This Week at War: China Backs Down for Now

U.S.-China ties seemed to be on the mend at this week's ASEAN summit.

Here is the latest edition of my column at Foreign Policy:

Topics include:

1) Did Gates get China to back away from the South China Sea?

2) Can the Pentagon innovate like its small rivals?

Did Gates get China to back away from the South China Sea?

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates's appearance at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) defense ministers meeting in Hanoi this week seemed to produce some welcome diplomatic developments. During a meeting with Gen. Liang Guanglie, the Chinese defense minister, Gates was invited to make an official visit to China. Gates had pleaded with his Chinese counterparts to reopen military-to-military contacts, which were cut off last winter after the U.S. government announced new arms sales to Taiwan. A second development, much welcomed by both U.S. officials and ASEAN leaders, was the absence of any renewed territorial claims by China over the South China Sea. Indeed, Liang explained that China's military modernization "is not aimed to challenge or threaten anyone." He did not repeat a recent Chinese claim that its possession of the South China Sea constituted a "core interest." China's demand earlier this year to change the South China Sea from a maritime "commons" to Chinese territory would have forced much of East Asia's commercial shipping to travel through Chinese territory, a demand that alarmed both the United States and countries in the region.

Just a few years ago, ASEAN leaders took pride in the fact that the United States was excluded from their club. But with the rapid buildup of Chinese naval and air power in the area, U.S. policymakers like Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are now warmly welcomed at the group's meetings. Clinton's appearance in July at an earlier ASEAN meeting in Hanoi began the pushback against China's claim to the South China Sea. Gates's follow-up this week may have delivered the desired effect.

An unexpectedly strong backlash in the region may have prompted the Chinese to retreat. Chinese leaders may have been surprised by the resistance of ASEAN's leaders and the sharp response in Tokyo over the recent Chinese fishing boat incident in the Senkaku Islands. Chinese leaders have likely concluded that a tactical retreat is wiser than risking stiffening resistance in the region. China took steps to patch up its relationship with Japan; after Japan released the Chinese fishing boat captain, China released four Japanese workers it had seized. China also unfroze diplomatic contact when Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao agreed to meet on Oct. 4 with Japan Prime Minister Naoto Kan in Brussels.

The Clinton and Gates visits to Hanoi undoubtedly bolstered the confidence of those in the region who were —to push back against Beijing. But just as Liang attempted to persuade his audience that they should not fear China's intentions, Gates also tried to persuade China's leaders that they should not fear the current Pax Americana in the western Pacific. In his remarks to the ASEAN forum, Gates declared, "The United States has always exercised our rights and supported the rights of others to transit through, and operate in, international waters. This will not change." Thus, Gates assured the Chinese, your maritime commerce is safe with us.

But how likely are China's leaders to be reassured? Three decades of rapid Chinese economic growth is evidence that Pax Americana in the western Pacific has worked for China. But the rapid buildup of Chinese naval and air power, with intentions to project military power beyond Taiwan and deep into the Pacific, is evidence that Chinese policymakers are not satisfied with the U.S. Navy taking responsibility for securing their critical shipping lanes.

Gates hopes that more frequent contacts between U.S. and Chinese military leaders will dilute mutual suspicions. Although such efforts cannot hurt, U.S. policymakers should not expect such contacts by themselves to bring an end to China's naval buildup or the challenge that buildup presents to U.S. alliances and diplomatic efforts in the region. The task for Gates and his successors is to establish a long-term defense program that will continue to reassure U.S. allies and the ASEAN leaders with whom Clinton and Gates have recently had such good results. Leaders in the region will be watching the Pentagon's commitment to its Pacific Fleet and how that commitment rates compared to the expense of the war in Afghanistan.

Can the Pentagon innovate like its small rivals?

Is the "Western way of war," characterized by large national militaries equipped with expensive high-tech weapons, now obsolete? Ten years ago this week, suicide bombers in Yemen's Aden harbor fooled USS Cole's high-tech defenses. The 9/11 attackers bypassed all of the North American Aerospace Defense Command's meticulous preparations for defending U.S. airspace. The Fort Hood shooting and the attempted terrorist attacks over Detroit, and in Times Square all show globally connected conspirators evading traditional Western concepts of military and border defenses.

Are we now witnessing a new "revolution in military affairs" that threatens to scrap the Western way of war, and in the process make redundant the trillions of dollars the United States and other countries have invested in defense? Writing in Small Wars Journal, Maj. Tripp McCullar, a U.S. Army Special Forces officer currently assigned to the Defense Intelligence Agency, argues that the revolution in information technology will asymmetrically benefit small and weak nation-states and nonstate actors, allowing them to challenge the traditional military dominance of large powers.

McCullar asserts that the spread of information technology will empower previously weak actors with several critical means to outmaneuver large established rivals. The information revolution is already spreading mass-destruction weapons technology, which formerly was a monopoly held by the large powers. Second, McCullar observes that mass-destruction weapons in the hands of formerly small weak groups will make the traditional Western way of war, with massed armies and fleets, obsolete. Third, the information revolution allows small groups to mobilize support anywhere and especially "behind the lines" of traditional Western defenses. Finally, this ability to use social information technology for mobilization and organization trumps the West's traditional military advantages in strategic mobility and logistics.

Large traditional powers such as the U.S. military have the same or greater access to information technology as their small weak rivals. McCullar's thesis relies on an assumption that small adversaries have a greater ability and incentives to innovate using information technology than do supposedly large ponderous behemoths like the U.S. Department of Defense. The small actor's advantage in rapid innovation is the subject of The Diffusion of Military Power by Michael Horowitz, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. Horowitz argues that financial capacity and "organizational capital" (a military institution's ability to flexibly adopt disruptive innovations) determine how particular military innovations spread to other military organizations. For example, aircraft carriers are both very expensive and culturally disruptive to established navies and therefore have been adopted by very few.

Most dreaded by traditional Western powers like the United States are those military innovations that require little financial capacity but high "organizational capital." Drawing from research on organizational adaptation and innovation, Horowitz argues that large old organizations have developed entrenched interests that resist disruptive innovations. Small new groups by contrast can more rapidly adopt such advances. Horowitz cites the diffusion of suicide terrorism as an example of a military innovation requiring low financial capacity and high organizational flexibility. Operating within Horowitz's framework, McCullar might foresee small adaptive groups using information technology to diffuse mass-destruction weapons to mobilized networks before traditional authorities can respond.

All is not lost for large established organizations like the U.S. military. Its level of organizational capital depends on the extent to which its culture promotes experimentation, responds to feedback from the field, encourages the mavericks in its ranks, and is —to support innovative ideas that might ultimately fail. In the world McCullar and Horowitz describe, the U.S. military needs to constantly improve on these measures if it is to remain relevant.

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Sounds like the old "two steps forward, one step back" from China if you ask me.

Don't all governments play that game? Push the bidding when your hand is strong, fold it when it's weak, push til you meet resistance, step back a little, probe a bit, see where there's space to move... normal international relations, no?

Referring back to conversations on another thread, I find it fascinating that if the US or Japan "backs down" on an issue - or fails to press an issue to its most confrontational level - it's a "humiliating climb down", but when China does the same it's a devious plot. Possibly this tells us something about your preconceived assumptions about the various parties?

Sounds like the old "two steps forward, one step back" from China if you ask me.

Good post, Bill M. This, in particular is often overlooked or discounted:

"...we had systems in place to prevent hijackings, but people failed to do their job (human error will always be a risk..."

Fortunately or unfortunately, so is this:

"...and we all know our foes have had more than their fair share of getting it wrong)"

Yea, verily -- and a good thing for us. It's fortunate they do err, it's unfortunate that we do not acknowledge that and admit that often only their error saved us from a debacle...

We make a lot of unnecessary errors due to misplaced priorities and flawed policies but the Troops generally pull the ol' fat out of the fire; they and the opposition's incompetence have saved this nation on more than one occasion...

Your final clause in that paragraph is also spot on:

"...so the asymmetric advantage only goes so far."

True. We often forget that all smart combatants strive for asymmetry at all times. We do that really well.

Sadly, mostly only when when unleashed and not over supervised...

The author cite's Maj. Tripp McCullar's ideas on innovation enabled by information technology leveling the playing field and giving the small guy an asymmetrical advantage over the larger opponent. Interesting arguments that IMO are only true to an extent, but IMO he used weak arguments to support his arguments. First off the 9/11 attacks and USS Cole attacks had little to do with information technology. Second, we had systems in place to prevent hijackings, but people failed to do their job (human error will always be a risk, and we all know our foes have had more than their fair share of getting it wrong). Third, while these types of attacks can have strategic effects, they do not defeat other nations (large militaries on the other hand can thoroughly defeat other nations), so the asymmetric advantage only goes so far.

It can also be argued that larger countries, just like larger companies, can innovate quicker because they have more resources and frequently more intellectual capital. While some institutions tend to get stagnate in their traditions/norms and fail to adapt, that clearly is not a truism for all large corporations. It is also not true for the U.S. Army, Air Force, or Marines, and it even appears that China is rapidly adapting its foreign, military and economic models.

In short, large militaries with modern weapons are hardly obsolete. There is a reason ASEAN is pushing to get closer to the U.S., and that is because they desire the protective umbrella of our military forces against a more assertive China.

However, the author IMO is still right that our military will not be poised to counter emerging threats (that has also been a truism throughout history). Technology advances have always been part of history, but today we have the interesting convergence of information technology, globalism, identity politics (in addition to nationalism) and economic trends that IMO points to a potentially significantly different threat than we're currently postured to defend against in the near future.

We'll still need our large military for the forseeable future, as recently validated by China's actions. More than likely the large military will maintain an uneasy peace, while the failure to maintain one would likely open Pandora's box. However, in addition to maintaining a credible military to defend against the old, but persistant threat of war, we also need to develop defense capabilities to defend against That is the million to trillion dollar question. Bill