30 September, 2017

Conservative Fairy Tales & Liberal Allegories ?

An interesting video essay titled "How CGI Changed Animation" has been making its way across the internet this week. If you have not watched it yet, you really should. The essay's content reaches further than its title would suggest. It is really less about technology than it is about stories--specifically, how the archetypes in our children's stories have changed over the last thirty years. The essayist (Sage Hyden) describes these changes as a shift from "conservative fairy tales" to "liberal allegories." I do not agree with this characterization, but I do think this is a good starting off point for analyzing the stories we raise our children with.

The video places most of the traditional Disney films, ranging from those produced by Walt Disney himself to the Disney Renaissance musicals of the '90s, in the "conservative fairy tale" camp. Hyden does not use the word "conservative" in the familiar sense of "right wing," but rather to mark the  attitude these stories have towards social change. This attitude is subtle but recurring. Film after film suggests that society should be kept more or less as it is. The traditional Disney movie either equates a happy ending with the restoration of a disturbed social order (e.g., the closing scenes of Aladdin, Sleeping Beauty, or Beauty and the Beast see the literal restoration of castles and towns to their former beauty), or with the succession of the next generation into a "circle of life" whose roles and rules stretch back through time immemorial (e.g., Bambi, Lion King).

Perhaps a better phrase for these films would be "Mencian fairy tales." Ancient China nerdery is strong among my readers, and most of you probably understand the reference. For those who don't, an explanation: Mencius is a famous philosopher who discoursed his way across the central Chinese plains back in ye olde ancient days. In the textual record he is depicted as the first great Confucian after Confucius himself.  One of his big ideas was that the most important way to ensure stability and happiness of a kingdom is cultivate virtue in its ruler:
Mencius went to see King Hui of Liang. The King said: “My good man, since you did not think one thousand li too far to come and see me, may I presume that you have something with which I can profit my kingdom?” 
Mencius said: “Why must you speak of profit? What I have for you is humaneness and fairness, and that's all. If you always say ‘how can I profit my kingdom?’ your ministers will ask, ‘how can we profit our clans?’ The elites (shi)  and the common people will ask: ‘How can we profit ourselves?’ Superiors and inferiors will struggle against each other for profit, and the country will be in chaos.” 
“In a kingdom of ten thousand chariots, the murderer of the sovereign is usually from a clan of one thousand chariots. In a thousand-chariot kingdom, the murderer of the sovereign is usually from a clan of one hundred chariots. Now, to have a thousand in ten thousand, or one hundred in a thousand is not a small number. But if you put justice last and profit first, no one will be satisfied unless they can grab something.” 
“There has never been a humane man who neglected his parents, and there has never been a just man who put his prince last in his priorities. King, can we not limit our conversation to humaneness and justice? Why must we discuss profit?” [1]
Those are the opening words of the Mencius text, and the rest of the book follows the theme:  if the ruler is a benevolent man who lives up to his responsibilities and plays the role in the political order that ritual, custom, and righteousness dictate he should, then his kingdom ands it people will prosper. For Mencius, politics is ultimately personal. The rise and fall of kingdoms and countries is a matter of character. But this is hardly an idea unique to the Chinese tradition. When Hamlet struts onto the stage and declares that there is “something rotten in the state of Denmark” he does not mean that the state of Denmark needs to adjust its tax rate. (Or that the Danish peasantry are being oppressed by the yoke of entrenched intersectional prejudices embedded in its structures of power!) Hamlet means that the court of Denmark has nosedived into moral decline, and that the stench of the court’s moral depravity poisons all of the kingdom around it.

So it is with most of these Disney stories. A ruler’s character has a direct effect on his entire realm: In Beauty and the Beast, Beast’s pride and cruelty transforms his picturesque chateau into a ghoulish keep. In The Little Mermaid, Ariel’s selfishness threatens the entire ocean realm with the terrors of rule by witch-queen. In Sleeping Beauty, Aurora’s sulking disobedience leads to a kingdom-wide curse. In The Lion King, Simba’s refusal to shoulder the responsibilities of rulership turns a verdant savannah into an ashen wasteland. In Frozen, Elsa’s fear freezes her people to the point of their starvation.

In the world of Disney fairy tales, character defects have catastrophic consequences. However, the consequences a Disney protagonist's decisions have on his or her subjects is never the focus of these tales. The Lion King is about the king, not his kingdom. In these stories, the kingdoms are used as a visual mirror for a ruler’s character (just as many artsy films use background color templates to suggest what their protagonists are feeling). The focus of Simba’s tale then is always on Simba's soul. The tension that drives its plot forward is not found in a quest to improve the animal kingdom, but in the difficulty Simba has accepting his role within this kingdom. This conflict is resolved when Simba decides to put the obligations he has inherited above his more selfish desires. This is a pattern that repeats across Disney's many Mencian fairy tales.

In the video essay, Sage Hyden notes that traditional Disney fairy tales revolve around issues of identity. But this is really only half the story. Key to the Mencian fairy tale is the recognition that every identity carries with it obligation. This is the message of what may be the most powerful scene in the entire Disney oeuvre:

Simba's path towards reclaiming the savannah begins with the recognition that who he is matters more than want he wants. This tension between desire and duty (in Disney films sometimes called “destiny”) is a recurring Disney fairy tale theme (see Mulan, Frozen, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, Brave, Sleeping Beauty). Other Mencian fairy tales take a slightly different tack. In these films identity and destiny are still the main themes, but instead of fielding heroes and heroines who shirk their duties, they follow protagonists whose sense of identity—and by extension, sense of obligation—is torn between two different worlds (see Jungle Book, Pocahontas, Tarzan, Hunchback of Notre Dame, Little Mermaid, Hercules, Fox and the Hound). In this case divided loyalty drives the story’s dramatic tension, and the resolution of the story often comes with the protagonist choosing to live in one world or the other.

If we were to condense all of the above into a short outline of the standard Mencian fairy tale story beats, it would go like this: The fairy tale's protagonist is a person who, usually by right of birth (but occasionally because of some innate power or by dint of extraordinary circumstance), carries the weight of an entire social order on her shoulders. The fate of her society depends on the strength of her moral character and her ability or willingness to play the singular role fate has given to her. Her commitment to this role will be tested by her fascination with the world outside of it. A love interest from across this divide will complicate the general picture. Seeing her commitment waver, a villain will take advantage of this attraction with the outside world to unseat our heroine from her rightful place and upturn the existing social order. What was once happy will become troubled; what was bright will be filled with darkness. Victory comes when the villain has been defeated and the world is restored to the joy and color it had of old. The heroine and her love interest then must make a decision as to which of their two worlds they will choose to rule in the future. While the heroine's actions clearly have dramatic consequences for the world at large, the focus of the story has been, from beginning to end, on the heroine’s journey or self discovery and moral development.

That is the basic story. There are variations. Many protagonists are male. Some heroes and heroins are from outside the system (e.g., Aladdin, Mulan, or Belle), though in such cases their love interest will be firmly inside it. The Jungle Book manages to fit this entire journey into its final scene. Frozen replaces a love interest with a sister, and Brave replaces romantic with maternal love. But in the end the decision the heroines of both these films make is essentially the same sort of decision made by their more romantic counterparts: love and duty carry the day, even if the love is of a familial sort. [3]

The story beats of Hyden's "liberal allegories" are very different. His video essay describes the liberal allegory with much more depth than it does the fairy tales,  so I will not take up too much space explaining it's features here. Like the Mencian fairy tale, the liberal allegory starts with the depiction of a happy, functioning social order. However, the workings of this world are always shown in far greater detail than the Mencian fairy tale. These worlds are built up as an integral part of the story, not painted in the background. The protagonist of this allegory is one of two types. He is either what Hyden dubs “a master of the universe” or an "outcast." The first is a hero who knows how this world works. He has mastered its rules and conventions and is admired and liked by almost everyone around him. If this society has an MVP, he is that man. The second is a character who exists at the margins of the social order, defined by some character trait, skill, idea, or eccentricity that puts him at the bottom of society’s dregs. In either case, disaster soon ensues. This crisis will either force the ‘master of the universe’ character to confront the dystopian underbelly of his society, or it will give a chance for the ‘outcast’ character to show to everyone that his special brand of weirdness is exactly what his society needs to overcome the emergency before them. This sort of story can have a villain, but it does not really need one. The real enemy to be vanquished is a flaw within the social order. This flaw can take many shapes. In some allegories it is social conformity or a stifling class system; in others it is explicit prejudice, or even just hostility to innovation. No matter the error, the ending is the same.  The story concludes on a happy note. Society has been forever changed by the hero’s main actions. Order has not been restored so much as new, shinier version of society has been born.

Hyden's framing makes you think that the biggest difference between these two types of stories is their attitude towards social change (“liberal” vs. “conservative”). I do not think this is true. It is quite possible to create a liberal fairy tale. Moana is very good example of this. Like Hyden's liberal allegories, Moana opens with a beautiful depiction of an idyllic utopia. It is not long before this ideal-but-conservative society encounters disaster. Neither its traditions nor its authority figures have the power to arrest its progress. The oddball impulses that the islanders' traditions were designed to squelch are (surprise!) the solution to surviving the crisis, and by story's end we are left with a new and improved social order that makes those oddball impulses central to all of society's workings. This all seems to fit the liberal model quite closely. However, there is also something in Moana of the fairy tale mold. Like the Mencian stories of Disney past, Moana's plot is intensely focused on the tension between desire and duty, the fate of its world hangs on the selfishness or selflessness of its heroes, and its story is primarily a tale of personal discovery. The background story of the starving village is liberally conceived, but for most of the tale it is just that--relegated to the background.

The most important difference between the fairy tale and the liberal allegory is that the fairy tale is not really about the social order at all. The societies they depict are simply a setting that makes the real story possible. The allegory tells the story of an entire community; the fairy tale, a story of one or two people. The allegory searches for social change; the fairy tale, moral growth. The allegory says that life's problems are embedded in the structures of the world outside you; the fairy tale replies that their source is embedded deep in the soul inside you.

Both sorts of stories are unrealistic in important ways. Both give far too much power to their protagonists. The vast majority of individuals will never possess the clout needed to change an entire society, for good or ill. Neither pluckily striving against injustice nor careful cultivation of the soul will bring rain to the grasslands or peace to warring orders. Japanese animation--which so often casts its protagonists as powerless observers of forces too strong to contain or shape--provides a far more realistic depiction of human heroism. [4]  But I don't think we will move towards the Japanese approach anytime soon. It rubs too far against the American grain. We want our heroes to matter in the grand scheme of things. 

So, if we must choose between these two flawed models of social order, which shall we choose? I am for that which is most likely to lead to individual joy and peace: the stories that focus on individuals as individuals, and not as agents of social change. Perhaps the gravest problems we face today are evils found in structure, and are thus on society at large is blame best laid. But no child watching fairy tales has control over these things. Nor will they ever. What they do have control over is themselves. Learning how to balance desire and duty—and learning that we do have duties—will benefit the average child more than an abstract understanding that our worst social ills have been built into the structure of our societies. So few of them will ever be able to change the world. But they will be able to change themselves, and that makes all the difference. 


[1] Mengzi 1A:1.  A. Charles Mueller, trans. "Mencius (Selections)," acmueller.net (last updated 19 June 2017).

[2] Hamlet (1.4)

[3] Interestingly, the two oldest Disney fairy tales, Cinderella and Snow White, don’t seem to follow the pattern!

[4] An intelligent comment was left on youtube(!) in the video essay's thread. It articulates this point well:

 “While Miyazaki films often have messages that could be associated with left wing values in countries like the United States, they don't really follow the formula of liberal subversion of social dogma by an outcast/rebel that is found in most CGI movies cited as examples in this video. In fact, the conflict in Ghibli films often stems directly from social change destroying long existing balances, the "outsider" main character is usually either a "mediator" or "neutral observer" rather than a rebel, with an arc focused mostly on personal growth achieved by observing the parties involved in the conflict, and the resolution usually has either the balance being restored on a happy note or the balance forever destroyed on a sad note.”

Comment left by "abyssal113" (25 Sep 2017) on Sage Hyden, "How CGI Changed Animation," youtube video, 12:16 (posted 22 Sep 2017).

20 September, 2017

Chinese Influence and Intelligence Activities: A Few Notes

Image Source

The most important thing you will read this week—likely the most important thing you will read this month—is Anne-Marie Brady’s report “Magic Weapons: China's political influence activities under Xi Jinping.” In this report Dr. Brady describes in detail what is known about Chinese influence and intelligence operations inside New Zealand. In many ways this is the Kiwi version of the Four Corners/Fairfax Media series published earlier this summer about Chinese influence operations in Australia. Brady’s report is more academic; it is thoroughly sourced and footnoted. The report is also long (56 pages in total). What it reveals is important enough that later this week I will do another post consisting of quotations from the report with a few of my comments interspersed between them, in hope that those readers who don’t have the time to read through 56 pages of the full report will have the time to read that.

But for those with the time, make this report a priority. A reader recently remarked that I seem to be taking a harder line against the Party than I did two or three years back. More than anything else it is knowledge of operations like these that have informed this shift in my thinking. It is vitally important that we understand what the Party’s agents are doing in our own countries. This story is not a side note to the main tale. It is a core part of the story of China's rise. It is at the center of the kind of world the architects of that rise are trying to create. We do not have to guess what that world will look like. They are carving that world out of the heart of the West right now.

One of the neat things about Brady’s report is that she opens up with a general discussion of influence operations and their purpose. One of her strongest points in this discussion is her treatment of the term "soft power." We take a terribly limited view of what the term should mean, associating it with the sorts of warm and fuzzy feelings that create (in the words of one ex-President) a “passionate attachment of one nation for another,” emphasis on passion. Washington feared that these sorts of attachments would:

“[give] to ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens (who devote themselves to the favorite nation), facility to betray or sacrifice the interests of their own country, without odium, sometimes even with popularity; gilding, with the appearances of a virtuous sense of obligation, a commendable deference for public opinion, or a laudable zeal for public good, the base or foolish compliances of ambition, corruption, or infatuation.” [1]

Washington was right to fear these things. Yet rapturous bands of brotherly affection are not a prerequisite for them. This is particularly true in the case of the Party. Soft-power influence has not come to the Party by convincing the world to love them. Influence has come by convincing the world that they are the future. The more buzzwords like “Chinese century” move from catch-phrase to zeitgeist the stronger their hand will be. They do not ask you to love the future, just to accept the futility in resisting it. China ascendant, China as the key node of the international order, China the responsible stake holder of world affairs. There is no love in these terms, but there is great power in them. With notions like these the Party weaves visions of a world where we have no choice but to be dependent on them and the stability they bring. 

You will hear that compromising the integrity of international law, betraying long-held alliances, or refusing to hold the Party to the same moral standard we hold other tyrannies to referred to as the “adult” or “responsible” thing to do. This is the voice of Chinese soft power. Most Westerners who say these things do so honestly (if naively). My intent is not to question their integrity. But we must recognize that this is exactly the path the Party prefers our thoughts to tread. They do not need anything else. The outcome Party’s assault on Taiwanese democracy, for example, depends so little on warm feelings for China. The Party’s victory, if it comes, will depend very much on how reasonable and inevitable this victory is perceived to be.

Ground zero in this fight for global influence is the Chinese diaspora. This is not a new development. For Chinese communists it really is old hat. This heritage is only referenced in passing in Brady’s report, and is absent entirely from most discussions of the issue. This is one of the frustrations I had with a Sinica podcast discussion recorded a year or so back with Committee of 100 director Holly Chang. [2] Witch hunts are terrifying. We must not unleash one. But the members of that discussion did not acknowledge how the history of Chinese influence and intelligence activities shape Party operations within the Chinese diaspora today, nor the kind of counterintelligence response that history might merit. For the curious, a wonderful book on this topic is John Garver's China’s Quest: The History of the Foreign Relations of the People’s Republic of China. This sprawling, magnificent book narrates how, starting immediately after the revolution and extending right up until Mao’s death, Chinese agents founded parties, messed with elections, instigated insurgencies, and kick-started Maoist movements across the world. Their biggest successes—though in most cases, only temporary—were in Southeast Asia. These attempts to export revolution in wider Asia began with attempts to radicalize the Chinese diaspora. [3] This is how Chinese communists operate. It is still how Chinese communist operate. All that has changed are the goals of the operations.

If your take-away from all of this is that we can’t trust the Chinese among us, you are thinking about it wrong. Chinese Americans, Chinese Australians, Chinese Kiwis, et. al, are not the enemy. They are the victims. The Party has made clear that it believes any man or woman of Chinese blood, no matter their citizenship or locale, is their ward. The Party devotes an incredible amount of resources trying to shape the beliefs and behaviors of this diaspora. This includes extending its system of surveillance, censorship, and coercion into the heart of foreign countries. We ignore this because most of the threats and propaganda the Party spreads about are all spread about in the Chinese language. In the mind of most Westerners, what happens in Chinatown only matters in Chinatown. 

This is foolishness. We rightly fret over Russian influence operations in the United States, worried by Russian funded twitter bots and Russian curated Facebook pages. These Russian operations are superficial, surface affairs when placed next to the Party’s ops. The difference is that the Party conducts most of its business in Chinese. Yet a Chinese speaking citizen is still a citizen. Think about what these reports mean: a foreign power surveils, strong-arms, and censors citizens of Western countries inside their own borders. The failure to take the violation of our citizens’ liberties and manipulation of our own citizens’ livelihood seriously is inexcusable. It is a moral failure. And as the New Zealanders are discovering, it is a moral failure with geopolitical consequences.

The Kiwis will not be the last to make unsettling discoveries. I am extremely grateful for people like Dr. Brady or the Four Corners team who has been placing these things in the public eye. But the stories are not new. Most of the Four Corner ‘reveals’ had been in the public domain for one or more years before their report hit the airwaves. Other pieces of evidence were traded about on list-servs or exchanged as bar-room anecdotes long before they appeared on newsstands. What both Four Corners and the “Magic Weapons” reports have done is systematize this information and present it in a fashion the average politico can grasp and understand. This is long overdue. These same steps are taken in other parts of the world. I have heard and read and seen enough to know that these same operations are happening in Taiwan, in the island nations of the South Pacific, in Canada, and in the United States. Of the European situation I know less, but suspect the story is much the same. It is time for reports on these places to be researched and written. We cannot allow this to be ignored any longer. [4]


Anne-Marie Brady, Magic Weapons: China's political influence activities under Xi Jinping,” Wilson Center report (18 September 2017).

Four Corners, Power and Influence: How China's Communist Party is Infiltrating Australia,"  film, 47 min (5 June 2017)

Nick McKenzie, Richard Baker, Sashka Koloff and Chris Uhlmann, "China's Operation Australia: the Party Line," Sydney Morning Herald (5 June 2017)
Nick McKenzie, et. al "China's Operation Austrailia: Payments, Power, and Our Politicians,Sydney Morning Herald (5 June 2017) 

Nick McKenzie, et. al. "China's Operation Australia: The Go-betweeners," Sydney Morning Herald (5 June 2017)

John Fitzgerald, "Beijing's Guoqing vs. the Australian Way of Life," Inside Story (September 2016)


[1] George Washington, "Washington's Farewell Address, 1796", Avalon Project, or. posted June 2008.

[2] Jeremy Goldkorn and Kaiser Kuo,  "Allegiance," Sinica Podcast episode, SupChina (18 Feb 2016).

[3] John Garver, China’s Quest: The History of the Foreign Relations of the People’s Republic of China (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 463-787.

[4] For any intrepid researchers reading this, and wondering where they should focus their efforts next, let me give one suggestion: the state of California

04 September, 2017

Leveraging Indian Power The Right Way

Image source.

Now that the affair in Doklam has come to a close, analysts of various stripes are trying to make sense of what happened and what lessons can be learned from the episode. One of the smartest of these write ups was written by Oriana Skylar Mastro and Arzan Tarapore for War on the Rocks. They've titled their piece "Countering Chinese Coercion: The Case of Doklam," and as their title suggests, Dr. Mastro and Mr. Tarapore believe the strategy employed by the Indians in Dolkam can be generalized and should be deployed to defend against Chinese coercion in other domains. They make this case well. I agree with their central arguments, and urge you to read the entire thing without regret.

However, there is one paragraph in their analysis that I take issue with. It is really quite peripheral to their main point, but as it is a concise statement of beliefs widely held, it is a good starting point for this discussion:
Over the longer term, India should be wary of learning the wrong lessons from the crisis. As one of us has recently written, India has long been preoccupied with the threat of Chinese (and Pakistani) aggression on their common land border. The Doklam standoff may be remembered as even more reason for India to pour more resources into defending its land borders, at the expense of building capabilities and influence in the wider Indian Ocean region. That would only play into China’s hands. Renewed Indian concerns about its land borders will only retard its emergence as an assertive and influential regional power. [1]
From the perspective of the United States, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Australia, and the other redoubts of freedom that string the edges of the Pacific rim, the rise of the Indian republic is a positive good. We should do all we can to aid this rise. Here both the demands of moral duty and the exacting claims of realpolitik align.

I've phrased these ideas with more strength and moral clarity than the dry and jargon laden language of professional policy normally allows, but the sentiment expressed hits close to how most D.C. politicos think about the matter. The rightness of a rising India is a bipartisan consensus. Far less thought is given to what shape that rise should take. This is not something we should be neutral on. The contours of India's rise matter a lot—not only for them, but for us, and ultimately, for all who will inherit the world we will together build. It might seem a bit grandiose to claim that the future of Asian liberty depends on the procurement policies of India's Ministry of Defence... but this is exactly what I am going to try and convince you of.   


 The Republic of India counts one billion, three hundred million, and two hundred thousands souls within it—a mere five hundred thousand short of those who live within China's borders. The defense of these hundred millions rests on the shoulders of the Indian Armed Forces, organized as a navy, air force, army and various "paramilitary forces" that operate along the republic's borders. To India's north lies the Chinese colossus: wealthier, larger, more advanced, and more aggressive than their sub-continental neighbor. To the northwest of India lies the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, a country whose national identity is in great part defined by its hatred of Indian prosperity. Both nations have at one time or another funded and equipped insurgents, terrorists, or separatists working inside India's borders. They find an easy home there. As a civilization, India stretches backwards through the ages. As a nation, India is a painfully recent creation. Sixteen different Indian languages claim more than 10 million native speakers, and there are a hundred other languages spoken by smaller multitudes. The label  "Hindu" hides the wildly different beliefs of the billion people who accept it, but the country also boasts a Muslim minority 100 million strong, as well as Christians, Sikhs, and Jains in the millions. Against these centrifugal forces the Indian republic is locked in eternal battle, though only occasionally does this battle break out into the exchange of actual bombs and bullets. India is flanked on one side by the approach to the Persian Gulf and Red Sea; on the other is the path towards the straits of Sunda and Malacca. The naval power that controls these points holds the reins of global shipping in its hands. Around this sea lies a ring of countries that might look to India for leadership, if only the republic had the money and the will to provide it.

Competing demands are being made on India's strategic and foreign policy. She has a choice to orient her grand strategic posture towards confrontation in the north, against Pakistani perfidy in the west, on the high seas of the Indian ocean, or towards the east, where competition between the great powers glows brightest. There are ferocious debates within India over which of these demands should take priority. Western analysts are no closer to a consensus on this question-—though over here, it is because few of us have been asked to give the matter much serious thought. We run on instinct, and the instincts of each analyst run along professional lines. (For navalists India is a great dagger projecting into the wild sea, a blade pointed straight at China's oil guzzling supply lines; for diplomats India is a grand power punching below its weight, absent from the U.N. security council, barred from the nuclear suppliers group, and too insular to claim the mantle of moral leadership that marked India in the old Nehru days; and so forth). The one bias western analysts share is a tendency to see India's focus on internal stability, territorial disputes, and muscular competition with Pakistani and Chinese rivals on their borders as somewhat narrow and limited. Being crowned a great power means wielding global influence. Bickering over borders in Himalayan wastes is too provincial for that.

 Mr. Tarapore, who has written several thoughtful, well-argued articles on the topic, is one of the few westerners who has taken these instincts and fleshed them out into well-formed ideas. But for most American Asia-hands these views are more felt than thought out. [2]  We yearn for an India who looks more like us—an India whose strategic focus is outward and eastward, not inward and upward. This fits our idea of what global power is all about. When will we learn that most of our allies were not made in the American pattern? Success in international politics is not about climbing a preordained cursus honorum of global prestige. It is created through carefully exploiting asymmetries of power on the international stage.

Were India a continent of endless gold and Asia a playground of her making, this would not matter. In an ideal world we would see India with a navy no Chinese admiral could challenge, a treasury no Chinese investor could match, an army no Chinese general could defeat, and a global influence no Chinese statesmen could meet. But this is not the world we live in. Indian gold is not endless. Her leaders labor under harsh demands of time, attention, and the ever present threat of disunion.  If Indian statesmen facing these realities discover that tightening purse strings do not allow India to meet all her aims, then some dreams must be postponed. Priorities must be set. These priorities should be inwards and upwards. It is to the border, the army, and the intelligence services political attention and funds must first go.

This argument is not original to me. Versions of it are bandied about in the Indian press all the time, of course, but the piece that convinced me of its truth was penned by Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment fellow Evan Montgomery back in 2013. You can find it the spring issue of that year's Journal of Strategic Studies. Living behind a pay-wall in the depths of an obscure publication most folks have never heard of, its argument has been largely ignored in the broader policy space. This is unfortunate. Though his argument is unabashedly America-centric, and he frames India's strategic choices in terms of how it may or may not benefit the interests of the United States, Indian readers will find it worth a read. One of Montgomery's central points is that building a 'containment'  style alliance to balance a rising China is too simple a solution:
Although debates over US policy toward China often weigh the relative merits of containment and engagement, an important alternative is the competitive strategies perspective. This approach aims to identify areas of relative advantage or disadvantage between opponents involved in a long-term, peacetime rivalry. By identifying these ‘asymmetries,’ a nation can adopt measures that build on its strengths, mitigate its vulnerabilities, and exploit an adversary’s weaknesses.... Adopting[this] approach, this article makes three related arguments. 

First, the competition between the United States and China is fundamentally a competition between a maritime power and a continental power. If the history of past maritime-continental rivalries is a useful guide, then the PRC could pose a growing challenge to American economic and security interests as it confronts fewer threats on land and can increasingly turn its attention to the sea, while the United States might eventually require continental allies to counterbalance China’s rise.

Second, the intensification of the Sino-Indian rivalry on land and the advent of a Sino-Indian rivalry in the maritime domain could have very different implications for the strategic competition between the United States and China. Specifically, increased tensions between Beijing and New Delhi over their disputed borders could compel the PRC to invest in capabilities useful for territorial defense, which pose relatively little danger to the United States. By contrast, a growing competition between Beijing and New Delhi at sea could lead China to prioritize capabilities useful for extra-regional power-projection, which would represent a far greater challenge to the United States, its allies, and its interests abroad.

Third, the preceding arguments have important policy implications.
Although many observers maintain that India is a potential maritime ally that can help the United States to defend the global commons and perhaps resist the extension of Chinese military power and influence beyond East Asia, a competitive strategies perspective suggests that the US should actually consider India as a potential continental ally.

Specifically, efforts by New Delhi to defend its northern borders more effectively could exploit Beijing’s traditional fears of internal unrest and land-based threats; divert its attention away from other contingencies, such as coercing Taiwan or countering US forces in the Western Pacific; impose costs on China by compelling it to spend additional resources on ground forces, paramilitary units, air defenses, and military or dual use infrastructure on its own territory; and channel its investments away from more worrisome aerospace and maritime capabilities or an overseas basing infrastructure. In short, although India might indeed emerge as a counterweight to China over time, Washington may need to reconsider what type of counterweight it would like to see New Delhi become, and restructure its security cooperation to help bolster India’s capabilities on land rather than at sea. (emphasis added). [3]

Through Pacific eyes, the evolution of the PLA's force structure is unfortunate. Party documents make clear that the key to modernizing the PLA is restructuring it towards a fight by air and sea. [4] China's assessment of its own threat profile can be quite easily seen in the geographic spread of its forces:

Image Source: Department of Defense, Military and Security 
Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2017 (Washington DC, 2017) p.30

Image Source: Department of Defense, Military and Security 
Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2017 (Washington DC, 2017) p.24
The gaze of the People's Liberation Army reaches east. What would happen if instead it looked to its southwest? Montgomery describes changes this might require:
In response to India’s growing military presence along its disputed borders with China, PRC ground forces might need to be bolstered in frontier areas. This could, in turn, require an increase in overall troop numbers, a redistribution of existing forces (and a concomitant willingness to accept more risk elsewhere), and/or greater investments in mobility platforms and transportation infrastructure to support the rapid redeployment of forces based in other parts of China. Paramilitary units might need to be increased as well, particularly if a larger or more capable Indian military presence in the north heightened longstanding fears in Beijing of external support for domestic opposition groups

In addition, Chinese airbases might need to be hardened to deter or weather attacks, troop staging areas might need to be expanded to accommodate additional forces, and transportation infrastructure might need to be duplicated to create redundancies. An Indian military buildup could also lead Beijing to devote a greater share of resources to other capabilities that, from an American perspective, represent only a modest danger. In particular, although China currently has robust ground-based air defenses guarding multiple locations along its eastern coast, it might be induced to deploy a similar integrated air defense network – including fighter aircraft, mobile radars, surface-to air missiles, point defenses, and communications systems – along its borders with India. [5] 

Just as important as the physical response to growing Indian land power would be the bureaucratic retrenchment it might prompt:
By concentrating China’s attention on its own southern border, an Indian buildup could also slow or arrest a trend with significant and worrisome implications for the Sino-American competition, namely the PLAGF’s diminishing influence relative to other branches of the Chinese armed forces. Not surprisingly, institutional support for China’s growing emphasis on aerospace and maritime capabilities is hardly universal within the PLA. As the largest branch of China’s armed forces, the PLAGF is now confronting institutional challenges to its privileged status. Presuming that the PLAGF (along with other elements of China’s security complex that might be threatened by the current direction of military modernization) has a vested interest in preserving its autonomy, its influence, and its resources, it will need to marshal compelling arguments to avoid becoming the ‘bill payer’ for the modernization efforts of competing military organizations. Should India continue to bolster its presence near the border with China, the PLAGF and Chinese paramilitary organizations would have a stronger case to oppose significant reductions in their own funding, perhaps ensuring that some of those resources are not redirected toward the acquisition of military capabilities that would be far more threatening from the perspective of the United States. [6] 

Montgomery wrote this in 2013, before the latest round of PLA reforms, and before the bureaucratic turn away from the Army and towards the other three branches of the PLA was so clearly in motion. A news report from last year's China Daily gives us a glimpse of how fast this is happening:

Compared with last year, 24 percent fewer students will be admitted to studies related to the army, including the infantry and artillery, while logistic and support departments will see their recruits fall by 45 percent, said a news release from the Central Military Commission's Training Management Department.

In comparison, students studying in aviation, missile and maritime fields will increase by 14 percent. The number of recruits in sectors where there is an urgent need, such as space intelligence, radar and drones, will rise by 16 percent, the release said.

The changes were announced in line with ongoing military reforms and were made after rounds of negotiations with the army, navy, air force, rocket force, regional military commands and military academies, PLA Daily reported, citing an unidentified officer from the department's Training Establishment Bureau" [7]
If it is possible to frustrate this reorganization from the outside, then the allied nations should do so. Successfully derailing the PLA's modernization will have unexpected benefits. Analysts have noted that the current wave of reforms are not just about reorienting the PLA towards the air and sea, but also towards cleaning up command and control systems across the PLA, and imposing stronger Party control over the armed forces. [8] The Party realizes that streamlining the ground forces, whose logistics division has been mired in corruption, and whose officer corp is famously over-bloated, will go a long way towards creating a more capable, less corrupt, and more loyal military machine. Any credible military threat that might give army leaders an excuse to obstruct these reforms may make the PLA a less effective fighting force as a whole.

Nothing has stronger potential to do this than a resurgent Indian army on its southern borders.


The Communist Party of China helms a country whose power and wealth grows year by year. The Party is mortally hostile to the existing international system. It realizes that accepting the terms of this order mean, sooner or later, its own destruction. To preserve its tyranny the Party uses all legal, economic, military, and technological tools at its disposal in an incessant quest to sabotage, subvert, or commandeer the system that threatens it.  No democracy with substantial numbers of Chinese immigrants is free from attempts at control and subversion: the Chinese do not fear extending their domestic systems of surveillance, censorship, and coercion to the heart of foreign powers. No country in greater Asia will be secure from intimidation and assault: In the Party's view, there are big countries that deserve respect and small ones that do not. As Chinese power grows more and more countries will move from the big country column into the small one.

The Party's most reliable friend in its quest for regional domination has been the Pakistani Inter-services Intelligence and the Pakistan Armed Forces. The men of Rawalpindi are no friends of the existing order. They do not fear the bloodshed caused by its disruption. Indeed, these officers have more American blood on their hands than the leaders of any other foreign nation. In this the Americans and the Indians are not so different: India also has had death and destruction delivered to it straight from Rawalpindi. Unfortunately, America has been slow to realize the costs of appeasing the Pakistani military.  One hopes that this is changing. But Pakistani-caused carnage notwithstanding,  both India and the United States realize that the true long-term challenge to their interests, safety, and freedoms is not the Pakistanis, but the Chinese Communist Party. The two threats are not distinct: a strong, democratic, and secular Indian republic is an anathema to both Beijing and Rawalpindi. Geography and ideology drive these powers against the rising Indian republic and entwine them together. The more dangerous their threat becomes, the more useful coordination with the allied democracies of the Pacific rim becomes.
Evan Montgomery hopes that the force of these facts is all that will be needed to convince the Indians to play along with his prescriptions:
There are, of course, reasons to question whether India would be receptive to this orientation in its defense posture. In fact, it is doubtful that New Delhi would appreciate being considered a frontline state in a Sino-American competition. Yet geography, territorial disputes, and the imperative to balance against a rising power have already placed India in this position. The question, then, is whether it should emphasize balancing China on land or at sea. [9]
Montgomery simplifies somewhat here. In addition to competition by land and sea, there will be a contest of purse strings between the two powers, each trying to invest its way into the good graces of its neighbors. India has to choose carefully how to balance the needs of each race in which it runs. The great weakness of Montgomery's piece is that he says nothing at all about how the Indians might be convinced to put their border defenses at the center of their defense posture.

The easiest answers involve action steps we can take to directly build Indian capabilities. For Americans this means that deepening army-to-army exchanges and exercises (the goal should be to build up the Yudh Abhyas exercises up to the size of Cobra Gold), targeted arms sales (the Indian army's purchase of 120 American lightweight howitzers last year is the template to be followed), and intelligence sharing should be priorities for the Pentagon and the relevant congressional committees. The Japanese and other alliance members can and should take similar measures.

The next easiest thing we can do is empower those in India who are already on the right side of the debate. For example, I suspect most Americans strategy hands have never heard of a China-themed book that made waves in the Indian press this year, Dragon on Our Doorstep: Managing China Through Military Power., or its authors, Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab (both editors at Force Magazine). In their book Sawhney and Wahab make a sustained, evidence-based case for a foreign policy that puts border management at the center of its strategic outlook. Books like this should be signal-boosted in the American press, its authors should be invited to events held by CSIS, Carnegie, etc., to sell their policies and network with Western strategists. We want these sort of people to be the most important defense intellectuals in India, and should do what we can to help make that possible.

We also should not forget that the Indians read our newspapers and magazines (even if we don't have the foresight to read theirs). Again and again this message should be shared:

  • China has a head start in all domains, but the easiest place for India to catch up with China is on the borders.
  • If India focuses on the land game, while America and Japan focus on the competition at sea, China will be left in the difficult position of having to do both at once. This is the easiest way to create and sustain useful asymmetries of power.
  • Western support can make up for Indian vulnerabilities. India has more to gain from cooperation than from strategic autonomy.

Of these points, the last will be the hardest to sell. Which brings us to the last major action item: take steps to build Indian trust in our intentions. Strategic autonomy is an idea dear to the Indian mind. It was only a few years ago that the leading lights in India's foreign policy intelligentsia labeled their vision for India's future grand strategy "Non-Alignment 2.0." Westerners who assume that China's rise alone will be enough to drive India into our arms are fools. If India and the West are to cooperate, then we must sell the benefits of doing so. We must show the Indians that we are not opportunistic. True cooperation between our countries is not possible if we are bank-rolling liberalism's foes in Rawalpindi. True cooperation between our countries is not possible if we are afraid to call the Chinese out on their border provocations. On the other hand, we should actively seek opportunities to strengthen India's influence in every forum that we are party to.

One area that we must approach with particular care is cooperation between the U.S. Navy, the Japanese Self Defense Force, and the Indian Navy. The Indians will not be able to spend their treasure at the border if they cannot trust their ocean approaches. We do not have a formal self-defense treaty with the Indians, and likely will not for some time, so we must search for other ways to assure them that a focus on the land will not rob them of their seas. The Malabar exercises, in which all three navies participate, are an excellent vehicle for building this sort of trust. But in the end the only guarantee the Indian's will trust are active demonstrations of resolve in the face of Chinese coercion. If we cannot stare down the bully in the territorial seas of official allies, what hope do we have of deterring them from aggression further abroad?

We live in an age where policy-makers (and opinion-makers, if they want to be listened to) must put "America first." In the days to come, putting America first will often mean looking at an issue through Indian eyes.


[1] Oriana Skylar Mastro and Arzan Tarapore, "Countering Chinese Coercion: The Case of Doklam," War on the Rocks (31 August, 2017).

[2] There is an interesting double standard here: you will notice no one criticizes the Chinese as insular or visionless when they put territorial wrangling at the forefront of their grand strategy.

[3] Evan Braden Montgomery, "Competitive Strategies against Continental Powers: The Geopolitics of Sino-Indian-American Relations," Journal of Strategic Studies, vol 36, issue 1 (2013), 78-79

[4] For example, see David M. Finkelstein, "Initial Thoughts on the Reorganization and Reform of the PLA,"  CNA Occasional Paper (15 January, 2016), 4-7.

[5] Montgomery, 88-89.

[6] ibid, 90-91.

[7] “PLA Restructuring Changes Focus at Military Schools,” China Daily (28 April, 2016).

[8] For example, see David M. Finkelstein, "Initial Thoughts on the Reorganization and Reform of the PLA,"  CNA Occasional Paper (15 January, 2016), 4-7.

[9] Montgomery, 94-95