The Naval Diplomat’s Excellent Adventure: Duke University

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This week I was summoned home to God’s country, the American South, for a China panel at Duke University. My next two posts contain my responses to the questions posed by the panel moderator.

Here’s question #1: In your mind, what are the greatest challenges that China’s new leaders face in the short-term? In the long-term?

And my response:

I will take the liberty of answering in my own domain, military and naval affairs, recognizing—with Admiral J. C. Wylie, one of my heroes—that the domain where you operate shapes your worldview. I am a mariner and see the world in those terms.

Short term: managing expectations. China’s leadership has set popular expectations sky-high by defining an array of interests as questions of sovereignty, and in turn as core interests—interests for which Beijing is prepared to use force. Clausewitz maintains that the value of the political goals dictates the magnitude and the duration of the effort a state puts into attaining those goals. He also notes that the task of political leaders is to align the government, people, and military with their chosen policies. Keeping everything in balance is like keeping an object suspended among three magnets—an intrinsically unstable feat requiring constant adjustment. Letting things get out of balance risks the whole enterprise.

Restoring sovereignty, righting past wrongs, and redeeming lost honor strike chords deep within us. They sound like political stakes to which China attaches enormous value—meaning it is prepared to expend lives and treasure in large quantities for as long as it takes. Recovering Taiwan, gaining control of the Senkakus, and enforcing Beijing’s maritime claims in the South China Sea are all matters of national honor and dignity, and of righting historical wrongs. It must now meet those expectations or somehow manage them. China’s leadership is well-positioned to keep the government and military in line. Managing popular passions could be another question.

Think in terms of negotiations theory. As Thomas Schelling writes, it is extremely tough to walk back absolute public commitments. People hold you to what you say. Think about Harry Truman depicting the fight in Korea as a fight against totalitarianism—then trying to negotiate a peace deal with the totalitarians. Or how about Vietnam-era administrations claiming to glimpse the light at the end of the tunnel—but we never reached the end of the tunnel. Leaders have to be careful not to paint themselves into a corner.

Binding public commitments can provide advantages in power politics, since your opponents know domestic constituents will hold you accountable. But they also remove flexibility from your policy and strategy. That could be a hazardous thing if Beijing has to follow through on the leadership’s commitments at a time of economic stagnation, and thus diminished resources for foreign-policy endeavors.

Long term: matching ways and means to ambitious ends. During World War II the pundit Walter Lippmann accused interwar U.S. presidents of “monstrously imprudent” handling of foreign policy. After wresting the Philippines from Spain, that is, Washington spoke loudly while carrying a small stick—inverting Teddy Roosevelt’s famous proverb. China is at risk of some monstrous imprudence of its own. It has taken on an extraordinarily ambitious slate of commitments along its periphery and labeled many of them “core interests” or matters of “indisputable sovereignty.” That sounds like China has declared it is prepared to pay any price, bear any burden to achieve the expansive goals it has set for itself. And it has done so before the physical capabilities needed to fulfill commitments of such scope have fully matured.

Clausewitz cautions against dispersing effort among multiple theaters or lines of operation. Only when a government boasts “decisive superiority” in the main theater should it open new theaters or endeavors, and then only if the stakes in the new enterprise are “exceptionally rewarding.” That’s a high bar. And yet Beijing has opened not just one or two efforts but many, ranging from the Senkakus dispute to Scarborough Shoal. That’s in addition to the unresolved Taiwan question. Whether it can match purposes with physical power remains an open question. Answering that question is the challenge before China’s new leadership. Its imprudence to date bodes ill for China’s long-term foreign-policy prospects. I spend a lot of time writing about Chinese sea power, and China’s progress has been impressive. But this is a project that remains incomplete.

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