The Buzz

Reality Check: China's Military Power Threatens America

In their writings on China’s military modernization, too many commentators fail to ground their views in the available sources. In most cases, this practice does no more than discredit the author, or the publication that gives him a forum; but when analysts responsible for writing national assessments are unversed in original writings, the consequences may be far graver.

In a recent Washington Quarterly article, M. Taylor Fravel and Christopher Twomey spotlight the more baleful side of this tendency, taking aim at influential American analysts who write unlearned perspectives about Chinese intentions towards the United States.

The paper’s title—“Projecting Strategy: The Myth of Chinese Counter-Intervention”—captures its thesis. Fravel and Twomey claim that in recent years the U.S. national security community has repeatedly mischaracterized China’s likely response to American intervention in a regional conflict involving China, ascribing aggressive designs where none exist. This practice, the authors believe, has given rise to a conventional wisdom that is harmful to bilateral relations.

To be sure, Fravel and Twomey are on solid ground when they expose those who claim that “counter-intervention” is a term used frequently in Chinese texts. But this error can be set straight in a footnote, certainly no more than a single sentence. Perhaps as simple as this: Authoritative Chinese sources seldom use the term “counter intervention,” or anything resembling it, except when discussing foreign imputations of Chinese strategy.

The two professors, however, go much further than this harmlessly pedantic “word to the wise.” They posit that the absence of this concept means that the ideas that “counter-intervention” embodies—deterring or denying America access during a regional conflict—do not figure into Chinese military planning. Since Chinese texts offer no direct proof of a counter-intervention strategy, those who assume one exists must be imagining it. Thus, with their sloppy attributions, American analysts are guilty of exaggerating the Chinese threat.

However, one need not achieve mastery of the available Chinese texts, or suffer from cognitive defects, to conclude that China almost certainly has a military strategy that accounts for American intervention in a regional war.  Here is the train of reasoning. China is a party to many disputes with its neighbors, some of which are American treaty allies (Japan, the Philippines), and one of which America has vowed to defend if attacked (Taiwan). These disputes involve claims of sovereignty over offshore islands and jurisdiction over maritime zones, which China believes constitute “core interests,” especially in the case of Taiwan.

Should one of these lead to war, the U.S. is very likely to enter the conflict: it has shown its willingness to do so in the past, both in word and deed. American statesmen command the most powerful military in the world; its capacity to project power from and on the sea is unparalleled. Conclusion: China has a tremendous incentive to build systems—and develop plans for using them—that enable it to undermine America’s ability to intervene.

These “systems” have already been built. Most call them “anti-access area denial” (A2/AD) capabilities: they constitute an array of platforms and payloads designed to sink foreign capital ships approaching the littorals. These capabilities include, inter alia, diesel submarines, aircraft and small boats armed with cruise missiles; land-based cruise missiles; and anti-ship ballistic missiles. Designers have placed a premium on range, i.e., the ability to destroy targets as far away from the Chinese coast as possible.

Now, does China have a “plan” to use these systems in any plausible scenario involving military conflict with the United States? The working hypothesis should be, “Yes, highly likely.” For how could it not, given what Chinese policymakers believe they face? To read every Chinese source you can get your hands on and find no mention of such plans should not lead one to conclude, against the weight of logic and good sense, that no plans exists. But that is exactly what Fravel and Twomey have done. Brandeis University historian David Hackett Fischer calls this the “fallacy of the negative proof.” Because I could not find it among the available texts, it could not possibly be a thing.

Fravel and Twomey acknowledge China possesses formidable A2/AD systems but they do not believe plans exist to employ them to deny American access to contested waters and territories in the event of conflict. What they need to do then—and my colleague Jim Holmes makes this same point in a recent critique (which the two authors ignored in their response)—is identify which hypothetical adversary has hastened Chinese investment in these capabilities and what strategy will guide China’s actions when a dispute with an American ally escalates into belligerency.