The US overestimated Russia’s military might. Is it underestimating China?

The Chinese political-military system is opaque by design.

For instance, China has for years permitted the US defense secretary to engage only with its minister of national defense, even though the person in that role – currently Gen. Wei Fenghe – has little operational control of the Chinese military and is the Pentagon chief’s counterpart in title only.

The Biden administration tried and failed to arrange a discussion between Austin and Gen. Xu Qiliang, the highest-ranking uniformed officer in the Communist Party military structure, resulting in a month-long communications impasse between the two militaries. (Austin met Wei on Friday on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.)

Beijing wants Wei to be the military’s external representative because he is trained in propaganda points the way other top generals are not, said Lyle Morris, who served in the Pentagon as the country director for China and now works at the RAND Corporation. Top Chinese officials worry that the commanders will stray from the party line.

“They have a barrier, a kind of wall around their operational commanders with external military leaders,” Morris said.

Knowledge gap

Meanwhile, in recent years the Department of Defense has quietly drawn down its Defense Attaché Service, withdrawing top military officers at embassies and downgrading the rank of defense attachés worldwide. Attachés in African countries, where much of the drawdown has been taken place, provide key insights on Chinese and Russian activity in those nations.

“That meant less defense-focused eyes overseas in the more conventional countries, looking at what present-day military capabilities are,” said Ezra Cohen, a fellow at the Hudson Institute and a former acting undersecretary of defense for intelligence and security in the Trump administration. “In the great power competition age, reduced resourcing for the Attache Service must be rectified.”

Another former Defense Department official was critical of what they described as a longstanding lack of emphasis on analyzing open-source information from and about China. Such open-source material includes speeches delivered by top Chinese figures or documents on official Chinese doctrine.

U.S. assessments about Beijing’s intentions were off-base for years because they relied upon intelligence conclusions that did not adequately account for many of the communist court’s public announcements, asserted the former official, who specialized in China policy.

“We were reaching analytical conclusions that were just fantasy,” the former official said. “We felt like they were shapeable and on a trajectory for democracy. Now [there is a] recognition that China has got a plan – their own plan – and have had one for 40 years. ”

A House Intelligence Committee report from September 2020, which concluded that US spy agencies are failing to meet the China challenge, backs up the assertion that the West incorrectly assumed Beijing would become more democratic as it became more prosperous. It found that these assumptions were “blinded observers to the Chinese Communist Party’s overriding objective of retaining and growing its power.”

The House committee report made other points that analysts and current and former officials echo today, including that the US emphasis on counterterrorism undercut what should have been more focus on rising state powers such as China.

“Absent a significant realignment of resources, the U.S. government and intelligence community will fail to achieve the outcomes required to enable continued US competition with China on the global stage for decades to come,” the report states.

While the agencies were recruiting Arabic speakers and cultivating experts on terrorism, many Cold War hands were retiring, creating a critical gap in analytic knowledge, Cohen said.

“The intelligence community needs to be able to figure out to a high degree of certainty what is simply posturing and what is true, and this can only be done by highly experienced analysts,” he said. “You need to be able to know from satellite imagery or intelligence reports… does this look real and operational, or is this something that’s just a prototype that’s years away from the battlefield?”

Island of uncertainties

Under China’s President Xi Jinping, who has consolidated power within the communist apparatus to an unusual degree, Beijing has been increasingly clear that it wants to bring Taiwan under control of the mainland by 2050, and that any threat to that goal could lead it to use force.

“Taiwan is clearly one of their ambitions. … And I think the threat is manifest during this decade, in fact, in the next six years, ”Adm. Philip Davidson, then-commander of US Indo-Pacific Command, told Congress last year.

Beijing’s statements suggest that China could move on Taiwan at any moment, if it believes the conditions are right. “It’s dangerous to say that 2027 or 2030 or 2035 is some heightened date,” the former Defense Department official said. “You are actually ignoring the risk that tomorrow something could happen.”

An invasion of Taiwan would likely begin with an air assault and amphibious landing, analysts and former officials say, but what happens next is a mystery.

How long can China continue launching missiles and aircraft, for example? What capacity does Beijing have to maintain and repair equipment in a fight? How will China’s military fare if the conflict turns into urban warfare? How will Beijing grapple with mass casualties or displaced civilians?

Unlike with Russia, which has been fighting in Ukraine and Syria over the past decade, there is less recent history to draw from for China. Beijing has not fought a war since 1979, and its air force has not participated in a major conflict since 1958, Garafola noted.

“The harder thing to measure, of course, is how they would perform in combat in a complex environment where things don’t go entirely as planned,” said Randy Schriver, a top Asian policy official in the Pentagon during the Trump administration. “It’s questionable that, even as they’ve improved their training, whether or not they are training at complex enough levels to be able to handle unintended or unknown developments.”

The United States also has limited insight into how the different arms of the Chinese military apparatus would work together in a high-end campaign, analysts said. The US military long ago began emphasizing “jointness” in its training exercises and operations, meaning integrating its air, sea, space, maritime and cyber capabilities. It’s unclear Beijing can do the same in a real-world operation.

“There’s a lot of talk about cyber – we know how they use cyber for theft of information and intelligence, but we know less about how they might use cyber integrated into a war plan,” Schriver said.

One area which the current reviews of foreign military assessments are paying close attention to is China’s supply lines if it attacks Taiwan, the Biden administration official said. Taiwan is an island, making resupplying invading forces a tougher task than what Russia faces in its overland routes to Ukraine.

China’s economic and diplomatic initiatives across the Pacific also offer puzzles for American officials wondering if the efforts have a military angle.

Chinese military officers and diplomats recently gathered alongside their Cambodian counterparts for a groundbreaking ceremony at Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base on the Gulf of Thailand. China has pledged to upgrade the base, which sits near the South China Sea, in exchange for the Chinese military having access to part of it, a Chinese official confirmed to The Washington Post.

Chinese Ambassador to Cambodia Wang Wentian said at the ceremony that the work was “not targeted at any third party, and will be conducive to even closer practical cooperation between the two militaries.”

The deal recalls Beijing’s 2017 establishment of a logistics port in Djibouti in eastern Africa, a facility leased close to an American base in the tiny country at the mouth of the Red Sea. China has about 2,000 troops manning the base, which is a logistics hub for wider Chinese interests on the continent.

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