US: In any case, this is what the older adults apparently looked like. Athenian and Spartan sizes soon became their enemies in 432 BC magnified and outlined policies and strategies to launch the Peloponnesian War. Judging by their speeches before the war, the Athenian first citizen Pericles agreed with the Spartan king Archidamus that mistakes could play a glaring, not just decisive, role in the war.
Archidamus told Spartans to hope for enemy mistakes but not to rely on them. “In practice, we always base our preparations against an enemy on the assumption that his plans are good; it is indeed right that our hope should not be based on a belief in his mistakes, but on the specific provision of our provisions. ‘It is better to compete competently than to entrust a strategic fortune to hostile incompetence. In turn, Pericles urged Athenians to restrain them from expanding their empire. They have to concentrate their resources for a long battle. He showed confidence in the ultimate outcome if they followed his strategic advice. Preserving mistakes was for him the highest: “I am more afraid of our own mistakes than of the enemy’s devices.” Hence the need to renounce adventurism.
Both antagonists committed their share of the mistakes during the twenty-seven-year conflict, but the course of events bore Pericles’ fears. (The first citizen did not live to fulfill his prophecy. He was struck down by the plague that plagued the city early in the war.) The Athenians obeyed the advice of the adventurer Alcibiades and their entire expedition army and navy dedicated to Sicily’s invasion in 415 BC Catastrophe arose when the Athenian assembly and the commanders of the expedition mishandled the campaign in almost every conceivable way. In fact, it lost all power in a battle against the Sicilian city-state of Syracuse. This is a mistake of epic relationships.
Now consider the state of strategic competition between the US and China through Greek eyes. Which claimant favors the balance of errors?
This is by no means an idle debate. Last week, Admiral Philip Davidson, who heads the US Indo-Pacific Command, went before the US Senate Armed Services Committee to set his tone for the commando’s budget and U.S.-China competition to address. He expressed concern that Beijing might accelerate its campaign to speed up US leadership of the international order with something more Chinese Communist Party leaders want. Moreover, Davidson predicted that by the end of this decade, China would most likely try to seize Taiwan: “I think the threat will be felt during this decade, in fact in the next six years.”
If the countdown to the conflict has indeed begun, who has blundered the least so far, and is this the best position for warfare? It’s hard to say with precision, if only because the United States and its allies and partners are generally open societies. They were given to strike themselves in public, just like classical Athens, a direct democracy. China is anything but a free community. Beijing reveals as little as possible about its internal affairs while constantly harming the state, military, and population (or worse) to follow the party line. It projects the – undoubtedly exaggerated – an image of an ultra-competent competitor. Let’s try some of the competitors’ more fatal mistakes and take a guess at what is more prone to error.
Look at America first. The United States faces questions about its power and solution. Decide first. For the past four years, Washington has repeatedly suggested that it does not regard sacred international alliances – for example, its security ties with Japan and South Korea – as sacred. Doubts about US stability remain likely in related capitals, although the US government is under new management. Diplomatic damage has yet to be repaired – one reason why Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken are currently storming the region.
But American mistakes go beyond politics. There is a come-and-go character to US Navy operations at the strategic and operational level that blunts its effectiveness. Operations “Freedom of navigation” (FONOPs), for example, are essential and must continue. They have legal imports, indicating that the United States rejects excessive claims to maritime jurisdiction – China’s claim that it enjoys ‘unquestionable sovereignty in most of the South China Sea is the prime example. But FONOPs are not a military deterrent. American warships pass through the disputed waters and depart – leaving the maritime militia, coast guard, and navy of China these vast areas at the expense of Southeast Asians. It is not enough to come and go; American forces must go on to have a significant impact.
And then, there are problems in the area of procurement. Most of the peacetime strategy is about forming military implements to support policy. The United States has clearly fallen short in this empire. In the last two decades, new platforms have come on time and on budget. Ford-class aircraft carriers, Zumwalt-class guided-missile destroyers, beach fighter ships – choose your favorite program, and chances are delays and cost overruns will be prominent in the story of the program. The more a program costs, the fewer copies of a platform or weapon the US military can afford. US military can shrink and be concentrated in fewer and fewer implements. The Zumwalt program, for example, went from thirty-two skirts. . . three.
Pericles and Archidamus would shake their heads in dismay over America’s diplomacy, strategy, and arms purchases.
Fortunately for the United States, however, China may be even more unfit. It can be difficult for outsiders to look at the shiny new hardware that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has offered over the past quarter-century. Chinese warships, planes, and other military implements are ‘black boxes’ for foreign observers in peacetime, and PLA commanders guard their secret jealousy. It is safe to say that China is not immune to R & D and manufacturing of its own problems, to say nothing of Murphy’s Law. The extent of their scope is a matter for Western intelligence communities.
Diplomacy is another question. Until about a decade ago, China viewers, including yours, were amazed at Beijing’s zealous efforts to gather “soft power” and alleviate concerns about its rapid rise to local economic and military prominence. It was smart diplomacy. Admiral Zheng He of the Ming Dynasty was the benevolent face of China’s ‘offensive charm,’ aka ‘smile diplomacy’ towards fellow Asians. Because Zheng He traveled through Southeast and South Asia without attempting to do territorial conquest, the story went, Communist China was unable to abuse its neighbors. It was a new, benign kind of navy – in stark contrast to Western empires of past centuries.
Then Beijing summarily dismissed its offensive charm. Zheng He was no longer the face of Chinese regional diplomacy. The ‘Hegemonic King’ glorified in Sun Tzu’s classic treatise The Art of War – a contender who was so strong and determined that it convinced his neighbors and prevented them from making a common cause against it – has a better model for made the new approach. Soft power no longer means a power of civilized attraction that has made target groups suspicious; it means the ability to intimidate.
And indeed, the Chinese official has apparently gone out of his way over the past decade to insult China’s neighbors. It glows rather than smiles. China’s foreign minister has publicly rejected his peers in Southeast Asia: “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that is just a fact.” Can fix. Beijing has repeatedly deployed the maritime militia, coast guard and navy to bully Southeast Asians and deny their maritime rights as codified by the treaty. It challenged a decision of an international court dismissing its claims. It has repeatedly fueled conflict with India, its giant nuclear-armed neighbor. And on and on.
In short, Beijing is guilty of predictable self-destructive behavior. At this point, it is doubtful that it can restore the gentle, gentle approach, even if Xi Jinping and his henchmen wanted to. Memories last a long time. No one will believe fresh assurance of China’s benevolent intention. It is little wonder that China’s bank of allies and partners is shallow and unimpressive while America is deep – and deeper and deeper. Beijing may have made fewer mistakes in the strategic competition so far than Washington – but the diplomatic malpractice is a real doozy.
However, the balance of folly benefits the United States and its friends is no reason for complacency. Carl von Clausewitz recommends that a failure is always an option in strategic competition or warfare. Clausewitz would agree with King Archidamus: it is natural to hope that an antagonist will err, and welcome and exploit such errors when they occur. It is unsafe to depend on an opponent to defeat oneself.
Let’s get started – and be safe.