war on the rocks

Never Say Never: China’s Rise is About the Art of the Possible

April 22, 2016

Will China dominate the Pacific? Impossible. Or so we are told by M.L. Cavanaugh, a U.S. Army strategist and War on the Rocks contributor. In a unique article that uses Netflix shows such as “Daredevil” and “Sense8” to explain how we should view the rise of China, Cavanaugh tell us, “Even if China carves out some additional room for maneuver, it will never dominate the Pacific. China’s rise is therefore limited.” He points to China’s purportedly inauspicious demographics and lack of allies especially to explain why this is the case.

I am curious about what the U.S. military is teaching its strategists that one would use the word “never” in writing about the future and about strategy. If politics is about the art of the possible, I’d suggest that “never” should be reserved for changes in laws of physics — and even then, there are circumstances where it’s much more “extremely improbable” rather than “never.”

After all, Nazis and Communists would never align and cooperate with each other. And Sunni and Shia would never work together. In Asia, China could “never” work with Vietnam. The trouble is, all these nevers have happened.

Television shows may be interesting mechanisms to make comparisons to all sorts of things, but this kind of thinking can too often lead to a poor understanding of what is possible in the real world. Coupled with the absolutism embodied in “never,” it allows for unconscious reductio ad absurdum, where others are really just like us, operating in a world of “always” and “never” that, coincidentally, matches Hollywood’s concept of what is possible, what is acceptable, what can and cannot happen.

In reality, allies are important, but as we have seen with Saudi Arabia, France (think Charles de Gaulle) and Taiwan (Chiang Kai-shek), and Israel (Ariel Sharon), they bring their own interests to the table, interests which are rarely subsumed to our own. There is a reason that great strategists like Napoleon were leery of allies and why even the British, who had many allies over the centuries, found them to be almost as difficult as enemies at times. It makes for a great, easy assessment, to just tot things up about who has more on each side, but as the Battles of the Malay Barrier in late 1941 and early 1942 demonstrated, having a formidable force on paper does not equate with having a force that is actually capable of operating together in wartime.

Cavanaugh writes that Japan and India “will never fall into China’s sphere of influence.” However, it should be sobering, for example, to consider that soon after the Hatoyama government of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) came into office in 2009, it began talking about moving Japan towards an “equilateral triangle” with the United States and China. Had the Chinese not so badly bobbled their Japan policies at the time, increasing tensions with Tokyo after a Chinese fishing boat captain was arrested, and then imposing a ban on rare earth sales, a cornerstone of U.S. policies in Asia would have been weakened. Should one bet on the adversary doing the stupid thing? Is that the foundation of good strategic thinking?

As for India, I defer to experts on Indian defense and foreign policy, but my impression is that India is not eager to confront China, nor to join an American coalition committed to doing so. Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval is currently meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, while Indian Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar just made the first visit by an Indian defense minister in three years. As Cavanaugh points out, India is not about to become a Chinese vassal, but neither is it likely to become a Hindi-speaking version of Japan.

Perhaps, rather than “Daredevil” the most useful TV comparison here should be “Game of Thrones.” Where even leading characters (John Snow, Rob Stark, etc) die, where best-laid plans are derailed by circumstance and ego — as well as good strategy — and where alliances form and are then betrayed for a host of reasons, but assumptions of “never,” like “always,” are dangerous for the assumer.

 

Dean Cheng is a senior research fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center. He specializes in China’s military and foreign policy, and is still uncertain whether John Snow actually died at the end of the last season of “Game of Thrones.”

 

Photo credit: DoD courtesy photo, People’s Liberation Army (Navy)