The paper tiger myth: how America is underestimating China’s resolve and power
4 Feb 2014|

Paper tiger

Most American policymakers are saying two things following China’s establishment of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). (1) China’s challenge to the US-led Asian order is serious and calculated, and (2) America must get China to back down. We should be concerned, because their analysis is self-contradictory. The United States is falling prey to the ‘paper tiger myth‘—the belief that China is utterly threatening to America’s position in Asia and would retreat if we ‘pivoted’ just a bit more. This is a dangerous miscalculation of Chinese resolve and power.

In past weeks, pundits have declared that the PRC leadership is increasingly willing to risk confrontation to achieve its goals. On Wednesday, Senator John McCain (R-AR) called China ‘a rising threat’ because of its ‘profound belief… that China must, and will, regain the dominant role that they had for a couple of thousand years in Asia’. Similarly, Michael J. Green of CSIS argued in Foreign Affairs that the new ADIZ is ‘part of a longer-term attempt by Beijing to chip away at the regional status quo’. In Foreign Policy magazine, Elbridge Colby (CNA) and Ely Ratner (CNAS) claimed it amounts to an ‘expansionist strategy’.

In response, they want America to demonstrate it won’t accept China’s threat or use of coercion. Green suggests we ‘leave no doubt that the United States is prepared to… ensure Beijing understands that its attempts at coercion will not work’. Colby and Ratner likewise advocate ‘raising the stakes’ and elevating the risk of escalation. At the Joint Seapower and Asia Subcommittee hearing on January 14th, Congressman Steve Chabot (R-OH) reasoned that China must be acting on a ‘misguided hope that Japan, Southeast Asian nations and the US will just grudgingly accept it’.

There’s an implicit expectation here: once China realises that the United States refuses to budge, it’ll bow out and stop contesting US primacy in the Asia-Pacific. But it’s paradoxical to say China is bent on changing the international order and will roll over easily if opposed. This paper tiger myth is a well-documented belief—look no further than the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Only this time, it’s the paper, not the tiger, that’s the illusion.

Mainstream American analysis makes little sense for two reasons. First, China’s resolve is at least as strong as America’s. As all these observers say, recent assertive behavior isn’t a series of isolated slip-ups; it reflects a deeper strategy to force the United States to respect China’s growing power. You don’t just go and declare an ADIZ or apply military pressure against foreign territory for years on a whim. Backing down now over either would be absolutely humiliating for Beijing—all the more so given the government’s domestic campaigns that have plastered ‘The Diaoyu Islands Are China’s!‘ on everything from billboards to bumper stickers. Since President Xi Jinping took over the Leading Small Group (LSG) on maritime affairs, most signs indicate that these acts are part of a broader attempt to push back against US military activity in China’s immediate periphery.

Second, China is rapidly acquiring the edge in operational capacity in Asia, and there’s little the United States can or is willing to do about it. With annual increases in defense expenditure over 10%, China is making steady relative gains. According to a recent net assessment from the Carnegie Endowment, the combined US–Japan alliance will no longer have a guaranteed advantage over the PLA by 2030. If we believe a 2009 RAND report, the US already lacks credible military options in the Taiwan Strait.

In many ways, it’s a simple question of economics. Who cares how many F-35s and carriers we move to the Pacific? The fact that China’s economy will soon eclipse America’s ensures that the balance of power will gradually shift. The ‘tyranny of distance’, continued American preoccupation with the Middle East, and the shift from offensive to defensive advantage in maritime military technology only amplify this underlying reality. And if Obama’s State of the Union address is any indication, American voters are becoming less and less interested in sustaining its global role.

American analysts are essentially calling for a re-rebalance to Asia. Before anyone hops on the bandwagon, we might note the effects of the original. If the Pivot’s purpose was to dissuade Chinese aggression by proving American staying power, it failed. China has only become more willing to contest American primacy, as the ADIZ and USS Cowpens incident demonstrate. It isn’t backing down, and America’s defence posture is no longer preventing the intensification of conflict in the Asia-Pacific.

America should remember Otto von Bismarck’s words that ‘policy is the art of the possible’. All strategies must reconcile ends and means. If the US neglects to accept its increasingly vulnerable position and instead choose escalation, deeper and more precarious rivalry is certain. Success is not.

Jake A. Douglas is a research assistant at the College of William & Mary, Virginia. Image courtesy of Flickr user ‘No Matter’ Project.

Correction: an earlier version of this post inadvertently omitted the last two paragraphs.