Why America—and Its Political Leaders—Should Think Twice about Poking China

F/A-18F Super Hornet launches from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush. Flickr/U.S. Navy

Politicians should carefully consider the impact that their words may have on America's international relationships.

The first rule of rational thinking is that one should not assume what one hopes to prove. The first rule of international politics is that misperception is rampant. And the first rule of strategy is that the adversary gets a vote too. Sadly, Rep. Ted Yoho violates all three of these rules in his March 22 analysis titled “How America Should Confront China's Unchecked Maritime Bullying.” The result is an empty shell of words masquerading as strategic advice. Isolated, this could be ignored; more worryingly—and more difficult to ignore—is that Rep. Yoho’s article nicely represents the resentful, unreflective, incurious and superficial rhetoric that is increasingly coming to dominate Washington’s view of China.

Assuming What We Claim to Prove

Rep. Yoho begins his article by commenting on the economic importance of maritime Asia. Undisputedly, a large amount of commerce passes through these waters. He then suggests this commerce may be threatened by China, which has “possibly” indicated its “ambition to exclude foreign vessels from China’s near seas at will.” His evidence? The increasing strength of the People’s Liberation Army and Chinese investments in Anti-Access/Area Denial weapons.

Confronted with the fact that China has sought to strengthen its military since Deng Xiaoping launched his “four modernizations,” an intellectually curious person might posit a variety of explanations. These might include Chinese embarrassment over its poor performance in the 1979 war with Vietnam, a desire to be recognized as a great power by the United States and Russia, and a commitment to defending China’s territorial interests, particularly given the humiliation it suffered in the 1995–96 Taiwan Straits Crisis. Indeed, if a person took the trouble to speak with some Chinese military officers, or even merely read some standard histories of China’s rise, then that person would discover that this last explanation is particularly salient. China desires the ability to defend its territorial integrity and sovereignty. Since U.S. actions have threatened—and could once again threaten—these objectives, China is making investments intended to preserve its interests. Here we have the origins of China’s A2/AD investments, and an explanation for Chinese strategy.

But this is not what Rep. Yoho does in his analysis. Instead, he connects China’s growing military power to the possible “ambition to exclude foreign vessels from China’s near seas at will.” This connection is not impossible, and if it were something China was capable of doing, and if it was something China was likely to do, given the region’s importance, then this would be a big deal. But Rep. Yoho never completes that argument. He never informs us why it is likely that China might exclude trading vessels from the region, thereby injuring global commerce.

Risk is calculated by multiplying the probability of an event occurring by the estimated consequence of that event. When probability is extremely low, even when the consequence is high, risk is low. This formula must lie at the heart of all strategic thinking. When it does not, the results are not just irrational but dangerous.

So what is the likelihood that China would disrupt the “$5 trillion” in commerce that moves across the Asia-Pacific region? Most of this commerce is coming from China, going to China, passing through a Chinese port, or ultimately destined for China in one capacity or another. This is a good place to start: disrupting this commerce would be contrary to China’s most important interests.