Small Wars

This Week at War: Let’s Talk About China

This Week at War: Let’s Talk About China


A Contest for Supremacy calls on America’s China-watchers to get real

In the preface to A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia, Aaron Friedberg, an international relations professor at Princeton, describes how, in the waning months of the Clinton administration, he was hired to review the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment of China. The experience, he says, left him deeply troubled about what he saw coming between China and the United States. By contrast, the "China hands" he knew in and out of the U.S. government "seemed to believe that a Sino-American rivalry was either highly unlikely, too terrifying to contemplate, or (presumably because talking about it might increase the odds that it would occur) too dangerous to discuss. Whatever the reason, it was not something that serious people spoke about in polite company."

Like tossing a dead skunk into a garden party, A Contest for Supremacy aims to shake things up among the foreign-policy elite inside the United States. Friedberg presents all of the arguments employed in favor of optimism and complacency regarding the trends facing the United States in East Asia then systemically shoots them down. His book is the most thorough wake-up call yet regarding the security challenges presented by China’s rise. It is also a plea to have an honest conversation about the difficult questions facing the United States in Asia. 

The book’s straightforward organization bolsters Friedberg’s arguments. The first four chapters summarize the history of China’s dealings with the West and explain the origins of the Middle Kingdom’s rivalry with other great powers, including the United States. Thucydides and Bismarck would quickly recognize Friedberg’s description of a rising China that has growing interests and that sees that it must take action to defend its position. The unfortunate fact that China’s new interests overlap with those of the current dominant power is nothing new in the history of great-power collisions.

The second section of the book discusses China’s view of its strategic situation. Friedberg draws extensively from Chinese sources to describe Beijing’s view of the United States and the Chinese leadership’s conceptions of its long-term interests and probable grand strategy. According to Friedberg, China’s leaders view the United States not as a status quo power, but as a revisionist force determined to one day overthrow one-party rule inside China. This argument may come as a surprise to those in the United States who thought a revisionist China was challenging the status quo United States. 

Friedberg analyzes why, in addition to its economic potential, China is such a difficult challenge for U.S. policymakers. It has been two centuries, with its struggles against Britain, since the United States faced a strategic adversary that was simultaneously a broad and deep trading and financial partner. Friedberg catalogs the numerous business and academic interests inside the United States that profit from their relationships with China and who seek to downplay the strategic rivalry. Finally there are China’s tactics, which emphasize patience and outwardly profess modesty about China’s intentions and capabilities. Meanwhile, according to Friedberg, China seeks "to win without fighting" by establishing alternative networks and alliances that will eventually supplant and replace those global institutions created and defended by the United States and its allies.

After conducting a net assessment of China’s and America’s hard and soft power, Friedberg concludes with an analysis of the strategic options available to U.S. policymakers. He has little regard for the idea that being firm with China’s leaders will merely catalyze an avoidable conflict. For Friedberg, China’s rulers are tough and thick-skinned realists whose decisions will benefit from a firm U.S. approach and who, by contrast, could tragically miscalculate if they perceive American vacillation. He recommends reinforcing conventional military deterrence, reaffirming U.S. alliances in Asia, and taking steps to maintain U.S. research and technological advantages. Perhaps most important is Friedberg’s plea for U.S. policymakers and citizens to openly discuss the adverse trends facing the United States in East Asia and to reject the idea that merely discussing these issues will create a confrontation.

The fragility of China’s internal situation and the cresting in two decades of its demographic advantage do not escape Friedberg’s scrutiny. Although Chinese leaders have displayed caution and patience, the window will close on their ability to take advantage of their growing power. With the next decade or so possibly being the most dangerous, there is all the more reason for both U.S. policymakers and the electorate to engage the difficult arguments presented in his book. 

Upgrading Taiwan’s F-16s avoids a problem now but may create another one later

Obama administration officials no doubt knew that their compromise package of arms sales to Taiwan would end up angering everyone involved with the issue. The White House passed on a proposal this week to sell 66 new F-16 C/D fighter-bombers to Taiwan, an aircraft assembled at Lockheed Martin’s Fort Worth, Texas plant. Instead, Taiwan’s old fleet of 145 F-16 A/B models will get an extensive upgrade including the latest generation radar, and much improved navigation, electronic warfare, and targeting electronics. Senators John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) are leading a congressional push to pass a bill requiring the administration to sell the new airplanes to Taiwan. For its part, China’s Foreign Ministry registered a strong protest at the decision and called in Gary Locke, the U.S. ambassador to Beijing, for a dressing down. 

The administration’s path was calibrated to avoid the regular ritual of provoking Beijing to cut off military-to-military contacts with the United States. With concerns over China’s military buildup rising, U.S. officials have placed a high priority on military exchanges, with the hope of preventing miscalculations. This time around, the gambit may be working with China yet to invoke another suspension. Having left the possibility of an F-16 C/D sale in reserve, Washington gave Beijing an incentive to refrain from blowing up the relationship again. Should Chinese officials opt to escalate, the United States would have little to lose by then approving the sale of the new aircraft.

Lost in the discussion of the F-16s was the decision to supply Taiwan with 96 smart-bomb precision-aiming kits and 64 cluster bomb dispensers. Combined with the navigation, electronic warfare, and bomb-targeting upgrades, this package will significantly improve the offensive strike capability of Taiwan’s F-16 fleet.

This offensive strike capability would permit Taiwan to hold at risk important targets in Southeast China. The package thus enhances conventional deterrence and could boost strategic stability across the Taiwan Strait. 

But this would require the F-16s to survive a Chinese missile barrage aimed at Taiwan’s airfields and then get into the air. As discussed in the Pentagon’s latest report on Chinese military power, China’s large and ongoing buildup of land attack ballistic and cruise missiles threatens to shut down Taiwan’s Air Force before it can take off.

Without a survivable second-strike capability, Taiwan could find itself in a "use it or lose it" dilemma during a crisis. Rather than wait for a Chinese missile barrage to either destroy or ground its Air Force, in extremis Taiwan might find itself compelled to attack pre-emptively in order to make use of its F-16s and in an attempt to minimize the damage it might think it would inevitably suffer. 

This is obviously an unstable and undesirable situation. In a previous column, I argued that what Taiwan really needs is its own inventory of mobile and concealable land-attack missiles, a force that could deter a Chinese attack.

Alternatively, Taiwan could acquire strike aircraft that don’t require fixed air bases for their operations. The United States is developing just such an airplane for the U.S. Marine Corps, the short-takeoff vertical-landing F-35B Joint Strike Fighter. It should thus come as no surprise that a Taiwanese defense official suggested that if Taiwan can’t get the F-16 C/D, maybe it should get the stealthy F-35 instead. An Obama administration official scoffed at the idea: "It’s like not getting a Prius and asking for a custom-built Ferrari instead." 

Instead of scoffing, White House officials should instead think about what is required to prop up strategic stability in the southwest Pacific. With China’s military spending galloping higher and the Pentagon’s about to crash, the United States will need all the help from its allies it can get. In addition, simply repeating past practices without taking account of the dramatically changed circumstances over the Taiwan Strait could make things less rather than more stable. Policymakers on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue would benefit from assessing the Taiwan situation with a clean sheet of paper.