Arms and Influence… and China

Last week’s post “China Does Not Want Your Rules Based Order” created a stir. Many who read it were inspired to write up their own view in response; some of these have been posted in the comments thread to the original post, others on Twitter, and yet others have been sent to me in more private forums. I have not had time to properly respond to this flood of commentary, and I doubt I will ever have time to respond to it all. However, a few of the critiques I have seen are too good to languish in comment threads unnoticed. I have collected the best of these here, along with a few of my own thoughts in response.

First off, multiple readers have pointed out that my post makes essentially the same case Peter Mattis made a year ago in a National Interest essay titled “Stop Saying China is at a Crossroads.[1] I was unaware of Mattis’s column. Had I known of it I would have cited it, for its message is almost exactly the same as mine, just stated in far less sensational language. This stylistic choice on my part has been criticized by some, but this sort of criticism misses the mark. There is a purpose behind the pungency. Americans have been declaring that China is at a crossroads for three decades now. This is the default setting, a frame of thought that Americans conjure up effortlessly even when (perhaps especially when) the distractions of a busy world press upon them. It also happens to be wrong. Simpy stating that is not sufficient. It is not enough whisper that the emperor has no clothes. The truth must be shouted at him.

This brings me to Nick Prime‘s critique of my argument, sent to me in a private message. Prime has one of the most interesting research programs in the field of strategic studies, and if strategic theory is your thing his research is worth delving into. His comment here is typically astute:

I think your assessment of everything here is pretty accurate, but I’m not sure you’re viewing the significance of it in the appropriate mindset. I don’t question the idea that China has chosen its path, and that that path runs perpendicular to the liberal rules based order for which the US has been the guarantor for more than half a century. The evidence at this point is consistent and pretty much irrefutable.

That being said, the choices they’ve made make this something of a Mexican standoff, if not now then something that is quite clearly headed in that direction. The constant reminder of choice is thus not naive or ignorant of the path China’s pursuing but is instead a very tactical form of positional bargaining. The US will not *choose* to break international norms and start a war with China. But the US will, I believe, stand firm and watch as China creeps towards that precipice and it doesn’t hurt us at every stage to remind China that each choice is bringing that eventuality ever closer. One can justify the rhetoric you’re criticising even if they except your premise because if what you say is true then the courses are set and the game is now about credibility and legitimacy. By calling out every choice China makes we highlight their illegitimacy and strengthen ours. Ideally this would amount to (if not an actual deterrent, than at least) a effort towards compellence.

This all goes hand in hand with countering China’s broader regional strategy of trying to forestall attempts at collectively counter-balancing their rise through multi-lateral regional alignment and engagement. China’s long running dismissal of, and their subtle attempts to undermine, ASEAN also make this pretty clear. We need to be standing firm behind some sort of line in the sand that shows we’re not going to let them dismantle the international system we’ve built. It’s both the right thing to do and in our national interest, at a grand strategic level it also seeks to provide the bulwark around which that counter-balancing can solidify and set in its heels.

Prime’s argument is expressed in the language of conflict bargaining, and his main ideas should be familiar to anyone who has read Schelling’s Arms and Influence or The Strategy of Conflict.[2] Prime asks the first question anyone should ask when an international actor tries to signal its intentions in an incomplete information scenario: do the things said genuinely reflect the beliefs of those saying them, or are they simply rhetorical tools in a bargaining game? Does all this talk of choice reveal actual American sentiments, or is it a more cynical attempt to maneuver the Chinese into having the “last clear chance” to avert war?

Readers who do not regularly delve into the tomes of strategic theory can be forgiven for not knowing what this ‘last clear chance’ business is all about. Schelling introduces the idea by asking us to imagine a special game of chess:

A chess game can end in win, lose, or draw. Let’s change the game by adding a fourth outcome called “disaster.” If “disaster” occurs, a heavy fine is levied on both players, so that each is worse off than if he had simply lost the game. And the rules specify what causes disaster: specifically, if either player has moved his knight across the center line and the other player has moved his queen across the center line, the game terminates at once and both players are scored with a disaster. If a white knight is already on the black side of the board when the black queen moves across to the white side, the black queen’s move terminates the game in disaster; if the queen was already across when White moved his knight across the center line, the knight’s move terminates the game in disaster for both players. And the same applies for the white queen and the black knight.  

What does this new rule do to the way a game is played? If a game is played well, and both players play for the best score they can get, we can state two observations. First, a game will never end in disaster. It could only terminate in disaster if one of the players made a deliberate move that he knew would cause disaster, and he would not. Second, the possibility of disaster will be reflected in the players’ tactics. White can effectively keep Black’s queen on her own side of the board by getting a knight across first; or he can keep both Black’s knights on their own side by getting his queen across first. This ability to block or to deter certain moves of the adversary will be an important part of the game; the threat of disaster will be effective, so effective that the disaster never occurs. In fact, the result is no different from a rule that says no queen can cross a center line if an opponent’s knight has already crossed it, and no knight can cross the center line if an opponent’s queen has already crossed it. Prohibitive penalties imposed on deliberate actions are equivalent to ordinary rules.  

The characteristic that this chess game shares with the tripwire diplomacy, and that accounts for its peculiar safety, is the absence of uncertainty. There is always some moment, or some final step, in which one side or the other has the last clear chance to turn the course of events away from war (or from disaster in our game of chess) or to turn it away from a political situation that would induce the other to take the final step toward war. The skillful chess player will keep the knight across the center line or near enough to cross before his opponent’s queen can get across, with due allowance for the cost of having to devote resources to the purpose. Skillful diplomacy, in the absence of uncertainty, consists in arranging things so that it is one’s opponent who is embarrassed by having the “last clear chance” to avert disaster by turning aside or abstaining from what he wanted to do (emphasis added)[3]

Is this the aim of American rhetoric on “China’s choice?”

Possibly. It is likely that statements by Senator McCain, Secretary Carter, et. al. are a bit of bargaining and a bit of honest belief rolled together into one. However, if one part dominates, it is the second. I say this because the “China is at a crossroads” meme is not just rhetoric that rings from the pronouncements of America’s highest policy makers or the podium’s of her official spokespeople and press secretaries; it is a way of thought that permeates American officialdom. Talk to think tank fellows, naval officers, congressional aids, even grad students, and you will hear these same notes repeated. I believe this accounts for the popularity of the original post. The analysts and reporters who have reached out to me after I published it all had similar stories to tell: they thanked me for saying what I did because they feared their colleagues genuinely believe China is still waiting “at the crossroads.” This is a deeply ingrained belief, not a carefully chosen bargaining position.

However, even if it this sort of rhetoric is a carefully designed signal, it is not effective at reaching its aims. To return to Shelling:

But off the chess board the last chance to avert disaster is not always clear. One does not always know what moves of his own would lead to disaster, one cannot always perceive the moves that the other side has already taken or has set afoot, or what interpretation will be put on one’s own actions; one does not always understand clearly what situations the other side would not, at some moment, accept in preference to war (emphasis added). [4]

Deterrence and compellence only work if the rules of the game are known and understood by both parties. On this count the Americans have been sloppy. They have never clarified the rules of their game. The constant talk of choice is never coupled with clear descriptions of the exact consequences of choosing wrongly. Mostly American officials frame the choice in ornate and abstract language; if China chooses to disrupt the ruling order, they say, China will “create a future that resembles Asia’s darker past.” How are the Chinese supposed to interpret this kind of rhetoric? Is not a return to the dynamics of Asia’s past the entire purpose of their project?

Offering China a choice to join the international order does not bolster American credibility, nor does it pass the last clear chance to jump off the escalation escalator to Beijing. The Chinese who listen to American lectures about the choice they face are most likely to conclude that Americans are either 1) too foolish to realize that they made their choice long ago, or 2) are smart enough to realize this, but lack the gumption to do anything meaningful about it.

The second interpretation is strengthened by an uncomfortable fact: the Chinese are far more committed than the Americans are or ever can be to the narrow disputes at the fringes of the American led order. There are many theories for why China does what it does in its near abroad, but I am particularly partial to explanations that focus on the narrative the Communist Party of China pitches to its cadres and its subjects to justify its rule. Here Bilahari Kausikan is eloquent:

China’s use of history to legitimise CCP rule and justify sovereignty claims gets us, I think, to the crux of the matter. For the past century, the legitimacy of any Chinese government has depended on its ability to defend China’s sovereignty and preserve its borders. But what are those borders? Can the CCP meekly accept the borders imposed on a weak China that has now, to use Mao Zedong’s phrase, “stood up” under communist leadership? China is not reckless but the CCP must at least give the appearance of recovering lost territory. Revanchism is an intrinsic part of the story of China’s “Great Rejuvenation”. 

The lands lost to a weak China include what are now parts of Siberia and the Russian Far East, Mongolia, Hong Kong and Macau, and Taiwan, as well as the Paracels and Spratlys in the SCS. Siberia and the Russian Far East and Mongolia are now beyond recovery. Hong Kong and Macau reverted to Beijing’s rule almost 30 years ago. The US has made clear it will not support independence for Taiwan. Without US support, independence is impossible. With that core concern assuaged, Beijing can multiply the economic threads binding Taiwan to the mainland and bide its time, confident that irrespective of internal changes and how the people of Taiwan regard themselves, Taiwan’s long-term trajectory cannot run counter to China’s interest. Changing the status quo is not an immediate possibility but is no longer an urgent issue, although China still eyes Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party distrustfully and will never entirely forgo the option of forceful reunification. 

That leaves the SCS territories to put some credible shreds of meat on the bare bones of the CCP’s version of history as it navigates a second and more difficult phase of reforms and tries to manage social and labour unrest at a time of moderating growth and a future when slower growth will be China’s “new normal”. The very insignificance of the territories in dispute in the SCS may well be part of their attraction to Beijing for this essentially domestic political purpose. 

The costs and consequences of chest-thumping and acting tough in the SCS are minimal. Deterrence or its lack works both ways. If the Chinese cannot deter the US from operating in the SCS because the risks of doing so are too high to be credible, by the same token, neither can the US deter or reverse Chinese activities in the SCS. China is not going to dig up the artificial islands it has constructed and throw the sand back into the sea or give up what it says was Chinese territory since “ancient times”. Critical statements by the US, Europe or other countries from around the world calling on China to respect international law – even Botswana has issued a statement on the SCS – can be brushed aside. On the SCS, the only opinion that really matters to the CCP is that of its own people.  (emphasis added). [5]

Kausikan is more sanguine about all of this than I am, but the take away is the same. For the Communist Party of China, territorial disputes over God-forsaken atolls in the middle of the ocean are an existential question. These islands are directly related to the legitimacy of the Party, and thus the survival of the Party itself. Whether or not ‘legitimacy’ as a concept makes much sense does not matter here. What matters is that the Chinese think it does and they act accordingly. The United States simply does not have that level of commitment to these atolls. It cannot have that kind of commitment—no matter what any American says, everyone in the region knows that America could withdraw entirely from Asia (and for that matter, Europe) without fear of domestic revolution or external invasion. The American republic is blessed with enormous privilege: for her, international politics does not mean walking the knife’s edge between survival and extinction.

The world looks different when viewed from Beijing. China’s ruling regime occupies a precarious position, and the dangers they face are reflected in the policies they pursue abroad. This emerges as a recurring theme when the different points of contention that divide China from the West are examined. Most the aspects of the ‘rules based order’ that China rejects are things they view as an existential threat to the rule of Party. The root problem then is not China’s rise, but the nature of the Chinese regime that guides it. As much as we may like to talk about making China a “responsible stake holder” in our order, the brightest minds in Zhongnanhai know that full participation in the American system means relinquishing their grip on power. The Arab Spring was a horrible shock to the Chinese leadership for just this reason. The speed with which long respected, rule-abiding members of the liberal order were abandoned by the United States once the street protests began convinced Beijing that American promises about the benefits of “responsible” participation in the American system were lies. Nor could the Chinese ignore that cherished aspects of that order, such as technological integration with the wider world, the free flow of information between borders, and an international network of activists and journalists, were critical to the collapse of governments across the region. Our rules based international order is a liberal one, and full participation in it will ultimately be fatal to any illiberal regime that joins it. The Communist Party of China recognizes this. The Party’s real choice has always been to either give up their control over China in order to join the existing order or to try and create a new order more friendly to their continued hold on power. 

Given these existential stakes at play, I am extremely skeptical that our rhetorical nicties will make any difference in the Party’s calculations. They have decided that our order and their regime are fundamentally incompatible. This judgement is probably correct. Our choice then, is simple: we can change the nature of the international system we have built so that it has space for illiberal regimes within in it, or we can try to actively oppose the rise autocratic powers who wish to overturn the order. Compromise or containment. 

From the perspective of Asia, the “China choice” rhetoric furthers neither end. Where it might make a difference is inside the United States itself. As mentioned earlier, America could lose her entire alliance system in East Asia and still live without fear of foreign invasion, and Chinese salami slices in the South China Sea are far less dramatic than a disaster of that scale. Thus even without the growing isolationist sentiment in American politics, regional allies have good reason to doubt whether America is actually committed to the international system she has built. This doubt substantially strengthens the Chinese position.  If United States wishes to maintain a credible presence in the Western Pacific, then its own people need to be sold on the project. The pageantry of declaring that the Chinese have to choose between a rules based order of the present or a return to the dark anarchy of the past might just be necessary to get the American people on board. 

I am going to stop with that for now. There are a few other comments and reactions I want to respond toespecially Andrew Chubb’s comment on the original post, and Mark Safranski’s response post at Zenpundit—but this piece is already long as it is. I will have to save my thoughts on their comments for a separate post later this week.  


[1] Peter Mattis, “Stop Saying China is at a Crossroads,” National Interest (7 August 2015).

[2] It is possible that he is pandering to my biases here; I have said before and affirm now that Schelling is the most important thinker we have for understanding U.S. and Chinese decision making in the South China Sea, and that you will be better prepared to analyze what is happening there after you have read him than if you had the Sunzi or Clausewitz.

[3] Thomas Schelling, Arms and Influence (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966), 100-101.

[4] Ibid. 

[5] Bilahari Kausikan, “Pavlovian Conditioning in the South China Sea,The Strait Times (1 April 2016).


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'China's ruling regime occupies a precarious position'.
Not nearly as precarious as the position occupied by America's regime.
While China's government enjoys 90% public support, only 10% of Americans support their current regime.
The Chinese regime is committed to Weber's 'outcome legitimacy' while we're sticking with formal legitimacy based entirely on the practice of voting. But few Americans, according to Gallup, Pew, Edelman and others, feel that our voting process is legitimate. Au contraire.
"Testing Theories of American Politics," by Princeton's Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page concludes: “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy…while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence… Ordinary citizens have virtually no influence over what their government does in the United States.”
Jimmy Carter pointed out that the U.S. Is an 'Oligarchy With Unlimited Political Bribery'.
It is naive to imagine that the current Chinese regime bases its legitimacy on being Communist, or even on delivering democracy, peace and prosperity to the Chinese people – which it does better than any government in the country's history.
The Chinese settled the issue of legitimacy millennia ago. They don't much care who's in the Forbidden Palace. They've had men and women, eunuchs, Buddhists, Daoists, Mongols and Communists. They don't care any more than 90% of Americans care which faction occupies the White House. The legitimacy of the current regime is Confucian. There's no other way for a government to BE legitimate in China. The legitimacy issue is settled.
So long as the government is virtuous – and every Chinese knows what that looks like – and doesn't screw up too badly it's legit. China's government IS virtuous – its current leader is a junzi – and it doesn't screw up. Ergo, it's legit.

1. It is not the Chinese people that matter. It is the Chinese power-holders. Or in other words, the Party itself.

Xi Jinping has done some incredible things to his Party. He rules with fear and terror. This is acceptable as long as he is succeeding in all he does. When it looks like his initiatives fail (say, the stock market drop last summer), he can no longer justify his harsh tactics and must respond with great force to maintain his prestige, and thus his position.

Their legitimacy negative has everything to do with nationalism. See what I have written here and here

The difference with America of course is that America has a three centuries old mechanism for the transfer of power, and a long history of transferring power without killing or imprisoning those who lost out on the last round. This is why, even when the system is as unpopular at is, that its leaders are not precariously placed. Obama hated Bush's policies, but Bush and his team is not under house arrest, nor are they dead, nor must any of them fear that kind of future, despite the failure of their foreign policy initiatives. In China the situation is different, and far more dangerous.

I went back and looked at your previous posts about Chinese views of nationalism. Speaking from HK, I think this explains much of the tensions here. Generally speaking HKers have a better idea of what the world thinks of them, and of China, than your average mainland Chinese citizen. As a result, they are aware that their association with a China that is authoritarian and crass in its mix of poverty and nouveau riche is a source of embarrassment, and, long having given up on changing China, they are increasingly focused on severing this association to rid themselves of the embarrassment. This is not seen in individual relationships between HK people and mainland people – those gaps are primarily linguistic – but rather in how HK understands itself as a city-state. They want the world to focus on its grouping in the family of advanced, developed economies, not its association with a crass developing nation that exports teeming masses of tourists unconcerned with non-Chinese concepts of etiquette.

Another excellent post: looking forward to the next one.

The Chinese could reasonably argue that their state system was a very stable and peaceful one. But that was also a reason why it was something of a dead end: the Chinese state was so dominant in the system, it undermined the incentives to adapt.

"Our rules based international order is a liberal one, and full participation in it will ultimately be fatal to any illiberal regime that joins it."

While threatening, the liberal order isn't monolithic. It's neither concentrated nor engrained enough to be fatal to the Party, and if managed appropriately, it affords ample opportunity for enterprising illiberal regimes to make hay. Indeed, China's very rise, which has been aided and abetted by the U.S. and the almighty Goldman Sachs, is a testament to this fact. Is it not?

Once the liberal order has been tapped, what's a Party to do with the experience, know-how, and power thus accrued? Perhaps the very same Party, whose cadres are so attuned to the gaps in our liberal order also have a few tricks up their sleeve. No? Witness the growth of great walls in cyberspace and at sea. Failing that, the tanks can roll like Tiananmen, if anyone wants to get uppity about a lack of perceived "legitimacy." The indelible march of history zigs and zags. Does it not?

China doesn't have to fully integrate. It doesn't even need to replace the liberal international order. It merely needs a buffer–behind which and within which–to grow. Toward what end I can't say, but that doesn't mean an uneasy accommodation can't be reached, provided China's intentions remain defensive rather than aggressive. In the meantime, the trick is to slip 'n slide without drawing undue attention, lest the Party proves hell-bent on being cut down to size.

I don't think that's the case, but again, recent events suggest the PRC is prepared to roll the dice. That's a mistake. Most U.S. politicians are clueless about international politics and "the knife's edge between survival and extinction." Maybe America could "withdraw entirely from Asia (and for that matter, Europe) without fear of domestic revolution or external invasion," but that doesn't mean our political class is willing to relinquish the reins, or ready to be present at the dissolution.

Thanks again for a great post!

@Anon (June 17 2016 9:15 PM)-

Witness the growth of great walls in cyberspace and at sea.

This is, I think, my point. The Chinese will accept the aspects of the current system that promote the party's rule and work to change those that do not. An accommodation can thus be reached–but it is hard to reach an accommodation that will remain stable. This is partially because this sort of accommodation is not in the interests of other countries in the region, and we have now given the most powerful of these countries the autonomy and means to disrupt one, but also because growing Chinese power may very well lead to even stronger demands. They may not need to replace the order, but they may soon want to.

Excellent post! However, may I contest your suggestion that the liberal Order that American preeminence and naval power guarantees would be open to China if it were a liberal regime. The current order was established in the wake of overwhelming US dominance post-WW2. It enshrined the much diminished UK as a junior partner and has accommodated the rise of Japan, Germany, South Korea etc.. but not post-soviet Russia and as is clear to you, cannot China. The operative factors, I propose, are not only liberalism of the rising power but also its size. However much Japan, Korea, Germany or the UK rises, as long as per-capita income is not more than the US ballpark, their smaller population guarantees lower overall GDP and national power relative to the USA. In the case of Russia, the self-image and illiberalism of the regime prevent it from integrating but for China, even if the regime were to be liberal, I am convinced that a China that even with half the US per-capita income (likely by 2040) will have twice the resources (because of 4 times US population) at its leadership's disposal does not have a decent chance of appropriate integration in the US-based order. Neither is the order, nor a Chinese leadership with China's best interests able to make the necessary accommodation. The privilege the US has here is that it can consider a G-2 that China desires (meaning a retreat from Asia and an accommodation of the Chinese-way as equal to the US-way) or a containment strategy that Japan/India would prefer without damage to core US interests. Those choices the US can make will each impact China or Japan/India more than the US itself. But, as you point out, if the choice is not made clearly and early enough then US interests will suffer.

The root problem then is not China's rise, but the nature of the Chinese regime that guides it. As much as we may like to talk about making China a "responsible stake holder" in our order, the brightest minds in Zhongnanhai know that full participation in the American system means relinquishing their grip on power. The Arab Spring was a horrible shock to the Chinese leadership for just this reason.
Not having to live thru the Chinese Civil War or the Culture Revolution, what do you propose to replace CCP with? Do you really believe that China is ready for "democracy" given the result of the Arab Spring or even the political turmoil in Europe or the U.S. Given the experience of many educated Chinese, an illiberal regime is better than the chaos that would follow.

, what do you propose to replace CCP with?

Nothing. I am an American. America has not the power to replace the CPC with anything. If the CPC falls it will be because of developments in China and actions by the Chinese. I take it as a given that an illiberal regime will continue in China for years and years to come. America cannot change this, and should not expect this to change.

The question is how we should respond to China's challenge given all of that.