionate response to our recent piece on “China’s Real Blue Water Navy” is somewhat ironic, as he has missed our point. As our substantial body of work on the matter in multiple venues including The Diplomat amply demonstrates, we view China’s naval and military development with the utmost seriousness. Our work is read regularly by military and civilian policymakers, as well as the general public, because we research issues in depth and offer a fact-based, measured account based on what the evidence suggests. We value our readers’ trust and strive to keep our work independent of external ideological influences that could bias it.

Our key objective in writing “China’s Real Blue Water Navy” was to advance an explanation that we believe—based on substantial and objective research—better reflects the true nature of the challenge China’s rising naval power poses for the U.S. and its allies in the Asia-Pacific region than does Autry and Peter Navarro’s book “Death by China: Confronting the Dragon—A Global Call to Action.” The reality is that to properly formulate a strategy to respond to emerging events—and ideally to shape them proactively—one must understand issues for what they really are. Catchy book titles and spicy diatribes usually don’t inform the public or support effective policy. Rather, they offer the illusion of clarity in a way that can mislead—dangerously so, in this case, given the issues at stake.

That said, the book’s content and general thrust gave us a great opportunity to distinguish hyperbole from reality. We regret the fact that we could not quote the entire book for “context,” as Mr. Autry seems to wish we had. However, authors bear the ultimate responsibility for their content and have a responsibility to support their assertions with solid evidence. This is particularly the case of claims that are categorical and provocative, as in the book’s very description by its publisher: “The world’s most populous nation and soon-to-be largest economy is rapidly turning into the planet’s most efficient assassin. … China’s emboldened military is racing towards head-on confrontation with the U.S.”

Navarro and Autry fail to substantiate this over-the-top claim. Like other parts of “Death by China,” chapter eight, entitled “Death by Blue Water Navy: Why China’s Military Rise Should Raise Red Flags,” produces far more heat than light. “China is rapidly building its own countervailing fleet of flattops,” they charge, even though Beijing only just commissioned the refitted ex-Ukrainian carrier Liaoning (which they refer to, incorrectly, as “Shi Lang”) on  September 25, 2012. “Over the next five years, China will send a much bigger message,” they project. “It is expected to send a fleet of at least five flattops roaming around the globe—and no doubt running into the U.S. Navy.” Once again, Navarro and Autry miss the critical dynamics of Beijing’s actual interests, intentions, and capabilities. In fact, it is land-based ballistic missiles, rather than any “blue water” activities, that constitute China’s most formidable area of military development vis-à-vis the U.S. But, rather than focus adequately on this area—a subject which we ourselves have addressed extensively precisely because of its importance—the authors choose to pack in such unsubstantiated rhetoric as “the People’s Republic may already be practicing for Armageddon off the California coast.” In Mr. Autry’s response, he chooses to focus on a hypothetical fighter-on-fighter “dog fight,” which is far from the most likely combat scenario, and on Chinese aircraft carriers, which—even when China finally does have multiple hulls—are highly unlikely to be intended for use in high-end conflict. Whether used to inflate or deflate Chinese military capabilities, this fast and loose sensationalism distracts from the real issues and detracts from the vital objective of ensuring that China’s military development is given the attention that it deserves.

One of the risks in publishing analyses on any subject is the possibility that individual portions of the argument may give impressions that are at odds with the overall message the authors desire to send. No one is immune to this and all writers face this problem from time to time. What’s telling is how one responds and what one learns from the experience.

Taking umbrage when flaws and misstatements are pointed out or corrected by others is an unfortunate reaction because it hinders learning from shortcomings that may affect the fundamental credibility of a narrative. We question ourselves relentlessly to see whether our ideas are informed by the best possible data and analysis. And when we discover that the world has changed, we do our utmost to make sure that facts and events don’t leave us behind. Our own views of Chinese naval development have evolved markedly over time as we learned more, stress-tested our analysis, and accepted feedback from others who offered constructive critiques and insights.

We respect Mr. Autry and Mr. Navarro’s foray into the China analysis arena and welcome the chance to discuss substantive issues with them. The crucible of challenge and scrutiny ultimately yields improved analysis from which everyone can benefit.

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