The State of U.S.-China Competition

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"My way of learning," quips legendary film noir detective Sam Spade, "is to heave a wild and unpredictable monkey-wrench into the machinery."  After that, advises Spade (a.k.a. Humphrey Bogart), you watch where the "flying pieces" go. Learning comes from studying the wreckage. "It's all right with me," he tells client Brigid O'Shaughnessy, "if you're sure none of the flying pieces will hurt you." That's the difference between active and passive learning, I suppose. You can lay back and wait for wisdom to emerge from others, or throw a wrench into entrenched orthodoxy and see where the shrapnel takes you. Which seems like a fitting way to open the International Studies Association (ISA) Annual Meeting, here in the famed private detective’s haunt of San Francisco. Hey, you take your wisdom where you find it. Let's heave away!

Here's a capsule summary of my opening-day panel. I briefed my chapter on "The State of the U.S.-China Competition," from last year's Stanford University Press volume on Competitive Strategies in the 21st Century. My overall prognosis on the competition is so-so from the American standpoint. A Spade-inspired hook for the presentation: what if they gave a competition and only one team showed up? The team that never took the field would forfeit, even if it enjoyed enough material supremacy to crush its rival. As in sports, so in geopolitics. China started competing militarily with the United States after the 1990-1991 Gulf War, stepping up its exertions following the U.S. naval deployments off Taiwan during the island's 1995-1996 election cycle. Central to the PLA's efforts was fielding inexpensive weaponry that would make another such intervention prohibitively expensive for Washington. You don't have to win outright to prevail in strategic competition. Convincing the other guy to stand down works just as well, if not better. After all, you triumph without suffering through the injuries, trash-talking, and other headaches that come with full-contact sports.

Meanwhile, the end of the Cold War had denuded the U.S. military of its strategic purpose. After the fall of the Soviet Union, no new enemy arose to focus American energies and resources. Strategic drift took hold. Few took China's military buildup seriously until recent years. Few wanted to even think about competition against Asia's traditional central power. Even today, it's far from uncommon for scholars and practitioners to hold forth grandly, proclaiming that it will be decades before China can seize Taiwan. Or they repeat factoids, pointing out for example that the U.S. defense budget exceeds the next 16 countries' combined, or that the U.S. Navy is bigger than the next 13 navies combined. That being the case, why worry?

Here's why: because the mainland can concentrate all of its military might against a fraction of U.S. strength, and it can do so in its own geographic environs — a zone on the map where it commands superior numbers, nearby bases, intimate familiarity with the terrain, and a host of other advantages. This negates much of the U.S. advantage on paper, making for a more even contest in the waters and skies that matter. Does this mean the game is lost? Hardly. Nothing is fated. If it were, I would counsel evacuating the region and leaving allies to their own devices. China has the advantage of competing on its home field. But U.S. allies hold fixed positions on that field, known as offshore island chains and marine passages. The U.S. Navy retains sizable advantages in such domains as undersea warfare (although the submarine force could sorely use more boats, lest it find itself overmatched by dint of numbers). It should preserve and expand those advantages, making a maritime challenge unthinkable.

Not least, the character of the opposing team bestows competitive advantages on America and its friends. China comports itself like Sun Tzu's Hegemonic King, an imperious power that expects to overawe others into submission. That's a good rallying point for an alliance-builder like Washington. Few peoples relish kneeling before Zod! But U.S. leaders must take the challenge seriously, and make the conscious choice to compete in earnest. Let's hunt for low-cost ways to impose high costs on the other competitor — and deter him from taking his game to another level.

Comments
19
Tom F
April 11, 2013 at 00:51

@Oro Invictus – "The problem is that the US is, above all, an ultra-competitive nation and, if it perceives itself to be challenged, it inherently trends towards dominating its opponents rather than simply overcoming them"

I am not sure I see this in evidence, though if accurate, it would be highly beneficial for the planet to have a dominant power that is peace seeking. There is nothing more desirable for commerce than peace, and USA is mostly about commerce isn't it? Even election funding are mostly commerce in origin.

Whether USA is outwardly competitive? well, I would imagine if it is, it would have oppose the rise of Japan and Taiwan (two of the top four nations in terms of foreign reserves holdings). Instead it has been instrumental in the success of these two countried, and I would assert that China's rise owes much to USA's bestowing MFN status on China, and the subsequent accession to the WTO as well. Let's also not forget about safe passage for China's export courtesy of US Navy that China is only NOW alleging that is intended to 'contain' it.

Sorry, but the entire narrative just doesn't make sense if you look at the evidence. 

Tom F
April 11, 2013 at 00:30

@ Leonard R. – "The only trait that seems to surpass American naïveté, is Chinese arrogance. America has already been sucker-punched though. At last it's waking up to the danger it faces."

Looking at US/China as a non-citizen, my perception is that the US is long suffering from the boiling frog syndrome. IMHO, it might be a few hundred millions in fake ipods here, few hundred millions in fake pharmaceuticals there….just enough to not get US to jump but most likely enough to slowly boil.

Bankotsu
April 9, 2013 at 17:10

"China and more and more anti-west nations…"

Non west, not anti-west. It is when western states impose western concepts that have no meaning in non western states that anti-west sentiments arises. This, the west can never undersatnd.

John Chan
April 9, 2013 at 07:13

@Sakamoto-Thomson,

Japan is an unapologetic war criminal; Korea tragedy was Fascist Japan doing; Japan should be a pacifist nation, but it used humongous amount of money to build a most lethal military in Asia, why can’t Japanese stop spending money on the weapons of death and give the money to the North Korean to redeem the sins they committed in Korea? Japanese refuse to redeem their war crimes in Korea, China and Asia is a case of overwhelming moral bankruptcy; America and Japan are the very dangerous tension and destabilizing factor in North Asia!

Oro Invictus
April 9, 2013 at 00:51

@ Kanes

"…R&D cost in the US at least fifty times higher than in China…"

Well, that is complete and utter nonsense. The exact opposite is true, in fact; the amount of resources required per innovation is approximately 5-7 times higher for the PRC than the US (i.e. for every "dollar" the US invests into R&D, the PRC must invest approximately five to seven dollars to achieve parity in R&D output) and this has not seen any significant improvement during the PRC's recent aggregation of wealth. Really, it fits well with what sociological models would predict for a society which curtails free thinking and suffers from negative density dependent effects.

http://www.isc.hbs.edu/Innov_9211.pdf

http://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/docserver/download/9211041ec008.pdf?expires=1365436486&id=id&accname=guest&checksum=9046AF7C390519609F7863298079C79B

Leonard R.
April 8, 2013 at 15:04

James Leroy: You posted exactly the same comment in another thread — here. http://thediplomat.com/flashpoints-blog/2013/04/05/north-korea-crimping-chinas-anti-access-style/

 

You should be docked 50 cents for that James Leroy. In fact, I'd dock you for both comments. They were lazily arrived at.  

Kanes
April 8, 2013 at 13:36

"Let's hunt for low-cost ways to impose high costs on the other competitor — and deter him from taking his game to another level."

Fully agree. With the salary of a US soldier 5 times higher than a Chinese soldier, R&D cost in the US at least fifty times higher than in China, Islamic threat highest in USA than China and more and more anti-west nations emerging in the world far away from USA, I doubt it can ever be achieved by USA. But there are those who practice this strategy even today.

 

Brrrrr
April 8, 2013 at 12:27

Oh how wonderful, it’s native English speaker James Leroy posting his opinions! James has also helpfully posted his name and time of posting, so considerate, thank you Helpy Helperton! ZhanMuSz Leroy, voice of the average American has spoken!

Bankotsu
April 8, 2013 at 12:08

"The only trait that seems to surpass American naïveté…"

What do you mean?

Sakamoto-Thomson
April 8, 2013 at 11:19

The past fortnight here in North Asia has revealed something we have long ignored, something that will shape our response to Beijing’s belligerence and hostility: the prospect of reuniting the Korean people. The starving millions in the North deserve reunification ( and the chance of their children being properly fed). Only China – or at least the PLA leadership and the Party’s Standing Committee – stand in the way of this happening, by their overt support of the Kim Dynasty in Pyongyang. The case for freeing the North Korean people is overwhelming, and Beijing must bend to the will of the world on this issue once it becomes a global goal. Why on Earth Obama has not yet enunciated this goal is a mystery. So much time and money spent on Israel – Palestinian matters, when reuniting the two Koreas is the obvious answer to the very dangerous tensions in North Asia! Beijing’s cruelty must be made the real issue .

TDog
April 8, 2013 at 02:13

The need for competition in the area is just another facet of American foreign policy that emphasizes "relevance" over substance.  In competing rather than cooperating with China, we put ourselves in the position of trying to do more with less at a greater cost.  American manpower, whether it is manning a ship or building the ship, simply costs more than Chinese manpower (which is not to say Chinese lives are worth less – they are just paid less).  

The end result: any war we fight ruins us economically while achieving questionable objectives.  

The article mentions finding cheaper alternatives, but the fact is that other than Japan and South Korea, no one in the region is willing, wanting, or able to take China on.  A grand alliance of all of China's neighbors might present the illusion of an overwhelming or at least credible counter to the PLA, but in actuality we need to ask whether or not a Tajik would be willing to die for a Filipino all in the name of maintaing an American-led and dominated alliance.

We seek out these alliances in the name of maintaining our primacy on the world stage, but far from being the benevolent peacekeeper, we come off more and more like the dog in Aesop's fable who barks at his own reflection in the river.  Our almost pathological desire to remain entrenched in the affairs of as many nations on Earth as possible has reached unsustainable levels and the quest for ways to render this sort of post-colonial imperialism affordable is nothing more than modern day alchemy, but sadly I believe there is no way to turn the lead of current American policy into the gold of our interventionist dreams. 

vic
April 7, 2013 at 10:12

"… low-cost ways to impose high costs on the other competitor – and deter him from taking his game to another level".

The lowest-cost way is for the US forces to unilaterally withdraw from an area where they are overstaying.  Situations have changed and time has moved on.  The US must adapt to a new order and by doing so will not impose high costs to anyone.  Everyone should look to economics rather than to warfare.  It is time for the US to stop its warmongering ways and take to the civilization path.

 

 

Mike
April 7, 2013 at 01:02

Lets look at it from Chinas point of view. How can we focus all of our forces against the US when we are surrounded by Russia, India, Vietnam, Japan to the east, South Korea, along with the other ASEAN nations and Tawain, let alone restive provinces in Tibet and to the north of china. A full 360 degree of possible threats. Some of these are nuclear armed with powerful land armies, India and Russia.

The US on the other hand as 2 weak powers, Canada and Mexico on its borders which are no threat. 2 massive oceans protect it and which the US navy controls. In the event of a major war the US can focus most of its forces against one enemy if required. The US is moving forces out of Europe, in fact this week the last main battle tanks left Germany to return to the US. US forces have pulled out of Iraq and will be soon out of Afganistan. This restores the ability of the US to respond to conflicts with close to full strength.

What Allies does China has in the event of war, perhaps north korea, but they are more then matched by south korean forces alone. China faces the combined  might of the USA, Japan, Australia, Singapore and perhaps some ASEAN nations who would like to secure their own part of the south china sea which is legally theres. Let alone US NATO allies or even India eyeing a chance to get even and claim back lands China stole from it in 1962.

Let alone the fact that almost 60% of Chinas oil comes via the middle east and must transit through US controled oceans and many US allies territorial waters. Mean while the US can import and create as much oil as it needs with no fear of interuption by chinese forces. What effect would 60% loss of oil do to China. What effect would the massive imports of nearly every major resource such as Iron Ore, Coal do. What effect of losing over $600 billion in exports to the US/EU, plus exports to Japan, South Korea and Asean which is well over $1 trillion. The loss to the US of exports to China is much less of a concern.

It certainly appears that China is in the weaker position and it is mostly due to Geography, which will never change unless China conquers much more land or islands which would mean another world war.

The writers bias is clear to see.

Leonard R.
April 6, 2013 at 11:32

Excellent analysis. 

"Not least, the character of the opposing team bestows competitive advantages on America and its friends. China comports itself like Sun Tzu's Hegemonic King, an imperious power that expects to overawe others into submission."

The only trait that seems to surpass American naïveté, is Chinese arrogance. America has already been sucker-punched though. At last it's waking up to the danger it faces. 

James Leroy
April 6, 2013 at 11:02

James Leroy April 5, 2013 at 6:32 pm
I reckon we have missed the goal post.
Our great nation, the USA must pivot back toward Nation Building and the need of it’s citizen and away from the endless spending on wars, invasions, meddling in other nations and the Pentagon.
Our once mighty industrial power has been weaken considerably and without pivoting back, we will go the way of the Soviet.
All these talk of pivoting back to thePacific is great but our debt is already unsustainable and our industries are crumbling. We cannot bring down this humongous debt unless we have a vibrant economy and the only way is to re pivot our priorities and pour monies into it instead of trying to sustain a bloated armed force that has grown into a monster.

Frank
April 6, 2013 at 03:04

Professor Holmes is right about Chinese following Sun Tzu's guidance. However, Sun Tzu’s book has been published for 2500 years. It is not a secret anymore. Why cannot Americans follow his guidance?

Per Sun Tzu, smart people should try to avoid waging wars far away from home because of cost of such wars is going to be very high. Professor Holmes failed to suggest a way to wage a low cost war in Asia is a clear indication that the 2500 years wisdom is still true. However, it takes a few pieces Sun Tzu’s DNA to understand that ancient wisdom.

 

Bankotsu
April 6, 2013 at 00:52

"But U.S. leaders must take the challenge seriously, and make the conscious choice to compete in earnest. Let's hunt for low-cost ways to impose high costs on the other competitor — and deter him from taking his game to another level."

China doesn't pose a security threat to U.S. Why is U.S. so bent on making trouble for China?

 

"Here's why: because the mainland can concentrate all of its military might against a fraction of U.S. strength, and it can do so in its own geographic environs…"

If U.S. doesn't come to asia and make trouble for China, there is no reason for China to concentrate its military might against the U.S. 

U.S take Hawaii east, China take Hawaii west is the best outcome for peace.

Oro Invictus
April 6, 2013 at 00:27

I’m torn between two issues.

On the one hand, humanity’s best bet is to continue the process of depolarization of power structures the US inadvertently brought about following the fall of the Soviet Union, such that ratcheting up competition with the PRC is antithetical to that goal; on the other, the PRC’s recent attempts at reversing this trend of depolarization in its favour (at least for East Asia) already threatens this, such that the US is necessary to prevent them from destabilizing the region. In theory, the best option would be the US applying just enough pressure to prevent such things by the PRC, while simultaneously continuing the process of power dissemination; in a way, the US is already doing this, with said depolarization coming about due to the FTAs it is establishing. The problem is that the US is, above all, an ultra-competitive nation and, if it perceives itself to be challenged, it inherently trends towards dominating its opponents rather than simply overcoming them. In this regard, the US may become tempted to lean too heavily on the FTAs (not entirely unlike Athens vis-à-vis the Delian League) and respond to the PRC with the sort of totality it is attempting to apply.

Now, as I’ve noted before, even if the US takes this route it need not mean we are entering another sustained era of polarization. In such a chain of events, the US would almost certainly overcome the PRC (doubly so if matters actually come to blows, assuming neither side is idiotic enough to employ WMDs [this includes ASAT systems]) and, while the process of depolarization would be set back, it could still be reinitiated; however, this would still significantly complicate matters and make it that much harder to achieve a depolarized world (not mention that, in the case of open warfare, the sheer loss of life would be catastrophic).

Perhaps the best thing to hope for is that nothing sets anyone off before the US has restabilized itself and the PRC has plateaued, at which point the PRC will be dissuaded from conflict by the realization a geopolitical competition against the US would almost certainly be lost and the US realizes that it lacks the ability to utterly overwhelm them (at least, without suffering horrifically). Granted, this is assuming both groups have the acumen to realize they will not be able to win on their own terms, but hopefully both will place self-preservation above aggression and stop their childish yawps.

Matt
April 5, 2013 at 23:42

Excellent points. We and our allies do need more submarines and we need to reinforce our Coast Guard. Imagine a fleet of two dozen 4000 ton cutters with two attack subs in company to defend the Senkakus or Scarborough Shoal. What about employing our civilian fleets as the Chinese do? What are those crab fishing fleets in Alaska doing in the summers? Could tankers and freighters be used for dual purposes? How many UAVs could operate from a supertanker/crab boat?

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