There is no Red Scare and we are not ethno-nationalists, warmongers, or racists. The new China Lobby is a bipartisan movement in the finest tradition of the American spirit.Read More
“The Machine needed more information. People’s social graph, their associations. The government had been trying to figure it out for years. Turns out most people were happy to volunteer it.” -Harold Finch, Person of Interest
Where the driving conflict between the Americans and the Soviets was the clash between Capitalism and Communism, the Sino-American Cold War will be driven less by the economic styles endorsed by democracies and authoritarians and more by the new currencies of the modern world. These are not Dollars or Renminbi, but rather information. How governments and corporations alike handle the wealth of information put out into the world by every person on this planet will become one of the central struggles of the new cold war. Who controls the world’s information, and who sets it free, will become a key point of ideological friction between the two Pacific powers. The fact remains that in the 21st century, no other rights may be guaranteed without the free and unrestricted flow of information between private citizens. The basis for freedom in the 21st century is the freedom of information. It is not simply the right to your own information but the right to be forgotten. The right to not have your personal information 3D printed into a gun and pressed to your forehead.
Imagine if all the world’s most most potent weapons were taken from their owners and placed in between the two Pacific Powers, like balls at the beginning of a game of dodgeball. The weapons in this case are various kinds of information. Personal information for manipulation and blackmail. for targeted propaganda on a massive scale, data that can be used to create narratives to disarm a population through disarray and division. Or the most dangerous of all, data that can be used to teach not humans but their budding artificial intelligence programs. The Sino-American arms race is more than ships and hypersonic vehicles, it’s a race to weaponize all of the data that defines humanity. Nukes are great but with the right code and spreadsheet you can reach out and touch anyone on the planet, at a fraction of the cost and with much greater precision than even the most advanced GPS allows.
We are already beginning to see how Beijing wants to use its data weapons. It is actively deploying machine learning and data collection to control and influence the actions and even thoughts of its population through its much hyped social credit program. By using the same rewards and punishments one might associate with financial credit or an addictive mobile game, the CCP has developed a population control apparatus that is the stuff of cyberpunk dystopian nightmares. For Beijing life is not something to be set free and lived but to be controlled for the better of the Party.
But Beijing has not stopped at the collection of digital information, no in the case of the region of Xinjiang, Beijing has essentially bagged and tagged an entire population so that they might be tracked, oppressed, and in the case of some million Uighurs, incarcerated in concentration camps. The fever dreams of the Nazis and Soviets have finally been realized through Beijing’s application of the technologies so celebrated in the West. And once Beijing controls its domestic population, it has every intention of setting its sights on those abroad. In fact, it has already begun to target some disruptive foreigners and expats.
For Beijing and other totalitarian regimes, control is not just about “harmony” within its borders. No, the image of the party must be protected around the world, lest the perpetrator of disharmony feel the wrath of Beijing. Not only does the CCP use nationalists abroad to target and harass its opponents, it uses information operations in a manner similar to the way the Russians worked in the run up to the 2016 election. In fact, China has successfully used a blend of HUMINT ops and info ops to influence political discourse in Australia,a close ally of the United States and member of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance. And with the success of Russian operations in the United States, the lack of a spotlight on Chinese activities in the US, and the ever increasing division of the American population, we can expect to see greater information offensives in the years to come. And so the battle over information rights and protections is not one of simple constitutional debate, it is a matter of survival. Every bit of information we leave in the ether, that we leave for companies to sell to whomever they choose, every bit of source code a corporation gives to Beijing, every inch of fiber optics in our infrastructure built by a Chinese company is a potential weapon to be turned back on us as our enemies seek to control us and impose their will abroad.
In the long term, however, the even greater threat to America and freedom around the world is the growth and development of artificial intelligence by those who would use it to oppress and destroy. As the use and capabilities of AI expand around the Pacific in everything from toasters to weapons systems, lines must be drawn regarding the use of AI to influence the public. The use of deep fakes and chat bots will soon reach a point where they are no longer novelties but rather tools of the state to influence, agitate, and repress. How can a government manage a war effort or election in its own country if the public is influenced by AI generated “fake news” at a rate that is beyond its control. The greatest threat to a democracy is an uninformed public, and if the information given to the public is intentionally manipulative and misleading, how can the public rely on its leaders in times of crisis? If we are to remain a free people and keep the torch of freedom lit around the world, we must remain an informed people with an informed leadership. And in order to do that we must develop controls to not only prevent the disruption of our information cycles by our enemies at home and abroad but we must also reverse engineer such disruptive techniques to create even greater chaos in the lands of the authoritarians.
In summary, the Sino-American Cold War will not simply feature an arms race of missiles and ships, but of the very building block of modern life: data. Now, we cannot horde all of the world’s information or keep our AI and personal information locked up in black boxes forever. No, we must be able to protect ourselves and our information once it is already out in the wild. Information is not a coded weapon, it is not something that can only be used against a single target. No, whoever controls it can aim it in whatever direction they please in whatever form they desire. Pandora’s box is already open, and has been for some time. But that does not mean we are powerless. In fact, we can take steps to manage the wealth of data and knowledge that is put out into the ether every day. We can control who and what profit off of our information, we can control where information can be stored and who can store it and with what protections. We can control who invests in AI and with whom, we can manage the transfer of knowledge and technology between democratic states and authoritarian threats. And as we begin to reign in the flood of data, knowledge, and cash that has put in the hands of our enemies, then we can begin to shape our own defenses, our own weapons, so that we may guard freedom for another generation.
Note: This essay was originally published on Medium in July 2018
No, I haven’t lost my mind and no, Beijing hasn’t finally gotten to me. Apparently a significant number of Americans believe that China is more friend than foe. According to a Pew Research poll, about 25% of the American public thinks China is one of our top two security partners. This poll is a couple months old, but I’ve been on hiatus so I’m playing catch up and I wanted to talk about my new experiences regarding US threat perception anyway. As I tweeted about, there are a few possible reasons for why China could be seen by so many people as a security partner rather than our chief long-term security threat. A lot of it has to do with poor communication by the American government, lack of public education on China and Sino-American relations, and Beijing’s own twisted soft power efforts. Collective American ignorance regarding China is our chief obstacle to both engaging with and protecting against a rising China across the Pacific and around the world. In this essay I’d like to first explore why the American people see China the way they do as well as why China is not even remotely an American security partner. As for the latter, I have discussed in previous essays why Sino-American conflict is inevitable, but frankly it’s already here and large swaths of America and the policy-making community have not caught up with that reality. Despite punditry to the contrary, we still live in a democracy, and therefore if we want to develop and establish effective China policy in the same manner as US anti-Soviet policy during the first Cold War, then we must paint the picture of our violent reality to the American public.
First, let’s begin with President Trump’s rhetoric regarding China and Dear Leader Xi. As with most things, Trumps’ rhetoric over the years regarding China has been largely negative, except for when he’s addressing President Xi. Now, there are plenty of psychological theories for why Trump would have such an apparent change of heart, but I’ll leave that for others to discuss. Trump often warmly embraces and compliments Comrade Xi, and that kind of star power and coverage can influence the public, especially over the course of the last year. When addressing trade or North Korea, POTUS is far more bipolar regarding his position of China, criticizing them but also appealing to them for help. And that doesn’t even include our recent foray into a cross-Pacific trade war that literally no one asked for, but we got anyway. Now, what the American people could be confusing are the terms “security” and “trading” partner, in that they are assuming that those we trade with must be our partners in everything. To a degree this makes sense, because I’ve even heard from IR academics and pre-1914 reenactors that integrated and globalized markets help foster peace. I am sure that on the surface, this logic appeals to many Americans as well, but I’d like to think it’s a stretch to jump from “we won’t go to war” to “we’re the best of well-armed friends”.
Some 18% of surveyed Republicans think China is one of our most important security partners. Now, the days of the “party of national security” are long gone, but that doesn’t make these numbers any less horrifying to me as a national security professional and former Republican operative. Yes, these numbers are lower than the public and the Democrats, but they may have more to do with the GOP obsession with Israel than anything else. Of course the American people can’t articulate even the most basic aspects of our foreign policy when our leaders can neither maintain a united front nor articulate the policies they advocate for by themselves. We forget how thick the DC Bubble is and, particularly during the social media age, how the speed of a soundbite does not necessarily determine how deep it impacts in the minds of the American people. In my new job, I’ve taken note of how many different enemies and threats different leaders and cadre have listed as our next “big bad.” Russia, North Korea, and the Middle East come up a lot, as did Democrats on occasion, but China was hardly ever mentioned. If we cannot clearly establish who we are going to fight and why, then we sure as hell won’t know who our friends are and if they’ll be there for us.
So, we’ve covered why a quarter of Americans think China is one of our top two security partners, now it’s time to do the job that our policymakers should be doing: explaining why China is our main enemy, not our main partner.
In the past week, the much anticipated and loathed Sino-American trade war began. Now, the US hasn’t been known to do so hot in trade wars, so I’m just bracing for impact at this point. And while I think this is bad policy, I do agree that China has taken advantage of us for years. We’ve allowed them to abuse the economic systems that we run and have let them steal all the intellectual property they can get their hands on through state-backed industrial espionage. And while I think theft-through-espionage is fair game (if you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’), US incompetence regarding Chinese theft is abhorrent. Hell, those bastards have my and a few million other patriots’ personal information and our fingerprints because the US didn’t take information security seriously. If we continue to ignore the China threat, imagine what they’ll take from us next, or in 10 years when they have multiple carrier groups and the US continues to let itself rot away.
In the South China Sea (SCS), our allies and China play bumper boats while American and Chinese ships dance a dangerous dance around each other as they traverse some of the most valuable pieces of ocean in the world. China is regularly running military drills that focus on wiping out an American fleet in the region. Through their artificial island-building program, the Chinese have fortified their SCS outposts into sandy aircraft carriers armed with area denial weapons and advanced electronic warfare kit. US run-ins with Russian military forces get all the press but the unseen flash points across the Indo-Pacific region are what should terrify the American people and its leaders. A few hot-headed admirals or a quick economic downturn in China is all it takes, and that’s assuming the Chinese aren’t planning for der tag (the first day of war) as the Germans did leading up to 1914. The next war may not happen by accident, and that will make it even more catastrophic if we’re caught with our pants down.
The truth is, it’s not that hard to reach out to the American people. As polarized as we are, we’re not so thick headed that we couldn’t grasp that China is not our friend and they want to hurt us. It just takes the right words coupled with a strong, but rational, media spotlight. We did this during the 1950s with the Soviets, NSC-68 mentions that the US government had to talk to the public if it wanted to properly undertake such a gargantuan task as containing the Soviet Union. Well now we must contain China, and it will demand just as much of us as it did 60 years ago. We may have differing opinions on our national security strategies and priorities, but before we reach that debate, we should be able to settle on some absolute truths of American foreign policy. One of those truths should be that an aggressively rising totalitarian state like China is not our friend and we should make clear to the American people who our friends and enemies are because at the end of the day, its their sons and daughters who will be dying for those friends at the hands of those enemies.
“The Americans had an apt phrase to describe a situation like ours, where your strength grows but your options become ever more limited: Manifest Destiny. “Destiny drives you forward but ties your hands.” -Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War
China’s rise has left it with great potential but few options. Many of its needs and policies run counter to the current international order. A rising power must expand and amass power and influence to survive, or else it risks being left to the annals of history. China cannot maintain its more than three decade long economic boom for much longer without massive changes to the regional and global order in its favor. Failure to seize opportunities created by American indifference and decline, would delay China’s ascendancy to hegemony and perhaps threaten the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) legitimacy and power. Historically, many of the battles fought between hegemons and their challengers have been decided by whomever controls the seas and the lucrative trade routes that travel through them. In Southeast Asia, the fight for those key maritime trade routes in the South China Sea (SCS) will fall between the nations of ASEAN, the US, and China. China has already taken steps to secure the South China Sea by constructing and militarizing artificial islands that it says justify its claim to the entire SCS, threatening those who challenge its internationally-recognized-as-illegitimate claims. In order to understand just how important control of this region is to Chinese ascendance, we must first look at how previous states have come to power, and what drove them to war.
Hegemonic conflict is far from a new concept in international relations. Empires rise and fall with the changing of the tides, and those tides are often red with the blood of competing powers. Sino-US competition in the Pacific will likely be no different. The end of Pax Americana does not simply mean an end to the world order created in the 25 years since the fall of the USSR, it means the beginning of the end for many of the US-backed international institutions that have existed since the end of WWII. China cannot complete its rise to hegemony without reorganizing the international order in its favor, nor could it do so without having influence over much of the world’s economy and trade. Given the recent slowing of the Chinese economy, Beijing cannot wait decades for these institutions to erode on their own and for the US to fall back on its own, it must force the issue, most likely within the next decade, if it wishes to supersede US dominance of the world stage.
The beginning of the modern hegemonic cycle began in the 15th Century, at the dawn of the Age of Exploration as Portugal sent its ships to the farthest reaches of the world, and gained an edge in the colonization of the New World. The Portuguese dominance of navigation and their superior knowledge of the Earth’s oceans enabled Portugal to seize valuable ports and resources, establishing lucrative trade routes and relationships with far-flung regions. The US has a similar advantage in that it is the world-guarantor of freedom of navigation. In fact, America’s first post-Independence conflict was fought over freedom over navigation rights in the Mediterranean and those same rights have become a major talking point for the US in the South China Sea.
In the latter half of the 16th century, the Dutch came to power through their control of credit markets and investment. As Portugal began to decline, the Dutch could invest heavily in private expeditions and their navy to challenge the Portuguese status quo. The Dutch attacked the overseas holdings of Portugal across the globe, securing much of the spice trade and enriching the Netherlands at the cost of Portuguese power and influence throughout the world. Increased Dutch wealth and overseas investment enabled the Dutch to expand as Portugal was occupied with other conflicts and interests (notably the 80 Years’ War). As the US spreads its forces thin across the globe and hollows them out through sequestration, China can pick and choose which territorial disputes it wants to focus on and can concentrate its forces with less effort than the US. Chinese overseas investment and corporate influence is enough to force some states to make concessions to China in exchange for such investment, weakening the US’ ability to hold onto and protect allies that cannot survive without Chinese investment. The Dutch used their economic strength to further enrich themselves through the funding of military expeditions in places that would enable Dutch control of vital trade routes and commodities. Chinese ambition in the Southeast Asia and Africa should be viewed no differently.
Ironically, it was Dutch expansion and ambition that led to a power shift in the late 17th century from the Netherlands to England. Dutch-English cooperation in military and economic affairs enabled the English to take advantage of peace and enlarge their navy and control over world trade routes, soon overtaking the Dutch and some of their colonies. Those who encourage Sino-US cooperation should be wary of similar partnership. American economic weakness and military decline would ensure that the US is the weaker partner in such a relationship.
The Napoleonic Wars not withstanding, the British ruled the world’s seas and remained hegemon for more than two centuries without a significant challenger. British naval power, reinforced by its industrial innovations, enabled Britain to rule a quarter of the world at its height. While the British Army had never been anything to marvel at, and was often much smaller than those of the Continental powers, Britain’s successful policy of offshore balancing against any rivals in Europe kept aggressors at bay by relying on its control of the seas. The end of Pax Britannica began in 1914 with the outbreak of the first World War. Despite Britain’s eventual victory, the war destroyed an entire generation and weakened the economic and military power of the British Empire.
The German Imperial policy prior to the lead-up to World War I was summarized as security and strength without hegemony. The famous German leader Otto von Bismarck encouraged this policy as Chancellor, and until his death was adamantly against German attempts at hegemony in Europe. Unfortunately, his legacy was not enough to hold off the forces that encouraged German expansion. The fact was that Germany could not sustain itself without an empire and expansion, it simply did not have the resources to match the other powers in Europe. China has followed similar advice in its development since the end of the Cold War. Deng Xiaoping’s 24-character strategy encouraged an inward focus and development without attempts at expansion or aggression. However, that focus was largely an effort to keep China from making attempts at expansion before it was ready, as so many failed hegemons had done before it. Deng did not say that China should never make an attempt at hegemony, and that is what is worrying. Chinese scholars often point to Deng’s strategy as reason for no concern towards Chinese military and economic development, because of the “never claim leadership”portion but they downplay the part that says “hide our capacities and bide our time.” Any attempt to minimize the threat a rising China’s ambitions pose to the Western order should be looked at with great suspicion not simply because of historical precedent but because of the very strategy that CCP leadership so closely follows.
The arguments against seeing China as a serious, aggressive threat to US-led world order are similar to the arguments made against those who foresaw conflict between Europe’s great powers in the run up to August 1914. The argument that globalization and the economic intertwining of states makes war between states too costly was the one of the more popular cases against European conflict. In the decades prior to WW1, the world became globalized through the invention of the first telecommunications systems, industrialization and relative peace enforced by Pax Britannica. This period of peace eventually encouraged those with imperial and hegemonic ambitions to take advantage of dying old empires, increased wealth, and the fear of burgeoning new empires to encourage their nations to arm, expand, and plant their flag around the globe. The globalization argument is still rather popular today, particularly by those who do not understand what China values and what it thinks it could gain from a successful conflict with the US. Other scholars and policymakers are still confident in superior American power, either because of ignorance towards China’s growing capabilities or because they still believe America is invincible. In my opinion, that degree of hubris is more dangerous than any weapon that China could build.
Despite growth in arms development, nationalist rhetoric, and even commentary by some leaders about their ambitions, fears of an end to the ‘Belle Epoch’ were dismissed as part of the old world, one that was not economically intertwined like modern Europe. War would simply cost states too much money, and that argument resonated with many because it made people feel secure and because it made sense to the average person that attacking someone who gives you money would be counter-intuitive to prosperity and success. Many simply did not see how the benefits of a victory in war could outweigh the benefits of peace, but for a revisionist power like Germany, both the people and their leaders saw opportunity in war. For Germany’s leaders, victory meant ending its encirclement by British-allied states and the ending the threat of the ‘Russian hordes’. For the people of Germany, it meant taking their rightful place atop Europe and righting the wrongs done unto them by the other empires of Europe. For other states, it meant reasserting themselves after years of decline or seizing new territory for economic gain. If any of this sounds familiar it is because much of the same rhetoric is used by the CCP as justification for its military buildup and territorial ambitions.
Despite all of the talk about economic peace, hyper-nationalistic rhetoric was rampant in Europe in the run-up to 1914. The elections of populists like Rodrigo Duterte and Donald Trump, in conjunction with increased nationalistic propaganda and stricter enforced adherence to CCP ideology within China suggest that a wave of nationalism like that found in Germany, France, and the Balkans prior to 1914 has arrived in the Asia-Pacific. Thus, while the idea of war in the Asia-Pacific may have been too terrible a thought less than a decade ago, nationalistic sentiments tend to encourage the romanticizing of conflict over the sober reality of war, dissuading the voices of caution and raising the influence of war hawks in capitals around the world.