This will be my final post in the "China Does Not Want Your Rules Based Order" series. You can read the original post that started the conversation here and the first follow up discussion here. In this post I will focus on a comment left back on the original essay by Andrew Chubb. Chubb is just about the sharpest analyst working South China Sea issues on either side of the Pacific. I first discovered him at his tragically under-updated blog, South China Sea Conversations, but you can find his writings in all sorts of places. Here is what he wrote in the original post's comment thread:

I agree that China has good reasons to want to demonstrate US unreliability, but how important is this really as the cause of the PRC behaviours you cite versus, say, geostrategic gains (i.e. control of maritime space), resource insecurity and its increased material capabilities? At Scarborough Shoal, as we know, the PRC didn't initiate the standoff, it was precipitated by a confluence of developments, including the Philippines' use of its new navy ship, and the fact that CMS ships happened to be nearby on a patrol nearby at the time - this being a function of the PHL navy having a new ship courtesy of the US Coastguard, and the PRC's shipbuilding projects initiated in 1999. As far as I'm aware, it's also not clear what level of the PRC state the authorization for "rescuing" the fishers was made - the CMS ships on patrol apparently received the distress call and asked for authorization before acting, but they evidently got it pretty quickly, so it seems plausible that it may have been authorized at the level of CMS or SOA headquarters and the Navy. So as a demonstration of US unreliability it's at most opportunistic and, as the PRC's subsequent behaviour in the area has suggested, motivated strongly by the desire to actually control the surrounding maritime space. I'm also not sure how the PRC could have been sure that the US would not have intervened more strongly - if they weren't sure, then that aspect of China's motivation may be better categorized as a probe, designed to test the US reaction (a line of thinking that i believe is important in explaining the 2090 Impeccable incident). 
As for the HYSY-981 and island-building, they were both massive logistical operations with enormous financial costs and complex inter-bureaucratic coordination, so the resources and actual maritime control motivations again seem more persuasive (and in the case of the island building, a perceived need to "dig in" in the Spratlys, and perhaps make use of some excess construction capacity). If the aim was demonstrating US unreliability, there surely must be much cheaper ways of doing that?

Also, China's reasons for to demonstrating US unreliability only hold up to a point, right? For example, the point at which Japan decides it needs its own nuclear deterrent. If the PRC were to actually ruin the US's credibility, the region would likely become very unstable, and that would clearly threaten the PRC economy - and we know for sure and certain that rising living standards is an agreed-upon strategy in Beijing (a core interest, no less). I reckon the hardheads in Beijing are well aware of the benefits that current arrangements have brought, as expressed in terms like the "period of strategic opportunity" for economic growth, and a "relatively peaceful external environment" with "opportunities greater than challenges" etc language. What's your take on that? [1]
One of the worst mental habits of the American analyst is an ingrained assumption that everything that happens in the world is a direct response to something the United States has (or has not) done. This sort of analysis is lazy at its best and blind at its worst. I usually condemn it when I see it. Chubb is right to call me out—though he has the grace to do it subtly—when I fall into this trap myself. There is more to what is happening in the West Pacific than American and Chinese rivalry. Claiming anything to the contrary was not my intent.

I mentioned, either in detail or in passing, five specific instances where Chinese actions have subverted the system America created and is now trying to uphold in the region: the 2012  Scarborough Shoal standoff, the 2012 Senkaku/Diaoyu incidents, 2012's hung ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh,  the 2014 HYSY-981 oil rig incident, and dredging and construction in the Spratly Islands over the last four years. Each of these events had different proximate causes. Most of these are unrelated to American actions in the region. Chubb's description of  the events surrounding the seizure of Scarborough Shoal, for example, match my own understanding of the incident. The Chinese decision to begin the Scarborough Shoal standoff was made in response to Filipino operations around the shoal. America did not enter the story until much later. Crises have a momentum of their own, and it is far more likely that the momentum of the moment, not a carefully calculated grand strategy emanating from the halls of Zhongnanhai, dictated the course of that summer's crisis.

This critique does not apply as well to the other incidents under discussion. As Chubb notes himself, both the HYSY-981 rig and the dredging in the Spratlys were made possible by massive investments in infrastructure and technology development. These were the products of years of planning. Their development could not possibly be a tit-for-tat responses to decisions made by other countries years after their procurement cycle began. Does it make sense to understand them in terms of signaling at all?

Before we address that question it is wise to consider the alternatives. The first alternative is geostrategic: building up a presence on South China Sea reefs and islands will help China control the sea in the event of future conflict. I have trouble taking this argument seriously. These island and reefs are indefensible bits of rock and sand. They cannot be hardened. Their assets cannot be hidden. In the first round of conflict with any power armed with precision guided munitions, they will be destroyed. Lyle Goldstein said it well in a short piece for the National Interest last year:
In the age of precision strike, any and almost all fixed targets can be destroyed with ease, even by lesser militaries.  Much has been made of Beijing’s new opportunity to fly surveillance aircraft, anti-submarine warfare aircraft and even fighter aircraft from the airstrips now being built. Supposedly, China could base small frigates, fast attack craft and even submarines at these new facilities, but that approach still seems far-fetched. Never mind that it would be nearly impossible to store a strategically significant amount of fuel and munitions on these reefs, but such forces would have little and more likely even negative war-fighting value since they would be so exposed to hostile fire. In other words, a squadron of Su-27s flying out of Fiery Cross Reef “base” would most likely be smoking wrecks within hours of the start of any South China Sea conflict. To this author’s reckoning, a facility can be termed a “base” when it has some prospect of playing a useful operational role during armed conflict. By that definition, these facilities are not bases, but rather outposts of a merely symbolic nature. [2]
The second alternative is resource insecurity, especially energy insecurity. There is some evidence connecting the HYSY-981 incident to China's energy needs, and obviously no country (or company) will take the effort to build a deep oil rig they never plan on using in the first place.[3] However, placing the rig in disputed waters is not a wise path to energy security. Ultra-deep offshore oil rigs have a notoriously low Energy Return on Investment (EROI), and the fuel needs of sixty ship flotilla assigned to guard the rig night and day will only lower this number. [4] Offshore oil rigs also have an extremely long payback time even when oil prices are high. Recovering the capital invested in the rig's construction and operation costs requires decades—much longer than the three months China National Offshore Oil Corporation originally announced HYSY-981 would explore the disputed areas close to the Paracel Islands.

Image taken from Sue Goodridge, "Offshore Drilling Unveiled: Your Quintessential Investment Primer,"  
Market Realist (1 February 2016).

The rig's two month stint in Vietnam's declared EEZ raises an issue easily obscured by looking solely at the rig's entire procurement cycle. When CNOOC announced in 2008 that it planned to invest $29 billion (USD) over twenty years to develop the South China Sea, it was acting on a decade long time scale far removed from the twists and turns of day-to-day diplomacy. Their announcement did not specify when individual CNOOC assets would be deployed, much less when they would be deployed in disputed waters. CNOOC and its Party backers realized that those decisions must take into account changing international conditions and could not be made years in advance. As such, the timing of the rig's deployment should be understood in the context of those conditions. Just as the United State's decision to invest in THAAD anti-ballistic missile system should be distinguished from its more recent decision to deploy this system in South Korea, so should China's decision to invest in deep-water drilling technology be distinguished from all later decisions to deploy this technology in disputed waters. That such an attempt would be made was more or less inevitable; the timing and location of this attempt, in contrast, was not ordained in the heavens, and could be decided on a much shorter notice. As it turned out, the Chinese timed the deployment of HYSY-981 very cleverly, successfully demonstrating the impotence of both the United States and ASEAN in one go

Finally, the mere fact that China is willing to invest the time and capital needed to build artificial atolls, undersea labs, and advanced oil rigs is itself an important form signalling. International relation theorists often write about the importance of "costly signaling" in foreign policy. International diplomacy is game of lies. Every actor on the international stage wishes to look more committed and fearsome than it truly is; after all, the more committed one is to a goal, the harder it will be to deter you from pursuing it. The harder it is to deter you, the less likely other nations will even make the attempt. But how do you inform other countries you are actually committed to the course you have declared, when they know you have every incentive to bluff? One answer is to send costly signals—that is, adopt policies which cost you money, time, or prestige to implement, and so display that your commitment to the goal at hand is more than just hot air. The classic example usually cited is military mobilization, which carries material costs no amount of bluster can compare with. [5]

The international relations theorists of the future may well use island dredging, not army mobilization, as the go-to example of costly signaling in great power politics. The one thing that threads together reclaiming islands, constructing billion dollar rigs, and building military bases on barren atolls is their cost. The high cost of these projects is an effective way for Beijing to show just how committed it is to the South China Sea. It knows that most of the rival claimants do not have a spare $30 billion to throw at resource development in the region. It also knows that every reef dredged and runway built by Chinese hands makes it that much harder for Chinese feet to walk away from their claims. These long term investments also reinforce the broader narrative Chinese diplomats use when bargaining with other powers across the region. Singapore's foreign ambassador at large understands this point:
While the artificial islands are inconsequential in military terms, they are a potent reminder to ASEAN that China is a geographic fact whereas the US presence in the South China Sea is the consequence of a geopolitical calculation. This is an idea that China never tires of seeding in ways subtle or direct. [6]
The islands also meet what I have argued is the most important goal of China's rule bucking in the East and South China Seas. The CPC legitimizes its rule through an inherently revanchist nationalist narrative. The most important audience for Chinese actions in these seas is not the Americans, or even the Southeast Asians and the Japanese, but the Chinese public. This narrative requires the Chinese to come off as the winners somewhere. The South China Sea is the least dangerous pace for them to make the attempt. They continually test and probe, seeking small chinks in the armor where they can expose U.S. hypocrisy and display Chinese power to their lesser neighbors, because this really is the only place they can hope to stand up to America and win at it. 


[1] Andrew Chubb, comment (5 June 2016) on T. Greer, "China Does Not Want Your Rules Based Order," The Scholar's Stage (4 June 2016).

[2]  Lyle Goldstein "The South China Sea Showdown: 5 Dangerous Myths," National Interest (29 Septemeber 2015)

[3] See discussion in James Manicom, "The Energy Context behind China’s Drilling Rig in the South China Sea," China Brief 14, iss. 11 (June 2014); Erica Downs, "Business and Politics in the South China Sea: Explaining HYSY 981’s Foray into Disputed Waters," China Brief 14, iss. 12 (June 2014).

[4] Adam R. Brandt, et. al., "Energy Return on Investment (EROI) for Forty Global Oilfields Using a Detailed Engineering-Based Model of Oil Production," PLOS One (December 2015); David J. Murphy, "The implications of the declining energy return on investment of oil production," Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 372, iss 2006 (January 2014);

[5] James D. Fearon, "Signaling Foreign Policy Interests: Tying Hands versus Sinking Costs," Journal of Conflict Resolution 41, no. 1 (1997): 68-9.

[6] Bilihari Kausikan, "ASEAN and U.S.-China Competition in Southeast Asia," (Lecture, delivered as part of the IPS 2015/16 Nathan Lectures series, Singapore, 30 March 2016). Online transcript here, see p. 18.

Last week's post "China Does Not Want Your Rules Based Order" created a stir. Many who read it were inspired to write up their own view in response; some of these have been posted in the comments thread to the original post, others on Twitter, and yet others have been sent to me in more private forums. I have not had time to properly respond to this flood of commentary, and I doubt I will ever have time to respond to it all. However, a few of the critiques I have seen are too good to languish in comment threads unnoticed. I have collected the best of these here, along with a few of my own thoughts in response.

First off, multiple readers have pointed out that my post makes essentially the same case Peter Mattis made a year ago in a National Interest essay titled "Stop Saying China is at a Crossroads." [1] I was unaware of Mattis's column. Had I known of it I would have cited it, for its message is almost exactly the same as mine, just stated in far less sensational language. This stylistic choice on my part has been criticized by some, but this sort of criticism misses the mark. There is a purpose behind the pungency. Americans have been declaring that China is at a crossroads for three decades now. This is the default setting, a frame of thought that Americans conjure up effortlessly even when (perhaps especially when) the distractions of a busy world press upon them. It also happens to be wrong. Simpy stating that is not sufficient. It is not enough whisper that the emperor has no clothes. The truth must be shouted at him.

This brings me to Nick Prime's critique of my argument, sent to me in a private message. Prime has one of the most interesting research programs in the field of strategic studies, and if strategic theory is your thing his research is worth delving into. His comment here is typically astute:
I think your assessment of everything here is pretty accurate, but I'm not sure you're viewing the significance of it in the appropriate mindset. I don't question the idea that China has chosen its path, and that that path runs perpendicular to the liberal rules based order for which the US has been the guarantor for more than half a century. The evidence at this point is consistent and pretty much irrefutable.

That being said, the choices they've made make this something of a Mexican standoff, if not now then something that is quite clearly headed in that direction. The constant reminder of choice is thus not naive or ignorant of the path China's pursuing but is instead a very tactical form of positional bargaining. The US will not *choose* to break international norms and start a war with China. But the US will, I believe, stand firm and watch as China creeps towards that precipice and it doesn't hurt us at every stage to remind China that each choice is bringing that eventuality ever closer. One can justify the rhetoric you're criticising even if they except your premise because if what you say is true then the courses are set and the game is now about credibility and legitimacy. By calling out every choice China makes we highlight their illegitimacy and strengthen ours. Ideally this would amount to (if not an actual deterrent, than at least) a effort towards compellence.

This all goes hand in hand with countering China's broader regional strategy of trying to forestall attempts at collectively counter-balancing their rise through multi-lateral regional alignment and engagement. China's long running dismissal of, and their subtle attempts to undermine, ASEAN also make this pretty clear. We need to be standing firm behind some sort of line in the sand that shows we're not going to let them dismantle the international system we've built. It's both the right thing to do and in our national interest, at a grand strategic level it also seeks to provide the bulwark around which that counter-balancing can solidify and set in its heels.
Prime's argument is expressed in the language of conflict bargaining, and his main ideas should be familiar to anyone who has read Schelling's Arms and Influence or The Strategy of Conflict.[2] Prime asks the first question anyone should ask when an international actor tries to signal its intentions in an incomplete information scenario: do the things said genuinely reflect the beliefs of those saying them, or are they simply rhetorical tools in a bargaining game? Does all this talk of choice reveal actual American sentiments, or is it a more cynical attempt to maneuver the Chinese into having the "last clear chance" to avert war?

Readers who do not regularly delve into the tomes of strategic theory can be forgiven for not knowing what this 'last clear chance' business is all about. Schelling introduces the idea by asking us to imagine a special game of chess:
A chess game can end in win, lose, or draw. Let’s change the game by adding a fourth outcome called “disaster.” If “disaster” occurs, a heavy fine is levied on both players, so that each is worse off than if he had simply lost the game. And the rules specify what causes disaster: specifically, if either player has moved his knight across the center line and the other player has moved his queen across the center line, the game terminates at once and both players are scored with a disaster. If a white knight is already on the black side of the board when the black queen moves across to the white side, the black queen’s move terminates the game in disaster; if the queen was already across when White moved his knight across the center line, the knight’s move terminates the game in disaster for both players. And the same applies for the white queen and the black knight.  
What does this new rule do to the way a game is played? If a game is played well, and both players play for the best score they can get, we can state two observations. First, a game will never end in disaster. It could only terminate in disaster if one of the players made a deliberate move that he knew would cause disaster, and he would not. Second, the possibility of disaster will be reflected in the players’ tactics. White can effectively keep Black’s queen on her own side of the board by getting a knight across first; or he can keep both Black’s knights on their own side by getting his queen across first. This ability to block or to deter certain moves of the adversary will be an important part of the game; the threat of disaster will be effective, so effective that the disaster never occurs. In fact, the result is no different from a rule that says no queen can cross a center line if an opponent’s knight has already crossed it, and no knight can cross the center line if an opponent’s queen has already crossed it. Prohibitive penalties imposed on deliberate actions are equivalent to ordinary rules.  
The characteristic that this chess game shares with the tripwire diplomacy, and that accounts for its peculiar safety, is the absence of uncertainty. There is always some moment, or some final step, in which one side or the other has the last clear chance to turn the course of events away from war (or from disaster in our game of chess) or to turn it away from a political situation that would induce the other to take the final step toward war. The skillful chess player will keep the knight across the center line or near enough to cross before his opponent’s queen can get across, with due allowance for the cost of having to devote resources to the purpose. Skillful diplomacy, in the absence of uncertainty, consists in arranging things so that it is one’s opponent who is embarrassed by having the “last clear chance” to avert disaster by turning aside or abstaining from what he wanted to do (emphasis added)[3]
Is this the aim of American rhetoric on "China's choice?"

Possibly. It is likely that statements by Senator McCain, Secretary Carter, et. al. are a bit of bargaining and a bit of honest belief rolled together into one. However, if one part dominates, it is the second. I say this because the "China is at a crossroads" meme is not just rhetoric that rings from the pronouncements of America's highest policy makers or the podium's of her official spokespeople and press secretaries; it is a way of thought that permeates American officialdom. Talk to think tank fellows, naval officers, congressional aids, even grad students, and you will hear these same notes repeated. I believe this accounts for the popularity of the original post. The analysts and reporters who have reached out to me after I published it all had similar stories to tell: they thanked me for saying what I did because they feared their colleagues genuinely believe China is still waiting "at the crossroads." This is a deeply ingrained belief, not a carefully chosen bargaining position.

However, even if it this sort of rhetoric is a carefully designed signal, it is not effective at reaching its aims. To return to Shelling:
But off the chess board the last chance to avert disaster is not always clear. One does not always know what moves of his own would lead to disaster, one cannot always perceive the moves that the other side has already taken or has set afoot, or what interpretation will be put on one’s own actions; one does not always understand clearly what situations the other side would not, at some moment, accept in preference to war (emphasis added). [4]
Deterrence and compellence only work if the rules of the game are known and understood by both parties. On this count the Americans have been sloppy. They have never clarified the rules of their game. The constant talk of choice is never coupled with clear descriptions of the exact consequences of choosing wrongly. Mostly American officials frame the choice in ornate and abstract language; if China chooses to disrupt the ruling order, they say, China will "create a future that resembles Asia's darker past." How are the Chinese supposed to interpret this kind of rhetoric? Is not a return to the dynamics of Asia's past the entire purpose of their project?

Offering China a choice to join the international order does not bolster American credibility, nor does it pass the last clear chance to jump off the escalation escalator to Beijing. The Chinese who listen to American lectures about the choice they face are most likely to conclude that Americans are either 1) too foolish to realize that they made their choice long ago, or 2) are smart enough to realize this, but lack the gumption to do anything meaningful about it.

The second interpretation is strengthened by an uncomfortable fact: the Chinese are far more committed than the Americans are or ever can be to the narrow disputes at the fringes of the American led order. There are many theories for why China does what it does in its near abroad, but I am particularly partial to explanations that focus on the narrative the Communist Party of China pitches to its cadres and its subjects to justify its rule. Here Bilahari Kausikan is eloquent:
China's use of history to legitimise CCP rule and justify sovereignty claims gets us, I think, to the crux of the matter. For the past century, the legitimacy of any Chinese government has depended on its ability to defend China's sovereignty and preserve its borders. But what are those borders? Can the CCP meekly accept the borders imposed on a weak China that has now, to use Mao Zedong's phrase, "stood up" under communist leadership? China is not reckless but the CCP must at least give the appearance of recovering lost territory. Revanchism is an intrinsic part of the story of China's "Great Rejuvenation". 
The lands lost to a weak China include what are now parts of Siberia and the Russian Far East, Mongolia, Hong Kong and Macau, and Taiwan, as well as the Paracels and Spratlys in the SCS. Siberia and the Russian Far East and Mongolia are now beyond recovery. Hong Kong and Macau reverted to Beijing's rule almost 30 years ago. The US has made clear it will not support independence for Taiwan. Without US support, independence is impossible. With that core concern assuaged, Beijing can multiply the economic threads binding Taiwan to the mainland and bide its time, confident that irrespective of internal changes and how the people of Taiwan regard themselves, Taiwan's long-term trajectory cannot run counter to China's interest. Changing the status quo is not an immediate possibility but is no longer an urgent issue, although China still eyes Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party distrustfully and will never entirely forgo the option of forceful reunification. 
That leaves the SCS territories to put some credible shreds of meat on the bare bones of the CCP's version of history as it navigates a second and more difficult phase of reforms and tries to manage social and labour unrest at a time of moderating growth and a future when slower growth will be China's "new normal". The very insignificance of the territories in dispute in the SCS may well be part of their attraction to Beijing for this essentially domestic political purpose. 
The costs and consequences of chest-thumping and acting tough in the SCS are minimal. Deterrence or its lack works both ways. If the Chinese cannot deter the US from operating in the SCS because the risks of doing so are too high to be credible, by the same token, neither can the US deter or reverse Chinese activities in the SCS. China is not going to dig up the artificial islands it has constructed and throw the sand back into the sea or give up what it says was Chinese territory since "ancient times". Critical statements by the US, Europe or other countries from around the world calling on China to respect international law - even Botswana has issued a statement on the SCS - can be brushed aside. On the SCS, the only opinion that really matters to the CCP is that of its own people.  (emphasis added). [5]
Kausikan is more sanguine about all of this than I am, but the take away is the same. For the Communist Party of China, territorial disputes over God-forsaken atolls in the middle of the ocean are an existential question. These islands are directly related to the legitimacy of the Party, and thus the survival of the Party itself. Whether or not 'legitimacy' as a concept makes much sense does not matter here. What matters is that the Chinese think it does and they act accordingly. The United States simply does not have that level of commitment to these atolls. It cannot have that kind of commitment—no matter what any American says, everyone in the region knows that America could withdraw entirely from Asia (and for that matter, Europe) without fear of domestic revolution or external invasion. The American republic is blessed with enormous privilege: for her, international politics does not mean walking the knife's edge between survival and extinction.

The world looks different when viewed from Beijing. China's ruling regime occupies a precarious position, and the dangers they face are reflected in the policies they pursue abroad. This emerges as a recurring theme when the different points of contention that divide China from the West are examined. Most the aspects of the 'rules based order' that China rejects are things they view as an existential threat to the rule of Party. The root problem then is not China's rise, but the nature of the Chinese regime that guides it. As much as we may like to talk about making China a "responsible stake holder" in our order, the brightest minds in Zhongnanhai know that full participation in the American system means relinquishing their grip on power. The Arab Spring was a horrible shock to the Chinese leadership for just this reason. The speed with which long respected, rule-abiding members of the liberal order were abandoned by the United States once the street protests began convinced Beijing that American promises about the benefits of "responsible" participation in the American system were lies. Nor could the Chinese ignore that cherished aspects of that order, such as technological integration with the wider world, the free flow of information between borders, and an international network of activists and journalists, were critical to the collapse of governments across the region. Our rules based international order is a liberal one, and full participation in it will ultimately be fatal to any illiberal regime that joins it. The Communist Party of China recognizes this. The Party's real choice has always been to either give up their control over China in order to join the existing order or to try and create a new order more friendly to their continued hold on power. 

Given these existential stakes at play, I am extremely skeptical that our rhetorical nicties will make any difference in the Party's calculations. They have decided that our order and their regime are fundamentally incompatible. This judgement is probably correct. Our choice then, is simple: we can change the nature of the international system we have built so that it has space for illiberal regimes within in it, or we can try to actively oppose the rise autocratic powers who wish to overturn the order. Compromise or containment. 

From the perspective of Asia, the "China choice" rhetoric furthers neither end. Where it might make a difference is inside the United States itself. As mentioned earlier, America could lose her entire alliance system in East Asia and still live without fear of foreign invasion, and Chinese salami slices in the South China Sea are far less dramatic than a disaster of that scale. Thus even without the growing isolationist sentiment in American politics, regional allies have good reason to doubt whether America is actually committed to the international system she has built. This doubt substantially strengthens the Chinese position.  If United States wishes to maintain a credible presence in the Western Pacific, then its own people need to be sold on the project. The pageantry of declaring that the Chinese have to choose between a rules based order of the present or a return to the dark anarchy of the past might just be necessary to get the American people on board. 

I am going to stop with that for now. There are a few other comments and reactions I want to respond toespecially Andrew Chubb's comment on the original post, and Mark Safranski's response post at Zenpundit—but this piece is already long as it is. I will have to save my thoughts on their comments for a separate post later this week.  


[1] Peter Mattis, "Stop Saying China is at a Crossroads," National Interest (7 August 2015).

[2] It is possible that he is pandering to my biases here; I have said before and affirm now that Schelling is the most important thinker we have for understanding U.S. and Chinese decision making in the South China Sea, and that you will be better prepared to analyze what is happening there after you have read him than if you had the Sunzi or Clausewitz.

[3] Thomas Schelling, Arms and Influence (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966), 100-101.

[4] Ibid. 

[5] Bilahari Kausikan, "Pavlovian Conditioning in the South China Sea," The Strait Times (1 April 2016).


While the sun and moon endure
Luck’s a chance, but trouble’s sure,
I’d face it as a wise man would,
And train for ill and not for good. 
—A.E. Housman, "Terence This is Stupid Stuff," (1896)

The words of Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, delivered on the 3rd of June to the assembled leaders and representatives of the Southeast Asian nations then gathered in Singapore:
The choice for Southeast Asia in the 21st century is not between the United States and China, as some would make it out to be. Instead it is a choice between two futures—one in which the rules-based order is upheld and its benefits expanded to ever more people in Asia, or a darker future that resembles the past in this region and the world, where might makes right, and bullies set the rules and break them. 
The rules-based order has not and will not enforce itself here in Southeast Asia. Nor can America, despite its great power, achieve this feat alone. It requires its stakeholders, including the nations of Southeast Asia, to uphold its principles, especially when they are challenged. America and the world are counting on the nations of Southeast Asia to recommit their power and resolve to upholding this system on which our shared security and prosperity depend. 
...Like Southeast Asia, China also faces a choice. No nation has benefited more from the rules-based order than China. In just a single generation, China has become an economic superpower and a major player in international affairs. No nation in history has risen so high, so fast, and in so many different dimensions. And no nation has been a greater advocate for China’s success than America. Let me repeat: No nation has done as much to contribute to what China calls its “peaceful rise” as the United States of America. 
...Regrettably, in recent years, there have been disturbing signs that China is maneuvering toward a policy of intimidation and coercion—harassing fisherman from the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia; using trade as a weapon in disputes with its neighbors; using cyber to steal intellectual property from foreign businesses to benefit its own industries; conducting dangerous intercepts of military aircraft flying in accordance with international law; and in the South China Sea, shattering the commitments it made to its neighbors in the 2002 Declaration of Conduct, as well as more recent commitments to the U.S. government, by conducting reclamation on disputed features and militarizing the South China Sea at a startling and destabilizing rate. 
The choice for China is how it uses its growing power and position. China could continue to coerce and intimidate its neighbors and unilaterally enforce its territorial claims. It could pursue mercantilist economic policies. And it could engage in a zero-sum game for regional power and influence. China could do all of this, and it would harm the interests of every nation in this region, including its own. 
Alternatively, China could choose a better path. It could cooperate with its neighbors and manage disputes peacefully, consistent with the same international rules that have benefited China so greatly. It could expand free and open trade with the region and the world. And it could expand cooperation with other Pacific powers on regional security challenges, from piracy to stability on the Korean Peninsula. 
...In short, China can choose to disrupt the rules-based order. Or it can choose to become a vital partner in maintaining it. I fear the consequences if China chooses the path of disruption. But I am confident that if China chooses the path of partnership and cooperation, China’s growing influence will be welcomed by the international community. And the benefits of greater security and prosperity will extend to more citizens of this region than ever before, China’s included. [1]

McCain's words echo those spoken by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter last week to the graduating midshipman at Annapolis. Read them both. Compare what they say. Behold the quickly crystallizing American narrative on China. This is a bipartisan message. It will be the starting point of a President Clinton's policy. Whether a President Trump will endorse it is hard to say. In either case, it is a narrative whose momentum is building.

There is much that is good in this narrative. McCain proclaims that "no nation has done as much to contribute to what China calls its “peaceful rise” as the United States of America." He is right to do so. No nation has done more to enable China's rise than America has. No country's citizens have done more for the general prosperity of the Chinese people than the Americans have. This is true in ways that are not widely known or immediately obvious. For example, the role American financiers and investment banks played in creating the architecture of modern Chinese financial markets and corporate structures is little realized, despite the size and importance of their interventions. Behind every great titan of Chinese industry--China Mobile, the world's largest mobile phone operator, China State Construction Engineering, whose IPO was valued at $7.3 billion, PetroChina, the most profitable company in Asia (well, before last year), to name a few of hundreds--lies an American investment banker. I do not exaggerate when I say Goldman Sachs created modern China. [2] China has much to thank America for.

However, I cannot endorse all that is included in this emerging narrative, for part of it is deeply flawed. The flaw may be by design; if the purpose is to stir cold hearts and gain moral admiration of others, such flaws can be excused--that is how politics works. But this sort of things can only be excused if those delivering the speeches do not take the implications of their own words seriously when it is time to make policy. 

I speak of  China's "choice." The thread that runs through all of these talks is that the Chinese have yet to choose whether they aim for order or disruption, the existing regime or the chaos beyond it. The truth is that the Chinese have already chosen their path and no number of speeches on our part will convince them to abandon it. They do not want our rules based order. They have rejected it. They will continue to reject it unless compelled by overwhelming crisis to sleep on sticks and swallow gall and accept the rules we force upon them. 

China has made its choice. The real decision that will determine the contours of the 21st century will not be made in Beijing, but in Washington.

Observers of Chinese affairs have come to recognize two uncomfortable truths. The first is that China is a growing power whose might will continue to grow in every dimension we can measure for decades. The second is that the Chinese system of government is a fundamentally illiberal one, and the system of international relations the leaders of this system prefer reflects their illiberalism. These two things are not determined in the stars; either may change, and may change quite suddenly. But Americans will be better served if we plan as if both of these truths will remain true to the end of our lives.

This is not what we have been doing. For the most part Americans were able to accommodate themselves to the first of these realities by pretending that the second was not true. China could become more powerful, we said, because it will not be illiberal for long. After all, on this Earth the arc of history bends towards justice. Those on the 'wrong side' of history do not last long. How can the illiberal hope to endure? 

Last spring it finally sunk in. Chinese illiberalism not only can endure, it is enduring. The old consensus cracked apart. No new consensus on how to deal with China has yet formed to take its place.

But old habits die hard. We see this at the highest levels of policy, as in the McCain speech, where American policy is justified in terms of giving China a chance to choose the right. The same spirit is invoked further down the line. Ash Carter, for example, recently described American tactics in the South China Sea as a "long campaign of firmness, and gentle but strong pushback... [until] The internal logic of China and its society will eventually dictate a change." [3] In other words, American policy is a holding action until the Chinese see the light.

What if they never do?

The Chinese believe that our international order is a rigged system set up by the imperial victors of the last round of bloodshed to perpetuate the power of its winners. They use the system, quite cynically, but at its base they find it and its symbols hypocritical, embarrassing, outrageous, and (according to the most strident among them), evil. In their minds it is a system of lies and half-truths. In some cases they have a point. Most of their actions in the East or South China Seas are designed to show just how large a gap exists between the grim realities of great power politics and soaring rhetoric Americans use to describe our role in the region. Murphy Taggart describes how the Chinese were able to exploit tensions over the Senkakus to manipulate the Japan and America's relations:
Beijing saw what happened in the wake of Ozawa’s comments to Hillary Clinton on her February 2009 visit to Japan, not to mention the coincidence of the ersatz “investigation” into Ozawa’s finances that destroyed his chances of becoming prime minister. Chinese leaders noted the spasms of hysteria that shook the American foreign policy establishment after Ozawa led his 600-person delegation to their country. They understood how the Hatoyama administration had been deliberately sabotaged by a de facto alliance of Pentagon functionaries, the establishment press in Japan, and Japanese spokesmen in the United States committing what amounted to treason against their own government. And they decided to call Tokyo’s— and Washington’s— bluff. [4]
 Another example was the crisis started when Beijing moved the oil rig HYSY981 into Vietnamese waters:
“The deployment of the CNOOC mega rig was a pre-planned response to President Barack Obama’s recent visit to East Asia. China was angered by Obama’s support for both Japan and the Philippines in their territorial disputes with Beijing. Therefore China manufactured the oil rig crisis to demonstrate to regional states that the United States was a “paper tiger” and there was a gap between Obama’s rhetoric and ability to act.”  
President Obama’s tour, which ended shortly before the whole HYSY-981 fiasco began, brought the President to Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Tokyo, and Seoul. One wonders if it was wise to exclude Beijing from this list—particularly seeing as the President’s agenda included signing a ten year military pact with the Philippines, declaring that the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands are under U.S. military protection, and cajoling South Korean and Malaysian government officials and corporate bigwigs into joining the Trans Pacific Partnership. From the Chinese perspective it is hard to look at this trip as anything but a hostile attempt to draw tight the noose and solidify a regional alliance to contain it.

Prompting a crisis was an adroit way to show that the PRC cannot be contained. Washington will not crusade against Moscow and Beijing at the same time. Beijing has forced the Americans to choose between the two. To the chagrin of our Asian allies, Washington’s priorities are not those proclaimed in the President’s speeches last month. ASEAN’s inability to stand as a united front against China’s actions is icing on the cake. Reports from the ASEAN negotiations have been more muted than the last time China was able to sow disunion in ASEAN’s ranks, but it is a safe guess that Chinese diplomats were able to pull many of the same strings they did in 2012. One suspects that China specifically timed the crises to display ASEAN’s disunity, showing the region’s middle tier powers that attempts to use ASEAN to stifle China’s ambitions are nothing but a pipe dream. [5]
A similar story can be told for numberless Chinese diplomatic and military initiatives, from 2012's failed ASEAN summit to the seizure of Scarborough Shoal. This is what the Chinese do. I am convinced that the Chinese are so adept at doing this—finding the places where one small push is all that is needed to display American impotence or indifference—because they are trained from the beginning to see the entire edifice as a lie, and thus are aware in a way most Americans are not of the gap between the way we talk about our alliance system and the way Asians experience it. 

Wedded to this cynical vision of the current arrangements is an equally cynical take on the history of America's imposed order. Beijing is well aware that if it decided to do to Tonga now what the United States did to Hawaii more than a century ago it would mean war. At the time the United States suffered nothing of the sort. Not that American wars were without their own rewardsthe Americans claim island bases like Guam and Saipan as prizes won through conquest. China is not allowed to conquer its own prizes. It cannot fight wars to give its forces a new ports and bases; it is not even allowed build little artificial islands for the purpose.

Never mind that all of that strikes the Chinese's ire happened generations ago. Anything this side of the Taiping is modern history for the Chinese. American attempts to deny that, to claim that the world should work differently now than it did when the American star first began to rise, simply prove that morality and sweet sounding words like ‘international norms’ are for the winners. All of that talk about being a responsible stakeholder is just a nicer way to say we plan on kicking down the ladder now that we have finished climbing up it.

In simpler terms, the Chinese equate “rising within a rules based order” with “halting China’s rise to power.” To live by Washington’s rules is to live under its power, and the Chinese have been telling themselves for three decades now that—after two centuries of hardship—they will not live by the dictates of outsiders ever again.

The Chinese will never choose our rules based order. That does not necessarily mean they want to dethrone America and throw down all that she has built. The Chinese do not have global ambitions. What they want is a seat at the table—and they want this seat to be recognized, not earned. That’s the gist of it. Beijing is not willing to accept an order it did not have a hand in creating. Thus all that G-2 talk we heard a few years back. The Chinese would love to found a new order balancing their honor and their interests with the Americans. It is a flattering idea. What they do not want is for the Americans to give them a list of hoops to jump through to gain entry into some pre-determined good-boys club. They feel like their power, wealth, and heritage should be more than enough to qualify for  automatic entrance to any club.

The decision then, lies not with them, but with us. An illiberal China is rising. No matter how nuanced our negotiation or how righteous our indignation, the Chinese will always feel that any attempt to get them to play by rules they did not have a hand in making is 1) morally wrong and 2) damaging to the Party's domestic power. They are interested in making a new order for the 21st century. In this the Chinese of today are not too different from the Americans of yesteryear. We forget that sometimes. There was once an era where Americans were the ones demanding that the shape of the world change to better match their values and interests.

The question before us then is whether we can compromise with the Chinese on this, and if so where those compromises can be made. What form that compromise might take—spheres of interest are the classical model here, though others exist—is still up for discussion. If this is our path then these discussions must be had with fierce urgency.

The alternative to compromise is containment. If we decide that any compromise with illiberal China would poison the international order beyond repair then we must move swiftly to contain China before its power grows further still. Our aim will not only be to restrain but also to reduce Chinese power when and where we can. This too will require spirited discussion, for containment is fraught with danger. We must ponder long and hard how we might go about limiting Chinese power without making the Party's domestic position so vulnerable that they see no alternative but war before them.

Both paths before us require careful thought and vigorous debate if we hope to traverse them safely. These discussions are not happening. As long as we cling to the illusion that China has not made her choice they will not happen. The fruits of this foolishness are not hard to see: we do not contain yet we refuse to compromise, suffering the costs of both choices while reaping the benefits of neither.[6] The hope that the Chinese will admit their wrongs and ask to join our rules-based club is a mirage. It must be given up. We hold to it only because we fear the responsibility the truth would force upon us.  The Chinese have made their choice. The ball is in our court now. 

"China--Shaded Relief," (1996), University of Texas Perry-Castaneda Map Collection.
Image Source.

EDIT (7/7/2016): Please see my two follow-up posts to this piece: "Arms and Influence.... and China," and "Costly Signaling in the South China Sea."


[1] John McCain, "The Choice for Asia in the 21st Century," War on the Rocks (3 June 2016).

[2] Carl Walter and Fraser Howie, Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundations of China's Extraordinary Rise (New York: Wiley, 2011), passim, but see esp p. 159.

[3] Bradley Peniston, "Pentagon Playing the Long Game in the South China Sea, Carter Says," Defense One (26 May 2016).

[4]  Murphy, R. Taggart. Japan and the Shackles of the Past (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 352. 

[5] T. Greer, "A Few Comments on China, Vietnam, and the HYSY981 Oil Crisis," The Scholar's Stage (22 May 2014).

[6] The way the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank hullabaloo went down is a perfect example of all this. American incoherence and tone deafness, refusal to compromise or properly contain, wishful thinking instead of clear vision--it is all there.

The Tropical MBA podcast is one of the few I listen to religiously. Theirs is the premier podcast produced by and for 'location independent entrepreneurs,' which I'll define here as entrepreneurs who have built businesses that allow their owners to operate from just about anywhere on the planet--or at least anywhere on the planet with an internet connection. Everything from business strategy and branding to partnership and personnel woes are discussed on the podcast, along with the occasional episodes on the philosophy behind location independent lifestyle. Earlier this month the podcast invited Shayna Oliveria,  founder of Espresso English, whose business model turns on transforming standard ESL lessons into a scalable, productized service. The interview was mostly about building successful Info Products in crowded markets (like English as a second language), but early on in the interview they ask Oliveria a question she did not have a solid answer for: how long should it take a person to learn a new language?

While Oliveria did not have a ready answer for this question, a ready answer to it does exist. It is even available as an infographic:

I have not been able to find the original source for this infographic. It has been floating around the web for several years. It is based on data collected by the Foreign Service Institute, which is where members of America's diplomatic corp learn new languages. It is obviously designed with the native English speaker in mind; the languages which are easiest to learn are those whose grammar, vocabulary, and writing systems are closest to English. What this infographic labels 'Language Proficiency' the State Department calls 'Minimum Professional Proficiency." The minimally proficient individual can listen to a song and understand its meaning, watch a film without subtitles, converse freely on most topics without preparation, and read a newspaper aimed at a general readership and understand most of what it means. They can talk well enough to make their meaning clear in most situations, though they cannot do this elegantly, and speak with a strong accent. They could probably take a college course in the language in question, but it would be mentally taxing in the extreme. You would not want this person interpreting for you in a legal setting. Writing an essay in the target language would require triple or quadruple the amount of time a native speaker would take to write the same amount. The end product would be readable, but obviously the product of a non-native writer.

The infographic has two measures of time: weeks and class hours. The second is the more important of the two. Students at the Foreign Service Institute are paid to learn the language they have been assigned; they spend close to five hours every day (except weekends) in class using the language. On the face of it it seems that most people cannot commit that sort of time to learning a new language. But that is not quite true--with a few brilliant savants excepted, everyone who becomes fluent in a new language spends just as much time learning their language of choice as the folks in the State Department do. To become fluent in Spanish you must actively use Spanish for more than 600 hours. Diplomats just pack those hours into fewer days than most people are willing to do.

Think of it as an equation. If the person studying Spanish wants to know how long it will take them to become professionally proficient in the language, all they need to do is figure out how many hours a week they are using their Spanish, and then divide the 600 hours needed for fluency by that number. This will leave them with a fair estimate of the number of weeks they will take to reach 'fluency.' Thus:

If you use Spanish for 25 hours of every week, you will become minimally proficient in 24 weeks, or a bit less than 6 months.  
If you are using Spanish for 10 hours every week, you will become minimally proficient in 60 weeks, or a little bit more than a year. 
If you are using Spanish for 4 hours every week, you will become minimally proficient in 150 weeks, or about three years. 

I should be clear here what I mean by "using" a language. Any situation where the language learner must actively work to communicate or understand the target language counts. Conversation counts. Reading a book counts. Actively listening to a speech or a film or the radio--as opposed to letting it passively play in the background--counts. I submit that even the rote memorization of vocabulary lists and grammar structures counts, with the caveat that this will not be sufficient if it is all the language learner does. Class can count, if classes are structured to force the learner to actively use the language the entire class period. A new language is an alien intrusion on the brain. Your brain does not want to deal with it. Any activity that forces your brain to do so will help you here.

This is the hidden secret to language learning. Someone who spends 600 hours using cruddy textbooks and old fashioned methods will learn to speak a language better than someone who spends 100 hours with the world's best tutors, textbooks, and software. There are no real short cuts here. Yes, advances in cognition and linguistics can and should inform your language learning journey, and yes, it is easier to learn a new language with proper study materials than without them. However, nothing can replace being forced to speak, read, write, and listen to the language for hours on end, and real progress cannot be had without that. The temptation to over optimize your language learning process--to spend hour after hour clicking through blogs and websites on language learning, or reading review after review of different textbooks on be fought. In most cases you will be better off spending those precious hours simply studying the language and figuring out what works best for you as you go along.

Add all this together and you'll realize that the most important trait of the ideal language learner is discipline. It takes discipline to devote all of these hours to learning a new language, especially in its early stages, when speaking is embarrassing, reading seems pointless, listening destroys confidence, and memorizing new vocabulary is unbearably tedious. Occasionally you will meet people are so passionate about a language or a culture, or perhaps just so in love with language learning as whole, that they rush to their drills and their study lists like sailors on leave rush to shore. These people are found few and far between. For most people grit is what carries them through--or cheap replacements for grit, like fear of a failing a final. 

"Immersion" is another common replacement for grit. Immersion is by no means a requirement for learning a second language. But for most people immersion is the best way to learn a language, and by now you should see why: in an immersive environment you do not have to rely on discipline and self control to force your brain to use the new language, because circumstances do that for you. If you do not learn how to buy food in the target language, you will go hungry. If you do not learn how to withdraw money from the bank, you will be penniless. If you do not learn how to find a bathroom, you will... well, you get the idea. A fully immersive environment can force you to use your new language every hour of the day. Most people go through their 600 hours quite quickly in such circumstances.

But not all people do. Occasionally you will meet expats who wonder why their language skills are barely any better now than when they arrived in the country, and the answer is almost certainly that they have figured out how to survive without speaking the target language. They usually spend all their time reading English language websites or hanging out with English speaking friends. The number of hours they spend using the language is hardly any different than the number of hours they were spending back at home. This is the story behind those old migrants you meet in the back alleyways of America's Koreatowns and Little Haitis--they live in America, but have given up on speaking better English, and thus have arranged their life in such a way they don't have to use it much. In contrast, I regularly meet people here in Taipei who speak excellent English, despite never having visited an English speaking country in their life. They've spent the hours needed to drill English into their heads and now enjoy the fruits of their labors.

So to sum all this up:
  • Second language learning is for the most part a function of the amount of time you spend actively using the target language.
  • How you study a language is less important than the amount of time you devote to actively using it.
  • The only way to gain fluency in a second language faster is to increase the proportion of your time where you use the language in question.
Which brings us to Chinese. 

The title of this post is a riff on a famous essay by David Moser titled "Why is Chinese So Damn Hard." It is a funny and well written essay, so if you have not read it before, go do so now. He offers a buffet of arguments, each contending that Chinese should be considered the most difficult language on Earth, and each is supported with a humorous anecdote or two. I do not think any of these arguments are incorrect, but taken together they offer a picture that is far more complicated than it needs to be. The real reason Chinese is so difficult is pretty simple, and it is best understood in terms of the language-study equation I laid out above. 

That problem is the characters. 

Now this is not the only hard thing about Chinese. As Moser points out, Chinese has few English cognates, and the cultural gap between Chinese speakers and English speakers is enormous (these are people who don't recognize references to Elvis, Darth Vader, or Santa Claus; most Westerners are just as blissfully unaware of the Chinese equivalents). But this is hardly unique to Chinese. I faced similar challenges when I learned to speak Khmer, but Khmer is still only considered a Level 3 language. Khmer and Chinese also both have relatively simple grammar systems--French conjugations are more complex than anything Khmer has to throw at you, and on the balance Khmer grammar structures are slightly harder to to use, if only because the pronoun system is so much more complicated than in Mandarin (and the consequences for using the wrong pronouns so dire), and Chinese  syntax is usually a little less busy.

 Unlike Khmer, Chinese is a tonal language, and this really is a significant difference. Tonality makes a language much harder to learn. But even tones do not automatically make a language one of the very hardest. Thai and Vietnamese, both tonal languages, are only considered Level 3 languages. The comparison with Vietnamese is particularly apt, for it is very much like Chinese. In addition to tones, the lion's share of Vietnamese words are of Chinese origin, both are an analytic languages that use SVO word order, neither has much in way of consonant clusters, and Vietnam shares most of China's cultural heritage. But Vietnamese takes several hundred class hours less to master. [1] 

The difference is that Vietnamese no longer uses Chinese characters. 

Characters are difficult for all the reasons Moser describes. But again, I think he over-complicates things. The real difficulty with learning Chinese characters is fairly simple: they must be memorized. All words you learn in a foreign language must be memorized, of course, but in Chinese you must memorize each word twice. You memorize a word once for its character, and once for its pronunciation. It is quite possible to memorize all of the characters without knowing the proper Mandarin pronunciation of any of them. This is how Koreans, Vietnamese, and Japanese have memorized Chinese characters for the last few millennia, and it is how books like Remembering the Traditional Hanzi teach you to do it today. 

Memorizing characters is not particularly hard. It is just time consuming. This is what pushes Chinese into the 2,000+ class hour range. It is not because its grammar is more complex, phonology more difficult, or culture more alien than that of the 1,000 class hour languages. It is simply because the person learning Chinese must spend an obscene amount of time on characters. I estimate that I spend around 60% of my Chinese study time memorizing and reviewing characters. An informal survey of other intermediate and advanced learners I know revealed that they do the same. How much better would our Chinese be if we could take that time we spend on character study and use it practicing any other language skill? Characters literally double the amount of time it takes to master this language. 

Which is why those who want to learn Chinese fastest skip them. This is what Benny Lewis did when he studied Mandarin in for his Fluent in 3 Months challenge. This is also what Mormon missionaries do when they come to serve here in Taiwan. Unless they studied the language before they served, the best can only write around 500 or so characters by the time they leave, though they can speak, very, very well. Which makes sense. They spend two years speaking the language day in and day out. They cram thousands of hours of speaking and listening into the first year and half of their service. By ignoring the characters altogether, they learn to speak more fluently than many foreigners who have been studying here for years, and in only a fraction of the time. 

The downside to this is that they can't read anything, including the Bibles and Books of Mormon they carry around! But that is the trade off built in to any attempt to master a language that is so damn hard.


[1] I recently talked with an American FSO here in Taiwan who last was stationed in Hanoi. He reported that the FSI actually recognizes that Vietnamese is more difficult than most other Level 3 languages, and says that it would give the language a 3.5 rating were it possible to do so. In light of this, it is the only Level 3 language where the FSI has a language learning center in country so that students can take advantage of an immersive environment. All other Level 3 languages are taught in Washington DC.