Jaw-Jaw: China is a Funny Sort of Revisionist Power — A Conversation with Dean Cheng
What is the future of U.S.-Chinese relations? Will a rising China seek to overturn the U.S.-led international order? What is China doing inside the first island chain? In cyberspace? Orbital space? Is China more like Imperial Germany or is it more like France in the late 19th century? Dean Cheng and Brad Carson explore these questions and many more in the inaugural episode of “Jaw-Jaw,” the newest addition to the War on the Rocks family of podcasts. Dean even recommends some of his favorite books on China – which will be a regular “Jaw-Jaw” feature.
Dean Cheng is Senior Research Fellow, Asian Studies Center, Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, at the Heritage Foundation. He specializes in China’s military and foreign policy, in particular China’s relationship with its Asian neighbors and with the United States. His most recent book is Cyber Dragon: Inside China’s Information Warfare and Cyber Operations (2016). Cheng is a frequent media commentator on China-related issues.
Brad Carson is a professor at the University of Virginia, where he teaches in the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2001-2005 and was Undersecretary of the Army and acting Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness in the Obama administration. He welcomes comments at email@example.com.
- Richard E. Nisbett, The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why (Free Press, 2004).
- Alfred Wilhelm, The Chinese at the Negotiating Table: Style & Characteristics (Diane Publishing Co., 1994).
- David Finkelstein and James Mulvenon (Eds), China’s Revolution in Doctrinal Affairs: Emerging Trends in the Operational Art of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (Center for Naval Analyses, 2005)
Brad: Dean Cheng, Senior Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, and author of the recent book, Cyber Dragon: Inside China’s Information Warfare and Cyber Operations. We have recently labeled China a revisionist power. Is that a characterization that you’d accept, and if so, what exactly are they trying to revise?
Dean: Well first, thank you for having me. I think China is a funny form of revisionist power. Now, what I mean by that is the following. Both the United States and China think of themselves actually as status quo powers. The problem is always, whose status quo? How do you define the status quo? The United States, our status quo not surprisingly, dates all the way back to 1776. So, it’s about 250 years. And during most of that period. We have dominated at a minimum, North America, most of the western hemisphere, and eventually became the global superpower.
For China, its history dates back at least 5,000 years. During most of which time, it dominated all of East Asia. And part of the problem here, is that our status quo happens to overlap the one period of greatest Chinese weakness. The so-called “Century of Humiliation,” which began in 1839 when the British started the First Opium War, to force China to accept British opium sales within China, all the way through 1949. This was the period when China faced the greatest potential of being really turned into a colony, in a way that neither the Manchus nor the Mongols could really effect on China.
So, since 1949 when Mao Zedong stood atop Tienanmen Square and waved and declared that China had stood up, the People’s Republic of China, the China under the Chinese Communist Party has been basically trying to get itself back to the position it was, as Imperial China, which is to say the major power of East Asia. So, from our perspective, absolutely that’s revisionist. It’s no accident that Xi Jinping describes this as the Great Chinese Revival. Revival in the sense of, return to where it once was. So from their perspective, they’re not revisionists. They are simply returning to the previous status quo.
So, I would say that if China is anything, it is arguably revanchist. What do I mean by that? That the parallel is not to Imperial Germany. A lot of folks have said, “Yeah, China’s like Imperial Germany.” Well, not really. Germany, qua Germany, Germany as Germany, did not exist before let’s say, 1866. The Wars of Unification, Schleswig-Holstein, war with Austria, etc. right? Before that there was no Germany. There was Prussia, there were city states, all that sort of stuff. And so the Kaiser comes along and says, “Hey, I’ve created this new place and now we need our place in the sun.”
China, as I said, has existed for at least 5,000 years. So, it’s a lot closer in some ways to France, post Franco-Prussian War. France loses the Franco-Prussian War, loses Alsace-Lorraine, and spends the next 40 years dedicated to the cause of reviving France to what it should have been, reclaiming the lost territories, the lost provinces of Alsace-Lorraine, which permeates French culture, French military planning, French politics, French Alliance strategy. All to get it back to where it was. Revanche is more than revenge. Revanche is return to where it should be, sticking it back to the people who sort of put you down, returning to former glory. It’s all of those sorts of things. And I would suggest that in many ways, China therefore is revanchist.
Brad: But if they are revanchist in the light of France, post-Franco-Prussian War, we didn’t seem to be concerned in the late 19th century in the U.S. about whatever France’s ambitions might have been to restore former glory, or at least it wasn’t a driving force, when we think of the history of the United States, so why should we be concerned, if we should be, if China is revanchist?
Dean: Well, in 1913, France’s focus, the French focus, was on Germany, not on the western hemisphere or the world. The state of technology really was such that you were very limited in how far away from your homeland you could go. In the case of the 21st century, the world is interconnected. The global commons, the international common spaces are much more vital. Sea lines were important in the late 1800s or early 1900s, but much more to trading powers. France and Germany didn’t need navies. They had navies but really, their focus was ground forces against each other. In the 21st century, it’s impossible to imagine that global telecommunications could be balkanized, yet that is what China is intent on doing. It is impossible to imagine the operation of modern economies without access to space. And yet China has tested anti-satellite capabilities.
So, there’s several elements here. The French-Germany problem of 1913 could be localized. In fact, if Germany had mobilized differently in 1914, World War I might have been very different. In the interconnected, globalized world of today, in the globalized economy of today, in the international norms and standards system of today, a major power like China, the number two economy in the world, not playing by those rules upsets the entire apple cart, in a way that was harder to do 100 years ago.
Brad: When you say they would upset the apple cart, if they were to succeed in this revanchist approach that you say that animates them today, what would that mean? Would it be new territories under their control? Would it be in a greater say in international organizations? How would this in some way affect the average American citizen?
Dean: So, let’s first talk about some of the … what it would look like and then how it would affect the American citizen. So, would it mean new territories under Chinese control? From the Chinese perspective, no. It would simply be reclaiming what had historically been Chinese. Now-
Brad: And what would those areas be?
Dean: So, the first and most important of course is Taiwan. And that’s 23 million people who currently live under a democratic system. It would be control over the sea lanes of the western Pacific. It would mean “adjustments” to borders with places like India. In terms of international institutions however, much more violence would be done. Both literal and figurative. When we look at how China is behaving in the South China Sea, on the internet, and increasingly in outer space, what we see is a China that is trying to extend its national boundaries, it’s sovereignty, to international common spaces.
If you look at the South China Sea and the so-called Nine-Dash Line, the Chinese are very upfront, often in stating. Vietnam? It doesn’t get an exclusive economic zone. It barely gets territorial waters three miles off of its shores. Never mind 12 or 24. Same for the Philippines. They are now pushing Indonesia, which even 10 years ago, the Chinese said, “Well, you know no Indonesian territory falls within our claims.” Now, they’re like, “Oh, no. Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone needs to be truncated,” because of China’s claims. International waterways that transit through the South China Sea carry 5.3 trillion dollars of trade. We are talking the carotid artery of global trade, and the Chinese are saying, “That’s my artery.”
When we look at the internet and how China has balkanized the internet, how it is trying to basically affect where and who has access to the internet. Where it is saying, “Only nation states should be really allowed to authorize what is allowed onto the internet.” And by the way, if I, China, don’t like who you’re letting on, you should take measures. Follow the gold, pro-Democratic elements, the New York Times, we have the right to keep you off the internet, or at least outside of China’s piece of the internet. Free flow of information, an absolute bedrock of modern day global economies, would fall by the wayside.
And we’re seeing the Chinese regularly now threatening items in space. The 2007 ASAT test, other tests with lasers, things like that. Development of ASAT capabilities. Again, what is outer space? It is international common space. You can’t draw boundary up 100, 300, 5,000 miles from your border and say, “This is mine.” And yet the Chinese are increasingly making moves to say, “You know you shouldn’t be able to just fly over my country with your satellite.” Never mind orbital mechanics. “And take pictures and eavesdrop, just like you shouldn’t be able to fly aircraft and do other things off my shores.”
What does this mean for the American public? The American public is, at the end of the day, a huge beneficiary of international trade. Current debate in Washington sometimes forgets that. That means that, whether you’re an exporter, soybeans, jetliners, computer programs, or an importer, computers, cars, parts for various systems. The international trade and the international flow of information is what enables all of us. And China is affecting the physical trade, or threatening it. Is affecting the information networks that under-gird this physical and cyber, and the spatial capabilities that allow the timing and navigation, and all the other functions.
So, do you like having a $200 or $300 plasma TV? Maybe in every room? Do you like being able to buy gas at the gas pump with your credit card? Do you like having food that’s relatively cheap, because we can supply a global market, and therefore benefit from that mass production of stuff. China in some ways is jeopardizing all of it.
Brad: Well, that intrigues me, because there seems to be two categories of things you’ve mentioned there, and that you will hear people talk about. One are, for example, the communications technologies. Their desire to assert their state sovereignty over what people see. The great Chinese firewall. And from that perspective, it seems like they can succeed, with or workshop the United States being involved. Although, perhaps our companies can resist them by not playing in that country, but people seem to be willing actually, the companies do acquiesce to what the Chinese want often.
And then you have the second issue about the sea lanes of control in international trade. That’s an area where you, in some ways critics will say, the Chinese benefit from every American having a $200 plasma screen TV in every room. This international trade is enormously beneficial to them, and so if they develop the capability through their navy or other means to threaten it, they will never do so. Because just like we benefit from it, they do too, and they have every stake in maintaining the more or less open international trading order. So the capability to threaten it doesn’t mean that they ever would. So, why would China give up the golden goose that seemingly has brought them so much prosperity?
Dean: Well, so why would they threaten it? Those two questions actually come back and are interlinked. You would think that a country that depends on trade, that depends on being able to send its students abroad, that is promoting investment in its own country would want to protect intellectual property. And yet, I think it is safe to say that there are very, very few people who would look at how China behaves with regards to intellectual property and says, yes, they protect it. They aren’t going to copy it. They’re not going to counterfeit. Even though doing so makes them a bad customer, makes them a bad client, and really calls into question all sorts of other aspects of interrelationships with them, right?
It goes to the heart of the idea of rule of law, which China is not as a society. Chinese society is ruled by law. The use of the law in order to support pre-ordained political ends. If you think you are going to take a Chinese official to court in China and be treated as an equal, I have a bridge to sell you, and I’m sorry I won’t, I won’t take Renminbi. But this goes to the issue here of, would China sort of kill the golden goose? Well, we’re watching China behave in various ways towards its neighbors. Whether it’s Indonesia, the largest population in Southeast Asia, key member of ASEAN. Whether towards India, with its territorial disputes. Again, a nuclear-armed neighbor. Whether it is towards the whole issue of the Korean Peninsula. You would think that it would want stability there. And yet we see them acting in ways that run counter to that.
And is the issue of state sovereignty, this is the great problem. The Chinese are perhaps the greatest fans of Westphalia. They love state sovereignty and there’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s when your … It’s like I have the right to swing my fist as far as the very tip of your nose. China’s position on state sovereignty is not, “I have sovereignty, you have sovereignty, therefore.” It’s, “I have sovereignty, and my sovereignty trumps your sovereignty.” Whether it’s the overlapping claims in the South China Sea, or even the South Korean government’s right to self defense against North Korea and the deployment of THAAD. Well the Chinese basically said to the Moon government, “It doesn’t matter why you want to deploy it, I don’t like it, you should not deploy it.” That’s sovereignty on steroids.
Brad: So, if they are revanchist, you’ve talked about their history and their 5,000 year glorious history. One of the things I hear many people talk about is, “Oh, what would a different type of Chinese leadership do?” Is this something that the Chinese Communist Party is pursuing and perhaps if they were replaced over time by more liberal forms of government that you wouldn’t see the same kind of China we witness today, or is it something driven so deeply by Chinese history, no matter who the leadership is, or really what the political structure might be, you’re going to see China as it becomes wealthier and more powerful engage in this kind of behavior.
Dean: I think that if you look at how great powers operate, there are definitely certain common denominators. So, I think that any wealthy China, especially one that is dependent on imports from abroad for to power the system, and exports abroad to power the economy, yeah trade follows the flag, but also the flag often follows trade. So I would expect to see a China that has more robust global military capabilities and global reach, some level of power projection capabilities, a desire to influence, politically, economically, and militarily places that are of interest to it. Whether it’s places it gets resources or markets, and I think that, that is not unreasonable.
Unfortunately, I think where the Chinese Communist Party becomes the factor as opposed to China, is where we start seeing the methods that are being effective. We don’t know what a democratic China, one that a democratic government ruling 1.3 billion people would look like. Now, we do know what a democratic government that governs 1.3 billion Indians looks like. And what that says is, you can have a democracy, and I think this is one of the great flaws of people that say, “Oh but China’s 1.3 billion people, you can’t expect it to be a democracy.” Well, the Indians seem to be able to do this.
And the CCP at the end of the day, is Communist in the Leninist sense. It is a vanguard party. It is the sole source of political authority within China. And under Xi Jinping, that authority has been even more concentrated into the man, single individual man Xi Jinping himself. So really what we are looking at is very authoritarian China. That is not necessarily how great powers operate. There have been democratic great powers. I’d like to think we’re both democratic and still a great power. So that is part of the challenge here, is that differentiating between what a China, whatever its political stripe would want, and I’ll be upfront. I think any China is likely to view Taiwan as part of it.
But then we have the authoritarian strand, and that is far more threatening. If we imagined a China that had free, and fair, and open elections, free, and fair, and open media, multi party, multi voices that wasn’t openly and actively suppressing dissent, that would be a China that we may well still have a lot of differences with, but be far more comfortable because a lot more of that competition would be on an even playing field. Where we could influence them as well as they could influence us.
Brad: Well, if they are looking to be revanchist, is there a way the United States or the US and its allies can forestall this, or maybe even prevent this ambition from being realized, or is it a foregone conclusion that China will succeed in this project?
Dean: A lot of people talk about the Chinese being very long term in their thinking. And absolutely, in some ways, the Chinese are very long term. One of the “benefits” of an authoritarian system is that you can be fairly single minded in your approach, and persistent in your policies.
But at the end of the day, China is governed by politicians. And politicians are, you know, they may talk a lot about what they want 50 years from now and they may even try to plan for 50 years from now. But what matters most is, will they be in power tomorrow morning, or will they be hanging from their heels from a lamppost? Figuratively in democratic societies, often literally in authoritarian societies.
If we look at how the Chinese spending on security breaks out, to the best of our understanding, especially because the data is sketchy. But the Chinese have been spending as much or more on internal defense as they have been on external defense. People’s Liberation Army, the military, all those aircraft carriers, new fighter planes and all that. That’s external security. But they are spending an enormous amount on internal security. That suggests that there are fundamental fault lines, tectonic vibrations if you will, that are going on within China. Often not visible because the Chinese press is state run. That limits their ability to simply do what they want.
What can we the United States do? I think that Robert Kennedy once said that, “All we can be is just friends and brave enemies.” It is very clear that we are willing to work with China, to trade with them, to interact with them. This isn’t 1970 or 65. We are not trying to contain China, despite their propaganda to this effect. But at the same time, we need to work with our allies. Europe, yes the world is round so Europe actually matters here. As well as Japan, Southeast Asia, Australia, to try and hold China to the international norms that we ourselves subscribe to. Otherwise, you wind up with this incredibly unbalanced situation. Where China plays by its rules, which of course will benefit China, and we play by rules that aren’t meant to hog tie us but at the end of the day, do hamper us if it gives the Chinese asymmetric advantages.
Brad: So how do you do that? If we want to get them to conform to international order, how do you go about doing that, since you say that you believe their ambition is to do something else entirely?
Dean: So for example, in some ways it is being in your face. For almost four years, we conducted no freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea. That has effectively seeded all those islands that the Chinese were building construction, and the area that that encompasses, so called Nine-Dash Line.
Brad: What did the US not to do FONOPS? FONOPS being freedom of navigation operations. Why did we choose not to do that, in your mind?
Dean: Well, let me first be up front. I don’t know. The previous administration never quite explained why it chose not to do so. It was only under hearings, under the late Senator John McCain that the Secretary of Defense under very persistent questioning from Senator McCain, actually came clean and said, “Well, actually we haven’t done any in four years.” So and no explanation was offered. Various theories include the idea that there were bigger fish to fry, that COP21, the Paris Accords mattered more than doing FONOPS. And let’s not forget that Admiral Locklear, then head of Pacific Command said several times that he felt that climate change was far more of a problem in his AOR, area of responsibility, than any particular nation state.
Dean: So what’s a few FONOPS, when you have the world’s climate to hopefully get the Chinese to assist with. By the way, Chinese greenhouse gas emissions have consistently risen since 2012, so I’m not sure the bargain really worked out. But that’s one example.
Another one is, why is it that Chinese thefts of international intellectual property have garnered such limited responses? Chinese companies benefit from the loss of IP. The XI-Obama 2015 Cyber Agreement where they said, “Okay, we’re not going to do economic cyber espionage is now seen as increasingly leaky at best, but we don’t seem to be willing to basically hold the Chinese feet to the fire.” They are able, their companies, some of which benefit from lost IP from the West, are able to list on the foreign stock exchanges. The Chinese are able to sell their products, although there are increasing restrictions following ZTE, etc.
Brad: Would you stop them from doing that? And the ZTE example’s a great one, where the President basically puts the company out of business and then reverses course. So how, is that the way you would handle the cyber threat from them is to say, “Your ability to penetrate western markets, western financial systems will be limited if you continue to do this.” Even if that company may not be shown to be a bad actor itself. You’re part of the wrong team that’s a malefactor.
Dean: Well, I think if I had unlimited resources, which I don’t, of tasking authority, which I don’t, I would actually want to know a couple of things. I would want to know which companies are benefiting, and those companies should be, I think, put under much stricter scrutiny and even sanctions. On the other hand, if you are a company that investigation shows you actually have clean hands, I don’t think that we should have a blanket, if you’re a Chinese company, you are guilty until proven innocent.
This goes to a second aspect of, I think a lot of folks were probably surprised, and this may even include Chinese, at how vulnerable ZTE actually was. And I think that this would be a useful thing to explore further is, what is the actual dependence of the west on Chinese companies, and conversely, what is the actual reliance of Chinese companies on western imports? The idea that ZTE at the end of the day, actually depends on microprocessors, mostly from the West, is something that implies a certain degree of vulnerability.
Now, the Chinese ‘Made in 2025’ program is meant to ameliorate that, but in the meantime, it’s clearly something that we should understand better. And then finally is, globally speaking, there is a growing backlash to Chinese outright acquisition of companies. We have CFIUS, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States. Germany, France, other countries are starting now to put in place their version of CFIUS. The Germans have kyboshed a number of Chinese efforts to acquire high tech German companies. And I think that this again is a good sign of a global response to Chinese activities, some of which are frankly predatory, and all of which are unequal, because it’s inconceivable and I do understand the meaning of that word, that you could go and buy a major Chinese microchip manufacturer, computer company, etc. If the Chinese wanna play, they are welcome to play, but it has to be an equal playing field.
Brad: Look a political question about that, because it does seem from ZTE and some of your own writings talk about the vulnerability of the Chinese supply chain or Chinese companies that might be building part of the islands in the South China Sea, that you could sanction them in some way. That seems to be very controversial inside the United States itself. Donald Trump’s trade sanctions on them has caused turmoil in domestic politics. Oftentimes by people who are from the business friendly side of the American political system, at the same time, who would be aligned with conservative politics typically.
Brad: You haven’t seen that many conservative foreign policy types arguing for a more aggressive posture as you have to use the business relationship to form leverage over them. So, how are the politics of this really working, because I was reading recently, some people in China say like these sanctions are having bite on the Chinese government, and people like John Mearsheimer at the University of Chicago have advocated that we should have a policy of not making them any richer than they are today, you know this is only gonna come back to hurt us. And we seem to actually have the ability to do that in some way.
But, there are domestic political constraints on that, that seem to be very powerful. Especially in the same party where you find many of the same conservative hawkish voices on China.
Dean: So, one of the great difficulties for conservatives is balancing the trade aspect and the security aspect. I work for the Heritage Foundation, and we are one of the few conservative entities that supports both free trade as a matter of principle, as well as a strong defense. You typically wind up with a greater emphasis either on one or the other. And I have to say that I’m comfortable with that, because at the end of the day, free trade does benefit the consumer across the board and that’s really Anglo-American economics, Adam Smithian economics is about benefiting the consumer. Continental European, Japanese capitalism often is more a matter of benefiting the state, and benefiting large corporations.
So they’re much more comfortable with constraining trade as matters of national policy. And I think that among the western countries, these are disagreements that we can hammer out, more or less equitably. There will always be people who are unhappy. The problem with China is, it’s not a market economy and this is what complicates any type of trade discussion about the People’s Republic of China is, back in the 1980s when we thought the Japanese were going to rule the world and everyone, every movie showed, in the future, we’re all gonna speak English and Japanese. At the end of the day, Mitsubishi, Toshiba, all of these were private companies. The Japanese government might think about bailing out one or two if it really had come down to it, but really companies go bankrupt in Japan.
In China, huge swaths of the economy are still run by state owned enterprises, which get to view the entire Chinese banking system as their own personal piggy bank. That has huge distorting effects, and so when we talk about trade with China, we should still be pushing them to liberalize, to become more of a market economy, at which point we can then work with them. A market economy where we can buy their companies as well as they can buy ours. Where access to markets is not determined by the state. The Chinese Communist Party will crack down on you if you have too much market share. I mean, at the end of the day, we, the French, the Japanese, the government really can’t do that.
On the securities side of course, where the interplay then comes in is issues of technology and innovation, issues of supply chain. Issues of the industrial base that supports the ability to sustain their military, and so all of this is interlinked.
Brad: In your mind, should we be using more aggressively and perhaps as a first choice these economic tools to punish China or to influence their behavior in some way, in a way that we don’t do so much today. Again, Donald Trump is really the first President of either party who says we’re going to take this kind of aggressive posture toward China, and he’s not motivated solely by defense concerns. He has an economic concern and the industrialization of the US as he perceives it. But should we be using these tools more to shape China in a way that we would like to see them go?
Dean: Well certainly, to begin with, better to use dollars than lives. At the same time, it’s interesting to consider that economic measures, responses to them, usually aren’t military. And so, they are in some ways less escalatory. I wanna say this about Donald Trump. We need to keep in mind something very interesting about Mr. Trump. He is not a politician in terms of his background. He’s not a diplomat, he’s not a soldier. He is a businessman. A real estate businessman, meaning he works in the world of finance, and I think the reason why he has arguably done more along financial lines, whether it’s with North Korea, where North Korean banks have been driven out of the international financial transaction network. Whether it is Iran, where it is financial pressures that are being applied, or even China with regards to North Korea where at least one Chinese bank has now been driven out, and businessmen are now under sanction.
His default tool I suspect, based upon 50-60 years of personal history, is going to be financial. The same way that a diplomat’s first response would be a démarche, and a military person’s first response would be activation of military forces. I think that this is putting a very interesting spin on how China looks at the world, because it is realizing one of the things that it is nowhere close to at this point, is being able to challenge the United States in the so-called international rules based system, an international institutional framework in the financial realm.
Dean: Bretton Woods, Swift, the dollar as the global reserve currency, those come together in very powerful ways that past politicians and military people, they sort of know it at a distance, but they haven’t lived it the way Donald Trump has. But I think that this is one of the things that is kind of confusing to a lot of people is, “What the heck’s going on?” Because his default is a financial cudgel and some carrots, whether than a military of diplomatic.
Brad: Well, can you make the case that the financial cudgel he’s using is the one that finally works, right? That we’ve not had the ambition or ability to affect them militarily without at least getting into some kind of escalatory situation. People were unsure of what military responses to take, but the financial cudgel seems like it might actually work and that companies like ZTE and others that are dependent upon U.S. suppliers, and we have a huge influence on them, and if we’re willing to suffer some pain ourselves from the loss of trading gains, we could inflict a much greater pain on China to use that as a coercive level. Is that something we should be doing more, perhaps Donald Trump has found the secret sauce of U.S.-Chinese relations?
Dean: It’s possible, but the same things that make this, and to my mind fairly innovative strategy, are also some of the weaknesses. Because hand in hand ideally with these financial moves, should be diplomatic, and even perhaps some military moves, to produce a comprehensive, multifaceted approach that would really complicate the lives of the Iranian Mullahs, Kim Jong Un, and the Chinese leadership. And what we’re seeing is, you know prior to Donald Trump there were a lot of complaints about how we have an overly militarized foreign policy. And I think there was some truth to that. “When in doubt, send in the Marines,” as Tom Lehrer once said.
Now, it’s when in doubt, apply a financial cudgel. Well, there should be a diplomatic complement to that. If you go along with us, here’s the benefits. There should probably be some military aspects to this, that go beyond B52 flights right up to your border, etc. in this regard, I do think his apparent willingness to delegate more authority down to the co-combs, the fact that we are now doing way more FONOPS for example, in the South China Sea, does complement some aspects. I think perhaps a diplomatic tool is under utilized, and I’m hoping that Mr. Pompeo, as he fills out the State Department team, will be playing a more robust role. But what I’m seeing so far is, yes, this is really good. Now, where’s the other pieces? And until those other pieces are in place, it’s sort of secret sauce with perhaps only one pattie and not enough pickle.
Brad: Well one source of long standing friction in U.S.-Chinese relationship has been Taiwan. Source of ambiguity if you will, about what our role toward Taiwan should be. What do you think the US policy should be toward Taiwan, and can you imagine a world where they are peaceably reconciled and the US is okay with that, and may even encourage Taiwan to consider some kind of reconciliation with the mainland?
Dean: Well, American policy towards Taiwan has long been that we want to see, above all else, a peaceful resolution of the cross straits’ situation. Can I imagine a peaceful resolution? Absolutely. The prerequisites are the harder parts, which is in all likelihood, a China that is more open and democratic. Because why would Taiwan want to join the mainland? Now, for a while there in the 1990s and early 2000s, when China on the one hand was economically growing like gangbusters, and appeared to be on a potential path towards political loosening, let’s not call it liberalization. There were some who were like, “Well, who knows how Taiwan may turn out.”
But I think that under sheeting pin is what we’ve seen is such a clampdown in Chinese domestic politics, and Hong Kong really has been the canary in the coal mine, where we have watched for example, the Chinese basically say, “Oh yes, we promised suffrage, we promised that the people of Hong Kong would be able to vote on who their leadership would be, we are absolutely gonna abide by that. We’re simply gonna pick the candidate. Or at least we’re gonna have to have the right to approve them.” That really suggest that Beijing is not nearly the comfortable partner that some had hoped, and that Hong Kong had hoped, when the 1997 reverent occurred.
Dean: What should the United States do as its policy? Again, I think our position has been fairly clear. We support peaceful resolution. The Taiwan Relations Act makes clear that we are going to help Taiwan preserve its own security, in terms of selling them the wherewithal. What was it FDR said? No, Churchill said. “Give us the tools.” But, and politically we continue to support a peaceful resolution, which means sort of standing behind Taiwan and saying, “You do matter and you have relatives.” Because that is Beijing’s greatest effort is to say, “No one else cares about you, you are nothing. So we can take you, and nobody will care.” The US is saying, “We will.”
Brad: But why should we care? If China was able coercively to bring Taiwan back into the fold, either through diplomatic or economic measures, or even military. Military measures of some kind. If they were to succeed in doing that, or were close to it, why should the US intervene? Why is this in our interests to keep that from happening? Admittedly life might suffer, they could be like Hong Kong. But Hong Kong is not the worst place in the world, and the idea that World War III might start to prevent, if you will, the Hong Kongization of Taiwan, you know is that what we’re trying to prevent?
Dean: Well, on could ask, is it worth, was it worth the real potential of going to nuclear war, to defend a tiny enclave buried 80 miles in the middle of an adversary country. One that could be cut off at any moment, and it is worth noting President Kennedy’s emphasis on why our commitment to Berlin mattered. What is it about Taiwan that matters? First of all, we have made a commitment to them. Not necessarily to defend them, that gets into international law and treaties and all that stuff. Suffice it to say that, it’s not a necessary explicit one, but explicitly walking away is an invitation to aggress, and I think that would be a bad idea. The same way that walking away from South Korea would be a bad idea.
But more to the point is, let’s think about this geo strategically. The first island chain stretches from Japan through Okinawa, Taiwan, and the Philippines. It basically limits China’s ability to get to the open ocean. That means it limits Chinese navy, including its submarines which are the largest in the world, from getting into the open ocean. So, in friendly hands, friendly to the United States, it is a barrier. It is a barrier like the Greenland-Iceland-UK gap was during the Cold War. Limiting the ability of the Soviet Navy to reach the sea lanes of the North Atlantic.
In Chinese hands, it becomes a shield. It now becomes a real problem for the other side, potential adversaries and with the United States and its free world allies from being able to affect China. Taiwan is in the center of that. If you imagine Taiwan in Chinese hands. If you imagine H6K bombers based there, long range radars based there, long range fighters and tankers and UAVs based there. All of a sudden, the central Pacific, the sea lanes, the alternative sea lanes to places like Japan and South Korea are now under the gun. That’s a very, very scary strategic situation look like.
Dean: It’s sort of like asking, “Well, Soviets took Iceland, politically, diplomatically, economically, what difference would it have made?” I think that if you go back and talk to contemporaries, they would have said, “That would have fundamentally altered the strategic picture about NATO and Europe.” And it’s no accident by the way that Tom Clancy dropped a Soviet paratroop division on Iceland in Red Storm Rising as a result.
Brad: Well, it does seem to be a little different at least at first glance between the Soviet Union and China. We were in a state of hostility against them. A hegemonic totalitarian ideology. We actually had war plans drawn up that were well known to the public, and we could contemplate, and contemplate war with the Soviets, and were engaged in them with proxy conflicts across the globe.
Having bombers based in Taiwan, for example, would presume that you could imagine a world where the US and China get into this kind of hot conflict, right? They could be bombing Hawaii. And it’s a better place to launch bombers from Taiwan than it is from the Chinese mainland. Is that a world you can imagine happening? Or is the case to be made, people could say, “Yes, that’s true. But China’s not going to attack a nuclear armed United States with their bombers,” and so the fact that they have a slightly better outpost by which to do them, is talking about an inconceivable idea to begin with. An absurd idea to begin with.
Dean: So, let me first say that I am not suggesting that we are on the verge of war with China at all. So, that being said, a country has a sovereign right to deploy military forces on its own territory. If Taiwan becomes, you know reverts back to PRC control, by definition it has, Beijing now has a right to deploy whatever forces it feels incumbent. And we should note here, looking back to 2015 again, the XI-Obama Agreement on the South China Sea, President XI promised not to militarize the South China Sea. Now, we know that there are fighters there, we know that there are SAMs deploying their artillery pieces, and when you ask the Chinese, “What happened? You made this promise,” they’re very upfront in saying, “Militarization does not prevent the deployment of self defense capabilities. All of these missiles and fighters, and artillery pieces, they’re all self defense.”
So the same will apply to Taiwan. Now, are the Chinese going to bomb Hawaii as a result? No, no more than the Russians bombed, the Soviets bombed Hamburg or London. Will they hold it at risk? I think that if you look at Guam right now, it is under risk from the Chinese. The deployment of the new DF26 missile, is pretty clearly intended in part to put Guam under a missile threat.
With regards to nuclear issues, I do wanna touch on this because I think it’s very important. It is a shibboleth that nuclear armed states do not fight each other. One of the staples of Western political science theory. The problem with Western political science theory is, it’s limited it seems to European history. If we look at China, China went to war with the Soviet Union in 1969 when both countries were nuclear armed. It was a deliberate decision, was not an accident. More recently, because some people say, “yeah, but that was Mao, Mao was nuts.” That’s comforting.
Dean: But when we look today, we see the Chinese sending troops into Indian held territory. And this isn’t a mile, this isn’t a couple of guys that got lost. We’re talking about units that have gone in and been resupplied, have stayed for days if not weeks, and done so repeatedly. And in some cases, carrying banners that said, “This is our, this is Chinese territory.” Can you imagine an American force crossing into East Germany in 1985, saying, or German forces for that matter from either side, crossing into the other saying, “This is our territory.” No, because that would be too scary and escalatory. Yet China does this with a known nuclear neighbor, India.
So, I’m not saying that the Chinese are going to land troops on Guam and say, “This is our territory.” What I am saying is, I don’t think we understand Chinese concepts of nuclear deterrents and escalation. I think that they are willing to conduct themselves in ways that we would not expect, and if they held Taiwan, it gives them more options. Certainly against the US, but also against key allies like Japan, and the Philippines, and Thailand. And even Australia and New Zealand.
Brad: A country like Vietnam, some people in the US have talked about giving them a security guarantee. Would that be something that you would contemplate?
Dean: I think that if I were the United States, I would wanna be very careful about who I extended new security guarantees to. Given our frankly, shameful, shameful behavior in 1975, I’m not sure why I, as a Vietnamese would believe that America had anymore credibility today than it did in 1975. So I would say that, that’s a bad combination. Certainly, if we are contemplating that, there is a lot of work that needs to be done on both sides, to make our forces both compatible but also to make ourselves politically sort of reliable on both sides. And at the end of the day, there are still also problems with the Communist Party of Vietnam, which is hardly a paragon of human rights. And the Vietnamese economy, which is, I’m not clear whether it’s a market economy either.
Brad: Well Dean Cheng, we ask every guest on “Jaw Jaw” to give us some recommendations about books, or podcasts, or websites that they go to for interesting analysis of China. What would you suggest to the interested reader?
Dean: One of the books that I always recommend to folks is a volume called The Geography of Thought. It’s a very interesting book by a researcher who details how Asians and Westerners think differently. And his point is not, you know that Asians are not suited to democracy, there are some Asians who may decide that and personally I think that’s a bunch of hogwash. Rather, he’s saying, “Asians by their education, by their culture, etc. often look at things more, with a primary emphasis on context first, whereas Westerners tend to look at individual cases.” And that’s a very different perspective difference than shapes how you think about your argument, what matters, etc.
Alfred Wilhelm had a volume on Chinese negotiating behavior, which sort of builds upon this, and where that volume goes, and also Harvard Business School has produced a couple very helpful volumes as well about business negotiations with the Chinese. So that the Chinese tend to start by establishing principles. “What are the principles that we are talking about?” And that’s often very senior people, CEOs, Presidents, Prime Ministers, Premiers, etc., “And then we’ll leave it to our underlings to work out the modalities and the details.” In the West, it’s, “No, no. We want very specific concrete confidence building measures and politics, individual contracts, specific items for business, and we’ll build up.” Again, going to the idea that we are approaching problems, not asymmetrically but almost orthogonally.
And then finally for, because this is a national security podcast, I would recommend China’s Revolution and Military Doctrine, which was a report, I think you can find it online, that came out with, between the Center for Naval Analysis and the RAND Corporation. It’s an anthology of papers and it’s looking basically at how Chinese military doctrine, it’s a little old now, but it helps move a lot of folks who are just unfamiliar with China in general to at least the early 2000s and helps establish that as its baseline, because this is not your father’s PLA. This is a very different military, much more technology oriented, much more modern in its thinking, joint in its thinking. And this volume sort of lays out a lot of the very doctrinal aspects that today’s PLA has built upon.
Brad: We will put links to all of those books, and the study from CNA and RAND in the show notes here where people can access them. I would also recommend to listeners, Dean Cheng’s own new book, Cyber Dragon, which we talked about at the outset, which talks a lot about Chinese doctrine on informationalized warfare, their cyber policies, their space policies as well, so a terrific read. Dean Cheng of the Heritage Foundation, thank you for being with us.
Dean: Thank you for having me.