In a rare joint appearance this month, FBI Director Christopher Wray and Ken McCallum, the head of Britain’s MI5, warned the Western world of the growing threat from China. In doing so, they tacitly affirmed that Western efforts to deter Chinese aggression and integrate Beijing into the US-dominated international environment have failed. The two law enforcement leaders have outlined China’s efforts to undermine Western integrity, exhaust its defensive capabilities and pave the way for more extraordinary challenges to the global status quo.
Attempts to integrate Beijing into the US-dominated international environment have failed.
Wray warned that China’s hacking program, “larger than any other major country combined”, “poses an even greater threat to Western companies than even many sophisticated businessmen realize” and “intends to steal your technology, whatever it is.” is that will make your industry tick, and use it to undermine your business and dominate your market.”
Wray and McCallum added that Beijing’s designs on Taiwan are real. Wray noted that if China wants to forcibly reintegrate Taiwan into the People’s Republic, “it would be one of the most horrific business disruptions the world has ever seen.” He is right. A Chinese crossing the strait, hindering free navigation in this vital part of the world, would cause incalculable damage to the global economy.
“The widely held Western assumption that growing prosperity in China and increasing connectivity with the West would automatically lead to greater political freedom has, I fear, proved completely false,” McCallum concluded. “The Chinese Communist Party is interested in our democratic, media and justice systems,” he continued, “unfortunately not to emulate them, but to use them for its own benefit.”
This joint statement represents the end of an illusion. China is evolving from a crucial player in the global market to a threat to that market. However, the growing recognition in the West that the People’s Republic must be confronted and deterred will be frustrated by the West’s self-imposed constraints and its obligations elsewhere.
The Western need to deter Russian aggression against NATO allies and contribute to Moscow’s defeat in Ukraine is, of course, vital. But so is the West’s need to curb Chinese irredentism. Last week, Real Clear Politics reporter Philip Wegmann asked Pentagon spokesman John Kirby about the strategy underlying Joe Biden’s decision to send an increasingly large number of US weapons platforms, including naval destroyers, to Europe. “Shouldn’t the Italians and French be patrolling their own waters so we can have a free hand on the other side of the world?” Wegmann asked.
Kirby argued that the forward deployment of those destroyers does not limit America’s ability to project power elsewhere in the world, and he said such deployment is justified because the security environment in Europe “has changed.” But the security environment there “changed” as early as 2007 when Russia carried out cyber attacks on NATO ally Estonia. It “changed” again in 2014 when Russia became the first country to invade and annex Europe since the Soviets did in 1945. The security situation in Europe has deteriorated for more than a decade, even as the threat from China increased. What should be America’s priority? “You have to do both,” Kirby insisted.
China is evolving from a crucial player in the global market to a threat to that market.
Kirby is right, but confronting the challenges of two superpowers in different theaters has not been part of America’s war doctrine since 2012. but more “agile, flexible” military personnel. That meant sacrificing the Pentagon’s earlier doctrine of preserving the ability to wage two conventional wars simultaneously on opposite sides of the world for a “one-plus strategy.” That policy provides an army capable of waging one major conventional war against a competitor, while maintaining police or counter-insurgency operations elsewhere.
The agility and flexibility of the US armed forces is up for debate, but there’s no question about the “leaner” part. By 2017, the number of active duty military personnel had fallen by 37% from 1990 and about half the number in 1964. The presence of the Navy is the only deterrent in the Pacific. Ground troops are less valuable and will not deter China. The Navy has approximately 300 deployable manned vessels in its bluewater fleet. In 2016, it declared a need for a fleet of 355, but is not expected to reach that target until 2049. Our armed forces remain the most capable army on Earth, but that advantage can be overcome if the armed forces are stretched thin enough.
The United States is not directly involved in any conflict with Russia, but Russia remains determined to break NATO’s resolve to defend the smaller countries on its border. The US forward deployment in Europe is intended to be intimidating in order to deter Russia from a possible incursion against such an ally. The United States would rather never go to war with China, but making sure we don’t will also require substantial and sustained naval deployments to the Pacific.
The West must credibly communicate to its opponents that it will defend its interests. That credibility has been tarnished by the Pentagon’s decade-old doctrine. Moscow’s miscalculations about the West’s determination to provide continued material support in defense of Ukraine’s sovereignty send a worrying signal about how well Russia understands the West. The West, for its part, has also misjudged the readiness and tactical acumen of the Russian military. Much has gone wrong on all sides of the conflict in Europe.
The West must credibly communicate to its opponents that it will defend its interests.
So, what are we doing wrong about China? In the same way that we have misjudged Russia, have we misjudged China’s strength or its willingness to wait patiently for an era when its power rivals America’s? Since we cannot know the answers to those questions, the best insurance against our own judgments is to maintain a credible deterrent.
Wray and McCallum’s warning to private and public entities in the West should be heeded, but counterintelligence cannot accomplish much. China’s strategic goal is hegemony, first in its region and then globally. Geopolitics is a zero-sum game and China’s goals can only be achieved at the expense of the West. In 2012, it may have been difficult, but certainly not impossible, to envision the prospect of another major power war on two fronts. In 2022, the prospect is immediately conceivable. Because we have broadcast our unpreparedness to wage such a war, our adversaries are certainly encouraged. It’s another dangerous world, and it’s high time we started behaving that way.