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Posts from the ‘Asia’ Category

Young and Sexless in Japan

By Taylor Marvin

Two years ago I wrote a piece asking whether heterosexual dating norms would change as women’s educational achievements and incomes increased. In American society men have traditionally paid for dates, and more broadly been expected to ask women out rather than the other way around. This norm grew from a patriarchal culture where men were assumed to be the head of the household, and women typically did not work outside the home. Women practically had less money to spend, and men were expected to impress potential wives with their earning potential, important in an era when single-income households were the norm. But as women’s education attainment and incomes have increased, this norm seems to be growing less prevalent. Among many young people in my age range splitting the bill between heterosexual dating couples is more common than the man simply paying himself, and today women are more likely to ask men out or propose sex than decades before — especially given the proliferation and normalization of online dating sites. While it is unclear if American dating norms will continue to shift as women grow on average higher educated and better remunerated, it does appear that some degree of norm shifting is occurring in American dating behavior.

In the Observer* Abigail Haworth has a fascinating piece reporting on Japanese young people’s growing disinterest in sex and relationships. Termed sekkusu shinai shokogun, or “celibacy syndrome”, in the Japanese media, Japan’s already low birth rate and aging population appears further threatened by a trend away from sex and permanent relationships among millions of young people. A recent survey reports that 45 percent of women and more than a quarter of men ages 16 to 24 “were not interested in or despised sexual contact” and according to a relationship counsellor interviewed by Haworth, Japan’s young men and women are on divergent paths that no longer intersect in long-term relationships and marriage. While it is unclear if this trend away from sex and marriage will last or is just a passing social phenomenon, it does give increasingly-geriatric Japanese society reason to worry.

The immediate causes of “celibacy syndrome” differ between men and women, though they are both rooted in Japanese patriarchal society. Japanese women are increasingly highly educated, ambitious, and career-driven, but this ambition is punished rather than rewarded by Japanese society. Married women who work outside the home are disparaged and the gender gap and female economic participation in Japan is far worse than in western countries. Japanese business culture also places higher value on long hours and extreme corporate loyalty — as the famous term karōshi, or “death from overwork” exemplifies — making it extremely difficult for ambitious women to have both a career and family, and many women find that promotions cease with marriage anyway. This makes marriage and motherhood an impossible burden for many ambitious women, and creates an incentive towards long-term singleness. As Haworth writes:

“But what endless Japanese committees have failed to grasp when they stew over the country’s procreation-shy youth is that, thanks to official shortsightedness, the decision to stay single often makes perfect sense. This is true for both sexes, but it’s especially true for women. ‘Marriage is a woman’s grave,’ goes an old Japanese saying that refers to wives being ignored in favour of mistresses. For Japanese women today, marriage is the grave of their hard-won careers.”

Haworth additionally relays the “astonishing” statistic that 90 percent of young women “believe that staying single is ‘preferable to what they imagine marriage to be like’.” Casual sex is also stigmatized, and altogether Japan’s fertility rate is one of the lowest in the world.

Fertility rate, 1960-2011. Data by World Bank via Google Public Data Explorer.

Fertility rate, 1960-2011. Data by World Bank via Google Public Data Explorer.

For their part men face the opposite pressures. Japanese society still stresses that a man’s role is a breadwinner, and prizes single-income homes. But three decades into Japan’s economic slump the jobs that would allow young men to fulfill these expectations are rare, and many men have retreated from the workforce entirely, living with aging parents and embracing social isolation or all-consuming hobbies. Insecure about their inability to meet expectations of paying for expensive dates or supporting a stay-at-home wife, many men withdraw from romantic or sexual relationships.

Additionally, it’s not difficult to imagine that this “celibacy syndrome” dynamic is self-reinforcing. As heterosexual young people pass though youth without gaining romantic and sexual experience with the opposite gender, and surrounded by peers who are similarly uninterested in long-term marriages, it stands to reason that these lifestyle habits will become more difficult to break with age — recalling The 40-Year-Old Virgin, if people “can’t be bothered” with sex in their twenties and thirties, it is unclear if this lifestyle will change later in life. And while individual Japanese young people may be happy choosing a celibate lifestyle, it’s difficult to not see the trend as something of a loss. “The ebbing of human intimacy seems to come from a place of disenchantment and frustration,” writes Slate’s Katy Waldman in a summary of Haworth’s report. “I can’t make this historical husband-wife arrangement thing work, so I’m giving up altogether.

Haworth closes her report by asking if Japan’s apparent future of the unmarried and childless is “providing a glimpse of all our futures,” citing falling birth rates and delayed marriages across the Western world. While there are many cultural reasons suggesting that Japan is a special case, many of the same trends are affecting the United States. In recent decades the American middle class has worked increasing hours, while working wages, especially for middle class men, have stagnated. It’s not impossible that if the American middle class finds itself working hard and harder for less that marriage could become an inconvenience.

But I suspect that for American society Japan’s celibacy syndrome is less of a portent than a warning of what happens when patriarchal societies fail to adapt to changing economic conditions and social norms. American women still, of course, face a persistent wage gap and gender discrimination. But these gender barriers pale in comparison to Japan’s, and working mothers have become normalized in America society. Indeed, discrimination in Western society often flows the other way, with stay-at-home mothers “increasingly facing a damaging but unspoken prejudice that assumes they are stupid, lazy and unattractive.” This shift towards two-income households and female remuneration approaching mens’, especially among the highly educated, has provided American society with some degree of a buffer against stagnating middle class wages, manufacturing flight, the end of jobs that allowed high school-educated men to solely support their families.

Returning to the norms governing heterosexual courtship, relationships, and marriage, unlike in the United States Japan’s appear to have not changed with the times, and remain suited to a patriarchal and hierarchical society that forced men to be wage-slave absent fathers and women marginalized stay-at-home mothers. As women’s liberation, a changing culture, and economic stagnation made this social model untenable, Japanese relationship norms broke instead of bending. In America and western Europe, this seems not to be the case (Europe’s low birth rates are not related to the same social roots as Japan’s). Instead of a harbinger, Japan’s low birth rate** could be seen as an endorsement of the value of feminism and flexible social norms unbound by rigid tradition.

Update: At Kotaku Brian Ashcraft has a piece doubting Haworth’s reporting, citing data complaints by Inoue Eido and others.

* I originally credited the piece to the Guardian, which shares a website with the Observer. **This originally read “celibacy syndrome”; altered to the wider notion of low birth rate.

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War in the Western Pacific? Not So Fast

By Saad Asad

Map via Wikimedia.

Map via Wikimedia.

This week the Economist published an overly-alarmist warning of potential conflict between China and Japan, which are currently competing over the control of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Although China’s actions may seem more hostile recently, the situation is a far cry from war.

Arguing that China’s anti-Japan rhetoric has grown increasingly more hostile, the Economist points to selections from two Chinese newspapers, China Daily and the Global Times. Although Chinese media is heavily regulated, we should be wary of conflating editorial opinions with official government policy. The Global Times is an overtly nationalist publication, and would still call for war had Japan ceded the islands to China. Admittedly, the China Daily is a more mainstream, albeit conservative, newspaper, but in selecting these two editorials, the Economist is forcing a narrative. In contrast to these two papers, Xinhua, the official press agency of the government, recently argued that “negotiation should be the way out of the rift” between the two countries.

Next, it seems the Economist is placing most of the blame for increased tensions on China. But the crisis ultimately stems from Japan’s decision to claim the islands in the first place. Though initially at risk of falling into the hands of Tokyo’s ultra-nationalist governor, the Japanese government’s decision to make the islands into a national initiative only escalated the situation. For the past few decades, China seemed willing to leave the islands’ status quo in limbo, but Japan forced the issue.

In fact, Japan has not stepped back in an attempt to de-escalate tensions with China. China did move surveillance vessels near the island, but this is hardly different from what the United States does to China. In response to acts like this and the Chinese patrol plane that buzzed by, Japan has readied its F-15 fighter jets and considered stationing them closer to the islands.

Viewed from the Chinese lens, Japan can easily be seen as the aggressor. From asserting control over the island, readying its military, increasing military spending, and spreading its influence to China’s neighbors to the south, Japan could arguably be seen as attempting to contain China. This is not to say that China has been pacifistic in their behavior, but the blame cannot fully be laid upon China’s feet.

Moreover, it is misleading to compare rising China of today to rising Japan of yesteryear, as the Economist does. China is not attempting to claim swathes of inhabited territory across an entire continent. The most notable existing claims are to a few islets it once owned (Diaoyu/Senkaku), and stronger control over the South China Sea.

It is also alarmist to fear China’s rise, as the Economist would also like us to do. Its economy is largely dependent on exports, and the government has accepted the neoliberal world order devised by the IMF and the World Bank. China would have to risk its modernization efforts in going to war, and shows no signs of forsaking prosperity. The PRC has consistently spent 2 percent of its GDP on the military, never deciding to forego civilian production for increased defense spending like the USSR did.

Western pundits must begin to accept China as a rational actor who will not go to war over a few rocks. China’s rhetoric may be bombastic and we may not like the idea of a nondemocratic world power, but China is here to stay, and is not as fearsome as Chinese nationalists would like us to believe.

Rape Exists Because Society Permits It

By Taylor Marvin

The Wall Street Journal has a thought-provoking profile of the six men accused of killing a young woman in the horrific Delhi rape case. What’s striking is, as Jason Burke notes, how ordinary these men appear to be: all were poor, and two heavy drinkers and migrants. It’s this ordinariness that hints at one of the worst aspects of social misogyny and rape culture: when rape is routine, so are the people who commit it. We like to dismiss rapists and other violent criminals as an alien other that, of course, has nothing to do with us. In the overblown hyperbole of recent NRA rhetoric in the US, crimes are committed by the bad guys, not the good guys — and there’s no question which group we belong to. Of course, these lines aren’t so simple. Social norms that tolerate rape and other forms of violence make everyone their potential instrument.

This extends beyond the rapists — unfortunately, in the Delhi case murderers is the correct term — to social leaders. It took Prime Minister Manmohan Singh over a week to respond to the case, and his call for a “dispassionate debate and inquiry into the critical changes that are required in societal attitudes” does not appear indicative of a top-down drive for social change. It’s not only that politicians and other social leaders appear to completely dismiss that rape and other forms of violence against women; endemic victim-blaming allows them to — as in the US — absolve themselves of responsibility to fix the problem. As Anuradha Roy writes in her brutal take on the routine violence against women in Indian society (via the Browser), this victim-blaming is truly sickening:

“Meanwhile, with reassuring predictability, another man from the ruling party wagged a paternal finger at the raped woman: she should never have been out at that hour. Just because India became free at midnight did not mean she should have been out at midnight.”

Read the whole thing.

Is China Copying American Aircraft?

By Taylor Marvin

Image by goneless, via The Aviationist.

Last Thursday images and video surfaced online showing a test flight of China’s second stealth fighter aircraft, the Shenyang J-31. This is a significant achievement for Chinese military aviation, though it is unclear if the design will ever enter service or whether it is designed to complement or compete with China’s other stealthy design, the Chengdu J-20. Also unclear is how original the aircraft actually is: there has been widespread speculation that the J-31’s design — which is visually similar to Lockheed Martin’s F-22 and F-35 aircraft — is partially a product of knowledge stolen

At The Diplomat, Trefor Moss speculates that the J-31 is a wholesale copy of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, built from stolen Lockheed Martin blueprints. Moss goes so far as to term the J-31 as “essentially an American stealth fighter with Chinese paintwork”, and furiously argues that lax computer security has allowed the PRC to secure a stealth fighter for much less than America:

“Speculation aside, the reality is that the F-35 program is presently slated to cost $395.7 billion. China has probably spent less than 0.1% of that developing the Fake-35. Ladies and gentlemen, you’re looking at the biggest free ride in the history of national security.”

I don’t buy it. China certainly has taken advantage of lax US information security, but Moss underestimates just how difficult it is to simply copy an advanced aircraft design. While the J-31 is certainly visually similar to Lockheed Martin 5th generation fighters, consider the necessary differences between it and the F-22 and F-35: different engines, an entirely different structural layout from the single-engined, STOVL-benchmarked F-35 family, and differing internal systems. These changes are not trivial. Even if Shenyang engineers possessed detailed LockMart blueprints they wouldn’t be of much practical value when it comes to designing the J-31 — while a valuable benchmark, there are simply too many different major systems. As Feng recently wrote at Information Dissemination, “it’s very hard for me to believe that SAC can reproduce F-35 from stolen files without access to the same engines or the material or the complicated computer code that controls the whole aircraft.”

Convergent evolution often leads competing air forces towards visually similar aircraft created for the same mission. Take the F-111 and Su-24, for example. Both low-level strike aircraft, introduced in the late 1960s and early 1970s, respectively, look remarkably similar: both possess variable geometry (swing) wings, a tall single tailfin, and a side-by-side cockpit, rare for a tactical aircraft.

F-111. US Air Force photo, via Wikimedia.

Su-24M. Photo by Alexander Mishin, via Wikimedia.

The two aircrafts’ striking visual similarities led contemporary American observers to conclude that the Soviets had copied the F-111. Amusingly, as Greg Goebel notes in his excellent history of the Su-24, some Americans went so far as to be pleasantly surprised that the Soviets had tried to copy the then-notoriously troubled F-111 — if the US struggled to get the F-111 flying right, then surely the Soviets would as well. But while Soviet designers may have mined the F-111 for ideas, there’s little evidence any real copying was involved. Instead, given that both American and Soviet engineers were working with similar technologies towards the same goal, it isn’t surprising that they both landed on similar designs — just as American and Chinese engineers can be expected to do. Indeed, what was most surprising about the J-20 was how obviously different it is from anything in the American aircraft inventory.

However, there is reason to suggest that there’s more than simple convergent evolution behind the J-31’s external similarities to American 5th generation aircraft. An aircraft’s stealth is partially determined by the shape of the fuselage, was well as the surface coatings that absorb and diffuse radar waves. While China cannot know the details of American stealth coatings through anything but espionage, the low observability fuselage shapes of the F-22 and F-35 are obvious. Copying these elements — the F-22’s empennage, the F-35’s intakes — is an effective way to get some degree of stealth for less technically sophisticated developers. Given that the US has a two decades head start developing low observability aircraft, this is a smart trade for Shenyang engineers.

Does the J-31 owe aspects of its external fuselage to the F-22 and F-35: undoubtably. But this is far from saying that the J-31 is a naked copy of American aircraft. China still has a long way to go before a production aircraft derived from the J-31 enters service, if one does at all. That gives ample opportunity for delays and cost increases to pile up, degrading whatever lead the program has over the JSF, which it isn’t strictly comparable to anyway. The F-35’s STOVL benchmarked design makes it unique, and is reason enough to dismiss the idea that the J-31 is a cheap knockoff of the JSF. The J-31 will be a more affordable aircraft than the notoriously ill-conceived F-35, but that doesn’t automatically make it the deal Moss implies.

Doubts about a New Space Race

By Taylor Marvin

Continuing my debate with Daryl Morini on the prospect of a new space race between China and the US, I have a piece up at e-International Relations arguing that the US and China are unlikely to escalate their military anti-satellite rivalry into a prestige-driven exploratory space race:

“The real barrier to unconstrained competition in space is the disheartening prospect of unconstrained costs. While ASAT kinetic kill missiles are certainly difficult to engineer, they are based on proven concepts. Novel space accomplishments are much more difficult. A permanent lunar base would require significant advances in in situ resource utilization, life support design, and likely a large reduction in launch costs. A crewed mission to Mars would be much more difficult, and would come with a significant risk of a catastrophic, long-running disaster. Even given the prisoner’s dilemma dynamic behind the choice to initiate a space or arms race, the US or China are only likely to bear the enormous opportunity costs of a prestige-driven space race unless they see no other choice. Given the multipolar world the twin superpowers are likely to inhabit this century, it is unlikely that either country will ‘jump the gap’ from a limited ASAT military space race to a general exploratory one.”

Check out the whole piece at e-IR if it sparks your interest.

A ‘System of Systems of Systems’ for the PLA

By Taylor Marvin

Over at The Diplomat’s Flashpoints blog, Robert Farley insightfully discusses the branch interoperability challengers facing the PLA:

“I’ve belabored the organizational aspects of China’s system of anti-access systems because bureaucratic boundaries matter… As of yet there is little indication that the PLAN, PLAAF, and 2nd Artillery have developed the practices necessary to ensure an efficient, effective partnership in battle.  To be sure, we have little evidence that the three organizations cannot collaborate effectively, but what we know of the history of inter-service conflict suggests a high potential for friction.  The Chinese military has not had the opportunity to work through that friction in realistic, wartime conditions.”

I think Farley makes a very important, and under-appreciated, point about the  PLA’s lack of combat experience. Aside from the brief, but destructive, 1962 Sino-Indian and 1979 Sino-Vietnamese wars the PLA hasn’t fought a major conflict since Korea, and this experiential deficiency is a major challenge to creating a responsive institutional culture able to function under the stress of wartime. Importantly, the PLA’s lack of combat experience means that it likely cannot even identify the existing interoperability problems that it must focus on. In a recent piece for Foreign PolicyDmitri Trenin argued that deficiencies revealed by the Russian military’s poor performance during the 2008 Georgia War have spurred modernizing efforts and a shift away from a force benchmarked on a Cold War-style great power struggle:

“The resultant soul-searching in the Kremlin and the brooding over the price of victory created an atmosphere propitious for military reform to begin openly and in earnest. The ‘lessons of the war’ also weakened the unreconstructed traditionalists, military and nonmilitary alike, who were driven by inertia and who had clung to the decaying remnants of the Soviet military system for nearly two decades, in the vain hope that it might be revived.”

While I’m deeply skeptical of Trenin’s optimistic thesis — the Russian military faces huge demographic, institutional, and funding barriers between it and a modernized professional force — he makes an insightful point: it is extremely difficult to assess an armed force’s deficiencies in the abstract. This shortsightedness can encompass equipment — for example, it took the painful experience of air combat over Vietnam to demonstrate that the 1960s-era USAF’s near-total reliance on missiles in air-to-air combat was premature — but is even more apparent, as Farley notes, in organizational assets. This of particular concern to the PLAN because, as shown by Eric McVadon in 2007’s “China’s Matring Navy”, its human capital and organization assets lag behind its platforms and weapons, though training programs appear to be improving and the acquisition of the Liaoning aircraft carrier is at least partially intended for training and doctrine-development purposes.

But a peacetime emphasis on organizational reform can only take you so far. To twist Farley and Roger Cliff’s phrase, using the feared DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile in combat requires a “system of systems of systems”: the weapon itself, the parallel surveillance and communications systems required to operate and target the missile, and the ‘system’ of strong human capital and effective organizational communications and culture required to translate peacetime procedure to wartime action.

A New Space Race? Con’t.

By Taylor Marvin

Daryl Morini has a thoughtful response to my piece challenging his previous argument in The Diplomat that a new space race between America and a growing China is likely in the near future.

I think the core of our disagreement comes down to the likelihood of China jumping the gap between a purely military “ASAT race” and a prestige driven exploratory competition, motivating a newly-revitalized American space effort in response. Morini argues that as China grows wealthier and more technologically capable, this jump is likely:

“But if money is the sinews of war, then this space race will be more formidable than the last.

The U.S.-China competition is not about ideology; perhaps the Cold War never truly was either. Regardless, this modern great power stand-off has the potential to redefine the international pecking order. The motive of prestige – associated with great power status since nations went to war over diplomatic protocol and seating orders – will drive the new space race as it did the last.

Those who point to this time being different to the Cold War are right. But this is the main difference: China has the economic foundation and perhaps ambition to see this race through. This might yet fuel the U.S. motivation to run it, too. Ignoring the problem is not a prudent option.”

Do read the whole piece.

The Myth of Chinese Elite Competence

By Taylor Marvin

At Gawker, Hamilton Nolan has a great piece absolutely demolishing Dilbert creator Scott Adams’ calls for increasing America’s “national intelligence” through the powers of the internet.

What’s most interesting about Adams’ post isn’t its dripping narcissism – or, as Nolan points out, Adams’ seemingly complete ignorance that Wikipedia exists –  but instead is its gushing adoration of perceived Chinese efficiency. After dismissing American public policy as “a weird stew of religion, politics, and randomness,” Adams remarks:

“China has a political system that seems to produce intelligent decisions. You might criticize China’s leadership for being heartless and brutal, but that’s a separate discussion. If you consider how effectively they pursue their country’s interests, their national intelligence seems quite high.”

There’s a common meme in the West that China’s government, unbound by democratic consensus requirements, is inherently more efficient than its democratic peers. Fortunately for the United States, and democratic governance overall, there doesn’t seem to be much support for this argument outside of highly visible PRC public works projects.

It’s difficult to assess the Chinese Communist Party’s record “effectively [pursuing] their country’s interestes,” because the interests of the Chinese elite don’t necessarily coincide with the country’s, and it’s unclear exactly what the Chinese leadership’s goals actually are. However, we can say that domestically the PRC leadership seeks to preserve the Communist Party’s dominance in Chinese society, ensure continued economic growth, and prevent social unrest. Internationally China seeks to protect its access to international markets, extend its exclusive economic zone to encompass the entire South China Sea, and eventually replace the United States as the hegemonic power in the Western Pacific. Contrary to the perception of the Chinese government as an unusually intelligent decisionmaking body, on all of these fronts China’s actual record is mixed.

The meme of Chinese efficiency is based in the idea that authoritarian governments are more efficient than democracies, with the dominant example being China’s massive public works projects. Here the perception is largely true: NIMBYism and environmental impact reports are less likely to slow down projects in societies with little property rights. But conflating rapid construction with “intelligence” is problematic. China’s high-profile public works successes have come at less visible costs, like the displacement of millions of people, shoddy construction, and poor planning. The Chinese leadership’s ability to plan in the long term is also questionable. While China’s reluctance to slow industrialization is understandable, China’s massive pollution problem and inability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will have severe consequences for future growth — an extreme discount rate that seems incompatible with any definition of high “national intelligence.”

On the international stage this record isn’t much better. In the last decade China’s foreign policy has encouraged Japanese rearmament, begun to replace Pakistan as India’s great strategic adversary, and encouraged stronger ties between the US and regional rivals like Vietnam and the Philippines. On occasion Chinese foreign policy appears to be dictated by the People’s Liberation Army leadership, not the civilian foreign ministry. In nearly every recent international incident China has favored stoking public nationalistic fervor for immediate domestic gains over long-term geostrategy. Despite its secure hold on Tibet, China greets any accolade granted to the exiled Dali Lama with embarrassing tantrums beneath a great power. These are not the actions of a secure foreign policy elite.

The Chinese Communist Party has managed to avoid any existential challenges since its ascendence. However, this security is more due to the last three decades’ phenomenal economic growth rather than a propensity towards selecting highly skilled political leaders. A common corollary to the meme of Chinese competence is the argument that governments dominated by engineers — China — are inherently more efficient than those dominated by lawyers — America. This isn’t to say that political leaders’ aptitude isn’t related to their training prior careers; suggesting a relationship is reasonable, though prohibitively difficult to empirically test. But the idea that China’s engineer dominated political elite is inherently more efficient and far-seeing than other governments is ludicrous. Reaching consensus in a 25 member Politburo will always be easier than satisfying the de facto supermajority requirement in the US Congress, regardless of politicians’ backgrounds. When focused on China the engineer vs. lawyer question is really just an embarrassingly reactionist argument in favor of oligarchy.

While small decision-making bodies are inherently more — in a limited sense — efficient than more diffuse governments, there’s little evidence that the modern Chinese Communist Party is a particularly effective selection method for high office. As People’s Liberation Army Navy analyst Feng recently noted, “the current Chinese leaderships are a group of dull, gutless technocrats who continually get out-maneuvered in the international arena by their American counterpart.” The recent overthrow of Bo Xilai was an embarrassingly public indication of how bitter power struggles within the Communist Party leadership can be; the uncertain succession mechanisms inherent to oligarchic autocracies are an enormous liability largely absent from mature democracies.

Adams appears to understand that cheerleading autocracy is repugnant, and half-heartedly covers himself by denouncing the Chinese Communist Party as “heartless and brutal.” But state brutality isn’t severable from discussions of state efficiency, because government brutality is an enormous long-term drain on growth. As mentioned earlier, China’s autocracy incentizes protecting the interests of the Chinese Communist Party, rather than the state. When these coincide — as during the Deng Xaioping-era economic reforms — the country benefits with the state; however, it is in the nature of autocracy for these to diverge. Today the Chinese state has cemented one of the most unequal societies on Earth, and is entirely unwilling to meaningfully address the massive corruption, incompetence, and abuses of the local-level Party — all of which retard economic growth, in addition to their brutal human toll.

Governance is difficult, and the American model certainly suffers from massive structural problems. The Chinese state also deserves commendation for presiding over unprecedented economic development, one of the best improvements in the aggregate human condition in history. But making ludicrously comprehensive arguments about China’s “national intelligence” is just silly.  Aside from the obvious problems with excusing state brutality, this distressingly popular meme doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Adams’ making an embarrassingly obvious “grass is greener” mistake — he’s familiar with problematic American governance but doesn’t know much about China, so Adams assumes that the Chinese Communist Party is better than what he’s accustomed to. America’s decline relative to China is grounded in the fact that there’s four Chinese citizens for every American, rather than a magically intelligent Chinese state.

China’s Energy Concerns and the PLAN

By Taylor Marvin

I have a short piece up at the new energy site Watching World Energy on China’s supply chain security concerns and desire for power projection capability.

“Although it has not achieved open-ocean, or ‘blue-water’ capabilities, China is laying the foundation, in the words of the U.S. Department of Defense, of ‘a force able to accomplish broader regional and global objectives.’

Ensuring global supply chain security requires power projection capability, which in turn requires modern naval and air forces.”

PRC Area-Denial Capabilities and American Power Projection, Part 5

By Taylor Marvin

USS Ronald Regan and allied ships in the Pacific. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Scott Taylor, via Wikimedia.

This the final installment in a draft research project I recently wrote. Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4.

What does all this mean?

China is pursuing a “two-vector” naval strategy because it faces an uncertain future, and is unwilling to fully commit itself to preparing for either a major war with the US on Chinese terms or regional, and eventually global, power projection. This hedge empowers the US Navy. Instead of having to face a PLA entirely structured around asymmetric anti-access/area-denial it instead only faces one asymmetric “vector”; the other can be engaged conventionally, to America’s advantage. Despite China’s lack of investment in amphibious forces the hedge between pure asymmetric power projection denial and symmetric power projection vectors weakens its A2/AD capabilities. Resources China spends on its surface fleet are not available for sea-denial. The vulnerability of power projection assets cuts both ways—while US surface ships are vulnerable to Chinese area-denial strategies, Chinese ships are even more threatened by superior US forces, and the lifespan of China’s expensive surface ships in a conflict would be very short. The US Navy’s anti-air, anti-surface, and anti-submarine warfare capabilities remain the best in the world. Threatening a US carrier strike group with conventional assets remains a difficult task, and Chinese surface ships are, no matter how capable, vulnerable. In a world of limited resources, the choice between strict asymmetric strategy and power projection is a zero sum game. Assets and strategies used for power projection have only marginal utility in an open conflict—submarines and missiles cannot be used to project power. By investing in surface asset development China has taken resources that could been directed anti-access/area-denial weapons and sunk them into floating targets.[1]

China’s hesitant pursuit of power projection is an encouraging development. While China’s A2/AD vector is clearly designed to force the US to disengage from what China perceives as its exclusive sphere of influence, this second vector appears to align with US global goals. Globally, China’s naval policy is driven by the need to protect sea lines of communication, ensure its access to oil, preserve the maritime commons, and possess the capability to evacuate Chinese nationals abroad. These interests all mirror America’s. Similarly, when Chinese power projection has been used for warlike purposes it has been as part of the international system: contributing forces to UN peacekeeping missions, and conducting anti-piracy operations off the Gulf of Aden.[2]

While the conventional vector of the PLAN could be used in concert with A2/AD capabilities to coerce China’s smaller regional rivals, it could also play a positive global role. The PLAN “is arguably the only one in today’s world that the US Navy must deter or be able to defeat,” Eric A. McVadon explains, “but also a navy that under different circumstances could become a high-seas partner.”[3]

Asymmetric Warfare, Asymmetric Commitment

Hopeful thoughts of global partnerships aside, hegemony in the Western Pacific is a zero sum game—either the United States will continue to dominate the region to the benefit of its allies, or China will displace the old power. For the last six decades the United States’ monopoly on power projection in the Western Pacific was unopposed. However, advances in anti-access/area-denial capabilities have made the status quo untenable, and the United States’ ability to project power from offshore platforms will deteriorate as asymmetric capabilities shift the primary determinant of strategic victory from force superiority to locality. If power projection is no longer feasible at an acceptable level of risk, local actors not reliant on projection at all can deny more distant opponents control over the local theater.

The United States’ favored China policy is a mix of engagement and limited containment.[4] This strategy is superficially rational; while US and PRC strategic goals and political systems differ it is not clear that they are incompatible, and the two nations’ mutual economic interests encourage engagement.[5] However, as Gartzke and Markowitz argue, this mixed strategy is actually the worst of both worlds: limited containment will not prevent China from challenging the US hegemony, while forsaking the benefits of open engagement. If the United States attempts to contain China without making the necessary, and painful, level of commitment, an increasingly militant China will resent what it rightfully sees as an attempt by a declining power to constrain it.[6] Gartzke and Markowitz conclude that the US should acknowledge the Western Pacific as China’s sphere of influence, allowing the United States to devote its resources to ensuring China does not attempt to radically disrupt the existing global order.[7] This realignment would strengthen the credibility of the US military, lessen the prospect of war, and allow for mutually beneficial engagement with China.

The emergence of powerful anti-access/area-denial capabilities supports Gartzke and Markowitz’s conclusion. The United States is accustomed to projecting power in distant theaters from invulnerable removed platforms, sanctuaries that A2/AD capabilities threaten. If novel defensive technologies and reformed operational concepts are not able to remove the anti-access/area-denial threat, maintaining US hegemony in the Western Pacific will require credibly committing to a higher level of risk and a greater public tolerance for losses. US global hegemony is based on the US military’s ability to defeat any prospective opponent at an acceptable cost. As China’s asymmetric capabilities continue to grow more lethal, continued US commitment to regional dominance will require a shift to a pure containment policy, and a more capable military force to back it up.[8] If the US military cannot threaten to quickly overcome China’s anti-access/area-denial capabilities its commitments to the region are not credible, and China can coerce the US to not enter the theater through raising the expected costs of war. However, it is doubtful the American public has any desire for the increased loss tolerance a continued mixed strategy of engagement and limited containment requires.

A2/AD capabilities constrain US power projection in two ways: by eroding actual warfighting capabilities by striking concrete US military assets, and by deterring the United States from electing entering a conflict. This deterrent is based on a credible threat to inflict heavy enough causalities on US forces as to make an American victory uncertain, and not worth the costs in lives and treasure. The deterrent value of A2/AD capabilities are an important addition to China’s nuclear deterrent: while nuclear deterrents suffer from their lack of flexibility, A2/AD assets could be used to selectively threaten US military platforms while potentially avoiding the escalation risk of nuclear weapons.

It is difficult to truly comprehend the magnitude of the catastrophic loss of a carrier, and it is impossible to predict how American policymakers would react to such a catastrophic lose. Sinking an American carrier could end the war in China’s favor; if USN admirals informed the president that could not guarantee another carrier would not be lost in the exact same way, he or she might have no choice but to capitulate. Of course, sinking a carrier could leave the American populace howling for blood and increase their commitment to the conflict. The loss of a single Nimitz class with all hands—certainly a possible outcome of a devastating hit by an ASBM warhead—would kill over twice as many Americans as the attack on Pearl Harbor. Frustrated US leaders would be tempted to strike ASBM launchers on the Chinese mainland, perhaps escalating a previously maritime confrontation to a broader conflict.

The loss of a capital ship has the potential to either escalate or deescalate a conflict. This escalation risk is determined by both individual opponent’s incentives, and domestic politics. After the Argentine cruiser the ARA Belgrano was sunk by a Royal Navy submarine during the Falklands War, the Argentine Navy withdrew their entire surface fleet, including the carrier Veinticinco de Mayo, to port. Despite the Argentine commitment to the ongoing war, Argentina’s admirals realized that the Navy’s contribution to the conflict was not worth risking the fleet and their own prestige. The loss of the Belgrano was a shock to Argentine admirals—it definitively demonstrated that Royal Navy submarines were active in the south Atlantic, and that the Argentine Navy had no way to counter them. This is significant: despite its deficiencies the Veinticinco, ironically an antiquated ex-British ship acquired by the Argentines in 1968, did possess formidable A-4 Skyhawk ground attack aircraft that could have complicated the British landing had the Veinticinco remained in the Falklands theater. In the Falklands example, a costly naval loss early in the war arguably reduced the ultimate aggregate cost of the conflict by reducing the number of assets one side were willing to commit, and possibly lose, to the conflict.

However, the loss of the Belgrano did not force the Argentine’s to capitulate, because junta never had any real incentive to back down anyway. The junta had begun the war in a desperate attempt to shore up faltering domestic support and drown calls for democratic reforms and an end to military rule in a patriotic outpouring of rallying around the flag. The social breakdown of the post-Peronist era and the Dirty War had irrevocably demonstrated that the military was an incompetent public administrator, and if an unfavorable end to the manufactured Falklands crisis destroyed the public’s perception of the junta’s military competence the generals’ administration—and possibly their personal freedom—would be at risk. Of course, the junta had massively misjudged the Thatcher government’s willingness to go to war to defend the Falklands, but once the war had actually begun and the extent of this miscalculation became apparent it did not change the options available to the junta. The Argentine junta’s survival depended on their ability to present a victory to their domestic population, mandating a continued commitment to the war. However, the Navy knew that it could not protect surface ships from superior British undersea warfare capabilities, making continued power projection around the Falklands Islands unacceptably risky. The loss of the ARA Belgrano did not alter the Argentine leadership’s commitment to the conflict, but forced a tactical shift to sea denial, primarily Execot anti-ship cruise missile attacks on the Royal Navy.[9]

The United States’ commitment the Western Pacific is not the same as the Argentine junta’s experience in the South Atlantic. Importantly, US prestige is not as integrally tied to American security commitments in the theater as Argentina’s was to recovering las Islas Maldivas. Additionally, Argentina retained limited power projection ability from the mainland even after the withdrawal of Argentine surface assets. These differences suggest that a forced withdrawal from the theater is likely if the US military judges it cannot protect irreplaceable assets from PLA A2/AD capabilities.

Ultimately the direction US involvement would evolve towards after a costly US naval loss—towards further escalation, or disengagement—would likely depend on how the loss was to the American public. If Americans viewed the deaths of thousands US sailors as a deliberate attack by a foreign power the public would likely support retaliation, as in the case of the 1898 sinking of the USS Maine in Havana harbor. However, if the dominant media narrative depicted this loss as the result of presidential incompetence or unnecessary US involvement in a foreign conflict few Americans saw as integral to US interests—similar to the Beirut barracks bombing or the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu—voters would likely demand a withdrawal. These domestic demands for disengagement would be stronger if there was a strong public perception that the US military could not prevent further, increasingly catastrophic losses if the war continued. Which domestic narrative would dominate is likely dependent on the specific circumstances of the specific conflict. An unprovoked Chinese attack on Japan would likely fit the criteria for popular US demands for a response; a more complicated dispute between China and a less important US ally likely would not.[10]

Making the decision to target a US carrier would be an enormously risky decision for the Chinese leadership. A successful strike could force the US to concede and withdrawal from a conflict. It could just as easily escalate a limited, maritime conflict into a disastrous war. Would Beijing take this risk? It is impossible to know, but the Chinese Communist Party has a history of erring towards decisive, and ultimately regrettable, decisions: the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, the bloody repression at Tianemen all proved to be poor choices.[11] If robust A2/AD capability were not a sufficient deterrent in and of itself to keep the US from intervening in a regional conflict, it is possibly that the Chinese leadership would judge a strike on a US carrier to be worth the risk, or initiate a broader A2/AD campaign designed to knock out US combat capability in the region.

If China can credibly threaten US military assets in the Western Pacific theater, the American commitment to the region is only credible if the United States can persuasively commit to bearing high casualties and risk. China’s A2/AD capability’s deterrent value rests on their ability to raise these expected losses beyond a value the United States can credibly commit to. If US leaders wish to maintain a credible commitment to defend US interests in the Western Pacific against Chinese encroachment, they must raise the American public’s tolerance for loss. Offshore balancing is not a low commitment strategy.

The End of Limited Containment

While policymakers in the United States recognize that the Chinese military is on the path the near-peer status, there is little appetite for the complete realignment of US force structures necessary to counter a future, more capable China, the Obama administration’s “pivot” to the Pacific notwithstanding. Similarly, in an age of falling acceptance of casualties overseas it is unlikely that the American public has any appetite for a costly war in the Western Pacific. Compounding this problem is the asymmetry between the US and China commitment: after all, it is the South China Sea. It is reasonable to suggest that China is willing to suffer higher losses to exert control over its own littorals than the US is to defend a single theater of its global hegemony.

In contrast to other US security commitments, a conflict in the Western Pacific would be an American war of choice. Unlike in the Korean Peninsula, the China could structure a campaign to coerce Taiwan or its rivals in the South China Sea as to avoid striking American forces. This avoids the American “trip wire” commitment device. Treaty obligations aside, even though an American president would face little incentive to commit to a costly war defending South Korea from its northern neighbor, the annihilation of US Forces Korea would force his or her hand. If China avoided attacking American forces stationed in Japan, Korea, Guam, or Australia, a US president would have to make a deliberate choice to intervene.

The United States should shift to a policy of engagement with China because its military positions in the Western Pacific are no longer tenable. China’s nascent A2/AD capabilities are growing rapidly more lethal, and America’s technological and doctrinal defenses are not likely to overcome the anti-access/area-denial challenge. The emergence of robust A2/AD will reduce the capabilities of the American military, raise the costs of war, and lessen the chances of victory.[12] It is inherently easier to attack the elements of power projection than to defend them. During the Korean War, communist forces could challenge UN air superiority only by fielding a rival, and comparably expensive, air force of their own. Two decades later the advent of capable surface-to-air missiles allowed the North Vietnamese to deny the United States the ability to project power from the air uncontested. Today technological advances continue this trend, allowing locality to dominate power projection. If the United States cannot project power at an acceptable cost, its distant spheres of influence will eventually slip into the control of local rivals.

Barring an economic catastrophe, the balance of power in the Western Pacific will continue to shift towards China.[13] During the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis, two carrier strike groups were enough to coerce China into stepping down.[14] While Taiwan’s independence is not a core American interest, China understood that it could not inflict heavy enough losses on US forces to offset this limited interest. However, the day is coming when China can credibly threaten to arbitrarily destroy a US carrier that strays within operational range of the Chinese coast. If China can guarantee a war would be both costly and risky for the United States, America’s presence to the region at a reasonable commitment level is no longer credible and its coercive power will vanish. As long as a near-peer status China with robust anti-access/area-denial capabilities is prepared to bear a greater cost to exert control over a local theater than the US is a peripheral one, America’s regional hegemony is not tenable. Even if the United States decided to attempt an aggressive containment policy, denying China any sphere of influence is likely impossible. The United States would be wise not to try.

Ceding the Western Pacific to China in favor of pure engagement is not simply the best of limited options; it is America’s only feasible choice. This realignment will be costly. Conflicts between Chinese and American interests are real, and America’s allies in the region are understandably nervous about China’s growing power. However, ceding China a legitimate sphere in the Western Pacific is not an invitation to Chinese global dominance. The United States should make it clear that it is committed to a potentially costly defense of Japan, where distance and robust basing infrastructure make anti-access strikes less threatening. Similarly, it is important to remember that China’s deterrence power is dependent on locality—anti-access/area-denial weapons are fundamentally defensive, and much less powerful outside China’s local theater. Once China’s forces leave the protective confines of the South China Sea, they will be vulnerable to the same tactics they threaten American forces with. A senior Chinese official once remarked that “when China has aircraft-carriers the two countries should draw a line down the middle of the Pacific through Hawaii to define their spheres of operation.”[15] Until the Chinese Navy can challenge the US on an equal footing far from the reach of its protective A2/AD defenses, this veiled threat is an illusion.

The second island chain and the limits of China’s A2/AD capabilities is a natural dividing line between a local Chinese sphere and America’s. Within this limit, China’s growing anti-access/area-denial capabilities make a US military presence indefensible in wartime. Outside of this line, Chinese military assets are not survivable against America’s overwhelming conventional superiority. Fortunately, outside this line both countries’ interests appear to align. Both seek to preserve the maritime commons, protect energy transports, and safeguard the world economy. Recognition that American dominance in China’s geographic backyard is no longer possible does not mean the end of America’s global leadership, or the end of the current global order. Instead, it is a recognition that power projection is inherently more difficult than regional defense, and America’s goals must align with its feasible capabilities.


[1] Sayers, Eric. 2010. “A framework for influencing PLA procurement trends.” Joint Forces Quarterly 58, 3: 89-93, 92.

[2] Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (East Asia) David Helvey, 2012.  “Press Briefing on 2012 DOD Report to Congress on ‘Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China’”. 18 May.

[3] McVadon, Eric A. 2007. “China’s maturing navy.” in China’s Future Nuclear Submarine Force. Ed. Andrew S. Erickson, Lyle J. Goldstein, William S. Murray, and Andrew R. Wilson. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 3.

[4] Gartzke, Erik A., and Jonathan N. Markowitz. 2011. “Fence Sitting in U.S.-China Policy: Why a Strategy of Limited Containment Will No Longer Work.” 30 September, 2.

[5] Sayers 2010, 90.

[6] Gartzke and Markowitz 2011, 28.

[7] Gartzke and Markowitz 2011, 29.

[8] Gartzke and Markowitz 2011, 20.

[9] This section is drawn heavily from the author’s “Responding to catastrophic losses in a future naval conflict,” Prospect Journal of International Affairs 17 August 2011.

[10] This section is drawn heavily from the author’s “Responding to catastrophic losses in a future naval conflict,” Prospect Journal of International Affairs 17 August 2011.

[11] McVadon 2007, 2.

[12] Krepinevich, Andrew F. 2010. “Why AirSea Battle?” Washington DC: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2.

[13] Gartzke and Markowitz 2011, 30.

[14] Sakhuja, Vijay. 2011. Asian Maritime Power in the 21st Century. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 78.

[15] “Overkill: China is piling up more weapons than it appears to need.” The Economist, 22 October 2009.