Streetwise Professor

August 16, 2010

How Do You Say “Mahan” in Chinese?

Filed under: Economics,Energy,History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 5:04 pm

When I gave a talk about the national energy policies of Russia, China, and Venezuela to a group of State Department and intelligence people a few weeks back, my summary on China was: “If you want to understand Chinese policy as it relates to energy, read Mahan.”  Mahan being Alfred Thayer Mahan, late-19th/early 20th century admiral, and the author of The Influence of Sea Power on History, and other influential works.

If you’ve been following things for the last several months, you’ll have read that things are getting testy in the South China Sea*, specifically over the issue of the Spratleys, a chain of microscopic islands that are believed to hold large amounts of oil.  China has been quite bellicose in asserting its claims over the Spratleys (against competing claims from Viet Nam, the Philippines and ohter countries).  It has basically told the US and the world that the South China Sea is a Chinese lake, and that any US naval presence in that area is unwelcome.

All of this is taking place in the context of a concerted Chinese effort to bolster its naval forces and strengthen its naval presence along the sea lines of communication (SLOCs) over which raw materials flow to feed Chinese factories.  All very Mahanian.

The US response to this has been, to put it politely, supine.  The limp-wristed US response to the Cheonan sinking–and to the complete lack of any Chinese condemnation–is emblematic of this.

But apparently things are changing.  Hillary Clinton’s recent trip to the region–on which SecDef Gates went as well–represents an effort to reverse this.  This is based on a dawning recognition in Washington that American pusillanimity emboldens China and weakens our position in that area of the world.

For a typically Spenglerian interpretation of the situation, read this Mark Helprin piece in the WSJ.  I think Helprin is great for understanding the worst case, and what must be done to to avoid it.  As a prognosticator, he is too gloomy even for me.

Information Dissemination, a naval blog, is also alarmed, though.  And I must emphasize that ID is NOT a habitual, reflexive anti-administration, anti-Obama source.  Indeed, it has been broadly supportive of Obama policy initiatives.  But it also recognizes that risks have risen in Asia because of the administration’s palpable weak policies:

Beginning in 2010 a lot of folks began to legitimately question whether the Obama administration had the balls to stand up to China. The private jokes that Tim Geithner was hired to kiss ass in Asia are actually very funny – but worse, hard to argue with. In virtually every policy area, at the beginning of 2010 the United States was beginning to look weak and inept, and when the Cheonan was sunk off South Korea – it perpetuated the image of weakness by the United States once it became clear the Cheonan sinking was an attack, but the US wasn’t going to do anything in response – for several legitimate reasons.

By July the US appeared to be on the brink of a serious perception and credibility problem in the Pacific, and at the same time Russia and China was heading to Seoul to discuss the Cheonan sinking. I strongly believe that China made a strategic miscalculation, because had China and subsequently Russia backed Seoul regarding the sinking – it would have been recognized by the region that China’s influence on this major regional security event was greater than the influence of the US. Because China could not support the findings of the international Joint Investigation Group, it signaled to the rest of the region that China is still not a responsible or reliable partner in the security conditions of the Pacific. Despite what the tone of the TIME magazine article suggests, the government of every single major Pacific nation besides Russia and China believes the report that North Korea sank the Cheonan with a torpedo.

In mid-July I heard the questions being asked again – is there anyone in Washington that has the balls to stand up to China? Well, timing is everything, and after a year and a half of attempting a soft approach with China in an effort to open up the relationship – an attempt that had clearly failed – the Obama administration has changed policy in the Pacific.

The announcement by Hillary Clinton that the United States intends to play a prominent role in a new regional effort toward resolving territorial disputes in the South China Sea is the single most important foreign policy action by the United States directed at China in the 21st century. While a lot of serious people have been wondering who has the balls in Washington to stand up to China, it turns out that they have been hiding up Hillary Clintons skirt the whole time. Robert Gates was in the room in Vietnam when Hillary Clinton made this announcement – so this policy change isn’t just some State Department rogue moment by the Secretary of State.

We do not know how this will play out or what is coming next, but this is an enormous change in policy towards China. I don’t think the Obama administration wants a war with China, but they have no longer decided to be nice to China – because China sent the message that nice guys will finish last with them.

It’s about time.  Ditto with the administration’s much tougher line with Turkey.  (A lot of what has happened in Turkey is obviously domestically driven, but US policy towards Turkey has been a disaster since early in the Bush administration.  We are paying the price for this in the Middle East, the Caucasus, and the Caspian.)

In any event, as if we don’t have enough fires to deal with, keep an eye on the South China Sea, and US naval policy and foreign policy towards China.  This is a big deal.

And it relates to bigger themes.  I’ve mused whether the current historical era is more like the 1970s or the 1930s.  In my “optimistic” moments, I think the former, as dismal as that is to contemplate.  But more and more I think the 1930s is the better analogy.  And the events in east Asia are just one thing nudging me to that conclusion.

* Ironically, this morning my wife was doing some genealogy, and listening to recordings of her grandmother reminiscing about her family.  She mentioned one relative, a beauty, who said she would “walk into the China Sea when she was no longer attractive to men.”  The weird part is that her husband died in Taiwan.

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Craig pirrong, Craig pirrong. Craig pirrong said: Updated my SWP blog post: How Do You Say "Mahan" in Chinese? ( ) […]

    Pingback by Tweets that mention Streetwise Professor » How Do You Say “Mahan” in Chinese? -- — August 16, 2010 @ 5:29 pm

  2. I seriously doubt China will directly test the will of the feckless Obama administration any time soon. Rather, China will have a proxy (Iran, most likely) push the administration to action, see how Obama reacts and then judge the willingness of the U.S. to back up its talk with future military action. As Obama has chosen to lie prostrate before the Iranians (and the Islamic world in general) it would be tough to see the U.S. doing anything other than backing down from a direct challenge from Iran (after all, the Iranian reactors will be hot in a matter fo days and that immensely complicates the job of containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions) . What remains to be seen is whether any such challenge to the U.S. would set the pattern for how Obama intends to react to any further challenges of American interests around the world or whether it backs Obama into a corner such that he must take action or see his chances of a second term further damaged. Either way, Obama’s preference of conducting international diplomacy from a position of weakness doesn’t make me think he is going to have many pleasant options vis a vis our relationship with an ever more confident Chinese government.

    Comment by Charles — August 16, 2010 @ 5:34 pm

  3. That’s the way to cheer me up, Charles!

    Yes, I don’t expect any immediate, in-our-face challenge, but a 1930s-like probing, some through proxies, some directly.

    It is interesting that Gates announced his intention to step down. Makes me wonder why? And makes me concerned that an already feckless (good word) foreign policy and military team will become even more so at a time when the reverse has to happen.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — August 16, 2010 @ 6:05 pm

  4. I think the situation is more like the 1900’s.

    The US (Britain) is still the predominant power by a high margin, but it is being challenged in industrial output by Germany (China), which has historical grudges, fears encirclement and its SLOCs, and is looking to affect to affect a naval breakout within the next decade.

    There’s really very little the US can do about it, though, since most underlying trends in relative power are now going against it.

    PS. Chinese strategists are big fans of Mahan – that’s spot on. They also think in a very early 20th century way about the balance of power: look up their concepts of Comprehensive National Power.

    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — August 16, 2010 @ 7:05 pm

  5. Yes, there is an analogy there, S/O. The Kaiser was a devotee of Mahan. Obsessed with him in fact.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — August 16, 2010 @ 7:30 pm

  6. Despite what the tone of the TIME magazine article suggests, the government of every single major Pacific nation besides Russia and China believes the report that North Korea sank the Cheonan with a torpedo.

    I’m pretty sure both of those believe it too, but just won’t admit it publicly.

    Comment by Tim Newman — August 16, 2010 @ 7:54 pm

  7. @Tim–I know they know. That makes their silence all the worse. In a way I can understand the Chinese more than the Russians.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — August 16, 2010 @ 8:13 pm

  8. What’s there to understand? Russia would love China and the US to have a cold war with each other, so a helpful nudge in that direction is entirely rational.

    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — August 16, 2010 @ 8:16 pm

  9. S/O–thank you for confirming the opportunistic, jackal-like nature of Russian foreign policy. Just what I was hoping for.

    Re your earlier point about China. You overestimate China’s strengths and underestimate the US’s weaknesses. Yes, the US is in trouble, but its problems are largely self-inflicted policy errors (both economic and military/diplomatic) that can be undone. They may not be, but they are reversible errors.

    China’s problems are more fundamental and intractable. Chinese economic performance is overstated. Case in point: today’s crowing about its GDP surpassing Japan’s. Well, China has almost exactly 10x the population of Japan. Japan has been sucking wind for 20 years. So BFD.

    China’s financial system is fragile, and it has serious demographic issues. It also has serious potential for domestic unrest. Indeed, a lot of unrest is occurring already. The Chinese government is quite nervous about social discontent and the recurrence of the kind of unrest that has rocked the country with regularity over the millennia.

    Indeed, that is contributing to the country’s bellicosity. Whipping up patriotic fervor is a classic technique to distract attention from domestic discontents. The analogy with Wilhelmine Germany is not exact, but both pre-WWI Germany and current China were/are volatile mixtures of a perception of rising power and deep insecurity about the future.

    You might be interested to note that Stratfor, which I know you admire, today came out with an analysis that was very pessimistic on China’s future.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — August 16, 2010 @ 9:31 pm

  10. @SWP,

    Re-Russ foreign policy. Call it jackal-like if it pleases you. I would call entangling your potential enemies in disputes far removed from your areas of interest is prudent.
    PS. Was Nixon’s reconciliation with China also jackal-like?

    Re-China. In my opinion, most of China’s “weaknesses” you cite are exaggerations and tropes.

    1) China has overtaken in Japan in nominal GDP, but its real GDP is now 2/3 of America’s. It is growing at 10% compared with stagnation in the US. In terms of manufacturing output it is likely to exceed the US this year.

    2) China has a lot of bad loans, true, but also a lot of potential for growth to compensate for them. On the other hand its fiscal indicators are incomparably better than America’s.

    3) On demography, I’d refer to Goldman Sach’s Chapter 3: Will China grow old before getting rich? Not a factor in the next two-three decades by any stretch of the imagination.

    4) Your comparison with Wilhelmine Germany is not altogether to China’s disadvantage. It surpassed Britain in the newest technologies (electric, chemical) before 1914 – despite the supposed incongruity of autocracy with innovation.

    5) I do like Stratfor on the Middle East, Iran, and (75% of the time) Russia. China they usually get wrong, IMO. (Likewise Europe, in which the influence of domestic politics are disregarded in favor of geopolitical reasoning that doesn’t really play a preeminent role there today).

    Anyway, this is again one of those things where we agree on some things but utterly disagree on others. My opinions on the matter are at China, The Last Superpower.

    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — August 16, 2010 @ 10:44 pm

  11. In a way I can understand the Chinese more than the Russians.

    Russian foreign policy is exceptionally easy to understand:

    1. Identify the course of action most likely to annoy the USA.
    2. Do that.

    I blogged about this years ago (I’d link to it if my a-hole provider would reinstate my blog), and I’ve not seen anything which has caused me to change my mind.

    Comment by Tim Newman — August 17, 2010 @ 5:30 am

  12. I’d be interested to see what would happen under Obama if the CNOOC/Unocal merger were to happen now. CVX is loving those Asian fields they acquired.

    Comment by Jack — August 17, 2010 @ 10:32 am

  13. S/O–too jammed up to respond in full, but I will take a quick stab at the Nixon point. It illustrates an important issue very well. Nixon to China occurred in the early-1970s, at the height of the Cold War and superpower competition. From the perspective of just about everybody, we are in a different world today. The US, and Europe particularly, have been trying to move on from the Cold War since the Wall came down. But if your argument is that the Russians conceive of their actions in NW Asia (and I would add Iran too) as analogous to Cold War actions–and you seem to endorse this view–you are essentially positing that Russia is still operating under a Cold War mindset. Living in the past.

    I don’t necessarily disagree. I would also consider it counterproductive and pathetic.

    Apropos Tim Newman’s point, it also demonstrates yet again the Russian obsession with the US. That Russia thinks it must be the beneficiary if the US is “annoyed” or inconvenienced. Like I’ve said before, the US is so in Putin’s head, and the heads of the silovki around him. This psychological obsession unbalances their entire policy.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — August 17, 2010 @ 6:52 pm

  14. IMO, the US also has a Cold War mindset, it just couches it in ideological tropes like human rights and freedom promotion.

    But obviously, both Russian and Western leaders – generally speaking – prefer to keep things more cordial this round. Call it the Tepid War?

    Anyhow, my take re-China’s sorpasso of Japan: Everyone is Still Underestimating China.

    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — August 18, 2010 @ 3:21 am

  15. Of course, no surprise that S/O considers human rights irrelevant or a smokescreen.

    He is a self confessed Marxist.

    China has quite a few inherent problems, not the least of which relate to demography, and various national minorities that are not at all keen to be Chinese.

    Russia is probably more interested in stirring up trouble between China and the US out of simple self preservation, let us not forget the Russians asked the US to assist (at best) or look the other way (at least) in a preemptive nuclear strike on China in the 60’s.

    Not unusual given the Russian cultural tendency to committing genocide.

    Comment by Andrew — August 18, 2010 @ 7:55 am

  16. @Andrew. And suicide.

    @ S/O. This administration in particular has been virtually silent on human rights issues, in Russia included, but even in places like Iran at the height of a brutal crackdown. The previous administration gave, at most, lip service to it.

    Glad to know, though, that you have scorn for human rights and freedom. I’ll give you points for honesty, and unlike Obama, I don’t expect you to clarify tomorrow and elaborate the day after that. But like Andrew, I’m not really surprised.

    LIke Adams, I’m not in favor of going abroad in search of monsters to slay. At the same time, respect for liberty and human freedom is a strong signal of regime type. A regime/government that has no scruples in brutalizing its own is likely to have none in dealing with others.

    The point remains: Russia is locked in an anachronistic, short sighted, and ultimately self-destructive mindset.

    Re China. The point remains that per capita GDP in China is less than 1/5th (PPP) than Japan’s, and about 1/7th of the US. That is still very poor. The crust of prosperity on the coast covers a desperately poor interior. Look, you drive a few miles outside of the center of Beijing, and you are deep in the 3rd world. Corruption is endemic; there is a good deal of popular dissatisfaction seething beneath the surface, especially in the rural areas; environmental issues (which I thought were a concern of yours) are pressing; and the debt problem is worse than you portray it. Plus demography (which Andrew and I both mentioned) is not favorable.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — August 18, 2010 @ 8:43 am

  17. Plus, as Chinese society gets wealthier, better travelled, and more educated they are probably going to want to have some say in how they are governed. There’s an enormous banana skin right there.

    Comment by Tim Newman — August 18, 2010 @ 11:00 am

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