Friday, July 29, 2011

China - Estimation and Related Analytical Challenges

What does a major train accident have to do with China's future as a strategic power?....

National debt crisis; nuclear Pakistan perpetually on the brink of implosion and radicalization; Iran seeking nukes and doing its level best to destabilize as many places as possible; Yemen going over a cliff providing sanctuary to AQ from which it can attack the US; wars in Libya, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, and stalemate in Egypt; virulent narco-insurgency in Mexico; constant cyber attack from all points on the compass; proliferation of dangerous technologies unchecked; and then there is China.

The national security council has a lot on its hands. It is the nature of things that the closest gator to the boat gets the most attention. But chugging along in the background is China, enjoying record growth and a concomitant spread of its interests - both direct and indirect.

Competition with China is inevitable, war is not. Decision makers in Beijing and Washington have choices both now and into the future. This is the essence of Kissinger's On China thesis, that old school realists like MILINT have supported for years. Within that finely balanced set of political calculations, getting intelligence right is clearly a very important challenge.

From an intelligence perspective, its incredibly hard to accurately assess a big, formerly closed society, that is undergoing rapid internal change in every sector of its public and private life. The sheer scale of China, the number of indicators that need to be weighed, the speed of change, the multiple actors and stakeholders and their shifting positional power, all of these factors and more make accurate assessments incredibly difficult  (for example analytical pitfalls: ethnocentrism, self fulfilling prophecies, over generalization).

One of the easiest analytical traps in which to fall is over, or under, estimation. Of seeing dangers everywhere and malicious intent in every action or, of discounting a growing menace and favourably interpreting suspicious activity as benign and merely the 'cost of doing business'. Two reports in the press today illustrate the juxtaposition of mighty China and troubled China. Mighty China is building long range persistent area denial (as well as a modest strike) capability and positioning itself to capitalize on the rapidly deteriorating US economic position (that it has brought upon itself and seems spectacularly unwilling to take seriously due to domestic political gamesmanship). Troubled China is more evident in lower level indicators, those passing stories that seem problematic but more indicative of growing pains that crisis. Chinese manufacturing standards, such as the drywall issue, children's toys, short cuts that result in poisons seeping from all sorts of products, these are all important issues but hardly strategic.

Back in May MILINT noted an opinion piece in the Post entitled "China's Train Wreck" in which Charles Lane presciently analyzed the economic and political issues behind one key element of China's rush to modernity (high speed rail). His analysis, which included discussion of safety concerns, was proven tragically right this week when a train lost power due to "lightening" and suffered a catastrophic accident when another train slammed into it killing 39 and injuring 210 at last report. Given Lane's warnings, perhaps the use of the word accident is inappropriate in this context. As an interesting side note for followers of political trends, the reported use of social media in giving the public a voice that influenced the party over its response to the accident is a notable trend that is worth following.

UPDATE: 8-1-2011 China imposed Media Blackout to Calm Anger- a hint of things to come?

Outraged by the order to silence themselves,  dozens of journalists insisted in online messages that given the many troubling questions that remain,  it was almost impossible to swallow the directives. The government has placed huge  importance on the construction of high-speed rail, mounting the world’s largest public works project. 
“Tonight, hundreds of papers are replacing their pages; thousands of reporters are having their stories retracted; tens of thousands of ghosts cannot rest in peace; hundreds of millions of truths are being covered up,” the editor of Southern Metropolis Daily, a newspaper based in Guangzhou, wrote Friday. “This country is being humiliated by numerous evil hands.” His post, on the site Sina Weibo, was later deleted.
“My story will not go to print today and looks like I will have to write something else,” wrote another journalist. “I’d rather leave the page blank with one word — ‘speechless.’ ”

Original analysis continues:

Lane's thesis was that beyond corner cutting resulting in security concerns, Chinese over ambition combined with rampant corruption has saddled the country with a white elephant and a strategically burdensome debt. At a minimum the recent tragedy points to one of the possible interpretations of China's future - that its internal problems will far outweigh its external drive to great power status at any cost. As has been reported by MILINT, China has been evolving a new approach to the SC Sea in which it extends its territorial claims deep into international waters prompting grave concern in SE Asia and an uptick in US rhetoric concerning freedom of navigation. US-Vietnam relations is a particularly interesting theme to follow when examining the impact of China in SE Asia (China and Vietnam have a long history of emnity that will put the last forty years of US-Vietnamese relations in a whole new light in the not so distant future - spoiler alert - be on the look out for "US finally wins the war in Vietnam" headlines in coming years).  Equally, the Chinese reaction to a minor dispute with Japan - threatening to cut off access to rare earth minerals, suggests that China has a long way to go in obtaining balance in its foreign policy. All confusing cross-signalling and no doubt representative of a shifting balance of power inside China among generations in the party and between the party and the people.

Like America at the turn of the last century, China is feeling its way in a complex world. It seeks prestige and power in proportion to its rising influence - a natural ambition of similarly positioned states. MILINT wonders how it will manage its rising responsibilities, both foreign and domestic. It is easy to be a critic on the sidelines, but once you've got some skin in the game the power calculus changes. The central idea of Chinese foreign policy- non interference in the affairs of other states - is crumbling. Its interests in energy and raw materials have seen to that. It is cautiously exploring forms of democracy within the party. In sum, all of this currently points to the internal having a greater long term impact on Chinese ambitious vice the external - military capability expansion etc. But that could change quickly if China can keep its finances and political development in check. If Washington is having trouble after centuries of stable democracy - what hope has China?

One thing is certain, rapid change in the international system is always fraught with danger.

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