Newspapers on display in the city of Guangzhou, China.

Newspapers on display in the city of Guangzhou, China. Rob Crandall / Shutterstock

The Surest Way to Lose to China Is to Disparage Expertise

In this new era of great power competition, we are not investing enough in area specialists.

In the White House, university halls, and op-eds pages, experts are under siege. President Trump calls them “terrible,” and so it is little surprise that most of the individuals driving his China policy are not China specialists, do not speak Mandarin, and have little in-country experience.

The most recent critique of area specialists came in the form of an op-ed by my colleague Hal Brands. The piece argues that “great power gurus” – those primarily well-versed in international relations theory—have a better track record at predicting Chinese behavior than China hands. Brands is not alone; many generalists believe their positions are somehow less biased and reflect better analysis and strategic thinking because they are not, in the words of Aaron Friedberg, “a card-carrying member of the China-watching fraternity.”

Is Hal Brands correct? The evidence he offers does not make an open-and-shut case. Robert Kagan predicted in 1997 that China would challenge the United States in the region and perhaps globally, but it didn’t happen for at least a decade and a half. Beijing’s strategy of reassuring smaller countries and prioritizing positive relations with great powers created a relatively stable and peaceful environment in Asia until, arguably, 2012. Also, whether generalists admit it or not, they have relied on the hard work of China hands in their own research. In making his argument that China will “struggle for mastery in Asia,” Friedberg relies on specialists’ assessments of Chinese history and strategic culture, as well as numerous Chinese sources translated for him by Chinese speakers. Lastly, you have to evaluate predictions as a whole. In 2014, John Mearsheimer predicted great power rivalry with proxy wars between American allies and Chinese allies and attempts by Beijing to forge ties with Canada and Mexico to weaken U.S. dominance in the Western Hemisphere. Neither have happened. 

To state the obvious, there are people on both sides who got it wrong. All experts should be humble about their assessments and open to the ways that Chinese interests, behavior, and strategy may change. Also, the knowledge of history, strategy and theory continues to be useful tools in research, analysis and advocacy. For this reason, many foreign-policy China hands of this generation invest in building equally strong theoretical backgrounds as they do in country knowledge. But for whatever reason, we are seeing a trend of discounting area expertise. Because of this, many of us couch our research agendas in language that appeals to generalists and downplay our strong China backgrounds for the sake of publishing in political science journals or scoring tenure.

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Creating a political culture that values China experts is about more than just ego. As Brands also argues, the United States needs a good strategy if is to prevail. Developing such a strategy is only possible by including China experts whose bread and butter is deciphering what motivates Chinese behavior as well as how to shape and constrain it. Even some generalists admit they are less proficient at the “how” and “why” than those with area expertise. It is one thing to predict that Chinese military power will grow, it is quite another to predict the anti-access area denial strategy that China initially adopted; or to predict that China would rely primarily on coercive diplomacy, information operations and lawfare to promote its claims in the South China Sea. China specialists can tell us why China still only has one overseas base, and why it is in Djibouti; why China has chosen to expand its power globally initially through One Belt, One Road and not a global military presence like the United States; or why China was unlikely to liberalize as it became richer. 

The United States has a long history of strategic blunders allowed by a disregard for area expertise — Iraq, anyone? — and must take pains to avoid a new one with regard to China. As tensions increase between the two countries, the likelihood of military conflict is increasing in tandem. There are a lot of dangerous ideas that floating around military circles at the Pentagon that any China expert could recognize and debunk. To name a few: “If you can credibly show China that taking Taiwan by force would be costly, that would deter such an action.” Or “if there were a conflict in the region, most countries would side with the United States since we are the security partner of choice.” Or “if there were a conflict between China and the United States, the Party would simultaneously be dealing with social instability caused by a lack of public support for the hypothetical campaign.” Or “China would probably not intervene on the Korean peninsula, in a conflict and if it did, it would be in support of Kim Jung Un.” Or “China wants to compete with the United States on the global stage militarily as well as politically and economically; we can win the competition by tricking China to overextend itself militarily geographically and in building military systems it does not need.” All these ideas are drawn from other great power competitions, especially from combatting the Soviet Union during the Cold War. All are wrong. All would have devastating consequences if implemented to their logical conclusions. 

One lesson we could apply from the Cold War is the value of country expertise, which helped the United States to prevail over the Soviet Union. In this new era of great power competition, we are not investing enough in this much needed cadre. One recent survey of international relations scholars, about 10 percent conducted research on all of East Asia, less than those conducting research on Canada and Western Europe, the former Soviet Union, or the Middle East and North Africa. East Asia experts were even outnumbered by the respondents whose research is purely hypothetical, covering no region of the world. From 2013 to 2016, enrollment in Chinese language classes decreased by 13 percent. 

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And we need more than just China experts. Competing with China means presenting the United States as an attractive political, economic and security partner to the rest of the world. To maintain its position as the leader in Asia, the United States needs more effective strategies to persuade and influence countries like Singapore, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia to support our vision. And for that we need people with experience in those countries, fluency in their languages, and in-depth knowledge of their histories, domestic politics, and foreign policy preferences. 

The surest way for the United States to lose in its great power competition with China is to disparage expertise. Generalists and specialists, qualitative and quantitative researchers, academics, think tankers, government bureaucrats, we all need to come together as allies against anti-expert sentiment and regain credibility. We need all the expertise we can get – China hands, generalists, military strategists and operators, economists, anthropologists, sociologists, experts on U.S. politics and public opinion, all of it. This competition with China is global and across all domains. 

We have the advantage of having a free and open society conducive to debate and new ideas. Let’s make use of it.