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.”  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. 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). 
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). 
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). 
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 to—especially 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.
 Peter Mattis, “Stop Saying China is at a Crossroads,” National Interest (7 August 2015).
 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.
 Thomas Schelling, Arms and Influence (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966), 100-101.
 Bilahari Kausikan, “Pavlovian Conditioning in the South China Sea,” The Strait Times (1 April 2016).