Tuesday, October 19, 2010

US Strategy Outflanks Rising China in the Pacific

Tom Barnett has an interesting piece on US-China relations specific to the New York Times article discussing Chinese military's rising anti-Americanism. Barnett's blog post is a bit heavy on the focus between the talking points of US hawks and China hawks, but it is also useful for that purpose as well. For much of the blog post I found myself in general agreement, but then he lost me. What caught my attention is that the article targets the DoD directly, and was propagated around the blogosphere to some of my other favorite blogs - like the Real Clear World Compass, for example. I'm a huge fan of Thomas Barnett, but in this case Tom tripped when using talking points and I can't let it slide.

AirSea Battle is - like all doctrines - everything to everyone when in development but unlikely to fit everyone’s mold at completion. Remember, it can be described as a battle doctrine to fight China only because it uses the Pacific region as the test ground for theory and analysis. It is easier to develop against a global player like China than some mythical group - like Martians. In that context, Tom attacks AirSea Battle as bad policy. Tom is wrong though, AirSea Battle doctrine development isn't rooted in policy when it targets China, it is rooted in law - but we'll get to that later.

Once you get to the policy level AirSea Battle doctrine development, AirSea Battle becomes a more important instrument of US policy for revealing where redundancy exists and efficiencies can be gained in 21st century warfare across the DoD when undertaking joint approaches. The rock drill, at the policy level, is how a bloated organization like the DoD determines what it needs and what it doesn't in the context of an upcoming reduced defense budget. Folks can claim all day that AirSea Battle doctrine development is intended to prepare the US military for a future war in the Pacific region, but under this administration AirSea Battle doctrine is also an economic efficiency exercise.

Tom knows these rock drills well enough to recognize how its purpose can be skewed towards just about any policy purpose, and he plays with it for his own purposes. That isn’t what prompts my response to his blog post though: my response is rooted on the incredibly important elements of the discussion that Tom completely neglects or ignores in his analysis.

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.
Tom is an important US policy evangelist on China, largely because of his credibility on both sides of the US-China equation. Maybe that is the influencing factor behind his blog post, but regardless of motive he and many in this debate need to reset to get the facts right when it comes to US-China in 2010, and that includes the Taiwan equation. There are two key points Tom Barnett gets inaccurate - first he claims that for the US "there is no strategy whatsoever," something I observe to be completely false, although the position of no US strategy is widely propagated these days. The second inaccuracy relates specifically to Taiwan policy.

Lets start with the Taiwan Relations Act, Public Law 96-8 (1979), specifically section 2, part b, five and six:
SEC. 2 (b) It is the policy of the United States -
(5) to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character; and
(6) to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.
This is a key point that policy observers like Tom Barnett need to focus on, instead of focusing in on DoD policy. The Taiwan Relations Act isn't some policy that the Department of Defense gets to choose whether or not to follow depending upon an election cycle; it is the law and #6 directly influences force structure decisions for the US Navy and US Air Force. By law the US Navy must "maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan." Do defense observers realize how difficult it is in 2010 with a rapidly growing Chinese military to plan a global naval force when that law is cited in every review session as a starting place for future planning? The only folks who can change the law is Congress, not the President; so it isn't like Secretary Gates or Secretary Mabus can just ignore the law. Tom Barnett has testified in front of the House Armed Services Committee, he should know the emphasis on China that comes from that body. He should also know that the authority for that emphasis comes from a law now over 30 years old.

So when the DoD develops a battle doctrine like AirSea Battle that even marginally implies an intervention scenario between China and Taiwan, the DoD doesn't need policy cover - they have a legal mandate from Congress to conduct those rock drills specifically to meet the obligations of the Taiwan Relations Act. The Taiwan Relations Act does not force the United States to act to defend Taiwan if Taiwan is attacked by China, but it does mandate that the DoD must structure itself accordingly as to give the President the option.

Tom Barnett is way off in his criticism because he directs his rant at the wrong people. That mistake is common though so it is easier to forgive than the second thing Tom said - and I honestly was expecting him to pick this up by now and be running with it. It has become vogue for US-China policy observers in the US to rant against the absence of strategy by the US in how we deal with China at the defense and security level. Well, I think most US observers are living in an echo chamber of talking points and aren't paying close attention.

I would argue that US strategy is actually working better than anyone gives it credit for, and indeed under Gates and Clinton, US strategy is very much in line with US policy, and both are working very well when it comes to China.

China's inability to understand how their ascension strategy clashes with our cooperative strategy is a major source of the current tension between the US and China. It is also the least cited source of tension in the public discussion. If you look at the expanding strength of the US security network in the Pacific, I think even China would agree that US strategy is working very well. Have you noticed how happy the Pacific region is with us lately; how many of our allies are firmly, and constantly reaffirming, our presence in the Pacific as a positive thing? Maybe US observers haven't noticed, but China is starting to figure it out.

It isn't the US preventing China from rising in the Pacific; indeed if you read the National Security Strategy (PDF), the National Defense Strategy (PDF), and the Cooperative Maritime Strategy is for 21st century Seapower - all three are ultimately built towards developing future cooperation between the US and China. Developing greater institutional cooperation between stakeholders is the desired policy for the United States in the Pacific and Indian Ocean regions, but nobody wants to give the Obama administrations credit for the success that this cooperative policy is having today.

I observe that it is China who is intentionally attempting to assert their own unilateral, disconnected, and yes zero-sum ascension as a regional power, and it is that activity that makes their policies come off as aggressive to their neighbors. It is explicitly false to describe US national security policy as zero-sum the way Tom Barnett does, because it is the positive-sum international cooperative approach to security that is expanding our influence regionally in the Pacific (if not globally in other areas) even as right now our nations armed forces are locked in two land wars and our Navy is the smallest it has been since prior to WWI. The last 2-4 years of policy advocated through what I would call 'cooperative evangelism' in the Pacific by leaders like Gates, Roughead, Willard, and Clinton has completely outflanked China's unilateral rise as a regional hegemony in the Pacific region - and more than anything else, the US setting expectations to the region is what China is most pissed about.

Do US observers actually think it is simply an accident that China is having trouble expanding influence regionally in their post Olympic era? It isn't an accident; China isn't meeting their own expectations because the evangelism by US leaders has set the standard of cooperative approaches of multinational partnership towards multinational problems as a more compelling regional framework than the evangelism on China's harmony of a secure Pacific region 'with Chinese characteristics.' Everything China does right now works against them, whether it is their lack of military transparency that projects a disconnected approach towards regional security issues, or their unwillingness to be inclusive in the cooperative frameworks that are being developed by regional stakeholders. Every major power around China is embracing the 21st century's connectivity, transparency, and collaborative framework models, while only disconnected nations more akin to the Chinese disconnected model like Myanmar and North Korea respect the rise of China.

China’s worst enemy right now is themselves because they stained their own projected regional perception of a China rising peacefully this year - beginning with zero-sum assertiveness over territories with their neighbors. It is China that goes immediately to the 'economic war' angle whenever their leadership runs into any political dispute with a neighbor. In the Facebook era, when Pacific nations are leveraging the US designed network model for collective security, China has chosen to be disconnected from the developing network. China really is suffering from over-reaction syndrome in 2010 (see the saga how China and Japan dealt with the arrest of a fisherman), and I think that represents the consistent mounting frustrations of their own ineffectiveness in achieving the respect China feels they deserve as an emerging regional hegemony. China conveys unilateral exclusivity to each stakeholder at the rectangle table in the Pacific, while folks like Anne-Marie Slaughter in the State Department are evangelizing a model where all stakeholders sit at the round table.

At what point can we admit that US State Department policy with the US Navy's maritime strategy in tow is legitimately kicking China's ass up and down the South China Sea? I think we are at that point today, and that is why Hillary Clinton is the brightest star in the Obama administration. It isn't about winners and losers so much, rather it is how the new US rule set in the western Pacific that nations are buying into is about positive sum includes, and China intentionally excludes them self from participation. That positive sum rule set wasn't what China was expecting, and they have not adjusted yet.

By any measurement and for a variety of reasons, 2010 has been disappointing year for China due their inability to build confidence in the Pacific region nations regarding their rise. They can legitimately blame the US for that if they want, but it is the desires of China’s neighbors for US inclusion that is the bigger source of their problems - and the source for that desire is China's inconsistent messages and actions. China's expectations were set by their study of Mahanian power projection and the apparent desire to achieve status similar to the rise of the US at the turn of the 20th century. Something happened along the way though, just as China is completing their ascension, the US has begun establishing a new rule set - a collaborative, transparent rule set that China's government is currently not compatible with.

When I look at the Pacific I see a US built collective model for security and defense developing that every major player in the region except North Korea is quite happy to be involved in as an equal partner. Only those who aren't willing to concede equality in stake to their neighbors, folks like China, are having trouble with that model. In all honesty, I think that is a good thing - previous periods of globalization turned into major power war primarily because the stronger powers picked on the weaker powers. This time around, US strategy is designed to prevent that from happening by making the weaker powers collectively strong.

The suggestion that the US doesn't have a strategy with China is flat out wrong - the strategy is simply being ignored despite evidence, like the recent policy shift in Vietnam, validating the strategic success of the US in the Pacific. Strategy not only exists - it is remarkably effective and is exceeding all expectations. Like all strategies, it isn't perfect. But like all good strategies the US strategy for managing China's rise is remarkably flexible, easy to articulate, and effective when executed as policy. The most important characteristic about US policy being executed under the US cooperative strategy model is that it manages China's rise in a way that gives China the ability to lead when they are ready, as opposed to forcing China to lead when they aren't ready - because right now China isn't ready.

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