Secretary Ashton Carter went to Asia intent on sending a message about America’s commitment to the “pivot to Asia,” but may not have gotten through to the Chinese. Case in point: the edgy tone of the top Chinese military officials writing in the Party mouthpiece The Global Times this week.
PLA Major General Luo Yuan said that he had a few questions he would like to pose to Secretary Carter:
1. Since war is the continuation of politics, has the South China Sea political game come to the point where the U.S. and China must now have a hard clash with each other? Since the U.S. suffers no fundamental damage to its core interests in the South China Sea, why does the U.S. want to sacrifice her own soldiers for another country?
2. If indeed there is a fight, is the U.S. absolutely sure that it will win?
3. Even if the U.S. wins an accidental fight, is it prepared for the escalation and a long-term war, if China does not want to accept the loss?
4. The battle between China and the U.S. will mean the world order needs to be rebalanced. Is the U.S. ready for that?
5. Is it beneficial to the U.S.’ national interest to change the Sino-U.S. relationship from cooperation to confrontation?
6. The economic interests of China and the U.S. have been tightly woven together. To hurt China is to hurt the U.S. Also, China has more economic cards than the U.S.
7. If there is a conflict between China and the U.S., the Chinese people will have a strong anti-U.S. sentiment.
8. Japan expanded its islands in the East Sea and some other countries changed the islands in the South China Sea. Why didn’t the U.S. ask them to stop?
9. The Asia-Pacific region is the world’s economic growth engine. If there is turmoil, is it a good thing for the world and for the U.S.?
10. On the U.S. strategic balance, which one is heavier – China or some small countries that only care about their own interests and fight for nonsense?
In case anyone flies off the handle and misreads these words as aggressive, Maj. Gen. Luo sets the record straight:
“The above [questions] are not threats, but kind reminders. They are the logical consequences of Carter’s hard words. The U.S. is a practical country. We hope it will think twice before taking any action.”
To be fair, many of these questions are perfectly legitimate, and their answers are important to think about. But more interesting than the questions themselves is what the choice of questions and their phrasing tells us about the assumptions China, and especially China’s military, is laboring under.
The whole thing reads like it was written by somebody who really thinks he has the U.S.’s number. That’s dangerous. The American political system makes the mechanism for going to war a politically complicated thing, and no one person ultimately knows just how resolute the U.S. as a whole is in opposing China’s regional aggression. Given the right set of circumstances, America could easily escalate things to a level that the current Chinese regime simply couldn’t survive, even while taking a painful but ultimately recoverable hit itself.
History shows that threatening the freedom of navigation in important sea lanes (like the South China Sea, through which an estimated third of all global sea trade passes) is one of those things that can make America become very bellicose very quickly. Let’s hope the Chinese aren’t being blithe about assuming that U.S. policy is dominated by capitalist realists whose sober conception of the immediate national interest would never lead them to actually get involved in a war.