China Power

A Fellow Named Chaos Goes To China

Recent Features

China Power

A Fellow Named Chaos Goes To China

U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis arrived in Beijing today.

A Fellow Named Chaos Goes To China
Credit: DOD photo by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Jette Carr

U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis starts his trip in China today. Having never been to China, Mattis nonetheless can quote — extensively — the writings of Chinese military master Sun Tzu. The secretary’s best-known nickname is “Mad Dog.” But his preferred nickname, he has said, is his radio call sign, “Chaos.”

In other words, Mattis embodies as a key character trait a concept that runs counter to everything which the Chinese find comfortable.

What must the Chinese think of a man whose refers to himself by a word that China fears above all else, the concept, as well as the reality, of “chaos”? Even Chinese who disagree with some or all of China’s political practices pull back from openly advocating any change in China’s political order that would necessitate turbulence, force, or outright revolution; nothing is worth the “luan” that would result. In fact, it is fair to say that a key driver defining most domestic and foreign policy and practice in China is the avoidance of chaos at almost any cost.

So what strategy do Chinese analysts put into place to negotiate with a man named Chaos who is quoted as saying things like, “Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet”?

Chinese are known for their passive-aggressive negotiating tactics, charm offensives with fangs, and liberal use of red herrings and other rhetorical devices, designed to keep the victim off-guard, confused, conciliatory, and grateful at the end of it all that they were just eaten for lunch. In other words, the chaos from which they themselves recoil, and are unprepared to handle, is exactly the environment they believe will best bring down their competitor. But how does one use that approach with a man who embraces the concept, understands its power, and likens himself to it?

Although Mattis has said that he is going to Beijing without “poisoning the well” in advance, he – and they – certainly know that the well is already well-stocked with festering issues, and that the list is endless: From South China Sea island bases, to lasering U.S. pilots, to Taiwan, to trade, to disinviting the PLA from military exercises this week, to technology theft. It would be informative to know how Chinese military leaders prepare for a man who is, as Stanton S. Coerr writes in The Federalist, “the sort of guy who wants to win without fighting—to cause chaos among those he would oppose.”

Mattis’ “chaos” is forged in deep knowledge of his environment and its history. He is reported to have a library of 7,000 books. Military historian Jill Russell prints in Strife Blog an email in which the general talks about his reading habits. Says Mattis,

The problem with being too busy to read is that you learn by experience (or by your men’s experience), i.e. the hard way. By reading, you learn through others’ experiences, generally a better way to do business, especially in our line of work where the consequences of incompetence are so final for young men.

We have been fighting on this planet for 5,000 years and we should take advantage of their experience.

What happens when you’re on a dynamic battlefield and things are changing faster than higher HQ can stay abreast? Do you not adapt because you cannot conceptualize faster than the enemy’s adaptation? (Darwin has a pretty good theory about the outcome for those who cannot adapt to changing circumstance).

And thus Mattis earned his other moniker, “The Warrior Monk.”

Mattis’ most baffling quality for the Chinese may be his sense of humor, and particularly his ability to laugh at himself (a quality it could be wished to find more of in China). Commenting in the Washington Post about Duffel Blog, the satirical website that irreverently takes on everything military, Mattis said Duffel Blog is “a beautifully crafted response to an increasingly stuffy environment in today’s America.”

He goes on, “Duffel Blog reminds us of much of what we in the military fight for — the freedom to think our own way and to laugh about the absurdities without being mean-spirited.”

As a target of Duffel Blog himself, such as in February’s “Mattis and girlfriend make plans to go out on Valentine’s Day, kill everyone they meet,” Mattis confounds the image that a face-conscious Chinese general could ever accept for himself, or understand in others.

An intellectual who can nonetheless speak in the plainest and often most unprintable of terms. A warrior on the field of battle who visits Gold Star mothers of men who have died under his command while on a personal cross-country trip, as related by his friend Maj. Gen. Michael Ennis, U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis brings a finely-honed toolkit of chaos and calculation to Beijing this week. It remains to be seen how the Chinese will react.