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« The canon--almost completed | Main | Going on BBC World Service's "World Have Your Say" radio broadcast today at 1pm EST »

The "rising near peer" returns the paranoid favor

The NYT reports that the U.S. military is alarmed at the rising anti-American tone and sentiment of younger Chinese military officers.  This is the same U.S. military that assembles multinational war games in China's front yard and sells advanced weaponry to a small island nation off its coast--in addition to anyone else who will buy it in the region (and yes, business is very good right now, as weapons purchases are up 100% over the past half decade).

The U.S. military, which found its network-centric warfare roots in the seminal shell game known as the Taiwan Straits crises of 1995-1996, now takes inspiration from China's response since then (a build-up of anti-access/area denial assets that rely heavily on ballistic missile attacks to keep our carriers at bay) to launch its own AirSea Battle Concept--a new high-tech warfighting doctrine that makes no bones about specifically targeting the Chinese military.

And we wonder why the Chinese military seem to think we're their number one enemy?  Are we honestly that clueless or has our disingenuity broken through to some higher, slightly irrational plane?

Follow me into this brave, alternative world:


  • Imagine the Chinese navy holding multinational exercises with the Cubans and Venezuelans and Nicaraguans (a silly sight, I know) in the waters around Cuba, while Beijing warns us subtly that their 1979 Cuba Defense Act will be pursued to the ultimate vigor required, including the sale of advanced attack aircraft to the Cuban air force.  
  • Imagine Chinese carriers conducting such operations, sporting aircraft and weaponry that could rain destruction over most of the continental U.S. at a moment's notice.  
  • Imagine Chinese spy craft patrolling the edge of our local waters and flying around the rim of our airspace.  
  • Imagine the Chinese selling all sorts of missile defense to Venezuela and other allies "scared of rising American militarism."
  • Imagine weapons purchases throughout Latin America doubling in five years time, with China supplying most of the goods.  
  • Imagine Chinese naval bases and marine barracks doting the Latin American landscape and Caribbean archipelago.
  • Imagine a Cuban missile crisis-like event in the mid-1990s, which led the Chinese military to propose a new evolution in their warfare since.  
  • Imagine the Chinese military conducting regime toppling events in the Middle East, involving countries upon whom our energy dependency is dramatically and permanently rising, while China actually gets the vast bulk of its oil from non-Persian Gulf sources like Canada, Mexico, Latin America, Africa and itself.  
  • Imagine the Chinese government demanding that the Chinese military produce an elaborate report every year detailing the "disturbing" rise of U.S. military power.  
  • Imagine the Chinese military announcing their new military doctrine of attack from the sea and air, with their documents chock full of bombing maps of U.S. military installations that are widely dispersed across the entirety of the continental United States, meaning their new war doctrine has--at its core--the complete destruction of U.S. military assets on our territory as the opening bid.
  • Imagine the U.S. military stating that this new doctrine of attacking the entirety of the U.S. territory is necessary to maintaining the regional balance of power in the Western hemisphere, because the U.S. Navy has--in an "unprovoked" and "provocative" manner, begun significant patrolling operations in the Caribbean Basin, whose waters constitute a "profound" national interest to the Chinese.
  • Imagine this series of developments unfolding over close to two decades, as China, having lost its familiar great-power war foe, the Soviet Union, firmly glommed onto the U.S. as a replacement enemy image.
  • Imagine all that, and then imagine how the U.S. military views the Chinese military.  
  • Imagine if the Chinese military offered military-to-military ties under such conditions.  


What do you think the U.S. Congress would say to that?  Would it be considered "caving in" to Chinese pressure?

The truth, unexplored in this otherwise fine article, is that the U.S. military needs--and has needed--rising China as an enemy image for more than a decade-and-a-half now, so I don't know how we can expect anything from young Chinese officers other than returning the favor.

I'm on the BBC World Service yesterday with John Mearsheimer of Chicago (go ahead and listen to the guy--see the post directly below for link), who is stunningly open in his claims that America will never allow China to become an influential power in Asia because we are firmly committed to remaining the world's sole superpower and will basically do whatever it takes to stop China's rise, including a containment strategy that marshals the entire region's militaries to box in the Chinese.  He raised the specter (rather fantastic) of a China with a per capita GDP equivalent to our own in the foreseeable future--a prospect he labeled incredible in its fearsomeness.

[Mearsheimer has a tendency to use the word "power" over and over again, like a mantra, and he clearly meaning warfighting and power-projection capacity.  He seems to have drunk mightily at the neocons table and remains hungover in his appreciation that the American government's number one goal is to remain the dominant military power on the planet and prevent anybody's rise that might challenge that.  He is very much in the George Friedman vein of thought.]

This is the state of our discussion:  the world's biggest and by-far strongest military regularly getting up into the grill of the second-biggest economy on the planet and letting it know--in no uncertain terms--that it will not countenance China exercising military power in its own region!  Why?  Despite being intensely overdrawn militarily around the planet and facing military resource shortages in the very same regions where Chinese economic interests are skyrocketing, it's in our best interest to deny China's rise with all our might.  Safely buttressed by the vast security resources of our NATO allies, it's clear that we don't need any new friends and--instead--must do everything possible to deny their emergence, because more Chinese security means less U.S. security; it is a completely zero-sum game.

Brilliant stuff.  I can't imagine why the Chinese look upon us as anything but the best of friends.  I am flabbergasted at our naivete in hoping for something better to emerge.  This is all working out so brilliantly--for the U.S. Navy and Air Force.  If only we can get a sensible Republican back in who can jack the defense budget back . . . I dunno . . . just up!  

Because when I look two decades down the road, it's clear to me that we don't want to have anything to do with China or its military.  While boxing them in--in East Asia, we and we alone will manage the world's security system, using money that arises from our rapid quadrupling of exports . . . to places like China, which will be cowed into accepting our goods by the awesome specter of our military power!

It's really all so easy when you think about it.  Just zero out all the complexity and interdependence created by this globalization of our making, and we'll be able to boss the entire world around militarily--assuming we have the courage and strategic intelligence to devote as much resources as necessary to completely box in the Chinese military and keep them as paranoid as possible.

Happiness is a warm gun, my friends, pointed at "rising" China. That path will get America everything it needs while costing us nothing of strategic importance.

And yes, we should remain shocked . . . shocked! . . . at the rising ant-Americanism in the ranks of the Chinese military.  I cannot imagine where this mindset comes from.

But read the piece, because it's a good and balanced bit of writing (Wines is almost always totally solid in delivery). The quotes from the Chinese academics echo stuff written here many times--especially the bit about the Chinese military officers being a bit inexperienced and retrograde in their PR skills.  David Shambaugh, the U.S. expert on the Chinese military, is cited offering his usual wisdom on the subject.  Unlike the many hyperbolists on this subject, most of whom get paychecks or contracts from the U.S. Navy or Air Force, he remains a very calm and intelligent voice. [Another pair of intelligent voices on the subject are Mike McDevitt and Dave Finkelstein at the Center for Naval Analyses (complete disclosure--I do some on-call work there, though not with those two)].

And Shambaugh is right, this is an unnecessary and unstrategic and wasteful path for both sides to be on.  We are pretending to play Cold War when both of us should be managing the global security environment--in tandem.  I'm not saying our logic doesn't make sense.  Things like the AirSea Battle Concept make eminent sense--if a war over Taiwan is the ordering principle for the U.S. military going forward.  Me?  I just don't buy that as our North Star for the 21st century and globalization's further evolution.  Instead, I see it as a colossal and stupid diversion of resources and attention span.  

Why?  Again, back to my basics:  thinking about war within the context of everything else and not just within the context or myopic logic of war itself. That "everything else," for me, is best encapsulated by the term globalization, because it's the global economy + all those rising connections + all those rising interdependencies + all those overlapping security interests ("security" ain't the same as zero-sum defense--remember) + all those ever-changing dynamics that arise from all this complexity. Compared to all that, the Taiwan scenario is frozen in time. Fine, I guess, for our military to obsess over it, just like the PLA, because it keeps those otherwise unoccupied by the Long War and frontier integration and nation-building occupied with something they naturally are drawn to as ordering principles. But, in the end, it's make-do work, in historical terms; it's shutting the door on the past and not opening the door on the future. It simply does not rank in a US foreign policy that's coherently focused on shaping a future worth creating.

But this is what we end up with when our primary goal in foreign policy is to--as Clinton puts it--keep all the balls in the air. When everything is equally important, there is no strategy whatsoever. It's just chasing your tail and current events and putting everybody--save yourself--in the driver's seat.  

Obama needs to take control of his foreign policy and start paddling faster than the current, because he is--by not taking more control--losing control of his own national security enterprise, and that is not leadership.

NOTE:  Post picked up by Time magazine's "Swampland" (politics and policy) blog.

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Reader Comments (13)

"He seems to have drunk mightily at the neocons table"

Mearsheimer was exactly the same when I had him in college, circa 1983-84, long before anyone heard of the Neocons.

He is a hardcore Hobbesian who believes international relations is governed by power, and power means the ability to make threats and inflict death and destruction, to compel others to do what you tell them to do. 1914 proves that economic interdependence will always be trumped by security concerns. States seek security through strength, yet this always leads to security dilemmas, which often lead to war.

Very significantly, though, he is not a Neocon because he does not believe in promoting American values or democracy on others. He would scoff at the idea of a "democratic peace." The USA should be the offshore balancer in Eurasia and not get into land wars there, and not concern itself with the internal workings of other states because they don't matter to our security.

When I had him, he stood up and said, slapping the lectern, "I am a systemic determinist." I saw him a few years ago and he said that about 70% of state behavior is a result of systemic factors. So, he has mellowed.

He is, in many ways, the Anti-Tom. But he is not a Neocon.

October 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLexington Green

1914 proves that colonial empires will go to war in the absence of nuclear weapons--nothing more.

I remember Mearsheimer from my college years as well; I was just trying to contextualize, in a more recent sense, his absurd devotion to the notion of POWWAAAH. Most of the neocons had no sense of democracy as a goal either; that was strictly a PR job. Their primary focus was US primacy. Listen to the podcast; Mearsheimer asserts with great vehemence that America must retain primacy no matter the cost.

And yeah, that puts him very much in the neocon camp, however uncomfortable the label may seem. The essence of the neocon philosophy is that defense trumps all. It's a gloriously pre-nuclear concept, and pre-modern globalization concept to boot.

It belongs in the 20th century.

October 12, 2010 | Registered CommenterThomas P.M. Barnett

I was offering what JM taught about 1914.

Nuclear weapons have entirely changed the risk / benefit calculus, but he thinks otherwise.

Retaining primacy: Yeah, that's him.

But the desire to spread our values, which many associate with the Neocons, I don't see that. Also, there is whole Israel thing, where the Neocons are supposedly pro-israel, and there is Mearsheimer doing his anti-Jewish lobby shtick, which is an odd fit with the label.

Anyway, I see JM as old-school Realist, with only some overlap with the Neocons. Both sides would probably recoil at the association.

I'll listen to the podcast.

October 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLexington Green

No argument Lex. Just based on my years working with certain people, I never felt like the democracy/values ever meant anything to them--complete cover. Hence the totally cynical non-effort to achieve. Instead that was always the rationalization for the primacy logic, which is too raw to put forth in public--except for academics like Mearsheimer. He really did sound like every Chinese conspiracy nut's worst dream come true.

Honestly, I have no idea what he's talking about when he says those things. He talks about America like it's this guy he talks with on the phone every weekend and he knows the dude's inner most thoughts. I travel all over this defense establishment, and I find Mearsheimer's views to be incredibly rare. In short, the guy's off his rocker when he speaks authoritatively like that.

October 12, 2010 | Registered CommenterThomas P.M. Barnett

I have the podcast on now. It is taking me back in time. JM says "America is a hardball player." Word for word from 1983. I remember his spiel about how Americans pat themselves on the back about their moral superiority, but they should understand that the rest of the world sees us acting in our self interest, and being very heavy handed about it. He has been very consistent over the years. He had, and seems still to have, a very schematic view of international relations. Systemic forces compel behavior, and what people say they are doing is really just noise around the signal, which they may or may not believe, but it does not matter, because they will do what the systemic conflicts compel them to do. It is almost Marxist in its mechanistic quality. Power = GNP x Population. He is not an inductive thinker. He is a deductive thinker with a model, and he sees a world acting consistly with that model. It is a tragic view, hence the title of his book. It also appears to involve cherry picking of data points. The authoritative tone is part of his effectiveness. It is presented as if it were a sort of geometry, and the belief in the model is genuine and compelling. Faith is a force multiplier.

I do not doubt that you have far better knowledge about what the real, existing US Military really says when it is talking amongst itself than he does. Gathering lots of variegated real world data and looking for patterns, and articulating the patterns, the inductive TPMB approach, has room for that sort of evidence.

It is not surprsing that the Neocons you know said one thing for pubic consumption, and much harder things in private. Regrettable, but not surprising.

October 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLexington Green

Even though I don't like to mention it, hell, Obama is president!...This touches on the "military industrial complex," and gives a very good example of its effect and scope. The military doesn't need to fight "wars," all it needs is the threat of war to build up whatever it needs, be it labor or capital, just standing around, or spying around. As you have said before, defense spending is not all the "rich old men" wanting it, but a complex web of workers, legislators, and US companies.

Of course, if a Republican is president, don't you dare say it!

Some positives, though, our IR/nation-building record ends up being decisively liberal in the Poli Sci. sense, whether the intentions were realist or not, since it becomes the only sustainable choice. You point this out on Iraq and Afghanistan.

October 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPetrer

The PRC as a state may be justified in enhancing its own security, but isn't it justifiable to be concerned about the degree of civilian control over the military there? The dual nature of PRC foreign policy seems to reflect a skittish civilian leadership apologizing for a stridently nationalistic military. The civilian leadership didn't know the military would test an ASAT weapon?!? Any all comments on this component of internal Chinese governance would be welcome.


October 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJordan Prescott

Given that primacy is our primary concern and objective, should we not consider that the United States will now move away from globalization (at least in its present form)?

In other words, does the United States now consider globalization as we know it today -- which seems to empower China/the East while correspondingly weakening the United States/the West and which causes new and incredibly expensive (in both fiscal and political terms) problems worldwide -- as being counterproductive to our ends and objective (primacy) and, thus, ripe for abandonment?

Are we today seeing the beginnings of this turn away from our present more-free and more-open form of globalization -- and the move toward a more limited/restricted version of this approach?

October 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBill C.

Mearshimer's anti-Israel views are consistent with his overriding belief in power politics. Mearshimer views Israel as a small and insignificant country, the support of which does little to advance America's interests. On the contrary, Mearshimer views America's support for Israel as an impediment to America's ability to project its power throughout the oil-rich Middle East. Because of his myopic concentration on power politics, Mearshimer concludes that American support for Israel, given the fact that he believes that it is contrary to America's interests, must be driven by the inidious influence of some "Israel lobby." I'll have to watch the Barnett/Mearshimer program. It seems to go to an issue that I think is of crucial importance in understanding today's world and building a "future worth creating", namely, the distinction between globalization and imperialism.

October 14, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterstuart abrams

We really don't need to hate the Chinese gov't. Their own people hate them enough already.

October 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMike


History is not being kind to Mearsheimer's hyper-realist take, but there are some key differences between him and the neocons.

On policy for example, Mearsheimer
-- opposed SDI and subsequent missile defense programs
-- opposed Reagan's third world adventurism (Central America, Angola, etc)
-- opposed NATO expansion
-- opposed intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo
-- strenuously opposed the Iraq war
-- opposes our current involvement in Afghanistan (attacking AQ/Taliban in 2001, yes, but not nation building)
-- opposes the US' one-sided backing of Israel
-- opposes US military action against Iran
-- opposes US military action against North Korea

By any conventional use of the word "neocon", it's hard to see how someone with those views fits. No question that John is an old school primacist who thinks that the only thing in the world that matters is the balance of military-industrial might between the top three or five great powers, and thus that the last 18 years of military intervention have been nothing but distractions from the project of containing China. That view may be just as wrong as the 'neocon' view, but it is significantly different.

October 19, 2010 | Unregistered Commenteranirprof

There is a very large point that goes overlooked. China did not have a hand in constructing the rules and terms of globalization, where any nation can sell to all. China prefers "neo-mercantilism," through the use of exclusive contracts to lock down supplies of raw materials. This is coupled with the Chinese government protecting and subsidizing corporations it owns or influences while hobbling foreign firms seeking market share in China. Add to this China's view that it can claim international waters as sovereign territory, treating the South China Sea or East china Sea no differently than Xinjiang or Tibet.

In a world without spheres of influence or mercantilist practices, all nations can access any resources at a price. Nations have no need to go to war over resources, as it will always be cheaper to buy rather than conquer.

This system falls by the wayside if China can find a way to prevent the United States from winning a war against China. (This is not the same as beating the United States.) Once American weakness and unreliability can be demonstrated, the terms of global trade can be changed to one of spheres of influence and mercantilist terms of trade.

It is too easy to measure the security situation by counting aircraft and warships, then arraying these assets on the map as if it were a giant game of RISK. The victors of past conflicts always reshaped the peace to reflect or enhance their political and economic strengths. We now offer a globalized world economy open to all partners willing to play by the rules. China can only offer a closed global economy where only those who are its vassals may benefit. American "paranoia" is justified in this light.

October 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterWilliam Terdoslavich

I can't speak to the strategic issues, but I do have serious reservations about the ability of the Chinese economy to grown rapidly once they have fully exploited their low labor cost advantage and finance their military expansion. Here is the jist of my discussion with a top manager from Fujian Yaohua Glass in Fuqing, Fujian, yesterday."...We have six float glass lines of which PPG (Pittsburg Paint and Glass) sold us two. We've got four other lines that we bought from the Bengpu, (Anhui Province) Design Institute. We originally wanted to produce lots of automotive glass. That's where the money is. Construction glass is much less profitable and when you hit a construction recession you lose lots of money. The PPG lines are working great. They had them up and running in a few months and they produce nothing but automotive glass. The Bengpu furnaces have not come into production smoothly and we have had o produce a lot of construction glass with them because they just aren't as good.... In the future we want to add some more lines and we will buy Bengpu furnaces and try to make them work better." So that's the logic. Rather than engage with the rest of the world and make use of the best products and expertise the world has to offer Fujian Yaohua Glass wants to try to stay local and hope to improve somehow. I hear these sentiments in China time and time again. This is why I remain unconvinced that China has what it takes to continue to make rapid economic progress beyond a certain point. (Labor cost for Fujian Yaohua are just 3% of their production cost.) I have to think China's insularity and lack of modesty is going to really limit them economically.

October 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Dunn

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