The Jamestown Foundation hosted a packed event on Chinese defense and security on Thursday at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The event opened strong, with some important points being made in the introduction and by the first panel. These six points are theirs,* but they are worth juxtaposing. They are paraphrased here.

  • The Chinese lack a depth and breadth of foreign affairs and diplomatic expertise.
  • Much Chinese strategic thinking revolves around the imperative to become the global power, the number one nation. While there is no shortage of abstract talk about a peaceful rise and a harmonious world, there is a zero-sum aspect to some of this thinking. If they do not seize the initiative in what they see as a ferocious global competition, they worry about being left behind.
  • The Chinese have a culture of strategic thinking. They favor clever stratagems and conceive of shaping the use of force in such a way that the actual application of it is almost instantly decisive. But these clever stratagems can often be highly optimistic and not particularly sophisticated. By comparison, there is very little writing on long, attritional warfare or scenarios.
  • The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is largely untested in combat. This point was made multiple times throughout the day. They have little practical operational experience with which to test new concepts and capabilities – new concepts and capabilities that are the product of a doctrinal and technological revolution that has been so rapid and so profound in the last decade that it is difficult to overstate. We are familiar with the uncertainties that this creates in our own warplanning, but this also leaves enormous potential for the PLA itself to not have a clearheaded, well-grounded sense of its own capabilities and limitations.
  • There has been considerable emphasis on concealing these capabilities.
  • The PLA itself operates without meaningful oversight.

It has long been clear that Washington does not have nearly as good a sense of the Chinese, what they are thinking and how they are thinking about it, as it did with the Soviets. While Moscow is not exactly European, its experience in foreign affairs and diplomacy was shaped by Europe for centuries, which provided common foundation. This is a tradition with which the Chinese not only lack expertise, but that they don’t necessarily buy into. They’re going to play the great game, but they bring a fundamentally different perspective to the table. And China is extraordinarily new to the world stage, and its prominence on that stage has grown extraordinarily rapidly. In other words, China is both a neophyte and one that sees the world and the rules that govern it from a fundamentally different and unique perspective. And the PLA’s role in the political apparatus is strong and growing, adding additional uncertainty.

Add to this lack of understanding the six points above. Taken as a whole, they point to a considerable risk of miscalculation by the Chinese, either in a preemptive scenario or an escalating crisis. And this is another problem with the ‘transparency’ discussion. Obviously, increased transparency is a good thing but it is in many ways rhetorical and plays far too prominent a role in our discussions with and about the Chinese. On the one hand, it is based partially on the idea that that China’s national interests are not already fairly clear, when they are. On the other, excessive emphasis on Chinese transparency glosses over the far more worrisome reality that beneath the opaque veil there is not a single answer. There is absolutely room to reduce the uncertainty in Chinese thinking, but these six points are a reminder that a degree of confidence even approaching the U.S.-Soviet understanding may not be a realistic goal at the current time, and as such, there are potential hidden dangers in putting too much emphasis on transparency — especially since what the Chinese choose to reveal is itself likely to be intended to shape U.S. perceptions to the Chinese advantage.

*I’m not sure about the attribution policy of the event but I’ll be happy to add names if the individuals wish.

Posted by nhughes in Foreign Policy

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  • Derrick

    Very interesting…a great article. Based on what I can see, I tend to agree with all 6 points above. I realize I sound condescending here, but perhaps the US should take more initiative and invite China to participate in START discussions, and also in other arms control discussions. Just a thought. The Chinese leadership may just be overconfident due to the US financial condition, so continually pestering them with invitations serves as a polite reminder that they share the world with everyone else.

    Not sure if this is a good suggestion, but perhaps the US should share some of its foreign policy experiences with China (again) in order to wake them up to the problems of playing on the world stage.

    With specific relevance to this board, it would help to remind China that things like anti-ship ballistic missiles, or access denial strategies, does not equal access denial capabilities.

  • Mike M.

    I agree with the 6 points…and would add one observation.

    China is today’s Wilhelmine Germany.

    Like Germany prior to the First World War, China is a rising power. A power which is diplomatically clumsy, and wearing a chip on their shoulder.

    Combine it with a growing navy, and you have a recipe for trouble.

  • Lowly USN (retired)

    The talks the U.S. should engage China in are: fair trade, the U.S. debt and the Chinese encroachment in Japan and Taiwan waters. Never believe or trust the CHICOMs in trade, START, defense, military or any other matters.