Over the Horizon

Is worrying about war with China a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Is it possible that, a decade after 9/11, America has become too preoccupied with the threat from "nonstate actors" and too complacent about the more classic dangers posed by powerful and self-aggrandizing states? Or, put more succinctly, how afraid of China should the United States be?

We know, of course, that China owns $1.5 trillion worth of U.S. Treasury bills and thus has the U.S. economy by the short hairs; that China refuses to significantly revalue the renminbi and thus retains its colossal imbalance in trade with the United States; and that China has begun to buy American real estate and other assets (including, perhaps, the Los Angeles Dodgers). But should Americans regard China as a national security threat and not merely an economic one?

The authors of "Asian Alliances in the 21st Century," a report published by the Project 2049 Institute, a conservative think tank that focuses on East Asia, insist that we must. (The lead author is American Enterprise Institute scholar Dan Blumenthal of Foreign Policy's Shadow Government blog.) The report concludes that "China's military ambitions threaten America's Asian allies, raise questions about the credibility of U.S. alliance pledges, and imperil the U.S. military strategy that underpins its global primacy."

This is startling news to those of us who think of China as a "status quo" power, a view that until recently was widely shared in the academic and policy community. In Power Shift: China and Asia's New Dynamics, published in 2006, David Shambaugh, a leading China scholar, concludes that "China is increasingly seen as a good neighbor, constructive partner, and careful listener." Shambaugh and others wrote then that China had emerged from a long era of suspicion and insularity and had begun to join regional organizations, send peacekeepers to U.N. missions, and improve bilateral relations in the neighborhood. Yes, China's military was rapidly modernizing in ways that gave the Taiwanese a fright, but such signs of belligerence had been offset, Shambaugh concluded, by "bilateral and multilateral confidence-building measures."

But five years is a long time for a country growing, and changing, as rapidly as China. "Asian Alliances" argues, in effect, that China has now fully emerged from its defensive crouch. In recent years, China has developed a new generation of ballistic and cruise missiles, attack submarines, tactical and stealth aircraft, radar, and space-based intelligence, as well as an anti-satellite missile, which together give it the capacity to establish "contested zones" in air, sea, and space, and thus push the United States further and further out from regions of the Pacific that it has long patrolled and protected. And China's behavior in the neighborhood has turned markedly bellicose, aggressively pursuing its claim to islands in the South China Sea and sending its blue-water navy on long-range exercises off the Japanese coast. It's for this reason that Robert D. Kaplan wrote in the current issue of FP that the future of conflict lies not in the sands of the Middle East but the open water of the South China Sea.

It seems odd that a country so famously patient and slow-gestating would have so radically, and so quickly, changed its posture to the world. Maybe that careful listening was an elaborate show, or a transitional phase. Elizabeth Economy, a China scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that China's peaceful rise was never more than a "rhetorical formulation"; only now, however, has China's military capacity and its rhetoric caught up with its long-held aspirations to expand its sphere of dominance in East Asia. U.S. President Barack Obama's administration has not accepted that view, but has nevertheless warned China to play by the rules of the international system. In the 2009 speech in which he coined the phrase "strategic reassurance," then-Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg noted that China's "enhanced capabilities" and "overbroad assertion of its rights" in the South China Sea had caused Washington and its allies to "question China's intentions."

There's little debate over those capabilities, which are clearly superior to what they were only a few years ago, and improving fast. But China's intentions are harder to read. David Finkelstein, director of China Studies at the Center for Naval Analyses in Alexandria, Va., says that he shares the "great uneasiness about how China will use its incipient but growing maritime power" throughout the region, but also notes that in recent years China has concluded that "time is on their side on Taiwan" and thus have been "relatively more relaxed" than in the past.

The obvious Cold War analogy is to the policy of containment: George Kennan believed that the Soviet Union hoped to dance on America's grave but he was prepared to wait for history to inevitably unspool itself; the Soviets could thus be deterred by a patient and persistent policy of containment. Finkelstein argues that a combination of forceful American diplomacy, which he credits the Obama administration with undertaking, and the current level of American military presence -- the Pacific fleet and 60,000 active-duty troops in the region -- has already contained China's ambitions, and will probably continue to do so. Kaplan, too, for all his projections of growing Chinese naval and air power, argues for maintaining the current state of military deployment. In short, it's the intentions that matter.

The authors of "Asian Alliances," by contrast, tend to infer China's intentions from its capacities. In an ominous scenario that carries a strong whiff of Herman Kahn, or perhaps Dr. Strangelove, they describe China using missiles and bombers to launch a devastating attack on Taiwan and the United States responding with a missile strike against the mainland, which in turn leads to … Armageddon. The only way to preclude such a cataclysm, the authors argue, is to adopt much tougher counter-measures: rollback, in Cold War terms.

The "Asian Alliances" report warns that "Asia's future demands nothing less" than a new "shared strategic concept." The web of Cold War alliances should give way to a military partnership among the United States, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia, and others that would require a major increase in military spending and in military and intelligence cooperation. "[A]ny would-be aggressor" would be made to understand "that targeting one ally means invoking the ire of the rest." It's hard to believe that these states would agree to join such an explicitly anti-Chinese coalition. There's also the danger that China would react by concluding that time was no longer on its side, thus turning the coalition into a devastatingly self-fulfilling prophecy.

The costs for the United States would be greater still. The "Asian Alliances" report accuses the United States of courting "strategic insolvency" and proposes investments in vast amounts of new weaponry. In a congressional briefing, Blumenthal specified the hardware: "a next-generation bomber; large numbers of attack submarines (SSNs); a sizeable fifth-generation tactical aircraft fleet" and on and on and on.

That sounds costly, no? Mitt Romney, who never loses an opportunity to talk up the threat from China, not to mention Russia, would peg defense spending at 4 percent of GDP -- $600 billion, or $70 billion more than the current total, which of course would necessitate equivalent cuts elsewhere to make up the difference. Or perhaps voters should accept that national insolvency is a price worth paying in order to address strategic insolvency. Or of course we could Lose China again. Or risk the Big One.

Americans are, understandably, much too obsessed with the economy right now to spare a thought for national security. But the debate is waiting in the wings. The threat of terrorist attack is very real, but diminishing. Al Qaeda is not the national nightmare it once was. Are Americans going to replace it with a new nightmare -- or rather, a recycled one from the depths of the Cold War? I certainly hope not. China's regional ambitions do need to be checked. But if America bankrupts itself in the process, we'll win the battle and lose the war.


Terms of Engagement

Ready for Day One

Meet the Libyan postwar planners who put the Bush administration's Iraq team to shame.

At this moment of spectacular triumph in Tripoli, even the fiercest advocates of the NATO intervention that helped topple Muammar al-Qaddafi have been sounding notes of trepidation and sober caution; nobody wants to get caught out being unduly optimistic. Advocates of intervention endured a terrible chastening in Iraq and Afghanistan. It's now obvious, if it wasn't before, that in post-conflict situations, things are much likelier to go wrong than right. And Libya is arguably more fraught than any of its recent predecessors.

Allow me, in what I'm sure is a spirit of a priori hopefulness, to offer some tiny grounds for optimism. For the last several months, I have been following the deliberations of the Tripoli Task Force. This body was established in April by the National Transitional Council (NTC), the rebel government based in Benghazi, in order to plan for the post-Qaddafi transition. One of the peculiar advantages of the military stalemate that lasted until this past weekend is that it gave the task force ample time to plan for Day One of the new government.

Over time, the group's core members moved from Benghazi to Dubai. By the time the Qaddafi regime fell, about 70 people were engaged fulltime in the task of planning. This group oversaw a network of hundreds of Libyans, mostly professionals, divided into 17 teams responsible for policing, water supply, fuel, schools, and the like. They made a point of studying precedent. According to Sohail Nakhoody, who served as chief of staff to Aref Ali Nayed, a Libyan businessman who headed the task force (and now serves as the new government's ambassador to the United Arab Emirates), "We had in front of us the experience of Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo, Somalia." Iraq served as a kind of anti-template, especially on questions like how to treat regime elements -- i.e., no "de-Baathification."

Let me pause for a moment to recall the absurdity of the George W. Bush administration's own planning process for Day One of a post-Saddam Iraq. Back in the summer of 2002, the U.S. State Department established the Future of Iraq Project, a study exercise that brought Iraqi exiles together with American academic experts and government officials. But once Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld persuaded Bush to transfer control of postwar Iraq to the Defense Department, the entire effort was scrapped. In The Assassins' Gate, journalist George Packer describes meeting an Iraqi-American lawyer in Baghdad desperately trying to interest the new authorities in the State Department's 250-page report on transitional justice, and finding no takers. The planning process was transferred to a group of retired military officers heading something called the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA), whose very name denoted the strict limits of its mandate. Security was outside ORHA's mandate; so were politics and governance. Those things were supposed to take care of themselves. As we know now, they didn't.

The Tripoli Task Force is staffed by Libyans, with a Libyan sense of reality. The goal, says Nakhoody, is to "secure the conditions for normal life and for democratic processes to happen." In recent weeks, the planning was expanded in order to produce a post-conflict plan for the whole country. Nakhoody says that task force members considered a series of disaster scenarios, especially after Russian diplomats passed along information that Qaddafi planned to devastate Tripoli. Fire brigades were organized, and a three-to-four-month supply of oil was stored in tankers in secure staging areas. These may still, of course, prove necessary. Nakhoody says that in recent days, task force members forged a "unified military command structure" among police brigades. He concedes, however, that it's not clear to what extent police commanders in Tripoli continued to fight alongside Qaddafi's troops and, thus, to what extent their loyalty can be counted on.

How real is all this? Nayed, whom I reached just as he was boarding a flight from Tunis to Tripoli, says that "stabilization teams are already on the ground" in Tripoli and elsewhere and have already managed to increase the supply of electricity and water, partially restore Internet service, and use text messaging to communicate with citizens, including pleas to avoid revenge killing. "Things are on the mend," he says confidently. I asked a senior U.S. official deeply involved with Libya policy whether he thought this was so, and he said, "I'm getting a sense that some of the plan is being executed; I can't tell you what [the] percentage is."

The failure to deliver security and services in Baghdad doomed the American effort there. Even modest success in Tripoli and elsewhere would do a great deal to bolster the legitimacy of the NTC, which, according to the terms of a draft constitution, is to serve until a permanent constitution can be written and approved by referendum, and a new government elected, 15 to 20 months from today. Nayed says that what the new government needs from the West is money to pay salaries, purchase medicine and supplies, and restore the prostrate economy. NTC officials say that they do not want a peacekeeping force, whether from the United Nations or elsewhere, and insist that they can master the security situation on their own. That may prove naive. Qaddafi and his sons are still at large and may fight a rear-guard battle, as Saddam did. What's more, if rival forces refuse to put down their guns or if the ragtag militias prove unable to secure Qaddafi's weapons depots, the new regime may have to call on an outside force.

But the most important lesson of Baghdad is: It's the politics, stupid. A government that is not seen as legitimate will not be able to establish security. And this raises the most fundamental question: How can the Benghazi-based and European-backed NTC persuade Berbers, Islamists, southern tribesmen, and Qaddafi loyalists from the west that it is the government of all Libyans? After all, the very idea of "legitimate government" is foreign to Libya. The U.S. official I spoke to told me the obligation to be inclusive had been "taken seriously" by the NTC and gave the body credit for incorporating elements from Misrata and other major coastal cities, as well as from the mountain regions -- though not, as far as he could tell, from the remote south. David Rolfes, an official with the National Democratic Institute and a veteran of post-conflict settings in the Balkans and elsewhere, says that when he first traveled to Benghazi in April he was deeply skeptical about the rebels' political leadership, but that he wound up feeling "amazingly impressed at how they conducted themselves" and has only felt more so over time.

The political leaders say the right things; but, like the Tripoli Task Force, they've operated in a vacuum until now. No one can confidently predict what will happen in the vortex of post-Qaddafi Libya. Another lesson from Iraq is: Dictators poison their countries. They work their way into people's most intimate selves, into the ability to trust, to accept setbacks without violence, to be patient. Qaddafi spent 42 years playing Libyans against one another. And so even if, miraculously, everything goes according to plan, Libya will be a chaotic mess, and at times the Libyan people will wonder whether all the terrible bloodshed was worth it. Many Iraqis, after all, learned that life without Saddam could be even more terrifying than life with him.

I trust that I have now inoculated myself sufficiently against the charge of naive optimism. And so I can allow myself to say that the Libyan uprising has at times felt as deeply moving, as morally powerful, as the Spanish Civil War. But in this case, the heroes won.