The Naval Diplomat’s Excellent Adventure: Duke University


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.

November 19, 2012 at 07:22

Just a courtesy reminder, Bankotsu. These oceans & seas are the global properties of  all nations in the world & not belonging to any individual country even that's  the US , China , Indian or Japan. Better stop talking rubbish in here, pal!

November 16, 2012 at 11:53

"China, will take Hawaii West and the Indian Ocean. I must say that I hope that there aren't as many Chinese as arrogant as you."
So the U.S wants to eat up everything? Take both the Pacific and Indian ocean? Plus the atlantic? You can't be that arrogant and delusional.

November 15, 2012 at 22:29

China is full of ultra-nationalists spewing nonsense these days. It’s reminiscent of pre-war Japan. The media in china is at fault, the airwaves are full of over the top rhetoric, not tempered by any opposing viewpoints. This translates into nationalism at the grass roots level, which in turn fuels military adventurism in the few remaining places available for expansion. Kind of like the Japanese Kwantung army, taking over territory simply because they had recently acquired the military capacity to do so, but with no serious introspection as to the future.

I find it difficult to accept that Chinese military hardware can be higher quality than their domestic brands like red flag autos, bullet trains off bridges, food products that are dangerous. If you want to lessen the clout of the Chinese Navy, I suggest simply putting them in situations where they must use their equipment, ships, subs what-have-you. It’s inconceivable much of their equipment could withstand constant use over an extended period.

If you don’t believe me, hitch a ride in a used red flag sometime, and hope the rust holding it together doesn’t give way during your trip.

November 15, 2012 at 16:19

One thing you should keep in mind that the USN in two more decades will be quite different with the one today. Of course, it'll be  much more advanced & sophisticated than it is today. Not mentioning the Japanese , the  Russian, the Indian & ASEAN's navies at that time all  will be far more  strong, readily to deter China from any ambitious adventurism in the region. So, just don't  expect too much. You may be  quite  disillusioned, pal!

November 15, 2012 at 13:18

Bankotsu wrote: "If U.S accepts this deal, there will be peace and we can all prosper together, if U.S rejects this deal, there will be conflict."
China, will take Hawaii West and the Indian Ocean.
I must say that I hope that there aren't as many Chinese as arrogant as you.
By what right does China claim the Pacific and the Indian Ocean? China has no history in those regions and if it expects those nations who do so to just accept seeing the world divided between the US and China, then both should wake up and smell the roses.
Also only one nation can claim to have a foot in each area and that is Australia, so what are you saying? Do you expect to conquer Australia?
I must state that you really know what to say to piss off smaller nations and if this belief is the general belief in the leadership of China, then all I have to say is "Don't do Drugs, its f**kn up your brain'.

November 15, 2012 at 11:46

Lets be honest here, there is no peace with an entity intent on expansion, whelther it is the Nazi with their proclaimed need for "living space", or the Chinese with their "historical claims". It always starts small and grow into a worldwide menace. For the Nazi it was Austria then it morphs into the whole of Europe. For the Chinese it was Tibet then Taiwan, then South Seas, the East Seas, now it is the Western Pacific, the Indian Ocean. What is next? Where does it end?
Historically, such an expanding menace only get worse as the state behind it gets bigger and stronger. And historically there is only a few ending for such an expansionist state, it either collapses because it is exhuasted, it splinters because it got too big, or it is defeated by a fed up world united against it. So Bankotsu and the likes of you, think carefully of your expansionist dreams, you might bask in the early conquests but your decendents will pay a heavy price.
If you trully want peace as you proclaim there is a price to pay, namely history would need to be left as history, and everything that the Chinese deserves and has a right to, every other people on earth has an equal right to and equally deserves as well. If you think this is a high price to pay, I suggests to you that war or internal collapse carries a much higher price.

November 14, 2012 at 23:58

"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."
China needs another 20-30 years to fully develop its naval power and project its power into the Indian Ocean and western Pacific areas.
After China's power projection capabilites have reached a certain point, we can make a deal with you , the U.S.
"You, the US, take Hawaii East and we, China, will take Hawaii West and the Indian Ocean. Then you will not need to come to the western Pacific and the Indian Ocean and we will not need to go to the Eastern Pacific. If anything happens there, you can let us know and if something happens here, we will let you know,” Keating recalled."

If U.S accepts this deal, there will be peace and we can all prosper together, if U.S rejects this deal, there will be conflict. 

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