In a recent landmark speech, United States Vice President Michael Pence made a powerful case to the American people for strategic competition with China. The merits of such an approach are many. But for it to be effective over the long run, officials in Washington will have to confront a large number of questions about the People’s Republic of China they have long avoided.
By now it should be obvious that the leaders we trust to ensure our security don’t always do a good job. Sometimes their strategies fail. Sometimes their long-held assumptions turn out to be false. Sometimes adversaries play them for fools.
In an ideal world, US government officials would always do the right thing. They would be alert to concerning changes in the strategic landscape. They would know with precision why such changes were happening and what further changes might occur in the future. They would scrutinize every detail of every trend and come up with effective responses to all the major problems of our times.
In reality, national security decisionmakers can rarely afford to think long-term. They are consumed by the torrent of current events and the tyranny of the inbox. The result is that they will generally assume that the future will look more or less like the present unless they are presented with overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
History shows that popular assumptions held by those in positions of great power are often left unchallenged, or challenged too late to avert catastrophe. Many “strategists” do not think and act strategically to shape the future. They think and act tactically in reaction to daily events.
Good strategy is rare. It starts when we acknowledge how little we actually know and attempt to ask good questions. What follows are six questions that those concerned with US-China strategic competition may find intriguing.
One, why does the Chinese Communist Party continue to invest heavily in military spending and armaments production at a time when China’s economic model is flailing, growth is stagnating, its population is aging, and basic social welfare programs have serious shortcomings in the areas of public health, education, science and technology, environmental protection, law enforcement, and care for the elderly? What is driving this uneven allocation of China’s national resources?
Two, why did Chinese strongman Xi Jinping (習近平) decide to carry out a sudden and sweeping military reform program affecting institutional and personal interests across his armed forces and at every level of command? Why has he turned against decades of military bureaucracy and tradition? Why has he purged large numbers of military officers, including several of his top military commanders? Why has he spent so much time visiting military bases and overseeing grandiose, Soviet-style military parades?
Three, what led Mr. Xi to authorize live-fire drills directed against mock-ups of the Presidential Office in Taipei, Taichung International Airport, and even a small Taiwanese township? Why has he ordered warships, bombers, and spy planes to make regular circumnavigations around Taiwan? Why has he directed Chinese troops to conduct live-fire exercises along the Fujian and Zhejiang coastlines?
Four, why have Chinese authorities emphasized military-civil fusion and mass mobilization, especially dual-use manpower and equipment for wartime industrial production, military transportation, logistics support, nuclear emergency, and civil defense? Why are military units across China engaged in training for mountain warfare, night fighting, joint operations, amphibious landings, and urban warfare? Are war plans driving these activities, or is it all political theater?
Five, what does China’s military buildup mean for the United States and its quasi-alliance partner, Taiwan? How should policymakers in Washington and Taipei assess their military power relative to that of their rivals in Beijing? Where is the Chinese military relatively strong? Where is it relatively weak? How is the balance of forces across the Taiwan Strait likely to change over time?
Six, what security approaches are available to the United States and the Republic of China (Taiwan) as they enter into what could be a very different and dangerous future? Which strategies and operational capabilities are most likely to forestall a Chinese attack on Taiwan, and defeat aggression if it does come?
It must be recognized that few, if any, definite answers are open to us. In many cases the information we have is lacking, insufficient, or contradictory. Our knowledge gaps are considerable. A significant and growing number of media reports are the product of Chinese disinformation, propaganda, and political warfare operations. These reports muddy the waters, making it difficult to judge what is true and what is false. Moreover, even with perfect information, no one can see the future and accurately predict what is coming.
It is vital that like-minded democracies regularly exchange ideas and information at the highest levels. The leaders of the United States and Taiwan, in particular, should share their views with each other as they strive to forge future strategy.
If the lights of the free world are going to prevail against the authoritarian darkness spreading out from Beijing, a certain mental courage and elasticity of thought must be cultivated and applied to our long-term strategic challenge.
The first step is establishing an appreciation for the China problem that confronts us.
Ian Easton is a research fellow at the Project 2049 Institute and author of The Chinese Invasion Threat: Taiwan’s Defense and American Strategy in Asia (中共攻台大解密).
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