Response to comments in Nelson Report

Readers of the July 26 Nelson Report read the comments of Jim Nolt, Denny Roy, and Joel Witt regarding my Christian Science Monitor article on Five Tough Truths about U.S. China Relations.  My response was submitted later that day but did not appear in the Report.  It follows here.



Thanks for facilitating a discussion that I hope will prove to be useful, and to Jim Nolt,  Joel Witt, and Denny Roy for engaging.  I welcome the opportunity to respond to their comments.

Jim Nolt

1) China supplanting the U.S. as the leading power in Asia.  China does not need to surpass or even match U.S. military power across the board.  It merely needs to develop selective defensive and deterrent capabilities that diminish or even neutralize ours—e.g., attack submarines and anti-ship missiles that serve area denial and anti-access purposes.  The strategy has already worked to complicate U.S. contingency plans to defend Taiwan (though Beijing would be foolish to assume the U.S. isn’t prepared to address those challenges as well).

I doubt that Jim knows any better than the rest of us how much China is really spending on its military build-up, but asymmetry, “assassin’s mace,” deception, surprise, and will are all part of a Chinese strategy that complements and multiplies its capabilities.  Geography is also an advantage—despite our bases and the Seventh Fleet, we still have to get to the fight.  Oh yes, and China does have one ally, the always unpredictable North Korea, which could undertake all kinds of diversionary actions.

Speaking of irrational actors, China itself, despite its cultivated reputation as a conservative, cautious, defensive power, has proved quite capable of launching military operations when it sees advantage in it.  And then there’s the disturbing rhetoric that often emanates from Chinese officials and the academic and media organs they support regarding resort to nuclear weapons in a conflict with the U.S..  It evokes Mao’s blithe insanity that a nuclear war wouldn’t be as bad for China as it would be for the U.S. and Soviet Union. (Of course, that was when China had nothing to lose but ever-dispensable people; presumably, today’s leaders care about keeping the new China they’ve built.)

 Jim’s repeated comparisons of Chinese power today to the Soviets’ a few decades ago suggest that he’s fixated on fighting the last Cold War.  I respectfully disagree with his statement that “China is following a path of national development emphasizing the economy over the military, much more like Japan since World War II, rather than the negative examples of the Soviet Union and North Korea.”  Obviously, Beijing seeks to build all aspects of its “comprehensive national power” but the purposes to which it is beginning to direct the military and economic components of that power, especially in the South and East China Seas, looks to me a lot more like Japan before and during World War II.

The second point on containment is pretty much the same discussion.

On point 3, regarding Joel Witt’s version of the sequencing of Chinese and Soviet nuclear cooperation with North Korea and proliferation to A.Q. Khan, I cite the Congressional Research Service Report of March 3, 2011 by Shirley Kan on “China and Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction and Missiles;” the Wilson Center’s latest release of declassified documents on North Korea’s nuclear program; China’s Nuclear Exports and Assistance to Pakistan – Statements and Developments Chronology, Nuclear Threat Initiative. 2007. Web.; and The Nuclear Express: A Political History of the Bomb and Its Proliferation co-authored by former U.S. Air Force Secretary Thomas Reed who had been a weapons designer at the Livermore National Laboratory.

But even Joel’s account of China’s proliferation of nuclear technology–despite Beijing’s commitments to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and other international obligations—confirms my original point that China does not share our concerns with Pyongyang’s nukes.  It hardly seems reassuring to those who might be the targets of a North Korean or Iranian “1960s bomb design” (presumably more powerful than what we dropped on Japan) that that was “all China provided Pakistan with as far as we know.”

4) Chinese nationalism. This point is less technical and easier to address.  Jim says he sees “no evidence at all that China is stoking nationalist sentiment against the U.S.”  We must not read the same media reports, publications, and official pronouncements.  I recall when Defense Secretary Bill Cohen visited Beijing and was greeted on his arrival with a blaring headline in People’s Daily that read “U.S. THE GREATEST THREAT TO WORLD PEACE.”  From Taiwan to the South China Sea, human rights to trade, proliferation to pandemics, the U.S. and the West are portrayed as trying to “contain” China’s rise, “encircle” it, revive the “century of humiliation,” etc.  Economic development (a good thing) and stoked-up nationalism (a bad thing) are all the Communist Party has to substitute for the ideological fervor it lost and the legitimacy of popular consent it never had.

My own interactions with Chinese, here and there, have also been interesting, productive, and always frank and friendly, especially among the younger generation (including some in the military).  I have no doubt that the Chinese people, if given the choice, would opt for closer relations with America and the West and for their own political system to become more normal.  Jim’s statement that “Internet censorship in China is more about promoting national companies rather than blocking information” leaves me breathless.

Denny Roy

1) I agree that China would prefer to achieve its “sphere of influence”–i.e., political and military hegemony–without having to engage in overt military operations, but it is not at all averse to using force wherever it believes it can get away with it.  E.g., what would China have done to Taiwan in 1995-96 if the U.S. had not sent the carriers?

Speaking of Taiwan, I hate to take issue with a point that begins so auspiciously: “Bosco is correct, however, in pointing out that Washington is gradually losing its commitment to defend Taiwan while China is backing its continued commitment to unification with new military capabilities and increasing leverage.  If these trends continue, China will win in a bloodless victory.”   I did not say that America’s commitment to defend Taiwan is diminished, only that our officials will not state that commitment publicly: “[In December 1995,] Washington said it no longer knows whether it will defend Taiwan. It has repeated that `strategic ambiguity’ mantra ever since.”

This policy began with the masters of diplomatic ambiguity, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, as part of the whole “One China” Principle/Policy.  While we continue to sell Taiwan arms, we didn’t want to defy Mao Zedong and Zhou En-lai frontally about defending Taiwan, though they had no reciprocal qualms about saying they would attack it when the time is right. Jimmy Carter and Zbigniew Brzezinski liked that approach and continued it.  The Chinese, for all their reputed love of subtlety and nuance, got a bit impatient as Taiwan was emerging as a full-fledged democracy and asked Joe Nye for some clarity about U.S. intentions please.  He, and shortly thereafter Bill Perry, thought it better to keep China—and Taiwan—guessing so no one would be tempted to take any rash actions.

In fact, I have no doubt that the U.S. will come to Taiwan’s defense if necessary–Congress, the American people, and our strategic friends and allies will demand it.  The danger is that all this clever ambiguity could easily convince Beijing—as it apparently has Denny and others—that we will stand by as China attacks, coerces, or squeezes Taiwan into submission.  Then we will have a repeat of the mutual strategic miscalculation that gave us Korea in June 1950.  As Kissinger has written: “We did not expect the invasion; China did not expect the response.”  Clarity can still save us.

As for the Taiwanese voluntarily striking a deal with the People’s Republic of China, it will never happen—they didn’t get rid of an anti-Communist dictatorship to welcome a Communist one.  A genuinely democratic China would be a much more appealing potential partner, but that kind of legitimately-governed China also wouldn’t feel the same contrived nationalist urge to unify.

2) I agree that it’s only an aggressive, expansionist China that we would oppose and thought I said that—as we’ve demonstrated with four decades of helping the rise of what our experts told us was a peaceful China.  But I disagree that we shouldn’t call it what it is–will Beijing feel better if we say we’re just trying to “channel” rather than “contain” their aggressive actions?  The whole point of using direct language is to put Chinese leaders on notice that they have a choice—accept the international norms that have benefitted them handsomely for the past forty years or face international condemnation and more.  Of course, Kissinger likes to point out that China feels no allegiance to an international system they had no part in creating.  If China adheres to that approach, we’re all in a heap of trouble.

I agree with or have already addressed Denny’s other points.

Thanks again, Chris.


About JosephABosco

Joseph A. Bosco, national security consultant, retired in 2010 from the office of the secretary of defense where his portfolios over a seven year period included strategic communications and Muslim outreach, East Asia security affairs, Iraq and Afghanistan coalition affairs, and disaster relief and humanitarian affairs, among other assignments. Prior to his OSD service, Mr. Bosco taught graduate seminars on China-Taiwan-U.S. relations in the Asian Studies Program at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, and in the Continuing Education Program on the United Nations in the postwar world and international law, morality, and realpolitic. He organized a series of conferences on U.S.-China-Taiwan issues.
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