Monday, April 29, 2013

Signaling and Knowing What the Game Even Is

We want to defend our allies. But we don't want to go to war with China over trivial (to us) matters. So making sure we and the Chinese understand each other in a crisis is vital to avoiding a war during a crisis. That's tough enough. But will we even know for sure what the nature of the crisis will be when our forces are in contact?

This is an interesting monograph on signaling in a crisis with China:

Since its founding in 1949, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has employed military force in pursuit of its national interests in security and territorial integrity. In many such instances, Beijing has deployed a calculus of threat and retaliation signals, first to deter an adversary from taking actions contrary to Beijing’s interests by threatening use of Chinese military force, and then, once deterrence has failed, to explain and justify Beijing’s resort to military force. Beijing has carefully sustained this calibrated hierarchy of official protests, authoritative press comment, and leadership statements despite the sweeping changes in the PRC’s place in the international order, the proliferation of foreign policy instruments at its disposal, and the dramatic evolution in the Chinese media over the decades.

That's surely important. But is it wise to assume that the Chinese will allow us the time to react by incorrectly believing that a signal is step 2 of the 8-step path to actually using major force? Might not the Chinese use our apparent understanding of their past escalation signaling patterns in order to achieve surprise? After all, as I've repeated many times, achieving surprise isn't so much a matter of hiding what you are doing as it is a matter of convincing your foe that the reason for your actions that they can see are harmless--at least for the moment. Intentions are difficult to assess--especially in a crisis. At some level we have to react to mobilized capabilities rather than hope that presumed safe intent makes those capabilities harmless.

Further, does China's dramatic increase in power projection capacity over the last decade nullify that past pattern of signaling and mean that surprise offensive action could replace even signaling that we fully understand and which we correctly interpret in nature of the actual crisis? At some point, the signal will simply be "we wish to crush you in battle right now" rather than a means to an end. There isn't a lot of nuance in that and we need to be prepared to shift gears quickly from looking for nuanced meanings to fighting hammer and tong to withstand the first blows. And know when not to make that switch, of course.

Intent of China's leaders can also be a difficult thing to understand when we might be trying to understand a militarized dispute that we believe is a foreign policy signaling game when in fact it is a Chinese domestic policy crisis being played out beyond China's borders. While this article focuses on the problems that China's military has beneath the veneer of advanced technology, this is truly scary:

Politics have always played a key role and the PLA retains a Soviet-style dual command structure. A powerful political department sits at the centre of the organisation, while political minders shadow commanders at every level of the enormous hierarchy. The PLA is one of the world's largest bureaucracies - and behaves accordingly. ''They have a meeting now for everything,'' says Nan Li, associate professor at the US Naval War College's China maritime studies institute.

As an aside, it is good that the Chinese command structure is poor and force quality not as good as ours. I've assumed that. This is one of the major advantages that our military spending gives us that isn't easily quantifiable. I will note that those shortcomings might not be crippling in the first weeks of a Chinese offensive when they strike at a time and place of their own choosing. What might they gain in that time of advantage when they hold the initiative? Would we continue the fight that would expose Chinese weaknesses (and our own, which I assume will be fewer) and allow us to roll back Chinese gains?

But more to the point, is our leadership--both civilian and military--capable of reading signals when we are trained to think of our military as a non-political actor with politics ending at our shores, but when China's military is at its core a political tool of the communist party of China? Let's go back to the Sydney Morning Herald article:

Claims that Xi [Jinping, China's president] has exploited or even orchestrated the brinkmanship with Japan might seem preposterous to outside observers, given that a miscalculation could lead to war. But the logic is compelling for those who have grown up near the centre of China's endless and unforgiving internal struggles.

But the spectre of war is not the only possible explanation for Xi's saber rattling and demands for combat readiness. For even as Japanese leaders and US officials were publicising their concerns about a region on the brink of naval conflict, it became clearer that Xi and his close military confidants remained squarely focused on domestic politics. Indeed, Liu Yuan counseled that war with Japan would be disastrous.

At the same time, another top-level document emerged: a speech in December by Xi, in which he gave thundering confirmation that the PLA's primary function was to defend the regime, not China. This was the lesson learned from the Soviet Union's collapse, he said. ''In the Soviet Union, where the military was depoliticised, separated from the party, and nationalised, the party was disarmed,'' Xi warned, according to an extract of his speech that was published by journalist Gao Yu and broadly corroborated by other sources.

So any military crisis could simply be a political crisis played out by an arm of China's political system, the PLA. Are we prepared to interpret military signals that are not actually being sent to us but to internal actors within China?

And let's up the difficulty level a bit more. Not only is it possible for us to mistake an internal political crisis for a foreign crisis, but what if a foreign crisis becomes an internal crisis and we don't catch the switch?

There is always the threat of [China] encountering credible resistance (from the United States or a really angry Japan, South Korea or India). At this point the Chinese have to be careful to accurately calculate how far they can push their victims before Chinese forces must be withdrawn. Such a pull-back can have serious repercussions at home because Chinese leaders have been pushing nationalism to divert public attention from police state tactics and corruption inside China. A nationalistic atmosphere in China makes it very unpopular to back down and that could trigger widespread unrest by people who are now reminded that their leaders are not only cowards but corrupt and police state bullies as well.

Oh, and what if a purely political crisis that involves the Chinese military deploying military capabilities that outstrip our regional capabilities (because of our muted reaction to avoid a needless war) then tempts the Chinese leaders--perhaps after resolving the political crisis that started military signaling and mobilization--to resolve a foreign policy problem with force as long as the capability is there at the moment and China has a temporary edge?

China's rise in military power projection capabilities is creating a situation where a crisis can escalate to war because of the close proximity of the powers apart from China's intent. Back when China was a simple mass of proletarian fury that had limited power projection capabilities, it was easier to control a response to Chinese actions and signals. The consequences of not reacting to Chinese actions weren't going to be that great since China couldn't exploit an edge with their limited forces to achieve a crippling blow against a foe. China's power was basically being able to absorb an enemy attack on China itself.

But now failure to react could give China the chance to mobilize forces for a strike that can really hurt a neighbor--perhaps critically. Under those circumstances, there will be an incentive for China's neighbors to shoot first just in case. That incentive to strike will be greater if these neighbors of China doubt our ability to come to their rescue if the Chinese really hurt them in a first strike.

So we have another complication in signal reading to avoid escalating to war: Even if we are playing the right crisis scenario, if we are reading the signals accurately for the correct crisis, if China isn't sending fake signals to deceive us in order to simply launch a presumed limited war, if China is accurately reading our counter-signals, and if the crisis doesn't change in the middle of the crisis, this isn't going to be just a bilateral America-China crisis. Remember, we are a western Pacific power by choice (and need, of course) and not from our location. Other powers in the Western Pacific will automatically be part of the crisis. In all this signal analysis we are supposed to make, there will be plenty of "stray" signals criss-crossing the region. Are we really capable of reading all that noise and figuring out--on the fly--how everyone else is reading them?

I guess I'm just saying that we shouldn't try to be so clever and so confident that we can accurately read signals. Never, ever forget that intent is difficult to figure out and can change without notice, while capabilities are more constant and subject to calculation. We might be able to draw some comfort that China's military isn't as good as China's leaders think it is if we read the signals wrong and find ourselves at war with China; but even if we win, we will still have had to fight a war with all the blood and treasure that event will cost.