Reassessing China’s Capabilities and Goals for Strategic Competition

Reassessing China’s Capabilities and Goals for Strategic Competition

On the World Class podcast, Oriana Skylar Mastro argues that in order to set effective policy toward China, the United States needs to better understand how and why China is projecting power.
Chinese military propaganda depicting the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1958. Chinese military propaganda depicting the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1958. Getty Images

Taiwan. Hypersonic missiles. The South China Sea. In the last few months, China’s activities have grabbed headlines and fueled speculation about its intentions. But how much of this action is posturing, and how much should U.S. policymakers and strategists take seriously?

To help explain what’s going on with our biggest competitor, FSI Center Fellow Oriana Skylar Mastro, a specialist on China’s military and an active member of the United States Air Force Reserves, joins Michael McFaul on World Class to debunk some of the myths that persist about China’s capabilities and reframe how the U.S. needs to think about strategic competition with Beijing. Listen to their full episode and read highlights from the conversation below.

Click here for a transcript of “We Need To Rethink Our Assumptions about China’s Strategic Goals”

Where China Was in the 1990s

Twenty years ago, the Chinese-Taiwan invasion plan was to take a couple of fishing vessels and paddle their way across the strait. In the 1990s, China had very limited, and often no ability to fly over water, or at night, or in weather, and their ships had no defenses.

For many, many years we knew that China was willing to fight if Taiwan declared independence. Fighting a war in any country that is big and resolved is problematic. But it was never the case that the United States was going to lose that war; it was always a matter of, “How many days?” How many days is it going to take us to win?

Where China Is Now

In the intervening years, China's military has changed both quantitatively and qualitatively. Now they have the largest navy in the world, and those ships are some of the most advanced surface ships that can be comparable to those of the United States. Same with their fighters; they have fifth generation airplanes and the largest airforce in the region. They’ve put all these capabilities online, and at the same time, they [have also] started developing capabilities to reach out and touch the United States with.

They developed the capability to hit moving ships at sea, which is something the United States doesn’t have the capability to do. They have a huge cruise and ballistic missile program that basically can take out a U.S. base like Kadena  in the region in a matter of hours, should they ever be willing to make a direct hit on the U.S.

This doesn't mean that China is more powerful than the United States; China still can’t project power outside the Indo-Pacific region, and even there it’s mostly through space, cyber, and nuclear weapons. But most of the contingencies we're talking about are really close to China, so it doesn’t really matter that they can’t project power. So, on the conventional side, I’m very concerned.

Why Taiwan Matters

The whole goal of the Communist Party, since its founding in 1949, has been to resolve this Taiwan issue.

Now they have the ships, the aircraft, and they’ve reorganized their whole military so that they can do joint operations, so that the navy and the air force can do an invasion of Taiwan. And a lot of those efforts came to a successful conclusion at the end of 2020. And that's why people like myself, not because of  the capabilities, but because when I was in Beijing and talked to the Chinese military and government officials, they said, “We could do this now, and maybe we should think about it.”

We know from behavioral economics that countries and people are much more willing to take risks to not lose something that they think is theirs, versus when they are trying to get something which they don't think is theirs. In the Chinese mindset, Taiwan, the South China Sea, East China Sea, etc. is already theirs, and the United States is trying to take it from them. That makes the situation even more problematic. 

What the United States Should Do

The Biden administration is doing a lot of political maneuvering to show that the United States is willing to defend Taiwan. And I think it’s just upsetting Beijing, because they think we’re changing the political status quo. It also does nothing to enhance our deterrence, because it doesn't signal anything about our capability to defend Taiwan.

The Chinese basically assume the United States will intervene. Their big question is, can they still win? We need to show China that they cannot win, and that’s about showing out capabilities in the region. It’s about aggressively negotiating new host arrangements, more access for the U.S. military, and new international institutions and treaties that constrain the ways China leverages power.

I'm a military person, but I'm totally on board with leading with diplomacy. But I don't see those types of efforts coming out of the Biden administration. They seem to want to double down and do the same things, just with more allies and partners.  I'm supportive of it, but I just don't think it's enough.

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