Last week the Global Times e-interviewed me about the possibility of war between the United States and China. Here’s the result, along with answers to the same questions from Major General Luo Yuan, deputy secretary-general of the PLA Academy of Military Sciences.
My latest column at WPR focuses on transparency and “red lines” between US and Chinese interests:
There is no ready solution to this problem, because it lies at the heart of all diplomatic activity. Absent exceptional intelligence work, the motivation and resolve of diplomatic partners will always remain something of a mystery. A dense set of relationships and interactions undoubtedly helps create transparency, as interlocutors become familiar enough with each other to recognize the difference between real red lines and their rhetorical doppelgangers. This density of interactions involves not just high-level diplomatic meetings, but also commercial and military relationships. The RAND authors suggest that the United States work to commit itself to the defense and support of regional allies. While such a policy might threaten China with encirclement, it could also help reduce uncertainty; public commitments manifested through strong bilateral relationships are difficult to abandon, even in a crisis. However, even a policy of commitment is only as valuable as the capabilities devoted to its maintenance, and the U.S. advantage over China in this regard will become strained over the coming decades.
I have a piece up at Right Web on how the GOP Presidential field approaches relations with China, with a focus on Mitt Romney. Long story short, while confrontation is the word of the day, there are a lot of people with a lot of money in the GOP who don’t want the neocons anywhere near the commercial relationship. Check it out.
When Steve Jobs met with President Obama in 2010, Jobs told the president that he would only get one term:
You’re headed for a one-term presidency,” he told Obama at the start of their meeting, insisting that the administration needed to be more business-friendly. As an example, Jobs described the ease with which companies can build factories in China compared to the United States, where “regulations and unnecessary costs” make it difficult for them.
Jobs also criticized America’s education system, saying it was “crippled by union work rules,” noted Isaacson. “Until the teachers’ unions were broken, there was almost no hope for education reform.” Jobs proposed allowing principals to hire and fire teachers based on merit, that schools stay open until 6 p.m. and that they be open 11 months a year.
If China is our model, is this how Steve Jobs saw America’s future? “We found that across the four Chinese-owned copper mines in Zambia, there were persistent labor abuses, particularly in regards to health and safety, long hours of work and anti-union activities,” said Matt Wells, with Human Rights Watch in Lusaka, summarizing the more than 100-page report.”
Or what about this? “Dozens of miners have been trapped in a coal mine in China after a “rock burst”, officials say.
Four miners were killed and 50 more are missing after the accident, which happened late on Thursday in the city of Sanmenxia in Henan province.”
Or should I be saying anything negative about National Hero and Demigod Steve Jobs at all? After all, with him not around to give our lives of ennui meaning through gadgets, what’s the point of living? Clearly, worker death and pollution is a worthy model so long as I can download a new app every day!
Hey now, it’s not as if knowing whether China has nuclear weapons is at all relevant to the practice of American foreign policy:
I do view China as a potential military threat to the United States… we already have superiority in terms of our military capability, and I plan to get away from making cutting our defense a priority and make investing in our military capability a priority, going back to my statement: peace through strength and clarity. So yes they’re a military threat. They’ve indicated that they’re trying to develop nuclear capability and they want to develop more aircraft carriers like we have. So yes, we have to consider them a military threat.
In the interest of balance and of due fairness to Herman Cain, the argument against the Chinese nuclear program is startlingly similar to the case against the Iranian, although I don’t believe that Iran is buidling aircraft carriers…
On a related note, the thought that Avigdor Lieberman was the only remaining obstacle to an Israeli-Iranian war is… alarming. At times like this, I take some solace in the fact that the world exploding is Good for Rob. If the long nightmare of peace and prosperity that prevailed under Bill Clinton still held, I might not even have job…
But what if all of these claims about Caligula were wrong, or at least overblown? What if he was, in fact, completely sane — his awful reputation the product of a smear campaign?
In 2003, Aloys Winterling, a professor of ancient history at the University of Basel, in Switzerland, published a book arguing that the emperor’s strange behavior was, in effect, normal Roman politics carried to extremes. Caligula played hardball with his enemies, giving them every reason to exact posthumous revenge. But the truth could be separated out from the slanders. The volume is now available in English translation as Caligula: A Biography…
But Winterling sees the turning point in Caligula’s reign as strictly political, not biomedical. It came when he learned of a plot to overthrow him that involved a number of senators. This was not necessarily paranoia. Winterling quotes a later emperor’s remark that rulers’ “claims to have uncovered a conspiracy are not believed until they have been killed.”
In any event, Caligula responded with a vengeance, which inspired at least two more plots against him (not counting the final one that succeeded); and so things escalated. Most of the evidence of Caligula’s madness can actually be taken, in Winterling’s interpretation, as ways he expressed contempt for the principle of shared power — and, even more, for the senators themselves.
Giving his horse a palace and a staff of servants and announcing that the beast would be made consul, for example, can be understood as a kind of taunt. “The households of the senators,” writes Winterling, “represented a central manifestation of their social status…. Achieving the consulship remained the most important goal of an aristocrat’s career.” To put his horse in the position of a prominent aristocrat, then, was a deliberate insult. It implied that the comparison could also be made in the opposite direction.
So Caligula was crazy … like a fox. Winterling reads even Caligula’s self-apotheosis as a form of vengeance, rather than a symptom of mental illness. Senators had to pretend to believe that he conversed with the gods as an equal. Declaring himself divine gave him ever more humiliating ways to make them grovel — to rub their noses in the reality of his brute and unchecked power.
It was one-upsmanship on the grandest possible scale. Beyond a certain point, I’m not sure where anger ends and madness begins. But Winterling makes a plausible case that his reputation was worse than his behavior. The memory of their degradation by Caligula gave the aristocracy every reason to embellish his real cruelties with stories that were contrived later. In the period just after the emperor’s death, even his worst enemies never accused him of incest; that charge came decades afterwards.
Interesting, but here’s why I’m not convinced. Every early emperor (and really, every emperor) endured roughly the same political structure as Caligula, in the sense of struggling with plots from the Senate and having to deal with an unspecified power responsibilities.* Yet not every emperor has a reputation for insanity; some emperors were relatively well regarded by contemporaries, others regarded as cruel but effective, etc. Maybe Winterling explains how Caligula’s political maneuvering so enraged the contemporary elite (and let’s be clear, Suetonius is not a contemporary, suggesting that the perception of Caligula’s insanity was enduring) that they decided to depict him as more insane and tyrannical than every other Caesar, or maybe he was actually more insane and tyrannical than every other Caesar. Given that he was outlasted in that position by such prizes as Nero, Domitian, and Commodus, I’m inclined toward the latter interpretation. But then I haven’t read the book, so take with many grains of salt etc. etc.
It’s also worth noting that to the extent the Brass/Guccione/Vidal film has a political perspective on Caligula’s career, it mirrors Winterling’s argument; McDowell’s Caligula is crazy, but his craziness is a reaction to/accommodation of the paranoia and corruption of the contemporary Roman elite. Haven’t seen it in years (I mean… erm, ever), but to the best of my recollection we’re supposed to sympathize with Caligula at the end.
*This may deserve a post of its own, but the occasional comment over the years has made it necessary to point out that a monarchy and a dictatorship are not the same thing; the latter represents a much more direct relationship between head of state and political power than the former, which should really be understood as a mechanism for managing intra-elite relations in a feudal, pre-feudal, and quasi-feudal societies. Monarchies attempt (with often middling success) to minimize the impact of any given head of state, while dictatorships (in their 20th century form) attempt to maximize the individual power of the autocrat. The key virtue of a hereditary monarchy is to ameliorate problems of succession, which it does by creating a presumptive heir and by situating that heir within a traditional system of formal and informal limits on his power. The latter is necessary to managing the “blithering idiot” problem sometimes produced by the former. Obviously, monarchies historically often failed to deliver on one or the other of these promises, but the system nevertheless represents an effort to solve serious problems of political authority. In Rome, it was ideologically (and for a time constitutionally) impossible to maintain a true monarchy, even thought many emperors did hand off power in a quasi-hereditary fashion. However, I think it’s almost certainly true that a true monarchy, with a regularized system of transferring power and a set of formal and informal limits on the power of the emperor, would have been superior to the imperial system, which obviously failed to solve the “blithering idiot” problem on its own terms.
I think that this becomes clear when comparing “undergraduate textbook” discussions of Eastern monarchies versus European monarchies. Discussion of European dynastic history are even at this late date very personalistic, featuring discussion of the personal qualities of whatever Peter, Henry, Frederick, John et al happens to be the monarch in question, while backgrounding discussion of contextual dynastic issues. Undergraduate textbook versions of Chinese and Japanese history, however, are almost remarkable in the absence of actual individual monarchs, with the exception of a few dynastic founders. Rather, the emphasis in on the Qin, Han, Tang et al dynasties in the Chinese case, and the various imperial periods in the Japanese. This emphasizes that each dynasty/period was actually a system of governance with formal and informal rules, rather than simply a succession of hereditary monarchs. I think that historians can get away with this in the Asian context because undergraduates (not to mention reviewers, etc.) are far less familiar with the personalities in Asia than they are in Europe, and so don’t rage when the textbook excludes detailed discussion of the foibles of Richard the Lion Hearted et al.
My latest at WPR takes a look at the Russia-China arms trade:
By the middle of the last decade, however, the factors that made the relationship so strong had begun to subside. The sophistication and reliability of Chinese military equipment improved, while the quality of Russian industrial production declined. Some Russians also began to express concern about the growing military might of China, with which many border issues remain unsettled. By contrast, the military relationship between Russia and India appears to have remained relatively healthy, even in the face of recent disagreements over the price and delivery schedule of a refurbished Russian aircraft carrier.
The problem of intellectual property rights also looms large in the Sino-Russian arms trade. Russia remains concerned that China will not respect Russian intellectual property rights for arms transferred to China or licensed for Chinese production. Those concerns are well-founded. China’s lack of respect for intellectual property rights in civilian fieldsremains a sore spot with the United States. Moreover, China has clearly copied Russian weapon systems that were transferred in the past. While Russia and China have engaged in repeated discussions over intellectual property concerns in the past four years, China’s ability and interest in complying with Russian requirements remains suspect. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that Russia now views China as a major competitor in the international arms market. If Russia believes that sales to China will actively undercut the position of its exports to the rest of the world, then the future of Russia-China arms trade seems grim.
The major problems afflicting the Russia-China arms relationship can, in large part, be traced to China’s growing power and influence. Russian desperation and Chinese weakness produced a great match in the 1990s, but as the situations in Moscow and especially Beijing have improved, tensions have inevitably developed. The problem lies not simply with Russian fears of Chinese power, but also with China’s “natural” desire to play a global role commensurate with its strength. For China, this means becoming a major player in the international arms market, not to mention ignoring demands from Moscow and Washington that it reform its intellectual property policies.
Now this is some fascinating stuff:
In a defensive cooperation agreement signed in 1957, USSR agreed to increase cooperation in aerospace tactics training and theater level exercises. By that year, PLAAF had developed its first flight training manual based on the Soviet training manual plus experiences from Korean war and past training. From this point until 1964, PLAAF pilots regularly had about 122 hours of training a year, which matches Warsaw Pact standard. Even though PLAAF can see the importance of training, the ideological types in PRC leadership thought it was capitalistic to train. PLA has historically adopted a “people army” motto that relies on the large Chinese population and land mass and the ideological types wanted PLA to go back to that and to spend more time on communism ideology. Once the Cultural Revolution started, the ideological types won out in PLAAF’s development. By 1966, PLAAF pilots were averaging less than 24 hours of training a year. From 1968 to 1971, they only averaged 37 hours 16 min a year. Most J-6 pilots in charge of night missions had never fired out of aircraft gun let alone launched an AAM. Due to high accident rate from low training hours, the training program became more and more simple. Even the pilot selection program for PLAAF changed from selection based on performance to based on their obedience of Mao’s communist ideologies. Mao even gave orders to compress flight school program from 2 years and 4 months to 1 year. Much of the flight training and aircraft related manuals were destroyed as part of the Cultural Revolution, because that’s what happened to anything book or cultural related at that period. A a result of thse changes, new pilots had to return to flight school starting from 1973, because they couldn’t handle the PLAAF training. Only 6.2% of PLAAF could operate at night time and only 1% could operate during adverse weather conditions during night time.
I wonder if this also has something to do with the availability of fuel, the availability of munitions, and concerns about pilot defection. Nevertheless, the Cultural Revolution was crazy enough that it’s almost believable that young cadres found it excessively “capitalist” for fighter pilots to train in their aircraft…
I think Matt misses the truly insidious follow through of this:
I’ve been struck over the past three or four years by how many different Chinese people have expressed to me the view that the purpose of U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan is to establish a long-term presence there in order to encircle the PRC. This would not, as a policy objective, make much sense, but I think it does illustrate the important fact that Chinese people have a China-centric view of the world.
If you want to see how foreign policy commitments metastasize, think this through: If the Chinese believe that the United States is in Afghanistan in order to encircle China (and to be sure, I don’t think this), then a US withdrawal from Afghanistan becomes a “win” for China, even if Chinese beliefs were without foundation. If the Chinese believe that the American encirclement project has failed, then they might be inclined to take more aggressive steps in some other part of the world that touches on “genuine” US national security interests.
And thus, we need to stay in Afghanistan in order to make the Chinese believe that we’re committed to the encirclement project, even if we’re not interested in the encirclement project. It’s right there in the Schelling, and Kissinger would totally understand.
China, India and Japan do not appear to be on the verge of breaking the bank in an effort to match each other’s construction. Still, from a vantage point of 10 or 20 years out, it might make sense for the Asian powers to think in terms of regulating their naval competition. India, China and Japan can all accomplish their national goals with a limited number of carriers. At some point, additional construction would simply spur the competitors to overbuild. A well-designed treaty on naval arms limitations would recognize economic and power imbalances between the three, take into account strategic realities and try to hold competition to within certain parameters. The motivating logic behind such a limitation runs as follows: India, China and Japan would each be as secure with four carriers as they would with eight, so long as they are assured that the others will not build eight themselves.
Over twitter, Dan Trombly suggests that the real arms race is for undersea assets. That’s an interesting claim, but whether or not it’s true there still might be good cause to limit carrier construction. Arms races happen because of military insecurity, but also because of prestige imbalance; even if China, India, and Japan want CVs primarily for prestige reasons, they still might be inclined to overbuild in order to match each other. My specific thoughts on submarine limitation are here.
In my latest WPR column, I discuss the old Red Dawn, the new Red Dawn, and the reluctance of the current crop of GOP presidential aspirants to focus on the security aspect of US relations with China:
For the most part, candidates for the GOP presidential nomination have avoided inflammatory rhetoric about the military threat represented by China. While former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has warned of the dangers of an electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) attack against the United States, China specifically does not figure prominently in his rhetoric. Rep. Michelle Bachman’s critique of China is limited mostly to the economic realm,saying recently, “With all the money that we owe China, I think you might correctly say, Hu’s your daddy.” One of the selling points for John Huntsman’s candidacy is the business opportunities generated by his recent ambassadorship to China. Similarly, Mitt Romneyhas emphasized China’s role as both an economic competitor and economic partner, more than as a military threat. Tim Pawlenty has argued that the United States should try to achieve China-like rates of GDP growth. Of the notable Republican candidates, only Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania has sounded a note of warning about China’s military ambitions, faulting President Barack Obama for “acquiescence to China’s saber-rattling in the South China Sea.”
“Some nations have strategic oil reserves. Some keep grain reserves. China has both, and something others have somehow overlooked: a national pork reserve.”
China is releasing a portion of its pork reserves. I’m sure this has some vague impact on global economic security, and I’m peeved at the Obama Administration for failing to anticipate the need for such a reserve of our own.