Reality Check: China's Military Power Threatens America

The Buzz

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.

One other argument in their paper deserves closer scrutiny. The two scholars lament American analysts’ special focus on China’s A2/AD capabilities. Doing so creates blind spots. While we cast our gaze on the littorals of East Asia, Chinese policymakers may be quietly plotting to expand their clout in the far seas. Indeed, American analysts no doubt spend the bulk of their time thinking about the A2/AD challenge. But this is entirely defensible, for while Chinese efforts to develop a blue water navy may someday be an object of real concern, at this very moment China’s existing capabilities threaten to undermine the most fundamental precepts of American grand strategy.

Since the Second World War, American policymakers have sought to maintain primacy in the major regions of the world: Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East. Instability or imbalance in any of these areas imperils American interests. Some very smart people, including one of Fravel’s colleagues, have questioned the wisdom of this strategy. But as long as this strategy remains in place, government analysts and strategists will look with alarm at any developments that threatens the American military’s ability to support it.

As long as American policymakers want to be able to intervene, the prospect of foreign counter-intervention will always be a thing.

Ryan Martinson is research administrator at the China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) of the United State Naval War College in Newport, RI.

Image: Wikimedia/Russiavia


An Agreement That Is Good for Israel, Bad for Netanyahu

Paul Pillar

One of the strangest aspects of the frantic crying of alarm over Iran's nuclear program—with the crying having reached its most publicized peak in Benjamin Netanyahu's Republican/Likud campaign rally in the House chamber—is that the chief crier is the government of a country that not only has the most advanced nuclear program in the Middle East but has kept that program completely out of the reach and scrutiny of any international control and inspection regime. It is hard to think of a better example in international politics of the pot calling the kettle black, and in this case the pot is much blacker than the kettle—and was so even before Iran put its program under the unprecedented restrictions and intrusive inspections to which it agreed more than a year ago in negotiations with the United States and the rest of the P5+1. As for any military dimensions (the focus, of course, of all that crying when it comes to Iran), although neither Israel nor the United States says publicly that Israel has nuclear weapons, just about everyone else on the planet who says anything on the subject takes it as a given that it does, and that it has a fairly sizable arsenal of such weapons.

The person outside government who has studied the Israeli nuclear program most extensively is Avner Cohen, an Israeli-born scholar currently based in the United States. Cohen has written two books on the subject, Israel and the Bomb and The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel's Bargain with the Bomb. He probably knows more than anyone outside the Israeli government about the Israeli program and the strategic thinking underlying it. It thus is especially interesting to hear what Cohen has to say about the current battle over the Iranian program. In a commentary just published in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Cohen writes about how, as I discussed the other day, the actions and lobbying of Benjamin Netanyahu are at odds with his own alarmist rhetoric, and about what this implies concerning Netanyahu's motivations.

Cohen criticizes Netanyahu's drumbeat message that the agreement being negotiated would be very bad for Israel; he notes the “potential advantages” of the agreement, which is from the standpoint of Israel's interests a “reasonable compromise.” He points out that the demand to prevent any Iranian enrichment of uranium will never be realized, and that the demand has no basis in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Cohen goes on to state that the emerging agreement “also contains unique advantages barely discussed in Israel. It clearly distances Iran from a nuclear bomb—from a few weeks as was the case in 2012 to about a year. Most importantly, it establishes a regime of safeguards and transparency for almost a generation.”

Cohen concludes by pointedly describing what Netanyahu's scaremongering efforts are really all about, which have to do with Netanyahu having made such alarmism his political signature music, on which he relies both to maintain political power in Israel and to rationalize his policies to the outside world:

“Despite its flaws, the proposed agreement is far from bad for Israel—the only nuclear power in the Middle East—but it is very bad for Netanyahu. The agreement offers Israel almost a generation, or even more if it succeeds, in which Netanyahu won’t be able to sow fear about Iran as an existential danger. It would leave Netanyahu as a leader whose raison d’être has been taken away from him.”

Netanyahu's narrowly-motivated efforts to destroy the diplomacy with Iran are not only directly contrary to U.S. interests; they also are contrary to Israel's interests. Those who really do care about Israel and its security, rather than just ritualistically referring to them while swaying and bobbing up and down to Netanyahu's music, need to realize that. 

TopicsIsrael Iran RegionsMiddle East

Iran’s Overrated “Genius” Hasn’t Got Us Cornered

The Buzz

Ali Khamenei is, warns Ray Takeyh, “a first-rate strategic genius.” The Iranian leader, he argues, has bamboozled the West in the nuclear talks and is now on the verge of signing a nuclear deal that will allow him “to forge ahead with a nuclear program while safeguarding [his] regime and its ideological verities.” By attaining an agreement that “is technologically permissive and of limited duration,” the elderly cleric has “entered negotiations with the weakest hand and emerged with the strongest.”

It isn’t mad to interpret Khamenei’s latest moves as those of a clever tactician. Khamenei is a skilled player of Iranian domestic politics. He outmaneuvered his rival Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who had helped Khamenei ascend to the supreme leader’s post in what many have interpreted as a bid to limit Khamenei’s power (since Khamenei lacked the religious qualifications and popular appeal needed to master the role). Khamenei has often managed to keep himself above the day-to-day political fray while still enforcing its boundaries and shaping its balances. And he’s slowly accumulated religious authority and financial clout. We’re not dealing with an old fool. But that doesn’t mean that Khamenei is on a path to victory in the nuclear talks.

First, while Khamenei has often been willing to move slowly, Takeyh’s reading of Khamenei’s intentions and goals suggests that the supreme leader is patient to Petrosian-like extremes. Under the nuclear deal rumored to be taking shape, Iran’s program would be under serious restrictions for ten years, and these restrictions would be lifted over the following five years. The deal, in other words, would sunset in 2030, having entered twilight in 2025. And Iran would likely need some measure of time—months, years—after the sunset to develop a useable bomb even if it chooses to do so immediately. The Iranian nuclear program will have existed without attaining its putative goal for more than four decades. In this time, Iran would have continued to live without the deterrence provided by a nuclear weapon.

Even if Khamenei is confident that President Obama won’t go to war with him, that confidence only gets him to early 2017. If Khamenei wants the bomb to scare off his enemies, does he believe that the next decade and a half will not be dangerous? If, on the other hand, Iran is aiming for an offensive nuclear weapon, why is Khamenei giving his targets so much time to prepare and to build up nuclear arsenals that would overshadow his even more vastly than they already do?

Second, Takeyh’s assertion that there will be “no legal limits” on Iran’s nuclear program and that “Western powers will have no recourse” after the expiration of a deal is simply not true. Iran would remain under the verification provisions of the nuclear nonproliferation regime, including those which assure the peaceful nature of a nation’s nuclear program. Iran would face the same risks—sanctions, isolation, military action—that it does today if it maneuvered toward nuclear breakout. And if the nonproliferation regime fails to put a nuclearizing Iran back at the top of the international agenda, but the United States and Israel develop concerns of their own, well, history does not suggest that either state will bow to international law or the whims of the international community when it perceives its national interests to be at stake.

Third, we must consider whether any viable policy path could allay Takeyh’s concerns. If Takeyh’s reading of the situation is correct, but there is nothing we can do to obtain a better outcome, Takeyh’s essay is a mere historical analysis. A viable alternative doesn’t seem to be in the cards. The Iranians, after all, have yet to show interest in an agreement with no sunset, even as the negotiations have been extended twice, so we can’t expect that they’d change under the current negotiating framework.

On the other hand, allowing these talks to break down while tightening sanctions would be an enormous gamble. We’d have (again) humiliated the factions in Iran’s government that have sought negotiations with us, empowering their critics and strengthening the narrative that the United States simply cannot be trusted. The Iranians would likely resume their riskiest enrichment activities and claw back the other concessions they made at the beginning of the current round of talks. More centrifuges would be built, letting them enter the next round of talks with a fait accompli even bigger than the one we face now. Those moves toward a nuclear breakout that Takeyh suggests may come when a deal sunsets in 2025 or 2030 could instead come much sooner. War would be more likely—and war is merely an expensive way to kick the can a few years down the road. The talks remain the best attainable approach even if Ali Khamenei really has outfoxed us.

John Allen Gay, an assistant managing editor at The National Interest, is coauthor of War with Iran: Political, Military, and Economic Consequences (Rowman and Littlefield, 2013). He tweets at @JohnAllenGay.


TopicsNuclear Proliferation RegionsIran

Putin's Gambit

The Buzz

With the ceasefire in Ukraine showing early signs of holding, international attention will now intensify towards finding a diplomatic solution to the crisis facing the country. For Kiev and its Western backers, prospects are bleak for bringing about their desired settlement. But it will also not be easy for Vladimir Putin to convert his considerable short-term bargaining power into lasting strategic gains.

On the face of it, Russia’s position in Ukraine is strong. Even though the Russian economy has taken a battering as a result of Western-imposed sanctions, Moscow still enjoys a commanding position on the ground. Only with Russia’s blessing can the conflict be brought to a permanent halt, which would seem to grant Moscow a sizable degree of leverage for extracting concessions from its Western adversaries.

There has been much speculation about what Russia’s long-term strategic goals might relate to: its fear of NATO expansion, its desire to recreate a sphere of influence in the former Soviet space and its deep-seated craving for prestige on the world stage. But the overlooked point is that if Vladimir Putin wants to convert his position in Ukraine into a lasting victory along any of these dimensions, then he needs to play his diplomatic cards very carefully indeed. And even if he does so, the odds are heavily stacked against him.

Putin’s ability to win meaningful concessions from the West—a renunciation of the Western interest in Ukraine’s future or broader recognition of a Russian sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, for example—will depend upon his ability to engineer a fissure among the powers ranged against him. Putin will not succeed in ambitious reforms to the European security architecture if the other great powers stand firm. Instead, his gains will be limited to influence over eastern Ukraine at most. But if Putin is able to broaden the appeal of Russian foreign policy, he will emerge from the crisis with a permanently stronger hand in global affairs. Simply put: Putin needs allies.

History suggests that the most effective revisionist powers are those able to split potential opposition to their policies. Nazi Germany was able to remilitarize and expand its influence across Mitteleuropa partly because Britain, France, the United States and the Soviet Union were either slow to see Hitler’s regime as a menace or else were convinced that others would deal with the threat. Imperial Japan’s rise to power during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was facilitated by a military alliance with Britain, which served to deter others who stood to lose from Japan’s rise from doing anything to stop it. And during the Cold War, the Soviet Union was at its most threatening to the United States when Moscow looked close to splitting the Western alliance—through lobbying West Germany to make a separate peace with the Warsaw Pact, for example, or by encouraging leftist governments to “go neutral” (or “Finlandize”).

The challenge for revisionist states, then, is to ensure that their actions do not provoke unified opposition. Judged against this yardstick, Russian diplomacy is looking less than stellar. From rekindling relations with North Korea to buzzing coastal Britain with nuclear bombers, Putin appears to place more stock in flexing Russia’s muscles than in showing diplomatic restraint. Such bullish grandstanding might play well in some domestic circles, but it does no favors to foreign leaders like Angela Merkel, who might otherwise be disposed to serve as a bridge between Moscow and other Western capitals and could feasibly mediate a grand bargain that would cement some lasting strategic gains for Russia.

If Russia continues to represent itself as a military threat to its neighbors, it will find itself isolated and unable to reshape international politics in the truly fundamental ways that its leadership would like to. This is good news for those who would like to see Russian influence stop at Russia’s borders. But complacency must not be allowed to take hold. The danger for Western capitals is Putin finding a way to break the diplomatic cordon sanitaire—if the United States loses enthusiasm for protecting the peace of Europe; if dovish European states pursue appeasement over deterrence; or if the great powers of tomorrow, China and India especially, turn out to be silent partners (or worse) in Putin’s challenge to the liberal order.

Indeed, weak in their condemnations over the annexation of Crimea and continuing to make noises in favor of concessions to Putin, there seems to be at least some appetite in Beijing and New Delhi for seeing Russia succeed in chipping away at Western stewardship of world affairs. As the localized conflict in eastern Ukraine begins to stabilize, then, the global effort to keep Russia contained and isolated must be redoubled.

Image: Flickr/theglobalpanorama/CC by-sa 2.0

TopicsDiplomacyPolitics RegionsEurope

Russia Is Building New Aircraft Carrier, Navy Chief Confirms

The Buzz

Russia is building a new aircraft carrier its navy chief confirmed on Monday, according to reports in state-owned media outlets.

On Monday Itar-Tass News Agency reported that Viktor Chirkov, Russia’s top naval commander, announced Russia is building a new aircraft carrier.

"The Navy will have an aircraft carrier. The research companies are working on it, and strictly in compliance with the requirements from the Chief Commander," the reported quoted Chirkov as saying. Itar-Tass did not report any additional details except that Chirkov made the remarks while speaking to workers at the Kolomensky Zavod plant. The plant makes diesel electric engines for navy vessels. which makes diesel electric engines.

Russia currently has one operational aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, which was launched by the Soviet Union in 1985. However, last month Russian media outlets began reporting that the government-owned Krylov State Research Center was in the rudimentary stages of developing a new carrier-class for the Russian navy.

The reports said that the carrier was still in the conceptual phase of planning. However, when completed the new Russian aircraft carrier would reportedly be able to hold roughly 100 aircraft on board. That would make it 10 percent larger than America’s current Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, which can store roughly 90 aircraft carrier.

In addition, the reports last month claimed that the new carriers would utilize catapult take-off launch systems. All Soviet-era carriers used ski-ramps to launch aircraft from their flight decks. However, a scaled mockup of the new carrier shown on Russian television had the old ski-ramp style launch systems.

The reports last month were greeted with some skepticism abroad. Writing in Reuters, for instance, War is Boring’s David Axe said the new carrier “is likely to remain a paper concept. A quarter-century after the Soviet Union’s collapse, Russia lacks the money, expertise and industrial capacity to build aircraft carriers.” He later added: “But the Kremlin has failed to maintain its expensive shipyard facilities and perishable worker skills. So it can’t actually complete the new vessel any time soon.”

In recent years, Russia has launched a massive program to modernize its military equipment. The program was announced by then-President Dmitry Medvedev in a speech in early 2010. At the time, he said the goal was to revamp “arms and equipment at a rate of 9 to 11 percent per year for the next decade, in order to reach a target of modernizing 70 percent of military equipment by 2020.” That same year Russian officials said the rearmament program would cost around $600 billion.

While many foreign analysts dismissed the announcements as mere bluster at the time, since then Russia has been debuting new weapon systems at an impressive rate. As Nikolas Gvosdev wrote in The National Interest last year, “Russia is now engaged in its largest military buildup since the collapse of the Soviet Union more than two decades ago.” He went on to observe, “The rest of the world is taking notice.”

Image: Wikimedia/Gaz Armes