Total Competition: The China Challenge in the South China Sea

Total Competition: The China Challenge in the South China Sea
(Dr. Patrick M. Cronin, January 16, 2020)

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About the speaker

Patrick M. Cronin is the Asia-Pacific Security Chair at Hudson Institute. Dr. Cronin’s research program analyzes the challenges and opportunities confronting the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, including China’s total competition campaign, the future of the Korean peninsula, and strengthening U.S. alliances and partnerships. Dr. Cronin was previously senior advisor and senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), and before that, senior director of the Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS) at the National Defense University, where he simultaneously oversaw the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs.

Dr. Cronin has a rich and diverse background in both Asian-Pacific security and U.S. defense, and foreign and development policy. Prior to leading INSS, Dr. Cronin served as the director of studies at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). At IISS, he also served as editor of the Adelphi Papers and as the executive director of the Armed Conflict Database. Before joining IISS, Dr. Cronin was senior vice president and director of research at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

In 2001, Dr. Cronin was confirmed by the United States Senate to the third-ranking position at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). While serving as Assistant Administrator for Policy and Program Coordination, Dr. Cronin also led the interagency task force that helped design the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC).

From 1998 until 2001, Dr. Cronin served as director of research at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Prior to that, he spent seven years at the National Defense University, first arriving at INSS in 1990 as a senior research professor covering Asian and long-range security issues. He was the founding executive editor of Joint Force Quarterly, and subsequently became both deputy director and director of research at the Institute. He received the Army’s Meritorious Civilian Service Award upon his departure from NDU in 1997.

He has also been a senior analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses, a U.S. Naval Reserve intelligence officer, and an analyst with the Congressional Research Service and SRI International. He was associate editor of Strategic Review and worked as an undergraduate at the Miami Herald and the Fort Lauderdale News.

Dr. Cronin has taught at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), and the University of Virginia’s Woodrow Wilson Department of Government.

He read international relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford, where he received both his M.Phil. and D.Phil. degrees, and graduated with high honors from the University of Florida. He regularly publishes essays in leading publications and frequently conducts television and radio interviews.


Robert R. Reilly:


We are delighted to have as our speaker tonight a very distinguished person who has experience in government at a very senior level and who has an extensive experience in the academic and scholarly world and that is Dr. Patrick Cronin who is currently the Asia-Pacific Security Chair at the Hudson Institute. There his research program analyzes China’s total competition campaign, the future of the Korean peninsula, strengthening U.S. partnerships, and other lyrical subjects.

The resume is extensive. I will just say that a while back he was Senior Director of the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University where he simultaneously oversaw the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs. It was when Patrick was in that position that I first had the pleasure of making his acquaintance. He also served as Director of Studies at the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies. Dr. Cronin was confirmed by the U.S. Senate to serve in the third-ranking position in the U.S. Agency for International Development. He spent seven years at the National Defense University and received the Army’s Meritorious Civilian Service Award on his departure from NDU. He is a U.S. Naval Reserve Intelligence Officer.

He has been a senior analyst at the Center for Naval Analysis and he has taught everywhere; Georgetown University, Johns Hopkins SAIS, and the University of Virginia. His own advanced degrees are from the University of Oxford. Tonight he is going to address us on the topic of Total Competition: The China Challenge in the South China Sea. Please join me in welcoming Dr. Patrick Cronin.

Dr. Patrick M. Cronin:


Thank you for that welcome. It is a great privilege to be here, especially at the Westminster Institute, which is not only an organization that stands for dignity and freedom, but the name embodies the Westminster system of governance, and for me it is all about our own democratic system, our republic and the challenges we face from authoritarian institutions around the world that really drive a lot of the work I am doing.

The one thing that is different about my current position at Hudson – by the way I moved here a year ago to Hudson Institute to take up an endowed chair, so while I have done many things and I am constantly learning and trying to be ever on the lookout for new ideas. I now get to determine my own agenda, so it is a very nice, full-time position, but I am kept very busy by my wife who is producing lots of books right now, so I have to keep up with her and I now have a little more latitude to do that.

The Challenge

Now tonight I am going to talk about what I think is the most consequential at least state challenge that the United States faces, the People’s Republic of China. The Chinese Communist Party or the CCP, especially under Xi Jinping, is waging a long term struggle for preeminence across the Indo-Pacific if not globally. And before detailing what I call total competition – and this is a report that is online at both Hudson and the Center for a New American Security, which published this report that I did with Ryan Neuhard because I had won a grant before I walked out the door at CNS and so we agreed CNS would publish the report and I would write it.

Strategic context

First, I want to set some strategic contexts about U.S. policy very broadly. The 2017 National Security Strategy of the Trump administration – and I am not here to make any political sort of statements – but just to set it in [terms of] current policy, it talked about four states, two major powers and two regional powers are seeking to revise the rules-based system, the international order largely. Those two major powers are, of course, China and Russia, and the two regional powers you all know are Iran and North Korea. And they keep recurring over and over. This is hardly news, but it is a reminder that these four are all driven by their own independent agendas and yet they have a couple of things in common in terms of what they are trying to achieve. One of them is that they all in their own way are trying to eclipse U.S. power, trying to dismantle the U.S. global alliance network. They may be doing that regionally, but they are chipping away at it.

Secondly, they are all trying to change the status quo without triggering a major military response and so the approaches of these revisionist powers hearken back to the immediate post-World War II period. George Kennan, the first Director of Policy Planning at the State Department, writing a top secret memorandum about the Soviet threat and describing it as political warfare, harnessing all the instruments of power short of war. That was how Kennan talked about political warfare.

Well, today these four revisionist states are pursuing their own variations of political warfare, and I want to talk to you about especially the Chinese variant of that and especially as we apply it to a particular flashpoint in terms of the South China Sea because it does vary from region to region, whether you are talking about what the Chinese are doing in the Arctic or in Africa or in the South China Sea. It does differ even if there are similarities about their global approach as well.

Now all four revisionist powers are trying to avoid direct military confrontation with the United States and our allies, but there is one clear distinction among these challenges: North Korea under Kim Jong-Un. Remember he only rose to power at the end of 2011, and China under Xi Jinping has refrained from lethal uses of force against the United States and our allies and partners. That is in contrast to Russia under Putin and Iran, of course, under the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who resorted to deadly, proxy, and covert conflicts.

Proxy warfare

The drone strike on Iranian General Qassem Soleimani was among other things in this very narrow respect an attempt by the United States to try to counter Iran’s hybrid warfare, and you saw many people talk about restoring deterrence, General Petraeus for instance, well essentially trying to restore the level at which Iran in this case would pursue lethal warfare, lethal means as part of their greater political warfare strategy for influence in the region. Whether that ends up being beneficial or not we will let time tell, but needless to say I do not think the Iranian regime is changing quickly or about to defer from its preference for hybrid warfare, for essentially covert, proxy warfare. That is the way Iran wants to fight a war. They do not want to fight a direct missile war as we saw those ballistic missiles.

This is even more true of China, and as we talk about China in our new report, we are dealing with a regime under Xi Jinping who does not have the political questions being asked about his power. Yes, they are being asked in private, but he commands all the power that he can have as much as anybody since Mao, and he is unstinting in terms of his party’s direction and the strategy they want to take China, in the direction of the China Dream.

China’s strategy

So this new report, Total Competition: The China Challenge in the South China Sea, attempts to put Beijing’s variant of political warfare as it applies to this regional zone of potential conflict, the South China Sea and the Greater Southeast Asia. I will connect this globally but the point is as you think about Southeast Asia and the South China Sea deeply, this broad strategy is what emerged. I spent a lot of time looking at this. I have been many times to the region and all over every country in the region. I am not going to get into the details of all of those countries, although I am happy to talk about them later.

I am going to keep this at the general level about the broad, integrated strategy that China is pursuing under the Chinese Communist Party. It is total competition in contrast in part to the idea of total warfare, and it is instead of political warfare because all wars have to have a political objective and this is not warfare, this is still short of force as Kennan would have used political warfare. So that is why total competition is the title that we use this to refer to because it has more in common with what the former National Security Adviser, my friend HR McMaster, calls co-option, coercion, and concealment than it does say our Defense Department’s focus on under General Mattis, under Secretary Mattis, the word lethality. We need more lethal forces, but at the same time if lethality is all you are focused on, you are missing a whole lot about the strategy of dealing with the indirect approaches that are coming from these revisionist powers and especially China.

Economic Power

Total competition comprises five dimensions. It may comprise more, but these are the five that are central as I think about especially the South China Sea and Southeast Asia. The first is economic power. Economic power is the overriding objective of the Chinese Communist Party, so unless we get that right, unless we start and understand that is where they are starting from, that is what they mainly are being driven by, it is easy to get other aspects of this wrong. It is the justification for why they have to build everything and invest so much in activities and diplomacy to control lines of communication all the way to Africa and up to Europe, but certainly through the region and in Southeast Asia and around the South China Sea.It is seen in the Belt and Road Initiative, which has become almost a brand name for Chinese infrastructure, financing, and investment because it is enticing leaders to prioritize financial ties with Beijing over their own sovereignty and security issues. And if you can co-opt the elite in many countries, that is all you need to convince. Cambodia is a good case of this in Southeast Asia.

Economic power is predicated in the Chinese case on achieving preeminence in leading edge technologies, and it is in this very decade now that we have started the 2020s that China hopes to become the world leader not just in artificial intelligence, but in their ten-year plan that they made in 2015, the so-called Made in China 2025 plan, they plan by the middle of this decade to be leading, and competing, and out pacing the United States in quantum computing. In a number of critical technologies that are information-centric – as I will talk about in a minute – and that have dual use, so it is not just going to get China potentially the economic preeminence they are after, it is going to open up the possibility for security primacy.

Now it does not mean it is automatic. I am not saying these things are automatic. It is not just a strategy, but unfortunately as your capabilities grow and your interests grow, you may change your objectives as well, so intentions can change.

This leading edge technology is sort of at the heart of the economic plan for China and you see this in something such as China’s so-called military-civilian fusion, which underscores the point that much of what the economics and the military programs of China are integrated in ways that we can only dream about in the inter-agency in the United States. It does not mean they do not have bureaucratic politics. It does not mean they do not have corruption. They have all of those things, but compared to the United States – and that is really all you have to compare it to because that is their strategy. It is focused on us. It is focused on the United States. We do not have just a China strategy. We have many strategies. They have a U.S. strategy and this economic preeminence is the first facet, and when you see it in Southeast Asia, it gives them a huge advantage. They have the interior lines of communication. They are much closer to Southeast Asia physically and geographically than we are.


Now, this is being backed up by some other dimensions of this total competition campaign. The next one I would mention in the South China Sea context in particular is the legal power, which is what they would call – or we call for the Chinese – lawfare because it is not always just what is legal, it is how you use the law and legal thinking to your political advantage and your strategic advantage, and China is extraordinarily capable at this or at least they spend a lot of effort on it.

China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea from our perspective is often unlawful, starting with things like the expansive Nine-Dash Line claim, which Chinese believe gives them historic rights over up to 90% of the South China Sea. Other claimant states – Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, but also Indonesia which is caught up in this – are seen as much less relevant from a Chinese perspective and they are pushed around both physically and legally through lawfare. And yet, the Chinese are very sanctimonious when comes to the United States Senate not ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which is essentially a constitution for the oceans as it has been called. But the United States actually follows UNCLOS as a matter of customary law. The Chinese meanwhile have ratified UNCLOS, but they do not follow it. So which one is following international law? Which one is following the rules?

You can see this in the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration out of The Hague. It was a milestone case, the Philippines versus China. The Philippines was forced to pursue this case after China muscled their way into Scarborough Shoal in the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and the Philippines was too small to take the Chinese on otherwise, so they took a legal risk. And in 2016, four years later, the tribunal ruled and basically sided almost completely with the Philippines in among other things saying that the Nine Dash Line claim that China used as part of these historic rights has no basis, no standing in contemporary international law;  it is illegal. And this is clear, but unfortunately, if you can co-opt the new president who moves into Manila, Rodrigo Duterte, you can maybe downplay that Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling.

Now, it is not just the legal things that China is doing. They are spending a lot of effort in Southeast Asia on this legalism. They do it globally in other ways on other issues from world trade to nuclear weapons to space.

There has been a longstanding effort ever since the 1990s when the Philippines ran into problems with the Chinese in Mischief Reef to try to create a Code of Conduct for how the parties of the South China Sea, how the states would behave in this maritime theater. For the last eighteen years they have made very little tangible progress on creating this. The Chinese now say they want to finish this by next year [or] maybe this year. With Vietnam in the chair they are hoping to coerce the toughest, most nationalistic country in Southeast Asia in many ways, Vietnam, to buy into their plan. The Chinese lawfare here is they want a quid pro quo. They want these countries to essentially accept that Chinese will be able to control the decisions on military exercises that the Philippines or Vietnam undertake or they can control the resource exploitation of the South China Sea. Essentially, it is my way or the highway in terms of the rules of the road. This is another way that they are using lawfare.

The Psychological Dimension

A third dimension of total competition is something that I think does not get enough attention because it is really difficult to talk about in a democracy and it is difficult to talk to a broad civilian audience outside a narrow military one or maybe intelligence, and that is the psychological dimension of China’s policy. It sounds sinister and it is sinister to be honest because there are a lot of people in China who will watch this in the Ministry of State Security and elsewhere – hello – who will be looking for planting messages in between the ears of officials around the world and publics and people who influence the public. You can see this in the military context in China in the People’s Liberation Army’s so-called Three Warfares concept, which includes lawfare, which I talked about. It includes information warfare, which I will talk about a little bit more, and it includes psychological warfare.

But unlike our military PsyOps, it does not stop with the military or the intelligence. It continues throughout the whole of government in China. So the Foreign Ministry – especially the Foreign Ministry, my goodness – the Foreign Ministry and the state-owned media are in lock step on propagating a pugnacious, unified message. That is not too hard a statement. I could be much harsher on them. I am going to read this everyday and it is just remarkable; no deviation, such propaganda, but propaganda with a psychological message most of the time. That is the difference. So it is not one-off, it is not listening to pundits on television here in Washington who you know throw out a line or spin. This is real, psychological operations. We will hammer away at this until they change their mind, beat them down, divide them, whatever the objective is it is driven.

The Chinese Communist Party has institutionalized psychological operations from the beginning of the Communist Party. This is in their DNA as a communist party, not as a Chinese people but as a party this is in their DNA. This is what they do and that is why because it is not in our democracy, in our democratic systems. We do not do it and we do not usually understand it except for the narrow slivers of government that may be assigned the task of thinking about it.

So China weaponizes everything from rare-earths to tourism to bananas to shape a story-line, to shape a narrative, to enforce censorship abroad. The United Front Work Department plays with the minds especially of overseas Chinese. So that is why overseas Chinese in Australia can be shouted down in their own university classroom if they stand up for something like Hong Kong and the Hong Kong protests or if they talk about the Uyghurs. The Chinese go after them and they put enormous pressure on them. Through these and other means the CCP manufactures a fictional strategic narrative about China; messages like ‘China’s rise is inexorable, America’s decline is inevitable’, ‘China preserves the rules-based system and Washington threatens the rules-based system’.

China is handing out win-win propositions to regional elites: if only they accept connectivity to Beijing on its terms and forego alliances and partnerships, and that is the psychological messaging that is coming through consistent, unitary messages from the ambassador here in Washington to their ambassadors around the world to their foreign minister to every state newspaper, every state organ in China, and to their professors, their university professors even when they are independent, they are being fed the same talking points. They put their own personal spin on them, but it is the same psychological message.

Now, military power is the fourth dimension, and the reason I put it fourth is to emphasize how it is not the first dimension. This is not first and foremost a military confrontation at this point with the PLA and with China. That is too narrow a way to think about this. We may come to blows in a skirmish or a war, but that is not what they are doing, that is not their strategy. Their strategy is again to win without fighting. And so the military power of the PLA resides very much in support of the party, the communist party, and within this comprehensive framework of total competition in which economic polices like the Belt and Road are meant to expand the maneuvering room.

Indeed, Wang Jisi, the top American expert at Peking University. He helped create the Belt and Road Initiative when Xi Jinping went to Kazakhstan and went to Indonesia to set this up with major financial backing behind it to create this broad playing field, this maneuver room for Chinese policy. So that they were not just hemmed in by Taiwan anymore or some other local issue, so that was a breakout strategy for them. When we think about maneuver in the military context in the United States, we are thinking usually very tactically on a battlefield. But here you have got the Weiqi, the Go game board here with this positioning going everywhere. in this case though, making sure that they can ultimately prevail and troll the South China Sea so that they can deny the United States Navy military access to shift the balance of power against them in any way.

So they are trying to create a defense force that can nullify America’s power projection capability. That is what they have been heavily focused on for years, especially since the mid-1990s when we sailed two aircraft carriers around Taiwan in support of Taiwan after China was rattling the sabers and launching missiles to intimidate Taiwan in their election. And it goes back to even five years earlier when I went to Beijing and talked to my friends in the PLA, they were very eager to learn about our First Gulf War success, especially this precision-guided munitions regime that we seem to instantly win the war against Iraq. And lo and behold, what do the PLA build? Well, they built a precision-guided munitions regime to mirror that, and after the Taiwan episode of the mid-1990s they started building a cruise missile ballistic and missile shield in what is referred to by the Americans as an anti-access area denial strategy.

So essentially if they can reach out to a thousand miles or two thousand miles with these missiles, you put at risk with a single missile an entire aircraft carrier. You make it very risky for the United States to be able to move in the way you can see how the risk in the Persian Gulf applies to U.S. high value targets ships and so a lot of those exercises that the United States runs even though the 5th Fleet is in Bahrain are run outside of the Gulf. So you have some distance. Well, China would love to move us not just outside of the first island chain, the Philippines, out of the second island chain, beyond Guam all the way back to the United States, the continental United States even, and that is their plan for this military.

So in the South China Sea they are leveraging not just the navy, it is not just grey hull naval assets, it is what Andrew Erickson and other specialists have talked about, the three navies that China employs. Famously, they use the White Hulls, they use the Coast Guard, they use law enforcement ships. It is the biggest and best armed coast guard in the world. They are destroyer-sized, so these are basically white hull destroyers pushing around very small navies in the South China Sea. Who do you think wins that competition? Why do you think the Philippines went to the Permanent Court of Arbitration to try to challenge the Chinese?

And then, they do not just stop there. The Chinese have militarized a maritime militia in fishing fleets, so they are actually the vanguard of what they call a cabbage strategy or echelon strategy. So in the Philippines this last year around Little Thitu Island you have got the maritime militia swarming, 113 ships at one point. As the Filipinos were trying to repair the base that they have on that little island. It is a little bit intimidating, but those maritime militia were backed by coast guard, and then further back by the PLA Navy, and of course the missile forces on land and beyond as a threat. So the point was we do not even need to send you a message, clearly you know what we have, do not run afoul of Beijing’s wishes, and that is how they are operating there.

But it is the A2/AD capabilities, these missile capabilities, that they really hope – these are the df21d that you have heard about, that is a medium range anti-ship cruise missile that is meant to threaten our expensive naval ships, which are fewer in number than they should be. And our df26, which has been a longer range, it is an intermediate range ballistic missile, which is meant to strike hard targets like Guam, where we have U.S. territory and it is unfortunately a very vulnerable, small geographic area, no strategic depth. So this is exactly why the Chinese are trying to push us out of South Asia altogether so they can then write the real rules of the road.

Even more concerning to the sort of visible military components of China’s military modernization are the less visible, the invisible ones, and how they are harnessing these. And this is where the so-called new domains of cyber space, outer space, electro-magnetic spectrum often lump together. It can get very technical in terms of talking about the command and control or c4isr, command and control, communications, computers for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. It is basically all the communications at harbor that they are using that communicate with space or undersea or over land and being able to harness that or deny us the ability to communicate is really what these systems are focused on and they have created something called the Strategic Support Force. What an innocuous name. Who is afraid of the Strategic Support Force? Well, we should be. I am afraid of it because it is actually the integration of these new domains.

We do not do that. A good friend of mine, Andrew Burt, just wrote a piece in Time magazine saying maybe we need a Cyber Department because we do not even know who is in charge of cyber-space. Boys, that is too small. I mean we are already missing the fact that these things are being integrated by the Chinese with the deliberate focus on us as the target because they want to use artificial intelligence in this decade and beyond, quantum computing, unmanned systems, and the development of sys-lunar space between earth and the moon to dominate the information space, and they plan to do that by 2035.

So over the next ten to fifteen years they hope to really be able to knock us out in terms of psychologically deter us from being part of this region or to win a short, informationized as they call it ‘war’ if they have to, mostly to teach us a lesson, not to get into a big war that could risk going nuclear. Again, they do not want a direct military confrontation. They want to win without fighting. They want this to be a political, economic, psychological, and legal victory from their perspective.

They were doing a lot of this also: undersea and unmanned, underwater vehicles, submarines, undersea cables. The cloud that people talk about for the internet will be in space, but right now it is at the bottom of the sea. All communications that have to travel outside of a continent, so all transoceanic information, all data, 99% of it, travels on these cables. These cables are vulnerable. One was just cut off in Yemen and they lost all data.

But imagine the capabilities of a country like China that is building so many assets to work on the seabed. They are building a colony of artificial intelligence drones on the bottom of the seabed of the South China Sea among other things. You will not read much about these things because you get into very sensitive information about it and the Chinese are not very forthcoming about potential military uses of these. They are touting them as great scientific achievements for all of humanity, but not sharing that data. We can question whether that is going to be really all about humankind.

And this is on top of the military outposts that they have built on these artificial island reefs in the Spratly Islands where they have replicated these sort of c4isr architectures, this command and control architecture on several of these little islets because they are talking about information power and that is really the fifth dimension. It is really the main dimension. It is what is new for the United States and our allies and partners is that we have to understand that information is not just cyber. It is not just political warfare in terms of information operations. It is not just informationized warfare. It is all of this. It is the entire spectrum. It is big data. That is why they stole our OPM records. That is why they stole my classified records. That is why they are in your computer and my computer. That is why they want your health records. That is why they want to control the E-Payment systems and E-Commerce systems in Southeast Asia.

They would love to sell that to Vietnam. Vietnam says ‘you know what, maybe we could find another sort of provider than Huawei’, which would be a good idea, but we are going to have to find alternatives and work with others to do that because it is going into their big data databases that you can only imagine how big they are in terms of how they will use this information for the objectives of the Party. So information power is at the heart of everything they are doing. It is the holistic way as information and data have been central to what has been loosely called the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

This is a revolution marked most of all by digital transformation of our economies, of our militaries, of our societies. It is changing all of our lives, we know that. It is changing how the military will operate. It is changing how the economy will operate, and right now China is poised to lead in that. They are not leading yet, but they are the ones who have caught up and have direction and money and purpose and a plan, and we, well, have got all of these things going on, and it is a challenge.

But this is what Xi’s China Dream depends on. It depends on scaling up the exploitation of information and leveraging information superiority. When you get into debates about whether the Chinese Communist Party will fall in the future or not or they will lose legitimacy, often it centers on their ability to harness information, the surveillance state, to actually use the state to their advantage – not the advantage that we thought in democracies that this kind of technology would be used for.

Education: I can watch my nature program anywhere in the world, any time, it is great, but Chinese can also listen to me through my refrigerator. It is a strange twist in terms of how do you want to use this technology and the Chinese have a particular plan.

Now, we see this in the South China Sea in many ways. I am not going to go through this in too much detail. I will note that Admiral Philip Davidson, the Commander in U.S.-Pacific Command, as it has been renamed, did testify when he was first confirmed in that position that the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war could be controlled by the Chinese. So for the last two years this has been essentially declared U.S. military policy that we know the Chinese can actually control this right now.

Counter, Deter, Adapt: Mobilizing for Total Competition

That was in 2018. Go ahead ten or fifteen years, it is an open-and-shut case in terms of this. That is what the Chinese want everybody to believe, that they are unstoppable. I wrote this report in part because they are not unstoppable. We can stop them without war, right? We cannot stop them without political war. We cannot stop them without total competition short of war, and we need a strong military to back it up.

But we can stop them on this issue, so that Taiwan can have a democratic election if they want to, and not be put out of business, and Vietnam can grow as we celebrate our 25th anniversary of normalization. The Philippines in their democracy even under Duterte can get back to their own values and continue to grow, that we can work with Indonesia, the largest country of Southeast Asia, on a bright future for strategic independence and autonomy, especially when you think about democracies like Indonesia and the Philippines, who can be leading lights for this region and transform it.

Economic Power

Anyway, economic power: I mentioned President Duterte, He has essentially been co-opted by Xi Jinping, who has dangled tens of billions of dollars of Belt and Road Initiative projects in front of him. And so far, as of right now in January, they have spent a couple million dollars as far as I can tell after tens of billions of dollars they promised. They built a couple of bridges that were not really significant.

Most of the big projects have been stopped by the vetting because it turns out that the Chinese wanted to put a surveillance – a so-called ‘smart city’, a surveillance state apparatus – so that they could look over Taiwan. They could look over military installations. It is not a great idea it turns out, and there are other major problems with these Chinese investments because they have an ulterior motive in these investments.

All development is difficult, as somebody who has worked in this field, but nonetheless, they have run into problems here. Beijing wants a quid pro quo for the joint development of the energy resources around Reed Bank, where there is tremendous hydro-carbon exploitation to be had and the Chinese have stopped the Philippines from developing this.

So the Chinese are saying, ‘We know it is in your Exclusive Economic Zone. We are going to give you a great deal. We are going to let you keep maybe just more than 50% and we will develop it with you. In fact, we are the only ones with the equipment, so we will develop it for you and we will share, do not worry. And all you have to do, Manila, is just drop that legal issue, that 2016 arbitration panel. Just because the international community ruled that the Nine Dash Line was unlawful, you do not have to accept that. If you do not accept it, nobody has to accept it.’

It is the China rule, and that is what they are trying to do. That is the economic power. You see that right now. The E-Commerce and E-Payment that China is leading right now, my cousin spent ten years in Mindanao doing this. He has been going around working with the G20 countries on what he calls inclusive financing. It is a great idea for helping poverty alleviation.

The problem is the Chinese are exploiting it for big data. They will control the retail market throughout Southeast Asia on the backs of this E-Commerce and E-Payment system that they want Ali Baba and Tencent and other Chinese companies to run. There need to be alternatives and breaks on that. China does not have to be cut out of this. It is just that they should not have exclusive control. That is what will give autonomy and independence and confidence to Southeast Asia, not to be exclusively controlled by one power.

The lawfare issue I mentioned among other things, the Nine Dash Line, but it is around the Netuna Islands – very important islands for Indonesia. Indonesia is not a claimant state like the Philippines or Vietnam or Malaysia or Brunei (or Taiwan for that matter) in the South China Sea, but China has drawn this expansive Nine Dash Line and it cuts into the waters of the Netuna Islands.

You would think the Chinese are smarter than this, right? They want to court Jokowi, as the President of Indonesia is popularly known. President Widodo, they want to court him, and they have been courting him assiduously, including in the E-Commerce market, and yet they wanted to insist publicly that the Nine Dash Line was legal and was their historic right. And they got into a shouting match in the press this past month with Jokowi. Jokowi was the one who walked it back. He has to because everybody in the region in Southeast Asia has to balance trade with China with their security interests. President Widodo basically said, ‘well, there are no Chinese foreign ships in those waters right now, therefore there is not a problem’. But there is a problem and they know it.

So that is the lawfare issue, that China thinks law does not matter there, we will just say it is a historic right. The psychological operations at work with shows of force and military exercises, the propaganda I have mentioned. Foreign Minister Wang Yi has called the United States in the last couple months the ‘world’s leading troublemaker’, and they especially over our own criticism of Xinjiang, they are erasing the whole treatment of more than a million Uyghurs in Western China because they do not like the reporting. Literally, the China Daily had an editorial cartoon with a big, American elephant basically looking at Uyghurs in Xinjiang saying ‘fake news’. It is ‘just rumors, the world is listening to all of these rumors’, as though these are not facts. They are facts and the Chinese will not listen to them.

And their psychological operations; it is not clear that they are working. The protestors in Hong Kong had a voice, thank goodness. The voters in Taiwan had a voice, so actually China has taken a couple of beatings here recently. But they will be back, do not worry. They have a machine. This is the party, this is the system, and they will be working on this.

Military and Maritime Power Currently

The military and maritime power in terms of what they have been doing recently: I mentioned the swarming around Pagasa Thitu Island when they were harassing fishermen around Reed Bank. They actually sank a Philippine fishing boat. They left the 22 Filipinos in the water without a working radio, so when I say this is political warfare and they have not killed anybody, they left them almost for dead. It was a Vietnamese boat that picked them up and rescued them. The Chinese got out of there. They did not care. This is within the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), so this is not something close to China. This is the Philippines being pushed around by big China and being told what to do.

That is how they are using their military right now, and they are using these maritime militia ships because they are steel-hulled. Xi Jinping made sure the maritime militia had – not wooden boats – I have been on one of the Vietnamese wooden boats that was sunk back when they had the oil rig incident. These are steel hull boats that are designed to be able to ram, so they are using them like grey-hulled ships, like military ships. They had a surveying vessel in Vanguard Bank doing extensive continental shelf exploration, looking for hydrocarbons without Vietnam’s permission, which contravenes UNCLOS again. It goes against the International Law of the Sea, but this is how they are using their three navies and their military in general.

And then fifthly, information power. I think here another Philippines case comes up in Southeast Asia when you think about the South China Sea. So the Philippines lets China Telecom buy a 40% stake in a telecommunications company that is set up, Dito Telecommunity Corporation, and then last September, the Chinese lobby and successfully get Manila to agree that they can supply all of the Philippine military bases with their telecommunications hardware. This is not happening accidentally, right? This is a design, this is a plan. That is the difference between our system and what is happening there in China. They are actually deliberately doing this. That is why I am concerned about it. I would not be as concerned if this were literally just a commercial venture and there they were. No, they are doing it because this is part of that plan.

Deterring the Use of Force

The challenge of response, very briefly, for me is to do three things. We have to counter China’s strategy, so understand this total competition strategy. Then we have to deter escalation because as we put pressure on that strategy, we saw what happened with Iran. They did not like economic sanctions and they tried to fight out of it and that escalated. There will be escalation from China perhaps, so we have to be able to deter escalation, that is deter China from thinking that they can use military force, that they can scare us or scare our allies and partners. The whole idea is not to fight the war too. We are working on the same script on that. We are nuclear powers. This is a bounded competition, so there is a good chance that officials will not escalate to a certain level. But we are going to have to be able to be aggressive on that because as you move into artificial intelligence and quantum computing, you are moving at a speed that we have never seen before in terms of information flow.

Adapting Mindsets and Institutions

We are going to have to then adapt institutions. We are going to have to do things like political warfare. We used to do things like that, but we got out of that business, so we are going to have to – as we think about countering China’s strategy – clarify China’s strategy, make sure we understand this total competition, this political warfare or this gray zone operation broadly defined. We are going to have to integrate our policies better and that is a long haul for us, but we are going to have to start to break down the barriers and that starts early in education and training. It goes right through policy decisions at the top, and we are going to have to increase our public diplomacy broadly defined. To make the deterrence stick, we are also going to have to make sure we do not lose the ability to compete in these high technologies.

Again, the aim I see – in the South China Sea even – is not to allow the Chinese to have exclusive control. That is an easier objective than say, ‘I want America to have primacy in the South China Sea’. That is a harder objective. That is maybe an unrealistic objective from my perspective right now. So let us go for denying China exclusive control because we are then going with the stream. This is what every neighbor of China actually wants. They want autonomy. They want independence. Nobody, not even Cambodia, not even Hun Sen, really wants to be China’s stooge. He cannot help himself maybe because he needs the money and the support and he cannot get away from China, but everybody outside of China would like autonomy from it. Again, Taiwan, Hong Kong are pretty good examples.

We are going to have to preserve crisis management mechanisms and create new ones because we are going to be in close quarters with China from now on in these regions and they are going to be more contested under the sea, in space, as well as all of the normal domains, and we are going to need crisis management mechanisms with the Chinese and with our allies and partners to avoid escalation. There are risks involved, but I am trying to manage these risks at acceptable levels because again, I am counting on officials in both Beijing and Washington not wanting to see this go kinetic in a fight, for if it does, it will be a very contained war. But we have to be ready for that kind of China leap to kind of teach Americans a lesson to get them out basically. We are trying to prevent that, deter them from that.

We are going to have to be planning for contingencies. There has been a lot of contingency planning going on these days over Taiwan and issues in the South China Sea. To adapt our institutions, we have started at the State Department something called the Global Engagement Center. A few people have heard about it. It is not clear that it is yet of the kind of size that we foresaw when you think about the Chinese challenge, and it was dealing with Russia initially, mostly, so it has a long way to go to kind of stand up and be as responsive as we are going to need. We need a 24/7 response to the kind of agile, integrated political warfare machine that I am describing from China and that is not yet it even though they are doing good things on a shoestring basically.

It does go back to George Kennan again. When George Kennan wrote that top-secret memo – I looked at the resources he called for back in 1946 to deal with the Soviet political warfare challenge, which was existential. He said I need about six or eight people. So we are in a different world of course bureaucratically these days. You could not do as much back then, but he need a small group to be able to intellectually take on the ideas at the heart of the Soviet challenge because it was a battle for ideas in many ways. You got heavily militarized obviously, especially from the Korean War on, but it was still ultimately won with the battle of ideas. And this China competition is also very much not just about the technology that I am describing that we have to maintain our leadership in, but it is really about the ideas, and that is what we are trying to preserve. We are trying to make sure we do not lose our own ideals and values here.

Positive Engagement with Southeast Asia

And ultimately, and my last point here, is in addition to adapting our own institutions, it is to remember that we need to lead with our positive, problem-solving, cooperation-initiatives for others around the region and the world. They want to hear what we are going to do and be concerned about their interests. They are not going to see this as total competition. They cannot, they are too small, essentially. Most of these countries in Southeast Asia – Vietnam might be an exception strategically, Singapore is an exception to things strategically – but most of these countries do not think in those terms, and we should not impose that narrative on them, but we should certainly be bringing them along in understanding how they fit into China’s strategy, and in talking to them about how we help them on their terms and all the ways we take care of making sure we are working with the allies and partners who can do something about this China competition.

And some of them are outside of Southeast Asia; Japan, Australia, and India, France and the UK, and other partners around the world that also [can help]. You do not want to have neocolonialism, so you do not want to have just outside powers. We tried that with SEATO, an alliance that failed with the United States back in the Cold War days, but you do want to make sure that you have concentric circles of support to actually achieve the telecommunications or the transportation or the education goals that they have in Indonesia or the Philippines.

We have just had the new head of the Development Finance Corporation, which is a great innovation, head off to Vietnam and Indonesia this past week, and to go to Japan as well because leveraging Japanese development money is a big part of this. If we could try to mobilize private sector money and coordinate on major projects, we could actually make a difference. We could show the Philippines, we could show Vietnam, we could show Indonesia that we have long term interest in their development, in their staying power, and that could be the best rebuttal to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, to China’s heavy-handed political warfare. So I will stop there and I look forward to your questions and comments. Thank you very much.


Audience member:

Firstly, thank you for giving this talk. I have a few comments. I am a Uyghur myself, originally from East Turkestan, and you talked mostly on the South China Sea issues, but China is doing the same thing in Central Asia. You have them setting up smart cities in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan. They are buying off all of these leaders. In fact, the same thing the PRC did back in 1949 in the former East Turkestan Republic, saying oh, we are coming to help develop the country, make it beautiful, and make you a stronger nation, but you have to play by our rules and according to DOD there are anywhere from one million, possibly three million, people in concentration camps.

So I think the United States – and this is my own opinion – needs to work with regional powers, regional countries, in Central Asia not just exclusively in the Southeast Asia to combat these Chinese threats and to work with NGOs, human rights organizations, and other peoples affected in East Turkestan, Tibet, and to push back against China because the Chinese are not going to stop at just Southeast Asia. If they are going to take over Southeast Asia, you bet they are going to come after the United States and even Europe if not this century, the next century.

Dr. Patrick M. Cronin

Thank you very much. This report started with a Smith Richardson Foundation grant where I said I was going to talk about the South China Sea, so that is why the report ended up being focused on that, but it was not just off the top of my head that I thought the South China Sea was a problem. This is the maritime area where China has the most open running room, it is not the East China Sea where Japan stands in their way with the United States. There are no real military alliances that stand in their way. It is vital for them. It is a springboard into the Indian Ocean and the rest of the Belt and Road Initiative, their Maritime Silk Road. So that is why it deserves some focus, but by all means, it is a global issue for the U.S. to think about the China challenge in this total competition in various forms is being practiced in every region, including the Arctic and in Outer Space as well as in cyberspace.

So it is something that does rhyme, so Central Asia is very important. I think on the Uyghur issue if people have not seen by now one of the many documentaries, the classified documents that were leaked, the official documents that were leaked out of China, even the PBS News Hour had a great episode on this just a couple weeks ago. So this is not right-wing media, this is mainstream media saying these are facts, these stories are overwhelming what has happened in Xinjiang. That is what China has done to Chinese citizens, so if you are non-Chinese, good luck. This is how they treat Chinese citizens. It is very telling.

The head of Human Rights Watch was trying to go to Hong Kong and they blocked him from going in to talk about the human rights abuses and heavy-handedness of Beijing there. We should be working with non-governmental organizations. We should be mobilizing with other allies and partners, like-minded actors, civil society because this is a total competition, political warfare, and that is exactly how we do it. And we have to work with the local actors on the scene who are able to stand up and say look, we want independence, we want strategic autonomy, we want freedom, we do not want to be run by the Chinese Communist Party.

Audience member:

You did not talk about academia, Virginia Tech. Most of the students where I work at the Northern Virginia Center, many are Chinese, and we are [unintelligible]. The other thing you did not mention is the Uyghurs and the Christians. The persecution of the Christians I think many Christians in this country are very aware of what the Chinese are doing and also, of course, organ harvesting, and then there are Chinese nationals coming here and having babies, so they have children who are American citizens. That is another issue that we are not addressing. I would say one of the most important though is in academia because I see it everyday and there are lovely people-

Dr. Patrick M. Cronin:

It is not the people, it is the Party and what they are doing to co-opt these people.

Audience member:

And they get to come here and study with the best minds in the world, with our AI, with cybersecurity, but they have to return to China because they have families there.

Dr. Patrick M. Cronin:

The fact is that the Chinese are able to exploit our open systems, including our universities, our think tanks. Some money flows into think tanks – we get no money from China, by the way. We do not accept money from China. But our universities accept and recruit lots of Chinese students because they are paying full tuition, and they need the tuition. Because they are driven in the sciences and they want to contribute, so they are smart and they are overachieving, and that is a good thing for a program, but what is the cost for the program?

If you are working on sensitive research and that is flowing back to China, there is a cost, so there needs to be some vetting. There needs to be some thought going into this from a security perspective. This is where the government when I talked about adapting institutions, I was using shorthand. In the report there is mention of academia and think tanks and that is because we need to start a process of intelligent oversight, so that we can minimize the risk. There will still be risk. We are not cutting China off.

This is not about the containment of China, but it is about making sure that we are vigilant about the Chinese Communist Party’s activities because this is what they are doing. They are going in there, insisting that their students – it can be an eighteen-year old from China – that they must spy on their professor, they must issue reports. Then they are working in the labs in technology and the stakes go up even higher.

So this is a real problem and on top of yes, religious freedom, and the human rights issue, and organ harvesting, which still goes on – which is amazing – absolutely, that is another problem altogether.

Audience member:

When is the White House going to appoint you to be an organizer of the struggle against China? What more can we do in a couple areas – what more can we do to arm Taiwan? What more can we do to involve Taiwan diplomatically, not just trilaterally but in international groupings such as the OECD, formally or informally? What more can we do to reconstitute the equivalent of the TPP, which we foolishly pulled out of? Will we rejoin it if Trump is probably re-elected? And what more can we do to [unintelligible] in these kinds of Western clubs and institutions? That is a handful. Perhaps I should leave it at that.

Dr. Patrick M. Cronin:

Well, I think you have done a great service. You have helped illustrate some of the things that we need to be doing, and more vigorously with others, with allies and partners, to try to address those issues. Each one of them is extraordinarily complicated. I do not have all of the answers. I am not here to tell you I know all of the answers. I thought about all of those issues, but there are a lot of people who need to be brought into a discussion.

So even on the Taiwan issue, Randy Schriver is an expert on Taiwan. He just left the Pentagon as the Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Indo-Pacific. He is a Mandarin speaker. He has long thought about the Taiwan issue. He is now the Chairman of Project 2049, which is of course the centennial of the Communist Party of China. It is driven by that agenda, looking at China. Over at 2049 you will see reports and a great book by Ian Easton on Taiwan scenarios. So they have many ideas on their website about how to strengthen the security.

What I would say though is to make sure we are doing it and understand that Tsai Ying-Wen, that the Taiwanese people, who just voted to kind of push back on China in many ways, need cyber security. They need security against psychological pressure. We know China is going to go back and start to pick off the last fifteen countries that recognize Taiwan. So that has been taking a toll because if you are the Republic of China, ROC, if that is your identity, you feel like well, if only fifteen countries now recognize me, what about if it is ten next year? So that is psychological.

And the young people in Taiwan who want to work on the mainland, those things have started to change, and that is where the south-bound policy is how we are doing it. So Taiwan south-bound policy, working in Vietnam, working in Indonesia, that is their future economy. They need to divest from the mainland and not be overly dependent. That is the recipe for most of their neighbors.

They need to be not overly dependent on the Chinese Communist Party. Over-dependence is what will allow the CCP to kind of get their claws in, but if they have to vie with a lot of competition, okay, we can have the Chinese there, but we are all working on different agendas here. We have to have a positive agenda to work on.

That is why your mention of something to replace the Trans-Pacific Partnership as a regional trading plan, yes, we need that. We are working right now just bilaterally. It is not adequate. It is not sufficient, but give the administration some credit in terms of wanting to shake things up in terms of a level playing field on trade with China, which has been exploiting the open rules of the road of the World Trade Organization.

So you sometimes have to do something disruptive before you can get to the kind of constructive work, so creative destruction may be in play. I hope there is a strategy there. But we need to do even more on those issues. We finally have through the Build Act, through the Asia Reassurance Initiative some financing to start to spend on some of these things.

That is why I mentioned Adam Boehler, who is the new CEO of the Development Finance Corporation, working with development agencies, working with the Japanese JBIC, working with private sector to try to mobilize some big projects and show that we are going to be building things that really matter.

So those are just touching the surface of some very tough policy questions, but that is where the policy needs to be gravitating and those are not going to be done just within USAID or State or just in DOD. They are going to have to be done across our government with allies and partners. That is the new challenge here.

Audience member:

Thank you so much. It is great to see Westminster and Hudson together, just fabulous organizations, great minds. You mentioned in your talk several times – getting back to the maritime aspect of this – the UN Law of the Sea, rather contentious, so I just was not sure where your report stood on that.

I just picked up my phone, googled Law of the Sea, just curious who had, who had not. And it seems that the United States, Iran, and North Korea are amongst the few countries that have not necessarily ratified that. So are you advocating that the U.S. should ratify that, and if you are, why, and if you are not, why not?

Dr. Patrick M. Cronin:

Well, I have said in the past that I think the U.S. should ratify it, but I do not think that is the issue for us. We are adhering to UNCLOS as a matter of customary law and so as a result of that, it is the law. Is is the law that the United States respects and we uphold. There are only a couple of provisions on seabeds that have still been very contentious and concerned about, and that have implications.

And I recognize those get into very detailed issues, and they do have very big implications for some of our territorial holdings in the Pacific. So that is why it is a complicated issue. But the reality is unlike China on the Permanent Court of Arbitration, on Vanguard Bank in terms of their exploration, we are actually trying to uphold UNCLOS as a matter of practice in the South China Sea, and in the East China Sea, and other maritime areas.

Audience member:

Do you think it would be easier to uphold it if we were party to the treaty? [unintelligible] …for the Chinese to say, ‘ratify the damn treaty’.

Dr. Patrick M. Cronin:

Yes, that is why we should ratify it, but let us recognize that is a Senate process, so the executive branch is basically making the day-to-day policy, and executive branch after executive regardless of party has adhered to international law.

I agree, but if it is not going to happen, if I cannot get those votes, let me work on something that I can actually achieve right now, so that is why I am working on mostly beyond that issue. At different inflection points in the future it may be an opportunity. I do not think it is right now.

Cynthia Farahat:

I am Cynthia Farahat. I am a Fellow at the Middle East Forum. I have been reading reports that now that China has a colony in Pakistan under the guise of building infrastructure and even at one point it had its own police force over there. They had to remove it after terrorist attacks against the Chinese Embassy. The people there were getting agitated by seeing Chinese police. So this is being done under the guise of infrastructure, but what is behind that layer in your opinion?

Dr. Patrick M. Cronin:

Well, this is very much driven by two big things. One of them is the Silk Road idea. This is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, but it is also geostrategy in terms of containing India and providing the so-called string of pearls ability for China to create the control over the lines of communication both at sea and on land over critical resource areas. They have spent or promised tens of billions of dollars to Pakistan. Pakistan has had real concerns about China now.

But having dealt with Pakistan development, and the U.S. had a major failure under the Obama administration. When we promised to build an energy grid, it never came to pass. That is what I do not want to see on the Pacific islands where the United States and Japan and Australia have stood up and said even small places are strategically important, like Papua New Guinea. We are going to help them build something significant. We have to follow through.

The Chinese though have decided to build this through restive Balochistan, not a great piece of real estate. That is why the Chinese needed to have all of the security there as well. They literally are at risk of terrorism and political violence, so they have some reason. That is not the only thing they will do. They will use it still as a forward military operating base in the future if they can because these civilian bases, whether it is in Sri Lanka or whether it is in Djibouti now, become military platforms. Djibouti now is the first overseas base. Even though they still foreswear overseas bases, that is where their main operating [base] is [located], operating sort of for officials.

They have got big problems in Pakistan. In some ways I do not mind if they waste all of their money in Pakistan because it is not going to succeed. If you look at Gwadar Port and what has actually been built, there are problems, major problems, and the Chinese are having second thoughts on some of the financing that they had a couple years ago has dried up a bit. So there are challenges. China is over-extended in some of these ways. The other thing about Pakistan and a lot of these engineering projects, infrastructure projects, is this was a cheap way for China to export surplus workers and supplies. And again, that has changed as well to some extent. So there is a certain wariness around the world.

There is something called the Blue Dot Network that the United States has stood up now with other partners that tries to provide a good housekeeping seal of approval on major development of projects out of the Belt and Road Initiative. It is just getting started as of last fall, but it will be able to provide another kind of spotlight on what is happening with some of these developments. Something like Pakistan where there is a heavy security component to it and there is tens of billions of dollars floating around in a restive region, it causes a lot of people to watch that one closely.

Audience member:

Thank you very much. When I came back to my first fifteen years in China in the early 2000s, it was with a grandiose idea to warn this country about China, which sounds delusional. There was very little appetite for it. When I ran for Congress in 2012 in a Virginia District south of here, it was to warn about China, and there was very little appetite for it because the business world was interested in exploiting China for its own needs. And I am fully in favor of making money, but at our own peril.

One thing that I would like to say is I really appreciated your remarks and for what it is worth, I agree with you on everything except one thing. I think we need to say that we do want to contain not China, but the Chinese Communist Party. I think we have to take that step publically, and say it. I think we have enough evidence behind us of bad faith and bad behavior on the CCP’s part to – if we cannot say on a government level, at least we can say on an organizational level, at least say on an academic level.

One of the small fights that I had with the State Department seven years ago was on the issue of Chinese visas to students and I fully understand and support what you said. It is wrong to think that all of those students – and this is a hard thing to talk about in America because it hearkens back to another period that was not very nice, but it is wrong to think that all of those Chinese students are just victims of the bad CCP when they go home and their parents are being held hostage if they do not produce reports on what is going on here.

A large percentage of those students are CCP members themselves and are members of the Communist Youth League, and have been the whole time. The average CCP member of the population is not quite 6% of the population. In my studies I reckoned that almost 40% of Chinese students who come here are already members of the CCP or one of its organizations for young people. So by definition, they have sworn an oath of loyalty to the CCP, which is the Borg like Star Trek. I think we need to monitor those visa applications. I think we need to monitor them much more closely because that is the grassroots level.

Dr. Patrick M. Cronin:

These are all good points. In the report I think you will find a pretty pugnacious sort of response to the Chinese Communist Party in general. The reason I do not use the word containment is because our enemies use it against us, and our adversaries use it, and our competitors use it. Russia just this last week; ‘America is trying to contain the Chinese’. No, we are not trying to contain the Chinese. We just signed a major trade agreement with the Chinese.

But on the Chinese Communist Party, we need institutions that can effectively contain it, so I agree with you, but I do not want that to be our declaratory policy because it will confuse our friends around the world to think that we are looking for a fight and we are just confrontational. We do not have a strategy. We need effective strategies, both positive strategies that have nothing to do with China in some ways [that] I have talked about in this report.

We want to build together the brighter future we are building with free people around the world, and that will be a good counterpoint, but then yes, we need an offense. We need an offense and a defense broadly defined across our institutions to be able to deal with that.

You are right about [the fact that] there are a large number of students who are co-opted well before they get here by the Chinese Communist Party because there is a career path, because they believe, because they have no choice; a lot of reasons. But even so, even if it is 40%, that means that 60% of those coming over are literally just victims of that system when they come over. Since there are so many Chinese students, that is still a lot.

But you are right, it is a major problem. We are starting to wake up to it. We need institutions now to be able to vet and follow through and to make some tough judgements on universities, which are private. It is one thing to do state universities because it is a little easier to have control over state institutions. It is harder when you get into private universities.

I am just reading the new Council on Foreign Relations report. We are going to engage China, Kissinger is involved in it. I grew up on Kissinger. Kissinger is a great hero to me, but I think now we are in a different period and we need to recognize that. I think there is generally a consensus that the China challenge is here to stay and that we have to deal with it.

There is not a clear consensus over what exactly to do about it. Are we de-coupling? Are we disentangling? Are we containing? Are we confronting? Where, how, to what extent, and how much risk do we want to accept to our economy, to our allies and partners, and who are we bringing along with us along this? So we have a lot of big questions to ask on this issue, which is why we do need [an] integrated [strategy].

There are some very good people in the White House. Matt Pottinger has been promoted to Deputy National Security Adviser. He is a Mandarin speaker. He is really bright. He is working with David Stilwell, the Assistant Secretary of State on this. He is another Mandarin speaker and bright fellow. Chad Sbragia is the first ever Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for China at the Defense Department. [He is a] very bright guy, former Defense Attaché in Beijing.

So we have got in place some really good people, but our institutions are kind of sclerotic, and we have political disfunction, and we have disagreements, and obviously impeachment and other issues going on, and this is preventing us from doing the kind of institution-building, and creativity, and forward-leaning.

And then yes, we have a president who is populist, right, and who takes on the opposite, so the trade agreement might not have been the right thing economically. He is maybe right about that, but what is the alternative still remains the question. So if you are going to destroy something, make sure you have got a better alternative, and that is what we are still casting about for.

Audience member:

How does North Korea fit into China’s plans?

Dr. Patrick M. Cronin:

North Korea is the buffer state neighbor. China lost a lot of people in the Korean War. They now feel they have come back to center stage and they want more control over the Korean Peninsula. So if we think crossing the Yalu was something in 1950, the next crossing of the Yalu could be in space, it could be in cyber space, it could be a lot of things, but it is very important to them.

So they are willing to help the United States when their interests overlap, that is they do not want a war on their border. If they think they can coax us into talks that lower tensions with North Korea, they will go along with that, but they will look for creeping influence and control.

It is North Korea that does not want much to do with China or anybody else, by the way. North Koreans are fiercely independent and paranoid about everybody. It was interesting on North Korea just to see the turnaround in China-North Korea relations that has happened in early 2018, and that was in direct response to President Trump saying I am going to meet at a summit meeting. Suddenly, the young leader, Kim Jong-Un, was on a train to Beijing when he had been held at arm’s length for six years. There were several summits after that and the Chinese are playing a big role, so that is very important.

Audience member:

I lived in China for a number of years. I lived in the far north and I taught in the university where I thought my students were unusual because they were all what we called cadre. I noted that they had special privileges and these are the youth that ended up coming to the United States. So I am confident that whoever was allowed to come study in the United States were thoroughly vetted within the Communist Party. These are not naive youngsters at all. They know what their mission is, very much so.

I am saddened that in some respects we were not critical of who came over and that we should have made a genuine effort to say that if you want to study in our universities, you are going to get a whole course on George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration of Independence, and everything about free enterprise, and everything like that. We should have indoctrinated them and sent them back with that kind of information.

Dr. Patrick M. Cronin:

But they are not here to study liberal studies, they are here to study engineering, physics, and-

Audience member:

I do not care. We should have seen this coming because when I was in there, when you were in there, I saw what was going down and I came back to the states and I ended up at the National War College, and I was trying to conduct wargames to demonstrate to the other officers there that what they were going to see because American businesses doing business in China – our technology went with them. Boeing bragged about when Boeing aircraft flies to China, it is flying home.

And it was my effort to try to explain to these officers they were going to see their own technology being shot back at you. And when you see those sailors with that Chinese flag standing on a shoal or some island in the middle of the South Pacific, please go over there and [unintelligible] because once they plant a flag, they are not budging. So we knew this was going down twenty years ago and we were a little bit late. With this Belt and Road Initiative they are pushing into territory where they are not welcome and certain countries are already pushing back. Are we looking into that?

Dr. Patrick M. Cronin:

Very much so and I think the Blue Dot initiative is just one sort of token program on these issues. Thank you for your passion. There were a lot of people looking at these issues in the 1990s. When I was dealing with the PLA in 1991, I knew what I was dealing with. I knew what they wanted. They wanted to weaken the U.S.-Japan alliance. They wanted to find out U.S. technology. It was pretty obvious, but it was confined more to the military and the intelligence sphere while business was allowed to run amok, and academia as well opened up as part of integration and thinking there would be convergence.

Anyway, we have to work with the partners and countries that are at risk and vulnerable of both debt and influence from China. It is happening in Africa, it is happening in Eastern Europe, it is happening in Central Asia, it is happening in Southeast Asia, it is happening in Latin America.

It is indeed in the Caribbean and in the Pacific Islands where the Chinese actually declared this past year that they want to take their Belt and Road Initiative and make sure it precedes military cooperation to follow. So they are actually open about it now. How brazen can you be because first they were saying oh, this has nothing to do with security or military, it is just out of humanity we are doing this. No, it is not.

So there are huge opportunities, but we are going to have to be strategic about it. We have to attack the strategy and what I am focusing on here is the strategy, and in making sure that we then figure out what are the biggest vulnerabilities that we have to focus on and can focus on? And what are the most positive things we can do as well that just strengthen our own sort of influence in a positive way, working with others?

So we have a lot of things to do, but we can do it. We have tremendous intellectual capital, we have technology, education, and we have allies. We have partners. Let us build them, let us work together and harness these resources. That is why I do not spend most of my time attacking people I may disagree with. I spend more of my time thinking why do not we move forward because we are in an inflection point.

Again, we are at the Fourth Industrial Revolution. We are still in the nascent stages of this Fourth Industrial Revolution that is mostly digital, and it is going to transform our lives, our societies, our militaries. China now has invested all of these people, and money, and technologies in a plan. What is our response? It is not war, but it has to be a total competition that can compete ahead of these things.