A Netflix Assessment of China’s Rise and America’s Advantage
In a smartphone world it’s easy to see China rise, but have we forgotten our other senses? This exercise in think tank voyeurism has become a distracting mirage, from CSIS’s aerial photos of the Great Wall of Sand to the Lowy Institute’s Technicolor chart of China’s worldwide diplomatic reach. It’s all as eye-popping as Superman’s red cape: Look! China’s so high! It’s a carrier! It’s a plane! It’s Suuu-per Missile! And then RAND’s watchful eye scoops it all up, with a ringside boxing judge’s “scorecard” for all to view.
But maybe it’s our unblinking, screen-obsessed eyes that deceive us. Instead of focusing on the mano a mano with China, perhaps we should consider another Big Red Rise: Netflix. Because when we do, we’ll find the third offset is more than gadgets, and really about the intersection of our allies and technology, underpinned by deep defense diplomacy. That said, on with the show.
Netflix claims 70 million subscribers in 190 countries, on par with China’s 162 embassies and 87 consulates. The global television network features shows such as Marco Polo, which follows the eponymous Western traveler struggling to understand China. If America’s still keen on rebalancing to the Pacific, maybe there’s something to learn from a company that actuated a successful pivot of its own, from the physical DVD disc to online streaming. We might use one red monolith to understand another in a modified net assessment, which Andrew Marshall defined in 1972 as a “description of the comparative situation of ourselves and our rivals” to highlight our “areas of comparative advantage.” So let’s put on those red-tinted spectacles.
Netflix’s Daredevil is about a blind lawyer, Matt Murdock, who lost his sight at age nine in an accident, but was trained by a similarly sightless sensei named Stick into an expert martial artist. Daredevil sees without sight, having developed his other senses to the degree that they tell him much more about the world than a normally sighted person. When an opponent approaches, Daredevil hears heartbeats, gauges mood, calculates weaknesses, notices “tells” through sweat rates — he’s quick to understand threats with a penetrating, personal sonar. As a daytime lawyer, he possesses a strong analytical mind undistracted by vision and so easily differentiates the merely visible from the clearly important.
If Daredevil assessed China’s growth, he would reach beneath the surface, as an attorney seeks underlying causes, and point to China’s impending demographic crisis. As the saying goes, China will get old before it gets rich. China’s hard infrastructure, which can be seen (e.g. trains), seems impressive at times — but China’s soft infrastructure, which goes unseen (e.g. property rights) is very weak, as James Fallows has pointed out. Sometimes when you stop looking, you can see a whole lot more.
Even at night, Daredevil would feel the “red alert” pollution in China — Beijing is a city of 20 million people who never open their windows. Even if Daredevil’s eyes worked, he could look directly at the sun from a Beijing rooftop, because clouds of dirty smoke would shield them from damage. In the other direction, he could reach to touch the soil and find an ecologically vulnerable country: China possess 20 percent of the world’s population, but only 7 percent of the world’s water — and 80 percent of what little they have is polluted, according to a recent survey of over 2,100 wells. China has “trust issues” with its sky, air, and water, and that means problems.
China has even more “trust issues” with its neighbors; Daredevil would hear these neighbors sound the alarm. In the Indo-Asia Pacific, that’s pretty much everybody, lately: Vietnam, the Philippines, Japan changed their rules and upped the budget, and even New Zealand hedged against China with a new partnership with the United States aimed at getting everybody to forget their ANZUS pullout.
In this modified net assessment, the blind man is king. Daredevil would find China might look tough to some in the near term, but certainly looks fragile to all in the long run, as it becomes increasingly susceptible to the Four Nots: not enough kids, not enough air, not enough water, not enough friends. As Harvard’s Stephen Rosen put it, “our job is to keep the Chinese from exploiting their momentary, decade-long, period of opportunity.” Daredevil would agree and use his senses to assess that we might lose geographically in a few battles, but win demographically in the long war. Even if China carves out some additional room for maneuver, it will never dominate the Pacific. China’s rise is therefore limited.
Even still, China’s recent growth demands response. In this case, the buzz around Washington’s water coolers is the third offset strategy. Orchestrating the discussion is Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work, who has framed the debate and made clear the third offset strategy is “all about” ways to make “the human better, not to make the machines better.” He says “it’s about human-machine collaborative combat networks” to “sustain and advance America’s military dominance for the 21st Century.” Work characterizes America’s unique advantages: our joint culture, industrial base, and bevy of tech-savvy young people. That all sounds good, and true, but is it complete? Is that all?
There must be more. So far what’s been presented has a fairly tactical focus, as another writer categorized the current state of the third offset: “putting the technology cart before the strategy horse.” While Work has pegged the third offset to the two-toned man-machine relationship, we live in a three-dimensional world, and it’s time to build a necessary third leg to make this third offset a sturdy strategic stool. It’s time to add one more ingredient, America’s most important comparative, qualitative advantage: allies. Here we can turn to Netflix again, but this time, we must deviate from Daredevil.
Sense8 is another new Netflix series, created in partnership with the Wachowskis of Matrix trilogy fame. The show is about eight strangers from different parts of the world who suddenly find themselves linked mentally, emotionally, and empathetically. It’s a science fiction show with a decidedly cultural angle, exploring themes like identity, sexuality, gender, and religion. The characters are from entirely different worlds: a cop in Chicago, a transgender woman hacktivist in San Francisco, a bus driver in Nairobi, a South Korean businesswoman and kickboxer, a closeted gay actor in Mexico City, a devout and highly educated female pharmacist in Mumbai, a safe-cracker and hitman in Berlin, and an Icelandic DJ living in London. These eight experience a horrifying, common vision, and afterwards they are “sensate” — able to use their senses to communicate and access each other’s language, knowledge, and skills. For example, if you’re the cop in Chicago and need to speak Korean or hack a computer, now you can. If you’re the bus driver in Kenya being chased through a slum, you can call upon the abilities of a pharmacist, hitman, or actor — to think, fight, or talk your way out of a jam. This is what the third offset should be about.
America’s comparative advantage is allies. Lots of them. But it’s not about numbers, just as it isn’t about individual American strength. Power isn’t just what one country can do; it’s about what you can do alongside your allies. Networked strength. In this way, America is sensate — the central hub that connects multiple important allies across the Indo-Asia Pacific. American strength derives from this nexus of allies and technology, which is critically important because technology only matters insofar as it can be used to advance political objectives. Being sensate is our comparative advantage, as Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew once told Joseph Nye: “China can draw on a talent pool of 1.3 billion people, but the US can draw on the world’s 7 billion.” How do we leverage this advantage?
In America’s case, in the Indo-Pacific, it will take deep defense diplomacy — a sustained and systemic national commitment to a defense relationship with another country, consisting of platforms, practice, plans, and people.
Platforms are what most think of when they think third offset, but the problem here is that America’s development of standalone, myopic technology makes us “dominant, but irrelevant.” Instead, we want technology that ties us to our allies in mutually beneficial ways. They’re not always sexy; some examples include THAAD to bolster South Korea’s missile defense, the U.S.-India Defense Technology and Trade Initiative, and even the re-gifting of a U.S. Coast Guard ship to become the “flagship of the Philippine Navy.” The Australians are poised to buy submarines from the Japanese, a deal the U.S. is encouraging for the “long-term strategic benefits to the U.S. and the region of an inter-operable fleet of Australian and Japanese conventional submarines equipped with U.S. combat systems.” And say what you will about the F-35 fighter, but it’s aligned the United States with the air forces of at least eleven countries through the program’s eight other development partner countries and three early buyers. Technology exchange binds us to our allies, and these allies augment our own capabilities. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates once noted the U.S. Navy’s battle fleet exceeded “at least the next 13 navies combined” — which is great — but what was even more impressive was that 11 of those 13 navies belonged to our allies or partners.
Practice matters: Who we train with impacts who we can fight effectively with. Consider the U.S. Army’s Pacific Pathways program, which sends Army brigades to train in Thailand, Korea, and the Philippines; another brigade goes to Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia. A third will join the “Tiger Balm” exercise in Singapore, Rim of the Pacific (the world’s largest naval exercise with 20+ participating countries) in Hawaii, “Arctic Anvil” in Alaska with Canadian forces, and “Orient Shield” in Japan. One calendar year, three brigades, touching the entire Indo-Asia Pacific — and that’s not even our first-string amphibious force.
Planning is everything for those with short haircuts (read: military personnel), and here we find significant international interdependence. There’s the Australian invasion in American higher headquarters: one Royal Australian Air Force brigadier general serves as the Deputy Director of U.N. Command Strategy, Plans, and Policy, part of the command structure in Korea. In Hawaii, there’s an Australian major general serving as the Deputy Commanding General for Operations at U.S. Army Pacific. Down closer to the pointy end of things, U.S. First Armored Division’s Deputy Commanding General – Operations is a British brigadier general, and U.S. Second Infantry Division (now also known as the R.O.K.-U.S. Combined Division) includes a Korean brigadier general as the unit’s Deputy Commanding General. While some might be tempted to dismiss these titles, those in uniform recognize these are powerful positions deeply involved in writing important plans.
People win wars; ultimately, it’s not really about the technology. Human relationships matter, and this is the closest to sensate we can get. We are enmeshed, individually, with our allies. Far-flung New Zealand Defence Minister Phil Goff lost his nephew, a West Point graduate fighting for the coalition in Afghanistan (and three of Goff’s other nephews fight on in American uniforms). Closer to home, note the British exchange officer currently spending a (punishment?) tour at the Pentagon, who recently made a clever contribution to the conversation on third offset. Beyond this, I’ve conducted my own quantitative research into generalship and senior officer networks and found that, aside from their own nationalities, Australian and New Zealand general officers turn to American peers for advice rather than their closer, extra-national colleagues. So Kiwis turn to Americans over Australians, and Australians turn to Americans over Kiwis. Awkward for them, maybe, but certainly good for the United States.
During an interview, an Australian brigadier general, Mick Ryan, explained what he calls “second order networks,” which essentially mean: If I trust one Australian, I’m primed to trust all Australians. There’s a corollary: I can connect to an Australian who can, in turn, connect me to an Indonesian officer, likely via Ikahan, the formal Australian-Indonesian military networking program. Good links propagate.
I’ve also been shaped by my own global military experiences on this point, having had significant strategic engagements in 11 other countries, all of them allies or partners. I know what drinks to order, where, and why (soju in Korea), I can talk rugby with New Zealanders, basketball with Israelis, hockey with Canadians, and yet still retain enough Americanness to find cricket indecent and offensive to humanity. Those soft skills grease the engine of coalition warfare.
I’m not unique in this. I’m not even a foreign area officer, whose range of experiences are exponentially greater and who commonly possess an inky passport that makes mine appear empty. The point is you can drop many American military officers into a setting with officers from other countries, and we’ll be able to break past cultural and linguistic differences to fight uncommonly well. China can’t match this, and setting up a few Confucius Institutes won’t make up the gap anytime soon.
Here’s how the next few decades will go in the Indo-Asia Pacific: China will carve out some space, perhaps excluding us a bit, but will never dominate. Security teeters between a sense of surplus and scarcity; as China exerts a more bullying influence, it will trigger instability that drives our allies closer to us. And so the Chinese will fail to command the Indo-Asia Pacific for one simple and unavoidable reason: everyone else.
Robert Kagan once wrote that “Superpowers don’t get to retire,” and he was right — the best ones simply find another way to win. For us, our way is to recognize that allies are our comparative, qualitative advantage. If Netflix’s Daredevil and Sense8 provide any guide, our goal should be to preserve deep defense diplomatic connections with at least eight onshore balancing strategic partners in the Indo-Pacific. At least two of these, India and Japan, will never fall into China’s sphere of influence. That leaves six more for the United States to achieve a sort of Fabian octopus to keep China tangled up in tentacles until domestic concerns assert primacy and Beijing no longer represents an expansionist threat. The smart move in Pacific geostrategy used to be about division and Sino-Soviet splitting; today, the smart move is about connection and deep defense diplomacy. We should aspire to be social foxes, leaving China as a lonely hedgehog.
So don’t look to China. Don’t look to U.S. high-technological advances. Instead, use your other senses: The third offset is about the intersection of our allies and technology, and deep defense diplomacy on the way to bonding us to critical Indo-Asia Pacific allies. Interestingly, the number eight is symbolically important, considered “lucky” in China (that’s why the Olympics started on 8/8/08), so you’d think they’d be naturally inclined to watch a program with “8” in the title. Unfortunately, China is part of an axis of outsiders, the only three countries on earth that can’t get Netflix, along with Syria and North Korea.
Netflix: just another technology connecting America to its global allies, dividing China from the rest of the world.
ML Cavanaugh is a U.S. Army Strategist, a Non Resident Fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point, and has served in assignments from Iraq to the Pentagon, and Norway to New Zealand. A Contributor at War on the Rocks, he looks forward to connecting via Twitter @MLCavanaugh. This essay is an unofficial expression of opinion; the views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of West Point, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or any agency of the U.S. government.
Photo credit: Yvonne Esperanza