One of my favorite Cold War stories is the tale of the Moscow air show of 1955, when Western observers were awed by a flyover of what seemed to be hundreds of Mya-4 Bison long range bombers. The CIA later determined that this was a Potemkin armada: Visibility was low that day and the Soviets in charge just had the same group of planes fly out of sight and then circle back over the field, creating the impression that they had a much larger arsenal than they did. Such antics helped fuel fears of a bomber gap, much as Khrushchev's later missile rattling fueled fears of a so-called missile gap. Neither existed, and neither did the Stanley Kubrick's infamous "mine shaft gap."
I thought of this episode when I read about the launching of China's first "aircraft carrier." I put those words in quotation marks because the vessel isn't carrying any aircraft, because China has yet to build any that can land on a carrier deck. For the moment, in short, it's just a big vessel that doesn't add to China's actual military capability at all. Even so, this development is being interpreted as a sign of China's growing military muscle, and the New York Times story quotes officials in Asia describing the launching itself as an act of intimidation.
China is obviously growing wealthier and stronger, but the United States and others have a powerful interest in assessing this trend as accurately as possible. If we are complacent and understate China's capabilities, we might unpleasantly surprised at some point in the future. But if we inflate the threat and overstate China's power, we'll waste money trying to stay ahead and we might even end up deterring ourselves. Exaggerating Chinese power could also convince some of Beijing's weaker neighbors that standing up to it is just too hard. So the United States (and others) have a big incentive to get this one right, despite the unavoidable uncertainties that military assessments entail.
Unfortunately, there are lots of people and groups with an incentive to distort public discourse on this broad issue. Some of our Asian allies are likely to cry wolf every time China does anything remotely worrisome, in the hope of scaring Washington and getting us to do even more to protect them. Defense contractors and think tanks that depend on their largesse are likely to threat-inflate as well, in order convince the Pentagon to fund new weapons. Politicians from both parties will offer their own worst-case assessments if they think they can make their opponents look bad on this issue. For all these reasons, developing and maintaining a reasonably accurate sense of what China can and cannot do is going to be hard.
You might say that we can just let the "marketplace of ideas" operate, and over time competing views about China's capabilities will contend with each other and we'll gradually converge on a more-or-less accurate appraisal. It would be nice if things worked like this, but this is sort of issue where intellectual market failure is likely. Why? Because there will be a lot more money supporting the hawkish side of this debate, and lots of bureaucratic interests committed toward worst-case appraisals. That view might be the right one, of course, but it's going to be hard to be sure.
Of course, my remedy for this problem (and some others) is to get a lot of smart people who don't have a professional or financial stake in this debate involved in the discussion. I don't want the debate on China's capabilities to be dominated by people working for the U.S. Navy, the Air Force, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, or D.C.-based think tanks funded by such groups. I don't want to exclude them either, but I'd like to see a lot of other disinterested voices too. And to follow up on yesterday's post, this is another reason why we want a healthy, diverse, and engaged set of scholars in the academic world, who aren't directly beholden to anyone with a dog in particular policy fights.
That participation won't occur if universities don't support training and teaching in security studies, or if university-based scholars disengage from the public sphere and spend their time debating minor issues that are mostly of interest only to each other. In this issue, as in many others, getting academics and other independent voices to be an active part of public discourse is essential to making accurate assessments and reasonably smart decisions.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.