VP Pence China Speech

Hours after VP Pence spoke today about China, Foreign Policy published a piece that laying out five takeaways.[1]

“Linking Hong Kong and trade talks”

“Hong Kong is a living example of what can happen when China embraces liberty,” Pence said, before offering an unusual note of support for an official in an administration that has often been reluctant to embrace protest movements. “We are inspired by you,” he added. “Know that you have the prayers and the admiration of millions of Americans.”

Pence

“China is becoming a great cudgel in the culture wars”

“Some of the NBA’s biggest players and owners, who routinely exercise their freedom to criticize this country, lose their voices when it comes to the freedom and rights of the people of China,” Pence said on Thursday. “In siding with the Chinese Communist Party and silencing free speech, the NBA is acting like a wholly owned subsidiary of the authoritarian regime.”

Pence

“Settling the great ‘decoupling’ debate”

“People sometimes ask whether the Trump administration seeks to ‘decouple’ from China,” Pence said on Thursday. “The answer is a resounding ‘no.’”Rather than isolate Beijing, Pence said the United States seeks “engagement with China and China’s engagement with the wider world but engagement in a manner consistent with fairness, mutual respect, and the international rules of commerce.”

Pence

“Emphasizing the intellectual property theft debate”

“American enterprises continue to lose hundreds of billions of dollars each year in intellectual property theft.”

Pence

“The political meddling bugaboo”

“Beijing’s economic and strategic actions, its attempts to shape American public opinion, prove out what I said a year ago, and it’s just as true today: China wants a different American president.”

Pence

Obviously none of this is real news, it is really more of a slow reveal. The 2017 National Security Strategy mentioned China 33 times by name, twice as much as Obamas’s last version. [2] Trump’s NSS specifically called out China and identified mounting threats where Obama’s focused on engagement. Trump’s document, in short, called on all the domains of US power to compete and combat China in every area of importance. This was a nuanced but direct shift in US policy. VP Pence’s words today are merely part of a progressively elaborating articulation of this strategy.

Trump’s next NSS document is due out in 2020 and I suspect it will be less nuanced and more direct in relation to China.

If you are like me years ago you may not grasp the importance of the NSS document. I took public policy classes in college where it was discussed but I garnered it was merely another piece of government paperwork, perhaps more political than anything. It was really not until Command and General Staff College that I realized how important the document is. The moment it is released all the machinery of government stops, reads it, and shifts gears to operationalize the strategy. Every word, every sentence, the choice of words, all are important, nuanced and have great meaning. All the nations of the world read it too and plan and react accordingly. There is perhaps no piece of paper of greater importance released by a US president in the modern era. Before the 2017 document hit the streets parties internal and external to the government began lobbying for their version fo what the 2020 document should say.

For decades, U.S. policy was rooted in the belief that support for China’s rise and for its integration into the post-war international order would liberalize China. Contrary to our hopes, China expanded its power at the expense of the sovereignty of others. China gathers and exploits data on an unrivaled scale and spreads features of its authoritarian system, including corruption and the use of surveillance. It is building the most capable and well-funded military in the world, after our own. Its nuclear arsenal is growing and diversi ing. Part of China’s military modernization and economic expansion is due to its access to the U.S. innovation economy, including America’s world-class universities.

2017 US NSS

In early 2018 the DoD released its National Defense Strategy one of the dozens of such documents that follow the release of the NSS and implement the strategy within various domains.

In June 2019, the DoD established a separate office to focus exclusively on China.

“The inward part [is] to help us drive alignment on China across the department as we carry out our National Defense Strategy and its implementation. … A lot of that is to help us internally, with the Joint Staff and the services, to make their respective decisions”

Randall Schriver, the assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs [3]

This is the only such office at the DoD level focused exclusively on one country. Trump absolutely meant what he said in his NSS that China is his focus.

Trump’s 2020 budget reflects his focus on China.

To a remarkable degree, the 2020 Pentagon budget proposal is shaped by national security threats that acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan has summarized in three words: “China, China, China.”

AP [4]

The South China Morning Post reports that the US conducted four separate training operations in August and September focused on China. [5]

  • A sealift exercise designed to move heavy Army divisions
  • Joint land-to-ship missle exercises with Japan
  • US-Asean naval exercise with 10 pacific nations, Four of which – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam – have territorial disputes with Beijing over the South China Sea.
  • Finally, US Marines conducted airfield- and island-seizure drills in the East and South China seas, near the Philippines and around the Japanese island of Okinawa

I have personally argued for years that we were spending blood and treasure in the wrong places and focusing on the wrong goals strategically. If I were to be a hawk, I am not, I would have been hawkish on China for years. Whether this course is right or wrong, and I believe it is certainly part of what we should refocus on, only time will tell.

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  1. Foreign Policy, BY ELIAS GROLL | OCTOBER 24, 2019, 5:15 PM https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/10/24/mike-pence-hawkish-china-speech-hong-kong/
  2. US National Security Strategy, 2017, https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/NSS-Final-12-18-2017-0905.pdf
  3. Defense News 1 OCT 2019, https://www.defensenews.com/pentagon/2019/10/01/the-pentagon-has-created-a-new-office-solely-focused-on-china-is-that-a-good-idea/
  4. PBS NewsHour Weekend, Nation Mar 16, 2019 1:19 PM EDT https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/new-us-military-budget-focused-on-china-despite-border-talk
  5. South China Morning Post, Published: 6:00pm, 21 Sep, 2019 https://www.scmp.com/news/china/military/article/3029774/growing-rivalry-between-china-and-us-plays-out-military-war

China: The Rising Dragon

Herein I will argue points that many know as facts but seldom are the implications of these facts, taken together holistically, discussed for their wider meaning. China is a great power, historically and currently, and it is increasing in economic, diplomatic and military strength at a rapid pace. China benefits from a centralized system of governance that seems to be exercising realpolitik on the global stage in a masterful way. The country benefits from a homogeneous population, and in the case where homogeneity does not exists, such as the Uyghurs, China is currently undertaking drastic and brutal steps to stamp out nonconformity. Furthermore, China leads the world in the application of the use of technology to suppress dissent and disagreement, both within its borders and abroad.

These facts combine to make China a deadly enemy to the West, western culture and the idea of liberal democracy. The threat does not manifest directly through military action, the application of economic and soft-power is proving perfectly suited to the expansionary goals at the moment. If and when direct military conflict becomes a reality with the West it will simply be too late for western democracies to oppose it.

Let me state upfront I am certainly not an advocate of the methods and style of China. I state that their advantage of a centralized government and extensive social controls is such only because the West has failed to actually adhere to the principles of good governance and culture that would otherwise decide this growing conflict long before it began. The West lost its way long ago. We have toyed with progressivism and socialism but have not perfected it the way China has, thus we have a defective hybrid system – not quite the City on the Hill and not quite a socialist dystopia. We have dismissed the homogeneity of culture enforced by the Chinese in favor of a sort of diversity that creates pockets of dissent and disagreement at all levels – we simply cannot agree enough to compete with a monolith. In essence, all of the great ideas of Western Civilization regarding good governance based upon first principles have been abandoned for an ineffective hybrid system.

Chinese history begins perhaps around 2070 BC. This is an important fact from an analysis of current geopolitics because that long history informs and shapes the narrative of the Chinese people, as crafted by the Chinese government. It provides context, lessons, pride and patience. Throughout the history of China there have been ebbs and flows in terms of power, in the last century great embarrassment; in prior centuries moments of great invention in the arts and sciences. This feeds a narrative that builds a sense of expectation. The Chinese know they are a great people with great potential and the government makes full use of this.

Lessons from the Ming Dynasty and the Treasure Fleet

Between 1405 and 1433 China dispatched seven great treasure fleets to ports throughout the Indian Ocean. This merchant navy was unrivaled in the world, no other nation could conceive of building ships of the size and complexity contained within these seven fleets. The largest of these ships had a displacement of about 1/2 of a modern US aircraft carrier. The mission of these fleets was essentially shock and awe, they did not need to go get trade, anyone and everyone came to China to trade. This was a statement of great power. In 1433 the Ming Dynasty suddenly stopped sending the fleets and either burned the ships or allowed them to rot in harbor.

China then vastly expanded the Great Wall, passed laws to forbid further foreign trade via the sea and entered an internal period for almost 500 years. During this period China culturally became the China we recognize, Han, and it was still powerful. However, relative to the West, that power, in terms of technology wained. By the late 1800’s European powers were threatening China on the mainland. By the 1900’s the Chinese were being humiliated at home.

Two lessons derive from this.

First, from a Chinese perspective, the notion that soft-power must be pushed forward, throughout the world is important. No matter how many internal resources, no matter what program of internal improvements China must control or influence centers of power else it will be dominated again.

Perhaps a lesson Americans should take from this is similar. Building walls and disengaging will have long term consequences. Perhaps America needs a long period like the Chinese Qing Dynasty to get culture right. These are questions for another discussion. However, Chinese retraction in 1433 certainly had long-term, positive and negative consequences for the Chinese. (Building walls may be important to maintain order and respect the rule of law, the lesson to be taken is perhaps not against physical walls but rather against isolationism.)

The Way Ahead

I do not intend to overburden my arguments with the inclusion of multiple data points related to the Chinese economy. I would refer you to this Congressional Research Service report from Morch 2019. I would note that the numbers are grim but the assessment less grim, although not bright. The report writers see challenges for China in terms of local debt, I predict the centralized system and expanding economy will easily overcome these.

Areas of Chinese Advantage

The Road and Belt Initiative will continue to give China inroads and access to trade and resources throughout central Asia.

BRICs, the accumulation of physical gold and US dollars will threaten the current economic system and set the stage for a new one.

Industrial espionage, state-sponsored, will close the remaining technological gaps.

Parity and potential advantages in the Cyber domain will threaten to destabilize economies and societies.

Growing Chinese power and influence will – without a doubt – alter the nature of free speech, rights and the flow of information. This is already occurring and will only increase. China will rule, by default, areas of our life without ever firing a shot.

Lastly, the Chinese seem to have mastered two concepts that bode poorly for the ordinary man; state-supported capitalism and a strong central government. They have taken what was good of the Soviet Union and dispensed with the bad and taken from the West the engine that makes an economy grow while avoiding any of the political philosophies that might protect the citizen. If their model works, if their system wins, 1984 is conceivably within the future of mankind.

Addendum (other points to consider):

Some experts assess current Chinese cyber capabilities as lagging compared to the West and the US, I suspect this is true only by a slight margin. (read “What Are China’s Cyber Capabilities and Intentions?” for an overview of the standard assessment.)

Two considerations are particularly worrying.

First, China’s stated strategic goals coupled with a marshaling of state resources to achieve that goal will close the current gap quickly.

Second, and more worrying. China will likely develop quantum computing first. Quantum computing will change everything. The playing field that exists prior to the first quantum computer going online will simply not matter. The first nation to develop this technology wins. Developing one second or third may actually not matter so much – as soon as a quantum computer comes online all secrets, industrial, military and others are vulnerable.