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'Sloppy' Analysis Is the Bane of a Smart China Policy
The U.S. goes astray when our leaders make policy decisions on the basis of shoddy analysis and inaccurate information, and right now our thinking about China policy is suffering as a result of both.
Buried in the middle of this David Ignatius column from last week is a remarkable claim that needs some explanation:
Xi is convinced that the two countries are heading toward war, according to an American who knows the Chinese leadership well.
If Xi is truly convinced that the U.S. and China are heading for war, that would be an important insight into his thinking, but Ignatius has nothing more to say about it. This is the sort of claim that cries out for further elaboration, but we are left to guess why Xi thinks this (assuming that he does) and when he started thinking this way. If this is a view Xi adopted in just the last few months or years, that would tell us one thing, and if it is a long-held view that would tell us something else. If he is convinced that our countries are on a collision course, are we to assume that he welcomes the eventual collision, or is he interested in averting it? Ignatius uses this claim to add an air of menace to his column, but it doesn’t leave the reader with a clearer understanding of the matter.
It is impossible to judge the credibility of Ignatius’ single anonymous American source, since we don’t know who is telling us this and we don’t know what it means that the source “knows the Chinese leadership well.” That description might mean that this is someone with special expertise, but it is so vague that it could apply to someone who has had dealings with the Chinese leadership for some time or it could just be Ignatius’ way of lending the source an air of authority that it doesn’t really have. We can’t know what the source’s agenda might be, and without any other sources to corroborate this claim this amounts to little more than one person’s opinion.
There is also a tendency in a lot of analysis lately to emphasize Xi’s views as if they are the end-all and be-all of Chinese foreign policy. Because Xi has concentrated so much power in his own hands and surrounded himself with loyalists, it is understandable to give the leader’s views significant weight when trying to make sense of what their government is doing, but even in dictatorships there are constraints on what a leader is able to do. While many people have taken to talking about Xi as an “emperor,” we should be wary of focusing so much on the leader that we lose sight of the political and military structures beneath him.
We should also watch out for analysts that make assertions about Xi’s agenda that don’t appear to be based in reality. For example, Hal Brands said this about Chinese foreign policy under Xi: “Beijing is expanding its efforts to create a worldwide network of military bases and logistical facilities, from Djibouti in Africa to the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific.” Except for the base in Djibouti, which was built in 2016 and started to be used in 2017, there is no evidence of these efforts to create a “worldwide network.” There are a few places that have been suggested as possible future sites (e.g., the Solomon Islands, Equatorial Guinea), but there is no evidence that the Chinese government is planning to build bases in these other countries and there is no evidence that the local governments would allow them to build bases. It is amusing that the article Brands cites to back up his claim ends with this assessment: “For the moment, though, a second overseas base of its own remains elusive, let alone a global network.” For the new Cold Warriors, it is imperative to exaggerate Chinese ambitions and Chinese hostile intentions, because without these exaggerations their preferred policies will seem unnecessary and overly aggressive.
War between the United States and China is not inevitable, but it becomes more likely as more and more policymakers and analysts assume that it is bound to happen. The president’s Taiwan remarks over the last year and a half have not helped, and the “sloppy” rhetoric coming from U.S. officials hasn’t helped, either. Bloomberg reports on the concerns many experts and former officials have about the irresponsible and aggressive talk coming from our government in recent months:
The two governments’ muscular rhetoric is drowning out the concerns of some leading US specialists on China who aren’t dovish about Beijing’s behavior but are skeptical of the logic behind Washington’s increasingly aggressive analysis of Beijing as a threat -- and especially what they view as loose talk about the prospect of a military attack on the self-ruled island.
It’s a concern voiced, sometimes on condition of anonymity, by former government officials and by analysts who speak regularly with the Biden administration.
Just as there is no evidence that China is going on a base-building spree, “there’s little public evidence to suggest it’s sped up the timeline to take Taiwan.” Unfortunately, that hasn’t stopped many people in the government from making what seem to be unfounded and reckless claims about the likelihood of an attack in the next few years. The report continues:
That messaging has spurred concern even among supporters of the administration approach. Such comments could “end up provoking the war that we seek to deter,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, who has advised the government on Asia policy.
“It’s just sloppy,” Glaser said in reference to the administration’s comments on Taiwan. “It not only has negative consequences for our relationship with China when we’re so sloppy, but it has consequences for our relations with our allies and partners around the world.”
The “sloppy” remarks coming from top officials are often treated as authoritative instead of speculative by analysts that then reproduce the same sloppiness in their own work. Once these claims are repeated often enough, they are then taken for granted by more and more people that wrongly believe they are relying on solid information. There are careful, well-informed skeptics of the “sloppy” talk coming out of the government, but they are largely being drowned out because the sloppiness gets headlines and attention and sober, balanced analysis doesn’t.
So many of the things that people repeat about China and Chinese foreign policy are like these “sloppy” claims criticized in the report. When you dig into them to find out where they come from, it turns out that they are often based on speculation and guesswork. It probably won’t be long before Ignatius’ single-source claim about Xi’s conviction that the U.S. and China are heading for war will join the others in the growing list of things that analysts claim to “know” about the Chinese government’s planning without having any real evidence. The U.S. goes astray when our leaders make policy decisions on the basis of shoddy analysis and inaccurate information, and right now our thinking about China policy is suffering as a result of both.