American political leaders and the general population are suffering from “China blindness,” failing to understand the nature of the threat to U.S. security posed by the communist regime, according to the admiral in charge of naval intelligence.
Chinese President Xi Jinping is promoting a dark vision of a “China dream” that seeks to diminish and ultimately replace the United States as the world’s most powerful state, Rear Adm. Michael Studeman in a recent speech.
“I’m going to be very honest with you: it’s very unsettling to see how much the U.S. is not connecting the dots on our No. 1 challenge, even though the national security and defense strategies call China out,” the admiral warned. “It’s disturbing how ill-informed and naive the average American is on China.
“I chalk this up to a China blindness,” he added. “We face a knowledge crisis and a China blindness problem and the reasons are pretty clear.”
Adm. Studeman is commander of the Office of Naval Intelligence, a position he has held for six months. He speaks Mandarin and spent the past six years as an intelligence leader at three combatant commands, most recently the Hawaii-based Indo-Pacific Command. He offered a particularly stark view of Mr. Xi’s rule.
“History tells us that a messianic leader with centralized control in charge of a totalitarian society harboring grievances, with a lot of hard power at their disposal, with an ambition to change the international system to their preferences, represents one of the most dangerous trends in geopolitics,” the one-star admiral.
The unusually blunt remarks were made during a speech on Feb. 15 in San Diego at a conference hosted by the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association.
As with the intelligence failures related to the September 11 terrorist attacks, U.S. intelligence analysts are failing to “connect the dots” between China and the ruling Chinese Communist Party, the admiral contended.
Intelligence agencies need to be clear on the dangers facing the country and support action in response to the information they uncover.
“We can’t just be omniscient spectators,” he said.
While successive U.S. presidential administrations have seen China as a competitor, Adm. Studeman said Beijing openly regards the United States as “the No. 1 enemy.”
“They don’t beat around the bush and they have been saying this for quite some time,” he said, noting that Chinese leaders view western democracy and freedom as “an existential threat to the CCP.”
After the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, China’s education system was revamped to portray America as an enemy of China and a destructive force in international affairs. U.S. military support during World War II, like the Flying Tigers that helped China against Japan, or U.S. trade and financial support in the 1980s, have been erased from Chinese history books.
“We continue to be China’s No. 1 enemy and we are regularly demonized,” Adm. Studeman said.
The communist government in Beijing employs a low-key approach to achieving strategic objectives, making it even harder to gauge the China threat.
“This incrementalism doesn’t alert you like something fast, red, and blinking going across your sight line,” Adm. Studeman said. “It’s the slow-moving other thing that doesn’t get your attention.”
China seeks to avoid alerting the United States, which it regards as a hegemon, to its intentions, plans and capabilities.
The government in China has been successful in appearing non-threatening and engineering what the admiral said is a “veneer of responsibility” for its actions.
“The machinery they employ in the information space is incredible, and it’s very good at downplaying the China threat by showing a rosy form of its history and painting China’s rise as ‘peaceful,’” he said.
One example is China’s use of Confucius Institutes, government-backed language and cultural centers in universities and schools around the world to promote a version Chinese history that promotes “peacefulness.”
Adm. Studeman said this is deceptive because the Chinese “have one of the bloodiest histories and have engaged in Machiavellian realpolitik for almost all of their history.”
Another problem in addressing the China problem is that the American national security community has been highly distracted by other conflicts, such as ground wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and now Ukraine. Those distractions have prevented a persistent focus on the China problem that Adm. Studeman described as “massive.”
Adm. Studeman said China’s theft of intellectual property is another problem, with as much as $300 billion annually in stolen U.S. information.
“Beijing has been doing this for years, which translates to trillions of dollars of our intellectual property that is being used to fuel the fastest modernization, virtually, that we’ve seen in history with regard to the rise of the [People’s Liberation Army] and other ways that the Chinese are attaining a technological edge,” he said.
China’s control over rare earth minerals needed in high-technology industry, its cyberattacks and land reclamation projects in the disputed South China Sea, and its coercion of regional states all pose problems as well, the admiral argued.
“Slowly, steadily, drip by drip, [the Chinese are] trying to change the basic elements or the understanding of what international law calls for, attempting to transform it with very active lawfare measures,” he said.
The U.S. Pacific Fleet also is facing “a crisis point” regarding Chinese military’s aggressive moves to thwart U.S. efforts to monitor the military buildup in China through surveillance aircraft and ships.
Adm. Studeman warned that the U.S. military is potentially very close to another crisis as the one in 2001 involving a Chinese J-8 jet that had a mid-air collision with a Navy EP-3 surveillance aircraft over the South China Sea.
On Taiwan, Adm. Studeman said Mr. Xi directed the military to be ready for action against Taiwan by 2027, shortening the time from 2035.
“The Chinese outward expansionism of influence and presence is scaring and destabilizing an entire region,” he said. “So, the Taiwanese are rightly concerned. The U.S. is also rightly concerned and our aim is to fulfill our obligations under the Taiwan Relations Act, which is to give Taiwan enough defense articles to be able to achieve their own defense. The irony in all this right now is that all sides feel like their deterrence is diminishing.”
Provocative Chinese military activities around Taiwan have increased sharply and the military believed China could “transition at any time” to a strike on the democratic-ruled island, he said. The stepped up Chinese military activity around Taiwan is meant to signal the United States that continuing support for Taipei will lead to a Chinese invasion, Adm. Studeman said.
Adm. Studeman said he favors continuing the policy of “strategic ambiguity” about U.S. military support for Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion, since changing the current status quo could generate dire consequences.
Dealing with China over Taiwan will require more than a focus on integrated deterrence of China and needs “integrated assurance” of U.S. allies to Beijing that the United States is not seeking to separate Taiwan from the mainland, Adm. Studeman said.
Avoiding a war with China over Taiwan will require smart statecraft and deft employment of all instruments of American power, he said. Dealing with the threat will require greater understanding at all levels of the government, he said.
“Arguably this is a tougher problem than what we faced against the Soviet Union in the Cold War, because the Chinese are far more economically powerful and interdependently tied into the global economy,” he said.
American information operations, however, are the weakest element of U.S. power and need shoring up on an urgent basis, he said.
“Ironically, China has empowered more people in its police state down its chain to engage in lies, half-truths, and propaganda than the U.S. in an open democracy allows its people down chain to deploy the truth,” he said.
U.S. strategic messaging in countering Chinese propaganda has been “slow, late, thin and maybe even outright absent,” Adm. Studeman said.
The military is making some strides in improving its information operations against China but needs more support from the White House, he said.