Scott McDonald is a PhD Candidate at The Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy at Tufts University. His research focuses on the intersection of classical Chinese philosophy and contemporary foreign policy in the leadership of the People’s Republic of China.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Good morning. My name is Scott McDonald. I’m a retired Marine Corps officer. I spent 24 years in the Marine Corps, a good part of which was as a China Foreign Area Officer, so I was trained to study Chinese history, culture, economics, political systems, and then to serve as an advisor to generals, ambassadors, and policy makers. I had a good time doing that. Served as an attaché in Australia, and then in Taipei, Taiwan, as well as operational tours in Okinawa, and as an advisor at headquarters in Marine Corps. I retired and came here to The Fletcher School where I am a PhD Candidate studying international relations. My focus is on understanding PRC foreign policy through the leans of classical Chinese philosophy.
Thank you, do you think you could tell us how you got interested in China, or was that route chosen for you?
Well, it was in part chosen for me. I had an interest in international relations, which I studied as an undergrad. I had a huge interest in political theory, actually. And then I applied for the Marine Corps Foreign Area Officer program and they decided I would be good at Chinese. So they sent me to school to learn Chinese, which was a little frightening to me to be quite honest. It was very challenging. But, as someone already interested in political theory, I found Chinese history fascinating because of the extent to which through Imperial times, and I would argue up to today, China has attempted to put into effect a certain way of viewing the world and ethical political system with varying degrees of success. It’s fascinating from my perspective.
Since you specialize in Chinese history and have a background in the military, could you describe how China saw itself as the Middle Kingdom? Could you describe how that informs how they see themselves now?
Okay, sure. Well, you’re alluding to the classical concept of Chinese centrality, the Middle Kingdom. Scholars will debate what exactly that middle means sometimes. But the key is that if you look back at classical Chinese thought, China was definitely seen as the cultural, if not the metaphysical, center of the world. All things came towards China and, therefore, the emperor led China. If you go back from the metaphysical to ethics, you see that the Confucian ethical system imports a hierarchy. There is a moral hierarchy in the way that human relations are conducted, and that extends up through politics. Appropriate politics is a hierarchy. Now, classical Chinese thought does not have a concept of international relations, per se, because there were none. The emperor sits at the top of a hierarchy, and that hierarchy includes all under heaven. So the leaders in Beijing saw themselves as the top of the world hierarchy, the leader of the world family as it were. So what does that mean today?
Well, whenever I mention classical Chinese philosophy and contemporary foreign policy, people say, “Well, wait, Scott. Didn’t they kill it in the Cultural Revolution?” Certainly, Mao tried to suppress just about anything that said Mao was not in charge. However, he didn’t kill it. They did drive it underground for a while, but the classical Chinese thought system that has informed the development of Chinese culture for over 2,000 years continues to inform the way individuals think and behave and, I would argue, continues to inform the way that the leadership in Beijing acts and ultimately decides what is moral. So I think that the leadership in Beijing today sees themselves as rightfully top of a hierarchy, at the very least regional, if not globally. They expect regional states to show deference to them because they are on top, and they are the cultural and political leaders of the region and feel they should be treated as such.
Could you speak to your experience in the military and how it’s informed your view on what you study now?
Sure. So I have an odd military career. I spent a good portion of my time in diplomatic or analytical roles. Well, I served in the People’s Republic of China, but as a student as part of my training. I didn’t serve there as an attaché or operationally, naturally.
What were some things you learned from working with the PLA diplomats and military?
The diplomats, military and otherwise, that I worked with were, as appropriate for most countries, very focused on the PRC’s interest. They were pursuing what they thought was appropriate for the PRC interest. In Australia, this was mid 2000s, 2005 to 2008, so the PRC was, by all means, coming into its own. They were attempting to expand their footprint in the larger Indo-Pacific region to have influence, to be a player, and to get close to Australia, at that time, as a proxy for getting close to the United States in some regards. There were some things we would not share with them: let’s see if we can get it from the Australians. Let’s develop a relationship with these people who are similar to the Americans, from their perspective. Can we understand them? Can we understand US decision-making? Can we understand US doctrine and strategy through understanding the Australians better? I think there was an explicit attempt to do that, but definitely branching out across the region, looking for what they could learn and how they could advance their interests.
Also, I think there was quite an integration at that level between economic and political interests. This was the time when Australians already used to say, “15 years of uninterrupted economic growth. By the way, part of that comes because we’re digging up our country and selling it to China.” People would tell me this in a half joking manner. The PRC ambassador to Australia at one point basically went to a conference of business leaders and wagged her finger at them. “You guys need to pay attention to who butters your bread,” my words, not hers. “But your economy is dependent on us. You need to be nicer to us. You need to understand that we are the people you need to have good relations with.” Rather explicit in the way she was saying that. So I think they were starting to feel their strength.
This was the early 2000s you said-
Mid 2000s. So how did Obama’s strategy of pivoting towards Asia change that relationship, or did it not?
Well, Obama wasn’t elected when I was in Australia. He was elected after I moved to Taiwan. And then of course, the pivot didn’t come till several years after that. When the pivot first happened, of course, the first thing the PRC does is (everything is an offense to them and, obviously, aimed and targeted at them) so they wag their finger. That’s pro forma. It goes without saying. I think at first there was curiosity in the region. What is this going to mean? Let’s make sure it’s not just military, but we want the United States here. If you spend much time in the region, you find that most states there like the idea of the US being in the region, from a security perspective. They see the US military perspective as stabilizing, and it’s generally good for the region. A lot of countries there save money on their own defense because the US is providing order, and a lot of people do have questions about the PRC’s intentions. So I think at first there was a lot of people, “Okay. Yeah, we want some attention. Matter of fact, the last couple administrations have ignored us.”
The W. Bush administration got a lot of heat from regional leaders because the US kept missing key ASEAN meetings. The Obama administration hit some at first and then went into the same kind of thing. The US policymakers talk about meeting fatigue “There are so many regional meetings. How do we make sure we attend enough so that people think we’re engaged, but not so much that we’re ignoring other issues.” But certainly, the United States was seen as not having been as involved as it could and should have been in the region. I think after the announcement, frankly, the pivot kind of fizzled. This is my opinion. I should have stated at the beginning, my opinions are my own. I do not represent the Department of Defense or any military department. I still am a nonresident research fellow at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, so I should say that. I am retired. But not much happened. Where’s the pivot? I think a lot of people started to realize that there wasn’t much there, and the US probably came into some valid criticism that, well, the only thing we’re hearing about is the military aspect of it when it really should be across components of national power, economic, diplomatic. Let’s face it, ASEAN really wanted to see the diplomatic. “We want to see your diplomats here.” But even the military, it really didn’t happen. There was not this huge shift of forces to the Pacific. It probably drew down less than Europe, and that’s why it rebalanced to some extent. It wasn’t a rush of diplomats. There wasn’t a rush of other tools. So I think the pivot kind of didn’t happen.
And what was China’s take on that?
Well, first of all, obviously, it’s targeting us. And then when it didn’t happen, it’s like who really is going to be here? Who is here in the region that’s going to look out for the region and for you? The People’s Republic of China is Asian. Asia is for Asians. We’re the ones who are actually providing goods. Now, there’s a lag there between, hey, look, we’re the ones you can trust, and when they actually started making more visible attempts to be seen as providing that regional order. But I mean, look, the Americans, they’re never going to be here. They’re going to say they’re here, but they’re not an Asian state from the PRC perspective, and they’re not going to be here for you. So you can’t count on them. In some ways, when we make a promise such as that and then we don’t deliver, we send that message.
When we did that in the meantime, could you describe China’s military buildup, or do you know what they were doing to build up their presence in the region? Or did they more take a back seat at that point?
Well, their naval buildup had already begun and there were certainly an increasing number of ships coming online. There was a bit of curiosity, from our perspective, of what form that would take. Would they start producing more landing ship amphibious docks, LPDs? There was a new prototype. We thought suddenly a whole bunch more of those would come out. They didn’t for a while. People were still going around. Were they going to turn the Varyag (Russian aircraft carrier the PRC refurbished and calls the Liaoning) into an operational carrier or not? A lot of focus on that time was at the missiles. Defense analysts get wrapped up in range rings and these missile systems and they have the DF-21 Delta and they have this and they have that. How many missiles do they have? What’s the total number of short-range ballistic missiles currently sitting opposite Taiwan on the PRC coast? I mean this is a lot of what you saw in the press at the time. They were steadily working on their navy, experimenting building up. Now it’s like, “Oh yeah, look. They have the largest navy in the world. Where did that come from?” Well, it didn’t happen overnight. They were already working on it. But I don’t think that the pivot, per se, led to this large change in PRC naval development. I think there was something already underway.
Okay. Could you speak to the US/Chinese military relationship, maybe what you’ve personally experienced and then also your knowledge of it?
You mean mil-to-mil exchanges, right?
The US/PRC mil-to-mil relationship is anemic. There’s very little there. Most of what does happen, happens because the United States begs and pleads for it, and the PRC parcels it out when it wants something. To the extent that it happens, I think it is largely meaningless. In the military, we see that there’s a certain value in getting to know people, working with someone so you understand them. You build some common knowledge. The PLA, People’s Liberation Army, and it’s naval and air components are all traditionally very tight-lipped. They come, they do what they want to do, and they go away. You don’t get a whole lot out of those exchanges. You don’t see a whole lot of common bilateral understanding being built. From the PRC perspective, they seem to be a lot more research trips. What can we learn from the Americans? Can we show the Americans as little as humanly possible?
The United States has long been very committed to enhancing military-to-military cooperation, not just with the PRC, but around the world. It’s one of the things our military does, military diplomacy. We go, we work with people, we build trust, we build confidence, we understand each other, we all get better, we see it as ultimately reducing the chance of conflict, we think this works, and so we have gone out of our way to ask the PRC for this. The PRC cuts it off. The United States makes a noise that they don’t like, they cut it off. Why do they cut it off? Because they know the United States wants it. We beg and plead to reopen it. They reopen those exchanges as a concession to get something, and there’s still nothing there. It’s still a useless exchange, generally. So I think a blindness on the United States’ perspective has caused us to push for it and use it as a marker. The PRC has no desire for substantive military-to-military exchanges, and they have used it as a tool to toy with us.
So, it sounds like [the United States] shouldn’t keep doing that.
I’ve long counseled that we should stop begging for it. If they really value it, they’ll come and ask for it. We should make them come and ask for it because we’ve gone out of our way to not just offer it, but to beg for it, and we get almost nothing.
I’m just curious. Could you give some examples of when we offered and it hasn’t been successful and also maybe when we’ve offered and it has? Has there ever has been a success?
The United States has spent years tryiing and I was never directly involved with it, so I can’t give you all the day-to-day details. But the United States spent years attempting to get a signed MMCA, which is the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement, which is basically an attempt to have something in writing that both parties understand the systems in place for communicating with one another should we come into contact at sea. In other words, sharing information about where we’re going to be so there’s no oopsies, so we don’t stumble into conflict. This was hugely important to the United States. We will get them to sign this and it’ll make everything better. I think, once again, they used it as a tool. “Oh yeah. We’ll come to that meeting. Oh no. We’re upset at you right now because somebody made a noise that sounded vaguely positive about Taiwan, so we’re not going to come to the MMCA meeting this year. Oh no, everything’s broken.” Next year, “Don’t you want to come? Don’t you want to come? Please come to the MMCA meeting.” “Okay. We’ll come this year, but … So if you meet with these Taiwan people at this time, this ain’t going to happen.” “Oh no, we won’t meet with the Taiwanese.”
Often, not that explicit. So the United States pursued and pursued and pursued this, and it became very important to the United States. As a result, the PRC could use it because they didn’t care. This is [my own] opinion. They do not care. Even if they sign it, they don’t care. They’re going to use it when it’s valuable to them maybe. But because we’re very open and we’re very into cooperative exchanges, we think we’ll build relationships. We’ll be able to talk to people. When there’s a crisis, we’ll be able to pick up the phone and call somebody, and we can help to dial it back and ensure there’s not a crisis. A lot of effort was put into building those relationships in the late 1990s. And then when the EP-3 (The US Navy surveillance aircraft) incident happened (2001), when the PRC fighter bumped into it and knocked it out of the sky, we picked up the phones and started calling all these people we’ve made great relationships with in the military and Ministry of National Defense. You know what happened? They refused to answer the phone. Nobody would pick up the phone. So all that work building that cooperation, building that relationship for this, it proved ineffective.
I think MMCA is important, and we do that kind of thing with lots of states. There’s something called CUES, a cooperative agreement that relates to unexpected encounters at sea. We sign it with lots of people is the idea. We think it’s a great idea. It has benefit. But because it became so important to us and arguing for it with the PRC, they were able to use it like a bait. “Come on, come on, come on,” like they’re toying with a puppy. When we make something so important that they can do that, they use it to lead us around. We chased MMCA. We chased mil-to-mil engagement, and it’s largely gotten us nothing. What has it gotten the PRC? It’s gotten us focused on something that was unimportant. I mean do they get actual benefit from that whole rigamarole? Probably not a whole lot, except when they can draw a concession from us in order to get the meeting for MMCA, draw a concession from us in order to get mil-to-mil engagement even if that concession is not explicit. Just like self-censoring to not say anything about Taiwan in certain windows or not sell weapons to Taiwan now, because if we do, they’ll cancel the MMCA meeting. So we start self-censoring because we want this meeting and they get that action on our part. So I don’t think it’s been very successful at all. Then we invite them to RIMPAC (Rim of the Pacific – the world’s largest naval exercise; It is a multinational event that the US Pacific fleet hosts) and everything will be better. That worked well. Because even though they were in RIMPAC, they still felt a need to spy on it. That’s a mistake of Chinese messaging. That’s a mess up on their part. But it shows they’re not approaching mil-to-mil engagement from the same perspective that we are. So you’re not going to have this mutual benefit thing until we’re actually trying to get the same sort of benefits out of it and, right now, we’re not.
Since we’re not, what kind of strategies do you suggest that we employ in the South China Sea as well as Taiwan if we can’t get the engagement we’re looking for?
Well, I think-
Or cooperation at least.
I think US policy has focused far too much on pleasing China or doing this, that, and the other in order to get a certain reaction out of China. We want the PRC to do this. We’re afraid the PRC is going to do X, so we’re going to do Y.
This kind of reminds me of the paper that you shared earlier.
Right. “Forget China,” right?
I think we are focusing far too much on the PRC. We need to start looking at the region and say, “What does the United States want in the Indo-Pacific? What should the Indo-Pacific look like?” And start building that. Now, I would argue eventually, yes, we would like the PRC to be a player in the Indo-Pacific in a constructive manner, absolutely. But if they’re unwilling to do so, we don’t pander to them to try to get them to like it. What we need to do is work with those who are like-minded, who want a productive, free, and open region to build it. And then if they’re unwilling to join it, they’ll stay on the outside. That’s just the way it’s going to be. If they eventually realize the benefits of it, then maybe they’ll get involved. In my paper, which was published in The Fletcher Security Review, I specifically point out that if you focus on individual interest, this interest, we share this interest with countries, A, B, and C. Okay, we’ll work together. Country D doesn’t share that interest. But we do share interest Y with country D, so we’ll work together on that, and maybe B and E come along as well. You start building small interest-based coalitions. This was eventually adopted in the Indo-Pacific security framework as partnerships for a purpose. But have you seen those?
Yeah. I’ve …
No, I mean have you seen a partnership for a purpose?
Right. I think the Free and Open Indo-Pacific, for all its fits and starts in getting going and these ideas of partnerships for a purpose within it, I think there’s value there. But like the pivot, it never really happened. So where are you, United States?
When I was just listening to a Laura Rosenberger interview, she made a similar point where the AUKUS partnership could be open to working with other ASEAN countries on specific issues, but she didn’t seem to have a process for that.
Yeah. My perspective on that, first of all, AUKUS came out of nowhere … There it is. What’s it do? Nuclear subs. Okay, bam. It’s a very specific thing. It’s going to do some other stuff maybe, possibly one day down the road. Okay. Let’s focus on individual things we can do. Hey, if there’s a value in Australia having nuclear subs, let’s do that. But is this AUKUS thing necessarily something that needs to expand throughout the region? Or should we focus on what we can do in other places? Everybody in the region, including the United States, has issues with trafficking in persons, and we all have an interest in stopping it. So that’s something we can go work together on. Protecting territorial seas is something we can work together on. Find legal niche things where we can have these mini lateral coalitions, but it’s not just ad hoc mini-lateralism. Set it up for a purpose. “Hey, we’re going do this. This time that state’s going to lead.” It’s not always going to be the United States, but we’re going to be involved.
Matter of fact, what I would argue is going back to the Free and Open Indo-Pacific’s idea of ASEAN centrality is each of these should be couched under one of the plethora of ASEAN organizations. I forget the name of it off the top of my head. There’s an ASEAN law enforcement organization. Trafficking in persons partnership, we should meet annually at the ASEAN law enforcement conference. Come together and say, “Hey, what’s going on? How are we doing on this? We’re going to send out a task force to patrol it. Who’s providing the ships? Who’s providing the commander? Who else is providing forces? Let’s go.” Money laundering, there’s a financial task force under ASEAN. I don’t know the name. It’s not a task force. It’s some sub-organization. But identify that. Come together around it. So AUKUS might be the wrong forum to expand. Most parties in the region are not looking for another alliance they can sign their name to. People don’t want to get into binding alliances anymore. Frankly, the United States is not looking for more binding alliances. You’ll notice AUKUS is not one. There’s no treaty. We have no ratification going on. Nobody wants to do that. This is just an agreement. We’re going to work together. It requires no Senate ratification. People don’t want to do that. People are looking to work together on things that are important to them. Find the things that are important and leverage them to build a region where there is security, there’s stability, and all nations and peoples are free to pursue their own interest at their own liberty.
So do you think organizations or coalitions like AUKUS are detrimental and not helpful? Or are they still helpful in some way?
Well, the alliances that already exist, obviously … I shouldn’t say obviously because there will be people that disagree. I think they provide some value because they’re already there. There’s stability. There’s familiarity. Neither party with the various bilateral arrangements we have in region are interested in shedding it at the moment. I mean let’s not shed them. I don’t know that the AUKUS moniker in and of itself was necessarily the best branding. I made the joke. It’s awkward is what it is. Just bam, suddenly out of nowhere and anger the French as you do it, who view themselves as an important Pacific power.
Yes. Remember the French still have possessions in the South Pacific. One of their two marine brigades is stationed at New Caledonia. They spend a lot of time sailing ships around the Pacific. In fact, they’ve shifted more that way in the early 2000s. They want to work together with us. I’m not saying that that’s a reason in and of itself not to have nuclear-powered submarines in Australia. That decision was made long after I left Australia, and I’ve not put a whole lot of intellectual energy into figuring out what their submarine force should look like. Not necessarily my area of expertise. But the idea is, well, okay, do we really need … I mean they sold it almost as like an alliance, but it’s not. I think they just confused people and then say, “There’s going to be other stuff.” What other stuff? What is this for? They just ask questions. Let’s be specific. You know what? Australia’s made the decision that the region will be more stable, more secure if they can do longer-range patrols, leveraging the capabilities of nuclear-powered submarines.
We have expertise in this and a long history of working with them as the British. So we’re going to work together on the Australian nuclear propulsion initiative. We see this as a benefit for regional stability. The branding just, it gave people something to snipe at. We’re working on that, but did we tell you, we’re also working on trafficking in persons with Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, and we’re meeting at ASEAN next week? That would be like, “Hey, look, we’re working together for regional stability.” We agree with all these people about all these things. Let’s do that. So I don’t think there’s necessarily a problem with Australia getting nuclear-powered submarines. I think the branding was probably unnecessary and ultimately detrimental. How you communicate these things matters. The words are important, and the words and actions have to link up. The words on AUKUS looked like … new alliance. The action was, “Hey, we’re helping them out with some nuclear-powered submarines.” Is there something else there? I don’t know. It’s unclear right now. Here now, how long ago was that? Almost a year ago? And it’s still unclear.
What do you think China thinks about AUKUS or coalition building around its region?
Publicly, they’re always going to wag the finger and yell containment. There’s a certain extent to which, even though I don’t think the United States should and probably is not exercising a containment strategy, there is some extent to which people in Beijing fear that. That goes back to their own understanding of the existence and the structure of the international system and how they view the use of space and specifically emptiness. While part of me says it’s a bit disingenuous to say that, I can also see a little bit how they see that. But the truth of the matter is you have the United States attempting to maintain a system that it sees as beneficial to itself and to the region because the United States sees it’s in its interest because being a relatively liberal trading state. “This is good for you, and it’s good for us,” I think the United States thinks. But that system goes against the hierarchical understanding that the leadership in Beijing has of the international system. If states are wrapped up in ties with the United States, they see that as undercutting their ability to influence their environment to a certain extent. So from that perspective, I understand how they see some of this as threatening. Now, I think that they need to understand, in the long run, they benefit from that system. Well, the problem is who is they?
The people of China will benefit from that system. The party might be another question. The leadership in Beijing, their main concern is keeping the party in power. The party has struggled over the years to manage how they both maintain power and get a vibrant economy, which they see is important to maintaining power, but not so vibrant that it goes off the rails and challenges their position. So I personally don’t think a vibrant free trading region is a negative for China. The leadership in Beijing, I think, sees it that way at present. That’s why I say you have to ignore them for the moment. Of course, I say that a little bit flippantly. You cannot ignore them completely, but you have to craft your policy with your aims in mind, not theirs. And then if you are successful, there will be an incentive for them to be part of it because the getting is good, because there are things to be gained by engaging with that system. But the West has pursued a policy of just let’s do what we have to do to get close to the PRC because then they will see that the system is good. But in that attempt to get close to the PRC, we’ve undercut the very liberal system we’re attempting to establish, I think. So we need to stop worrying about being attractive to them and be good for us. If they come to realize it’s attractive for them, they will join. If they don’t, they’re the ones who are going to suffer, not us.
I can also see if they don’t really see eye to eye with us on this, the competition can be hard to manage in terms of military escalation. So how do you suggest we manage competition that’s been rising? How do you see that being a problem?
Well, I think it’s important to point out that while this situation of strategic competition does exist because the PRC and the United States have interests that are in conflict, they are competing to some extent. I’ll have to go out to qualify this in a second. But that has largely not taken the form of military competition. We’re not having military clashes.
Hopefully not. Never.
Hopefully not. Now, the counter to that as well, they’ve challenged our surveillance aircraft. Well, they escort our ships through the South China Sea.
Now they have a bigger navy.
Yeah, which they see as territorial waters and they’re escorting our ships. Now did you see they have now very explicitly said that the Taiwan Strait is not international waters?
I didn’t see that yet.
Yeah. Which even they didn’t used to say. This came out of the Shangri-La Dialogue. I can’t remember if he actually said it there, but I think he said it there that, “No, no, that’s not international waters.” I mean they’ve long been working at redefining what territorial waters is under UNCLOS. Because under UNCLOS even if they were to take Taiwan, the Taiwan Strait is an international waterway outside of 12 miles from either shore. But they’re saying explicitly, “No, it’s not.”
Yeah. Isn’t it 80 to 100 miles wide?
Wide? Yeah. Nautical miles, I think that the closest part is 90. I forget the exact figure. It also depends on whether you measure the line horizontal or closest point to closest point. I think it was who measures it. There are these statements, and there’s a chance for military competition because the United States is going to continue to sail ships through that international waterway. That statement suggests the PRC is going to be more challenging of that, which-
It has been.
No, no, no. I mean through the Taiwan Strait, it hasn’t been as much.
Oh, I mean in the air.
Now, no, I’m getting to that. That’s different. But I’ll get to that in a second. Will they start putting more naval vessels in close proximity to US Naval vessels sailing to the Taiwan Strait? Of course, when you do that, you do raise the chance of miscalculation and-
… accidental conflict because neither party actually wants to get in a shooting war. It’s the accidents that are going to cause something to happen, which is the real threat of challenging the surveillance flights, too. No problem, them coming up and flying next to a surveillance flight. When they start acting silly and unprofessional and dropping chaff into the engines of Australian P-8’s (Maritime Patrol Aircraft, P-8 Poseidon, a US built system based on the Boeing 737) we have a problem. That’s when you end up with people dead, and that’s when escalation happens. So yeah, they’re being a little more aggressive in that regard, trying to scare the Westerners away, I think. Of course, that’s when the Westerners specifically don’t want to back away. I don’t know, is that a cross-cultural communication issue? IR theory will tell you that when you threaten somebody, they’re likely to reciprocate, so this should be predictable. Now, the sorties crossing the Taiwan Strait is another issue, crossing the center line down south and purposely causing Taiwan to scramble their air force or, at the very least, to light up their air defense radars to track the flights, so it raises the risk of escalation. If a Taiwan fighter is up there next to a PRC fighter and somebody jiggles the stick wrong and somebody dies, then bad things are going to happen. I think part of what they’re doing is desensitizing and possibly attempting to divert attention. I looked at a map, and I noticed where they were flying. I noticed that most of these sorties go in such a way as to cut off Pratas Reef. In Chinese, it’s Dongsha, which is owned by Taiwan.
I’ve heard of that.
It’s very, very far in the north part of the South China Sea. That’s a reef that, until recently, the Taiwan only had coast guard on. I think they’ve moved some forces out there. But I think they were isolating it because that’s easy to take. Now that they have military force, it’s a little harder. But “oops, there was a distress call at Pratas Reef. We went and saved our compatriots and now that belongs to us. We’ve isolated it in the air.” I was afraid that was going to happen. Should they choose to invade, it also does a good job of misdirecting because these keep happening down south. If they’re going to invade, they’re going to invade the north. So it gets everybody looking south when they’re actually going to go north, so something to think about. Don’t look at where they want you to look. Look at where’s important. But that was a very long digression from your question on military-to-military competition with the US and China. Both are certainly building forces to be able to handle one another. Both don’t want to fight one another. The PRC’s a little more willing and anxious to. If they feel they have to take Taiwan and that means a war with the United States, then they’ll do so, but they’d prefer not to.
This is unrelated to Taiwan because I feel like we could just go in circles all day about Taiwan. But, I remember we talked about how you said that China does not see climate as an area of collaboration with the US. I was wondering why that is and if that could change.
I don’t remember exact context in which we were discussing that before. They certainly don’t see climate as the issue the way that the West does. I mean I think the Copenhagen to Paris to Hangzhou story is very interesting. Because in Copenhagen, where Obama invested a lot of personal capital, the PRC went in there to spoil the negotiations, to ensure that nothing happened and, in doing so, they showed who was in charge. Now, not everybody might agree with that, but I think from the PRC’s perspective, they demonstrated to the West who was in charge. In Paris, they went in very explicitly saying that there would be a deal and we will make sure it happens. So what happens? There’s a deal. And then we deposit the instruments of—it’s not ratification because we didn’t ratify–but deposit the official instruments of joining. Where? In Hangzhou at a special meeting with just Xi and Obama and Ban Ki-moon prior to the G20–the new G2 as Xi wants to see it–shaping how this looks in terms of global authority. Climate negotiations are a tool. They are important to the West because of their own notions about what the climate situation is and what humans can do for or against it. The PRC is just using it as another international issue that it can use to its advantage. “But wait, Scott, they had bad pollution at home and they’re changing it.” Yeah. They have. You know what? Years ago, we had bad pollution in parts of the United States as well. These are technological problems. For the PRC, it did start to become a political problem when people in the PRC started to care. There was that whole thing in Beijing about how many parts per million and the sensors on the US embassy and being tweeted out and people reading it and starting to tell the government, “No, you should fix this.”
So they’ve understood that to some extent, but that’s a domestic issue. International climate negotiations, it’s international power relations 101. Who’s in charge? I think that they’ve used it that way. Also, used it to demonstrate that they’re one of the big leaders and that they care about all of the forgotten people that the West doesn’t. “Hey, developing countries, we got your back. We understand you. The West wants you to abandon fossil fuels and, as a result, abandon development because you’re poor and need energy. They want you to commit suicide. We’re the ones saying, ‘No, you don’t need to commit suicide. You can actually continue to develop.’” That’s a powerful message. They’ve used it while the West keeps saying, “No, commit suicide. Commit suicide.” Whether your readers agree with that or not, that’s the way it’s viewed in a lot of developing countries where you have the West, this capability to respond to the climate because you have this economy with fossil fuels and power and energy that you can adapt your world and you can produce things. “We don’t, and you don’t want us to have it. Who’s standing up for us?” The PRC. So they’ve used it very effectively to put themselves in a leadership role. I think that’s the important thing. If you want to look at US versus the PRC competition, you want to talk about climate, how many degrees Celsius, whatever. They don’t care. It’s about power relationships and who is in charge. But the West doesn’t view it that way. Because of that, PRC and the West are playing different games. We can have an argument over which one is correct if you want, but my point is, you’re not going to come to agreement when you’re not even playing the same game. The first step is to understand that there’s different games going on.
Then going back to, I guess, more to the military aspect, do you think this should be incorporated into military strategy as more climate, political, and economic issues should be now considered when we’re thinking about military competition with China?
What do you mean? How do you think the military should look at climate?
As in do you think, for example, there are cobalt mines in the Congo (material that you need for an electric battery) and the PRC now has a lot of legal authority over those mines. Do you think the military should be factoring in those types of, I guess, decisions or natural resources when deciding where to compete with China or where to put in new bases, for example?
So the US military does not decide where to compete with China. The US military is a tool. The political leadership is civilian, and it’s in charge. So questions about international relations and the manner in which we might compete with the PRC is a civilian political decision. I want to be very clear that the US military should not be determining that. “Hey, there are resources that the PRC wants and we either want them as well or we don’t want them to have them.” That’s a political decision. Military strategy is much more how I accomplish the objectives and the policy established by civilian leadership. So I don’t want the US military to be determining where it’s going to start attacking people around the world–not the military’s job. The United States remains the constitutional Republic for now, and we should keep it that way. The military should be under civilian control. In terms of from a state to state level resource competition, it is a difficult question in this regard because the United States of America being that relatively liberal constitutional republic, the government, per se, is not as involved in resource competition. That is a private enterprise–I’m sorry, that is a task of private enterprise. The counter argument, “oh yes, but there’s strategic materials and the United States has always emphasized looking after strategic materials.” Okay. Is the digging up of those materials in the Congo by another state actually a threat to the United States? Personally, I don’t know enough about battery construction to argue that. Is that the only place those materials are available? I don’t think so.
From my limited knowledge, I think there are other places, including in water south of Hawaii, that people such as Japan and the United States are prospecting on. Part of the reason the United States does not join UNCLOS is because the impact it would have on the ability of US companies to go mine that sort of thing. That’s largely been forgotten because the UNCLOS argument is now we should join because China’s part. Wait a second. Why did the United States not join it? US companies would have their profits taken away if they were off prospecting for those things under UNCLOS. So that actually is a deterrent to companies to go mine this stuff–which we now need–if we were to join UNCLOS. There’s some other reasons, too, such as the amendment procedure and circumventing the ratification authorities of the Senate. But anyway, that’s an aside. So these resource competition over time, yeah, we got really concerned about oil in the Middle East. Did it really turn out to be that important? Some people will say yes. But you know what? There’s other sources of oil. Matter of fact, the Middle East now is actually probably in danger of falling into unimportance because there are so many other sources of oil out there. So I have a hard time saying, “Well, we should rush into the Congo because the PRC is mining there.” No. If it’s valuable for US private companies to go in there, by all means, they should go in and mine some stuff. But I personally am not that worried about that. Frankly, the PRC traipsing around Africa is causing it as many problems as benefits. Now, they’re learning, in their defense. But a lot of their attempts to economically develop Africa have created some antibodies in terms of, “Hey, you’re just taking our stuff and you’re treating us bad and all the value’s going to Chinese companies.” They’ve heard that, and they’re starting to adjust. But yeah, I have a hard time getting that up in arms about some resources in the middle of Africa. That might not be a popular opinion.
Yeah. I guess just going back to defense and Taiwan, obviously, Taiwan is a huge supplier of semiconductors, TSMC. The US has opened a new building in Arizona in collaboration with TSMC. The US is looking to, I’ve heard from watching interviews with Laura Rosenberger, to continue this collaboration with Taiwan in terms of semiconductors. I’ve also read that China is now investing in its own very high-tech semiconductor industry. How do you think this will play out in the defense of Taiwan?
Well, the PRC’s investment in more semiconductors is not new. They’ve been working on it for a bit because it’s one of those areas where they have realized that they’re dependent on other states, on companies that they don’t have control over. They like to have control over the companies that they’re dependent upon. Matter of fact, there was a couple years ago where you’re having Huawei versus the US government, et cetera, et cetera. Suddenly, there was talk about limits on chip export, and now Huawei is lobbying the US Congress, “No, don’t put in these restrictions. You’ll kill us because we need your chips.” The Huawei routers that we’re afraid of spreading around the world need Western chips in order to operate because of … There’s the dog. Because of all this integration there. The fact that 90% of the world semiconductor market is focused there in Taiwan has caused many people some consternation. We have this whole national foundries program where there are key national security-related pieces of technology that we need to make sure we have access to. The national foundries, I’m not sure actually if they use that to incentivize the building of a TMSC plant in Arizona. I know one’s being built. Exactly how that happened, I don’t know. But I think there’s a valid case to make sure we have access to some high-tech chips. Some chips are produced here in the United States. TSMC just happens to be a great little company that’s on the cutting edge and has been for years. Their best chips are generally produced in Taiwan, a couple generations ago were produced in mainland China. But the best stuff is produced right there in Hsinchu. So a lot of people are nervous that should a shooting war happen…… nobody gets chips. COVID showed us. That was due, I think, probably more to shipping than actual chip production, but some chip production, is just how much we all rely on all those chips now. You drive by a car dealership-
So do you think that’s a big enough deterrent to prevent it?
The thing is the CCP has made Taiwan very important to themselves. It’s their own fault, to be quite honest. They could have walked away very easily several decades ago. In fact, at one point, Mao told the Americans there in Yan’an, “We don’t care. Take Taiwan.” But then once they started telling everybody it was important and telling the people it was important, they’ve backed themselves into a corner and an increasingly untenable corner because, contrary to what the leaders in Beijing may think, Taiwan is no longer Chinese. I mean yeah. The majority of people there are ethnic Chinese, but they’re Taiwanese. They’re different. You spent some time there, right?
Yes. I lived in Kaohsiung two years.
Yeah, they’re not the same. My experience is they don’t view themselves the same.
I would say that a lot of the young people I met and I asked them the question, “How do you identify?” They would say, “I’m from Taiwan. I’m Taiwanese.” But they didn’t really have much, I don’t know, dislike or hate towards China. It’s more that they wanted to identify on their own. So I thought that was interesting. And then I also have some friends in the PRC who go a little bit mum on the subject as well. I think they realize they have been educated their whole life into thinking that it was this. One friend who has studied abroad there actually, I think, changed her mind a little bit, but-
But she spent time in Taiwan.
Most people in mainland have not.
Yes, or as tourists. Yeah.
Yes, well, I lived in Taiwan when the first influx of mainland tourists came in, and they didn’t interact with the Taiwanese. The standard tour bus to here, tour bus to there, you go in this hotel. You eat at the dinner we’ve arranged. Not even like, “We must keep you separate from.” It’s just this is the tour structure.
Chinese tours all over the US are like this, too.
Yes, exactly, and in Europe. They’re exactly the same. So the only interaction that they had with local Taiwanese was the waitresses who was just handing them food, and they would sit in their hotel rooms at night. They wouldn’t go out on the street, most of them, anecdotally. They would spend most of their time watching Taiwanese TV, just marveling at the news talking head shows because they’re just yelling at each other because they had the talking head shows in the evening on Taiwan news shows. So they thought that was interesting, but they didn’t engage with the Taiwanese. So I think most people still don’t know what the Taiwanese are. Just anecdotally from my own experience in the mainland, which is now a little bit old, but from what I hear from others is most people in PRC, the danger of gross generalizations, very nationalist attitude towards Taiwan: “They are ours.” I think the party certainly sees it that way and fears that they might have to. I think there’s probably portions of the military that are itching to do it. But I think there’s portions of the party that are actually afraid that they might have to invade because they know it’s not going to be easy. They know it’s going to be very disruptive and that while, if Taiwan were to declare independence, if they do not invade, they risk their position of power. However, the very act of invading, they put everything at risk as well because there is a very good chance that does not go well for them. That is not going to be an easy military operation. So it’s going to be bad for everybody if it happens.
I guess ending with this then, is this the next thing that the US should be focusing on most in the Indo-Pacific: the possibility of an invasion in the future of Taiwan or just escalation?
I think the main thing the United States should be focusing on is building a Free and Open Indo-Pacific that meets our objectives, our values. I know that that policy was started under the Trump administration, but the Biden administration did adopt it, which I think is a good idea because I think there’s a lot of good in that. Frankly, we change policies far too often, and our regional partners have no idea what we’re talking about when we’re constantly changing. It’s good to have a little continuity. But we need to actually do something about it and pursue that, working with partners across the region. Now Taiwan, since that’s what you asked about, I think it is in our interest to ensure that that is a near impossible problem for the PRC, so that they do not attack it. We should continue to sell them (Taiwan) what they need to defend themselves and promote their continued attempts to gain some international space because, frankly, they have a lot to offer and that makes them more difficult to crack. Them being taken over by force is not good for anybody. The party doesn’t realize this, but it’s not good for them in the long run either. So I don’t think that should be our focus, but you asked me what should we do in Taiwan. We should help ensure that they are an unattractive target for invasion. Is that a good answer?
Yes, is there anything else you want to add about specifically your military experience, defense, security?
I really enjoyed working with Taiwan military when I was there, as the attaché. They are eager to do well and professional, and I think they spend a lot of time looking at their operational problem. I think that would be a horrible disaster should that come to military blows because it is going to be a meat grinder, and it’s not going to go well for anybody. Whether or not the PRC ultimately succeeds is a very open question, but it’s going to be painful for them. It’s only gotten worse because their actions in Hong Kong have mobilized the populace of Taiwan in a way that they were not before.
I think also Taiwan watching Ukraine has given them something to think about.
Well, I think Hong Kong helped convince a lot of people in Taiwan that, oh my God, this is a real threat. I do care and don’t want to be taken over. Because there was a big concern on the island and the United States that there was a lot of ambivalence there. “Yeah, we’re unique. We’re Taiwanese. But you know what? I want to get my kid into college and that’s good.” Of course, that’s a natural. You’re concerned about the here and now. I think Hong Kong helped convince a lot more Taiwanese that I really care that “I’m Taiwanese and I don’t want to be taken over.” I think Ukraine has also given people some hope. “Yeah, we can stand up to them. Matter of fact, our situation is better than Ukraine’s because we don’t have a land border. They have to get across the strait. We can do this.” So the challenge on Taiwan to the PRC is greater than it used to be. Now, of course, the PRC is also looking at Ukraine and looking at the mistakes that the Russians made and recalculating and figuring out what they need to do. But I think the combination of Hong Kong and Ukraine has made that an even tougher nut to crack. I just read an article a couple of days ago. Taiwanese are taking military self-defense classes to learn what to do should it come to blows.
Yes, a kind of a self DIY situation.
Yeah. DIY guerrilla warfare, yeah. But we’ll see. It’ll be interesting. Hopefully, we don’t have to find out. Did I answer all your questions?
Yeah, I think those were all my questions. I’m glad we got to talk more about the security aspect. The climate thing was just an aside. I was curious.
Well, I think it’s very interesting. People ask me that a lot because especially after Paris, a lot of people are like, “Look, they’re like us. They’re on our side.” I think, well, no. The party pursues its objectives for the party’s sake, and you always have to remember that. We make the mistake of looking at the PRC like they’re little Americans because we’re familiar with Americans. So we’re going to mirror image onto them. This is what they think. No, you have to look at it from their perspective.
Which I think is also why your thesis dissertation is going to be so useful.
Hopefully so. I just got to finish writing it. Thanks, Nicola.
Thank you so much.