Last night, as the spouse of a civilian employee of the U.S. Naval War College, I attended an evening of lectures covering topics of interest to the college. This included a summary of USNWC’s role with America’s military allies, a history lesson about the foundational naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan, and a summary of unclassified U.S. military intelligence regarding China (particular, naturally, to China’s burgeoning navy and increasing sea-borne interests).

I found all the talks quite interesting for different reasons. The latter talk about China mixed in feelings of slight alarm, not because the speaker described a grave threat (as he cast it more of what we might call a “Nation of Interest”), but because he spoke so freely about the Chinese. “What do the Chinese want?” stood as the talk’s central question, and in so many words. The speaker easily made remarks speculating about the myriad plans and motivations of “the Chinese”, based on decades of careful observation.

And for long minutes I fidgeted in my seat, suppressing a desire to swivel around, counting how many folks of Asian descent attended the evening, so I could better gauge how dreadfully embarrassed I should feel. All the while a social-media trained voice in my head stood agog, yelling “Oh my god, ‘What do the Chinese want?’ Do you have any idea how racist that sounds? Why don’t you ask them, you dingleberry?”

But as the talk continued it become clear to be that by “the Chinese” the speaker did not mean “the Chinese citizenry” and certainly not “all Chinese people everywhere”. Rather, he applied the label in precisely the way that the computer game Civilization uses it: as the name of a single player in what a global military power unavoidably and only semi-metaphorically sees as the greatest and most real of all games.

In the context the lecturer spoke from, “the Chinese” is the name of a monolithic power, which — like all global powers, when considered from a sufficient height — acts with a unified mind and purpose. And when the relationship between two such powers is as frosty as that between the United States and China, how natural for the military-intelligence apparatuses of either to speculate about the psychology of the other as an individual entity.

Having reframed it like a game-player, I found myself able to chill out and enjoy the remainder of the lecture. Incidentally, the answer to What do the Chinese want? is: food, energy, and security. That’s all I was able to learn at my clearance level, anyway.

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