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Estranged Over a Rising China

Bryan McGrath

I do not know what to make of my friend CDR Elton “Thumper” Parker’s latest piece here at War on the Rocks on how the United States should approach the rise of China. Within its words are elements of sensible strategy and common sense, along with argument a la “straw man” and to use his own phrasing, “Pollyanna.” And as a Naval Aviator, where “goods and others” takes the place of “goods and bads,” he will understand that I start this debrief with the “goods”.

Linkage of words and deeds. Parker is spot on when he argues that our words and deeds are often not in alignment, and that this has undercut American foreign and defense policy. There was great fanfare last week when the President reinforced American treaty obligations to Japan vis-à-vis the Senkakus, but what do those words mean? Does the world respect them any more than past U.S. assurances, threats or pronouncements elsewhere? I raised this issue elsewhere to a chorus of “surely you don’t mean to link U.S. (in) action in Syria with U.S. policy in the Pacific?”, to which I answer, “why would I not?” and more troublingly, “why would Japan not?”

China’s Three Warfares. Parker has done a great service in raising the profile of this approach. Those interested in learning more about how the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) plans to summon the power of propaganda, international law and the press should do everything they can to read up on this doctrine. And when you have completed a thorough scrub, you might be left with the notion that if such a document had been produced by the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, the outcry within the United States alone would be deafening. It is a blueprint for manipulation and deception. A cursory examination would suggest incompatibility with the conduct of free nations.

Persistent Physical Presence. Three cheers for Parker’s advocacy for persistent physical presence in Asia, to include reference to a few novel ideas for deepening that presence.

And now, the “others”:

“Welcoming” the Growth of China as a Military Power. That the Commander of Naval Forces in the Pacific makes a statement “welcoming” China’s growth as a military power is unremarkable. That this diplomatic pabulum would be taken as a statement of truth, however, strains credulity. Admiral Harris is as much a diplomat as a warfighter, and statements such as he made are the stock and trade of managing relations among great powers. But let’s face it; if the People’s Republic of China were to make a strategic decision to dramatically cut back on its military power and “buy in” to the United States as a leading Pacific nation, well, now that is something we would welcome. The growth of China’s military should, in fact, not be welcome as long as it is tied to an autocratic, non-transparent regime that is increasingly flexing its muscles in its near-abroad as it attempts to recapture the past glories of the Middle Kingdom, interrupted as they have been by the historical aberration of the past two centuries.

Climate Change. That the Pacific Commander continues to dubiously link actual weather events with this issue is more a sign of his desire for upward mobility than his mastery of the science or the statistics of the issue. That his words are cited by CDR Parker in his piece to seemingly buttress an argument for an emerging need for additional collaboration with China ignores history. Long before there was a fashionable climate change zeitgeist, there were ruinous natural disasters that killed countless human beings in the Asia-Pacific. It is wise and expected that the Pacific Commander takes the potential for such events into consideration as he plans forces. That he continues to peddle climate change as the biggest long-term threat to the Asia-Pacific is nonsense, unless his planning horizons are now on the order of centuries. Our presence in the Pacific and our meaningful response to natural disasters in the region are a sign of both our power and our empathy. If tomorrow, the world scientific community came to a consensus view that there really had been no evidence of climate change, the United States would still be there in the Pacific and it would still respond to disasters.

China is Not Like Everyone Else. Parker writes:

Even with “the pivot,” we cannot and should not attempt to be everywhere, patrolling every strait, ensuring access to every common, enforcing freedom to all navigation, countering every pirate, etc. To the extent that we can start/continue to rely upon another nation/other nations to bring their considerable capability and capacity to the table to cooperate and collaborate—even pursuing the same objectives in parallel and for different reasons—still yields a net complementary benefit and helps to serve our greater national interests.

In order to take this to its full and logical conclusion, one must infer an inequality of sorts among nations. Put another way, it seems that in Parker’s mind, it matters not whether it is Australia, Japan or China doing the cooperating, as long as our “objectives” are aligned. This view ignores the strategy and policy ends that determine these “objectives”, and the distinct possibility that those ends are orthogonal. Let us imagine that China embarks on a decade-long charm offensive, one in which it contributes greatly to regional security, in which its hospital ships and crisis response forces are omnipresent and in which its bankers provide capital to neighboring nations to build their own defenses—all of which would count as “objectives” that should seem unobjectionable to us. But suppose these actions were taken in order to execute an underlying strategy to make the United States redundant in the region as a means to diminish its influence and ultimately eject it? The dissonance with our own strategic ends is manifest.

Engagement/Estrangement Straw Man. Parker writes:

Ultimately, the bottom line is this: I see more good from pursuing a strategy of engagement than one of estrangement. I think we do our interests and ourselves a disservice by only painting the rise of China as solely adversarial. Competitor? At times, absolutely. Occasional cooperator and collaborator? Why not? If we continue to label “them” as adversarial (or even as being more prone to competitor than collaborator), we are likely to see that become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

First, while there are many who would like to see the U.S. take on a more adversarial approach to China in the region, I daresay those who advocate “estrangement” are in a small minority. I am at a loss to cite even one reputable national security thinker who is publicly advocating estrangement as national policy, though they may indeed exist somewhere. Parker does a good job in backing away from the straw man in advocating a varied approach, sometimes a competitor and sometimes a collaborator. Indeed his advocacy of additional heft behind the pivot is in itself, a sign of hope to those of us who would seek to increase U.S. leverage in the region. Where I think Parker makes his greatest logical error in this piece is in his abiding optimism that China will “play ball” and that we can increase force levels in the region without China ramping up the Three Warfares machine to claim encirclement and containment. As for Parker’s fear that “…If we continue to label ‘them’ as adversarial (or even as being more prone to competitor than collaborator), we are likely to see that become a self-fulfilling prophecy,” one must consider China’s historical propensity to view accommodation as weakness, as the British and Dutch discovered centuries ago. Could this road not lead just as clearly to circumstances we find counter to our interests?

Ultimately, when I read this piece, I descended (as I often do) into reflection upon what such an approach would mean for force levels, primarily for my beloved Navy and Marine Corps. The problem is that while there are hooks here for increased naval presence, the overarching strategic thrust suggested undercuts the proposal. If our primary strategic goal is some kind of deftly managed collaboration with China, we probably already have too much force in the Pacific. But if the goal is to maintain primacy in the region in order to advance and sustain U.S. security interests, more and more diverse force will be required as China executes its “welcome” growth in military power.

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