A top U.S. military intelligence official is voicing concern that key policymakers and lawmakers may not be taking the threat posed by China seriously enough.
For much of this year, officials with U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies have repeatedly warned about the threat from a rising China, from its growing military might to what they describe as Beijing’s ever bolder forays into cyberspace and brazen espionage campaigns.
Navy Rear Admiral Michael Studeman, Indo-Pacific Command’s director for intelligence, worries it has not been enough.
“I'm wondering in Washington how many folks are truly persuaded,” Studeman told a webinar Wednesday hosted by the nonpartisan Intelligence and National Security Alliance (INSA). “Frankly, it's hard to get a lot of attention to certain kinds of scenarios.”
Studeman said part of the difficulty is that while many in the United States see war as unlikely, countries like China view it as a more organic part of their struggle. And Beijing under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, in particular, is prepared to go to great lengths to surpass the United States as a preeminent global power.
“Xi Jinping is very Machiavellian. The end justifies the means,” Studeman said. “The dream justifies achieving that dream at almost any cost.”
This is not the first time Studeman has warned about a rising China.
During a virtual conference this past March, Studeman said the world was already getting “a taste of what it means to be led by China,” predicting that Chinese military leadership would soon be in position to send troops to wherever it feels its interests are being threatened.
And Studeman is not alone.
The former commander of U.S. forces in the Indo-Pacific, retired Admiral Philip Davidson, told lawmakers earlier this year that China appeared to be “accelerating their ambitions” to supplant the U.S. on the world stage.
Administration officials have insisted they are taking the threat seriously.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has also repeatedly described China as the Pentagon’s “pacing challenge,” while Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines has said China is "an unparalleled priority for the intelligence community."
At least one recent report suggests such concerns are well-founded.
U.S. researchers said last week that new satellite imagery shows China quickly expanding the number of silos for intercontinental ballistic missiles in part of the northwestern province of Gansu.
The report seems to back assertions made earlier this year by the U.S. intelligence community that further warned China’s nuclear forces were “on higher alert” than they have been in the past.
“It is concerning. It raises questions about the PRC's [People Republic of China’s] intent," U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said when asked about the report.
"These reports and other developments suggest that the PRC's nuclear arsenal will grow more quickly and to a higher level than perhaps previously anticipated," he added.
Yet as dangerous and as capable as China is, some military officials have suggested fears of imminent Chinese military action, such as an invasion of Taiwan, may be overblown.
"China has a ways to go to develop the actual no-kidding capability to conduct military operations to seize thru military means the entire island of Taiwan, if they wanted to do that," Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told lawmakers last month.
"I think that there's little intent right now or motivation to do it militarily," he said, though he cautioned, “it is a core – c-o-r-e – national interest of China to unite Taiwan."
Some researchers also caution China is facing some critical obstacles on their road to dominance.
"The more strongly China tries to use its clout to force outcomes in other countries, the greater the backlash it foments and the more those countries reject its influence," concluded a recent report by the U.S.-based non-profit RAND Corporation.
A survey released by Pew Research last month likewise found that Beijing was failing to win over people in advanced economies, with many raising concerns about the Chinese government’s approach to personal freedoms.
“Some of their tactics really are starting to turn off a lot of nations out there," Indo-Pacific Command’s Studeman said Wednesday, though he doubted that will be enough to change Beijing’s approach in places like Hong Kong, or elsewhere.
“I think they can crack down a lot more,” he said of Hong Kong. “This is a foreshadowing of what Chinese effective control will look like in other places.”