No, China Doesn't Want Confrontation in the South China Sea

The U.S. Navy destroyer USS John S. McCain conducts a patrol in the South China Sea, January 22, 2017. U.S. Navy/Petty Officer 3rd Class James Vazquez/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

An antagonist who stumbles into the arena of combat is different from one who strides into the arena.

It’s been said that groupthink is a bad thing, that creative tension is a good thing and that appointing a “devil’s advocate” represents the best way to counteract the former while generating the latter. With any luck the give-and-take of debate yields better insights into ambient circumstances and how to manage them. To assure there is some give-and-take against the pressure of groupthink, the wise leader nominates a devil’s advocate to his team—namely a contrarian whose appointed task is to confound emerging wisdom by lodging arguments fair or foul.

The ornerier the better when you’re playing the part of Screwtape. So it’s with a whiff of fire and brimstone that I take issue with my friend Gordon Chang, who maintains that “China Wants Confrontation in the South China Sea.” Hence Beijing’s decision to disclose that USS Hopper executed a freedom-of-navigation cruise last week while Washington initially remained silent about it. Gordon regards Chinese bombast as proof that Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders are spoiling for a fight of some sort, rather than as yet more proof that bombast is encoded in Communist China’s political DNA.

Keyword: wants. It’s the job of all strategic leaders to prepare for confrontation. To do otherwise courts disaster should confrontation come. But few sane leaders crave strife.

That includes Chinese leaders. We make much of Chinese sage Sun Tzu’s maxim that winning without fighting constitutes the supreme excellence in statecraft. Short of that, Master Sun implores generals and sovereigns to take enemy states intact, and to wage short, sharp wars in order to avoid bankrupting the treasury and national manpower. Their paramount mission is to win. Next most important is to hold down the expense in resources and lives for both combatants. Sun Tzu’s Art of War remains a staple of strategic discourses in China today, and justifiably so.

CCP chieftains may be pursuing self-defeating policies and strategies in the South China Sea. They may have resigned themselves to a rumble. And opportunism is their watchword: they will doubtless attempt to turn such encounters as do occur to diplomatic and strategic advantage.

But wanting to fight is another thing altogether—and would warrant different American and Asian countermeasures. An antagonist who stumbles into the arena of combat is different from one who strides into the arena. Word choices matter. As the quintessential devil’s advocate Mark Twain wisecracks, “the difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. ‘Tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

Strategists in the United States, its allies, and its friends should respond to Chinese deeds far differently if the problem is a lightning bug as opposed to a lightning strike. Mistake one for the other and you’re apt to overreact, underreact or mis-react (if that’s a word). Gordon takes his brief for Chinese belligerence just a trifle too far—but that’s a trifle that could beget errant strategy.

Nor, it bears mentioning, is the quest for bloodless victory an exclusively Eastern specialty. Strategists and philosophers from the Western canon tell us so. But their insight should come as cold comfort: winning without fighting should not connote collegial, noncoercive negotiations that yield compromises everyone can live with.

Sunny uplands do not await. Indeed, martial thinker Carl von Clausewitz interprets this phenomenon in characteristically bleak Prussian terms, vouchsafing that