Avoiding Groupthink on China

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Avoiding Groupthink on China

What we know and don’t know about China’s foreign and military policies.

Avoiding Groupthink on China
Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Michael Achterling/Released

The U.S. intelligence community and American scholars of international affairs have a remarkable and impressive record. Though scholars in countries that follow the “English School” of international relations (such as the UK, Canada, Australia) can be every bit as impressive, the best Americans stand out as world leaders and have inspired many around the world.

Long exposure to the analysts and product of the CIA, both its intelligence achievements and failures, teaches the astute student three analytical principles: empathy, curiosity and humility. These lessons have been reinforced over many decades by leading American scholars, like Raymond Garthoff, Doak Barnett, Jack Snyder, Barry Posen, John Steinbrunner, Jonathan Pollack, Michael Swaine, Richard Solomon, David Lampton, Ezra Vogel, Sam Huntington and Richard Betts, to name a few, regardless of their seemingly disparate political dispositions.

These qualities seem all too absent among the raucous commentariat that has come to dominate public discourse on China in the United States, including in some parts of the U.S. government, armed forces, the Congress and many non-specialist writings on China. Donald Trump’s charge from 2012 that climate change is a conspiracy dreamt up by China to bring down the United States is symptomatic of the gulf between some new political movements in the United States and the much wiser, better informed intelligence officials and scholars. It is also symptomatic of the lack of self-awareness of the loudest promoters of unscientific and highly propagandistic international relations analysis of China. Many less critical analysts have found undeserved prominence because of new opportunities created by the information age.

Observers have commented on the decline of politics in the United States as revealed by the current U.S. presidential campaign. There is room to ask whether this decline has been abetted and facilitated by an accompanying decline in the country of the political authority of the best social science research and the best intelligence analysis.

The disconnect has been most obvious in three areas of U.S. policy toward China: the South China Sea, assessments of China’s international power, and the degree of confidence that we outside China know its leaders’ motivations as if they were an open book. It is no coincidence that one can fault much of the publicly prominent China-related analysis in the United States for its lack of empathy, curiosity and humility.

Of these three qualities, the one most often absent is humility. But first a word on empathy and curiosity.

The best example of the popular but ill-informed groupthink around China that reveals a lack of empathy are the outraged stances taken on its actions in the South China Sea. The analytical principle of empathy demands that we collect evidence on, document and dissect how a country’s leaders, its elites and opinion leaders feel about a subject, how they see it. If we are to judge a country’s actions according to principles of international law, we might ask ourselves the question of how our own country might act if we were faced with similar circumstances. After all of that, we can make a policy judgement about the preferred course of action by our state, but history teaches us that an inadequate accounting of a potential adversary’s sentiment can be dangerous.

Without going into the details here, and referring the reader to my 1998 book, China’s Ocean Frontier,  China’s leaders believe three things about the Spratly and Paracel Islands for better or for worse, and correctly or incorrectly. First, they believe that both island groups are Chinese territory that were stolen by Japan in a long and brutal war just months before Japan invaded Hainan Island in 1939. Chinese leaders have had this belief since that time. The origin of the core belief has nothing to do with any latter day concepts of off-shore oil wealth, maritime expansion, second island chain, “one belt one road,” or revision of world order, including law of the sea. Second, Chinese leaders (unshakably) believe, and this fact is irrefutable, that the formal Philippines formal claim to some of the Spratly Islands only arose between 1972 and 1978, when it enjoyed a strong military alliance with the United States and at when China faced severe domestic turmoil. For this reason, and some justification, China believes not only that its claim to the Spratly islands is superior to that of the Philippines, but that the Philippines’ claim is a hostile act toward China. It follows that China’s leaders believe that countries acting in support of the Philippines claim, regardless of their words, are being hostile to China’s territorial sovereignty. Third, Chinese leaders believe that their recent reclamations of and fortifications on three of the reefs they have occupied since the 1980s is the bare minimum they can do to protect their claims to other islands without actually evicting the Philippines by military force from the islands it has occupied.

The recent arbitral decision on the maritime law questions posed by the Philippines did not speak to these core beliefs of the Chinese leadership.  It did not and could not rule on the competing claims to territorial sovereignty over the islands. The tribunal found that none of the islands and reefs were entitled to a 200 nautical miles exclusive economic zone. It also determined that China’s claim to some sort of sovereignty over sea areas (not the islands) based on historic rights within the nine-dashed lined would not be compatible with international law. China’s nine-dashed line is therefore to all intents and purposes now dead, but we might recall that the Chinese government drew this line only three years after the United States broke with existing international law and declared sovereignty over its continental shelf. All states are free to make claims. Other states either accept them or reject them or modify their legal stances accordingly.

But to view the Chinese actions over the territorial disputes objectively we need to be able answer one question. If any country would challenge U.S. sovereignty over island territories it claimed in the Gulf of Mexico by physically occupying them, or if Cuban fishing boats sought to blockade Guantanamo Bay, would we expect to see a military patrolling responses from Washington similar to what we have seen from China? I think the answer is yes, but with aircraft carriers fully integrated in its fleet, and with no other great power active in the Gulf, the United States would not need to reclaim coral reefs as part of its strategy. But it would certainly use military pressure of some sort.

Curiosity is the second analytical principle. If indeed China is on a trajectory to overtake the United States as a global military power or even just as a global economic power, as many commentators both allege and fear, the curiosity principle would dictate fairly penetrating analysis of both the concept of power and the indicators of power, and then detailed examination of how these relate to the positions in the world of not only China but also of the United States. It seems there is no coherent popular narrative of this kind around this alleged historical inevitability beyond support for the myth of American decline, recognition of China’s undoubted financial power (investment), and disquiet at the emergence of China’s trade power (for better and for worse). Where the public narrative is best-informed on China’s power, it is rarely accompanied by any detailed and well-informed net assessments of U.S. power (or that of its allies, such as Japan, Britain and France) relative to China’s.

Some commentators try to inflate Chinese military power, including its technological prowess, but as the U.S. Ambassador to Australia, John Berry, recently reminded the world, the United States is a rising power in Asia and intends to continue to rise.  Careful reading of U.S. intelligence assessments in the public domain provides fairly clear evidence that there is no imminent threat of a Chinese surge in military power that will displace U.S. power in the Western Pacific, let alone on the global stage. Analysts alleging a creeping maritime takeover of the world through port leasing and construction in support of the “One Belt One Road” policy need to look at comparative data on the same activity for other trading states.

And so to humility, the third principle of good international relations analysis and the main idea of this article: what we don’t know about China. Reading the popular press, and even many academic studies, there seems to be nothing unknown about China these days for most authors. There is little talk of significant gaps in data about concrete reality or significant gaps in our knowledge of the supposedly malign intent of Chinese leaders to revise world order.  (Fortunately, the U.S. intelligence regularly audits its intelligence gaps on China, though these are highly classified for the most part.)

Uncertainty about anything is not an easy commodity for reporting in today’s mass media world. News stories on uncertainty are about as attractive and financially lucrative as trying to get vision for a TV story on a cyber attack. The concept of uncertainty (humility about what we don’t know) is not in the currency of contemporary debate, regardless of the subject.

James Fallows covered this off well in a 2012 piece commenting on the “journosphere” reaction to an Obama visit to China: “We naturally crave ‘what does it all mean?’ ‘who screwed up?’ ‘who won and lost?’ certainty, but there are times when the immediately available answers to those questions are likely to be wrong.”

The intelligence community is not immune to the default mode of certainty, even though it is far more schooled in managing and reporting uncertainty. An interesting 2016 study released by the Heritage Foundation went so far as to suggest that U.S. intelligence agencies had begun to shy away from the most difficult uncertainty of all, the long term future, in favor of current intelligence. The authors coined the term “strategic analysis gap” for this general disposition.

One way of interpreting the existence of this gap is to suggest that it arises because of inability to get into the minds and mindsets of foreign leaders – in politics, economics, and military affairs.  Of most serious concern, the authors noted a tendency in the intelligence community to discourage specialization and alternate views. They talked of pressure in some agencies to sustain a given narrative.

One thing we do know about current Chinese leaders is that they try very hard to conceal what they really think on almost anything lest it be used against them in the bureaucratic and personal battles unleashed by President Xi’s campaign against corruption.

China has become a very open country, but it still shields many secrets that we overlook. Its leaders are not an open book. If anything, it has become even harder to read their intent. We are left judging them by what we see, but the real meaning of any act in politics can only be determined if we are able to track first its original motivation and then its pathways among the politically powerful actors affected by it.

One book that should give everyone cause for humility in analysis of China’s international and domestic affairs, and the interplay between them, is the monumental scholarly study by Ezra Vogel of Deng Xiaoping published in 2011.  Its subject had surrendered leadership of China two decades earlier, but the Vogel study reveals much information for the first time to the American public.

Of passing note is the suggestion that Deng was prepared to negotiate with Vietnam over the Spratly Islands. Of greater significance is Vogel’s softly worded challenge on the last page of the study to those who mis-translate and mis-represent Deng’s famous phrase (taoguang yanghui, juebu dangtou, yousuo zuowei), and then hang so much distorted analysis off the mist-translation. For Vogel, the phrase meant “avoid the limelight, never take the lead, try to accomplish something.”

Time has moved on, and President Xi may not feel the same as Deng, but the Vogel study, like so much of the best American scholarship and intelligence analysis on China, as good as they are, stand as powerful testimony to what we don’t know about Chinese leadership decisions on a contemporaneous basis.