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Ely S. Ratner
Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs
U.S. Department of Defense
Michael S. Chase
Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for China, Taiwan and Mongolia
U.S. Department of Defense
David O. Shullman
Senior Director, Global China Hub, Atlantic Council
Nonresident Senior Fellow, Forward Defense, Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security
DAVID SHULLMAN: Hello, everyone, and thank you for joining us for today’s event to discuss the Pentagon’s 2023 China Military Power Report.
I’m Dave Shullman, Senior Director of the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub, which devises allied solutions to the global challenges posed by China’s rise, leveraging the Council’s work on China across its 15 other programs and centers. We are pleased to co host today’s event with the Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security which works to develop sustainable, nonpartisan strategies to address the most important security challenges facing the United States and its allies and partners.
Logistical note at the outset, that we will be taking questions from our audience in person and online toward the end of our hour together. So, please go to askac.org to insert your questions throughout the event.
So, for those of our audience who don’t know, the Defense Department’s annual China Military Report is mandated by Congress and lays out for all to read, not only the Pentagon’s authoritative assessments of key trends in the Chinese military’s capabilities build up and strategic aims, but also insights into how the Pentagon is viewing China’s activities in the Indo Pacific and beyond, and the related challenges in managing tense relations with Beijing, as well as what the Defense Department is prioritizing in its relations and approach to China.
So, it’s an important document. And today, we have two very distinguished experts from the Pentagon here to discuss the report with us and its implications. And we have a lot of questions to get to over the next hour.
So now, I’ll hand it over to my co moderator of today, Whitney McNamara, to introduce herself and our distinguished guests.
WHITNEY MCNAMARA: Thank you, Dave.
Whitney McNamara. I’m a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council and a Vice President at Beacon Global Strategies. I’m honored to be able to introduce our distinguished speakers today.
With us we have Dr. Ely Ratner who serves as the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo Pacific Security Affairs. Prior to his confirmation, he was the Director for DoD’s China Task Force and a Senior Adviser on China to the Secretary of Defense.
We also have Dr. Michael Chase who became the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for China in 2021 and recently assuming the responsibilities for Taiwan and Mongolia as well. He previously was a senior political scientist at RAND focusing on Chinese military modernization, its approach to strategic deterrence, Taiwan’s defense policy and Indo Pacific security issues writ large.
Thank you, both, for being here with us today. This report, if anyone has already taken a look at it, covers a lot of ground, so we’ll just jump into some questions.
And the first one is really just to help us level set, what is different from this year’s report than last year’s? What did you want to highlight at the top?
MICHAEL CHASE: Right. Well, I think what we tried to do with the report this year is really explain why the PRC is the Department’s pacing challenge. Many of you may have read the National Defense Strategy and that’s how it characterizes China and its rapidly modernizing military. And what we’ve done with this report is tried to explain why that’s the case.
We covered a lot of ground in the report, some of what’s new here, the PRC has conducted more than 280 coercive and risky intercepts in the air domain against the U.S. and its allies and partners over the past roughly two years, we devote some attention to that in the report. We also talked about the modernization of the PLA’s strategic deterrence capabilities, including its nuclear force as well as its space and cyber and electronic warfare capabilities.
On the question of the nuclear force, we cover a very rapid expansion, modernization, and diversification of the PRC’s nuclear force in the report. We estimate that the PRC had, as of May, more than 500 nuclear weapons in its arsenal and is building a larger force that will surpass 1,000 nuclear weapons in 2030. And we also discussed in the report some of the provocative activity that the PLA undertook around Taiwan last summer, including missile overflights of Taiwan, as well as some of the actions that the PRC has taken since declaring a no-limits partnership with Russia.
And lastly, I would just note that we cover in the report the lack of military to military communications with the PRC as well. Although we do maintain working level communications on a pretty routine basis, we’ve seen, unfortunately, the PRC largely denying, canceling, or ignoring most of our requests for everything from routine annual dialogues to senior leader engagements.
And while the working level communications are an important component of a defense relationship, we really want to see it restart across the board so that we could have the senior leader communications as well, and the normal annual dialogues that we would expect to see take place. So we want to see this happening at multiple levels. And that’s one of the other things that I think is noteworthy in the report, is just it chronicles how challenging that’s been over the past year.
ELY RATNER: Maybe I’ll just say at the outset here if we’re talking about 2022 and what’s new, not out of the PLA and, obviously, we’ll spend the bulk of the hour talking about the PLA today, but it’s notable that in 2022 as well, we released the National Defense Strategy that as Mike said, identified the PRC as the Department’s top pacing challenge. We’ve put together a budget request that reflects that strategy as never before.
So, I just want to make sure that as folks are as we’re getting into this discussion today about the PLA and its growing capability, we’re not losing sight of the fact that the Department has identified China as the top pacing challenge. We’re investing focused capabilities on solving operational problems associated with that. We’re developing new operational concepts as well.
We’re deepening our relationships with our allies and partners. We’re modernizing our force posture. So, there’s a whole lot that’s going on as it relates to these capabilities.
And where we think we are today, as you hear Department leaders saying, is that we believe deterrence is real, and deterrence is strong, and we’re working every day to keep it that way.
WHITNEY MCNAMARA: That’s really helpful. And all the topics you just covered are things we’re going to dive into. I think one of the things we wanted to raise, despite China being the pacing threat, is that there is a cut off time, right, these reports require lots of experts, collating insights, and getting consensus. And then there’s a cut off time to publish and then geopolitical events inevitably happen, despite China being the pacing threat.
Is there anything you would have done differently or included in between the time of the cut off and the actual publication of the report?
MICHAEL CHASE: So, I would say, I guess I would characterize these maybe as things that we’ll explore in greater depth next year, because I think they’re all topics that are touched upon in the report to some extent. But one thing that I would highlight for further exploration in next year’s report is the corruption and the anticorruption campaign in the PLA, and in particular what PRC leaders might think about the implications for the PLA’s ability to achieve the goals that Xi Jinping has set out for them for 2027 and beyond.
I think we would probably also cover in a little bit more detail, some of the questions around strategic stability and risk reduction. We do note in the report that the PRC appears interested in developing a conventional intercontinental range missile. And so, I think that highlights why that’s another area that is worthy of our attention, and one that would be good to be able to talk to them about directly if they were willing to engage in those conversations with us.
ELY RATNER: Yeah, I mean, I think in some ways, and you’re making the exact right point, which is these things are evolving, there has to be a cut off point, I think a number of the issues, not so much issues that maybe would be foreign to a reader of these reports, but issues that will likely be evolving in the coming months and years. And I think Mike laid down a couple of those which absolutely we’ll keep an eye on.
I think the corruption issue is an important issue that a number of folks thought that perhaps Xi Jinping had handled and had been put to bed. I would be interested in Dave’s view on this issue. I know he’s looked at this issue as well.
But clearly, it has reemerged as a significant endemic problem inside the PLA. And I think it’ll be interesting to see how that evolves in the coming months, including how it’s affecting their own perceptions of capabilities, but also other modernization efforts and the institution overall. So, I think that’s an evolving issue.
I think the question of PLA overseas facilities and basing, this is something the China Military Power Report has been talking about for years, identifying some of the places, in particular, where the PRC remains interested. We continue to see that, we continue to see them now working more with domestic security forces as an alternative way to make inroads with some of these regimes, particularly nondemocratic regimes. So, that’s an area we’ll want to keep an eye on.
And then the mil mil area as well, I think, remains quite fluid. We’ve seen a lot of diplomacy between the United States and China over the last several months. And I think our hope would be, that given the importance we see in the mil mil relationship, that that will be an area, by the time we’re sitting on stage next year, will have evolved further. So, we’ll be keeping an eye on that and happy to talk about that in more detail as well.
DAVID SHULLMAN: Well, I want to I was going to ask a different question, but you touched on something I wanted to touch on. So, let’s dig into the PLA’s global ambitions and potential for more military facilities and basing around the world, not just in the Indo Pacific, but the report lays out potentially also in the Middle East and in Africa and other places.
So, just curious if there’s more to say, on how you’re thinking about what this means in terms of the PRC’s strategy globally. What is most concerning for the Department, for the administration, when we think about where China might be looking at facilities and basing? And then, what’s the approach that the U.S. government and the Department, in particular, would take in terms of engaging with countries that might be considering having a Chinese base or a military facility on their soil and how do you kind of navigate what could be a fairly tricky set of conversations?
ELY RATNER: Do you want to take that first?
MICHAEL CHASE: Sure. Yeah, I’ll start on that one first. So, I think we’ve seen the PLA pursuing a network of overseas installations, now really dating back probably to the, I would say, the early 2000s was when I think they began having a debate about how they would protect their security interests globally. And then, of course, the establishment of their first overseas base in Djibouti broke a precedent that they had previously refrained from having overseas military installations or certainly overseas military bases.
And what we’ve seen since then is PLA strategists talking increasingly openly about the fact that Djibouti is their first, but won’t be their last overseas base. And so, we have seen the PLA continue to pursue different types of facilities, some that might be more relevant to their space program, others that are potentially for logistics support. And we’ll probably see pursuit of additional facilities that are more full scale bases like the one in Djibouti.
And in the report, we highlight Ream Naval Base in Cambodia as one where there are developments unfolding right now. And then looking to the future, we also talk about a number of locations in the Middle East, on the west coast of Africa, and in other locations as well. So, I think we expect to see the PRC continue to pursue that global network of bases. And it will definitely present some challenges to the U.S. and to our allies and partners.
And I think as we see that develop, obviously, it creates the potential for some friction in their relationships with the host countries as well. So it’s not necessarily the case that they identify someplace, pursue it, and everything goes smoothly and goes the way they want it to. Just like any other power that’s seeking overseas bases, they’ll run into a variety of challenges in trying to accomplish those objectives.
ELY RATNER: And I would just add three quick points to that one. I think first, Dave, yes, your question about engaging with potential host countries, that’s part of this. The other part of it is, of course, engaging with other countries who may have an interest, whether it’s in the region or elsewhere, associated with their security interests in this type of overseas PLA presence. So, we’ve been engaging with relevant allies and partners on these issues as well which has been important.
We’ve been second, working from an interagency perspective on this, this is not just a DoD concern, or just a military security issue, it has other equities, too. So, this has been a whole of government conversation in a very effective way.
And I think third, it’s important to do this in a disciplined way, too. And for those of us who have been working on the China problem for a long time, yes, their influence is growing; yes, the PLA has a more global footprint. But the most important thing is really trying to understand where does that really matter for U.S. national interest, and doing that in a disciplined way, and not just chasing PLA presence where we see it, but understanding specifically what our interests and where and protecting them commensurate with that kind of focus and resources.
DAVID SHULLMAN: Yeah, that’s a really important point, basically. You can’t cover the entire world. If you’re covering everything, you’re covering nothing. So, how do you focus and how do you strategize? So, appreciate your saying that.
I want to come back to what was already mentioned in terms of a big focus for the report which is the PLA’s increasingly risky and coercive behavior. Maybe on the risky part, just ask if there’s anything else to say on what do you think strategically is driving that, especially in terms of the air intercepts and these kinds of things which we’ll be seeing and obviously very dangerous. Is there a strategic drive behind what the PRC is doing there? So that’s one question. But more broadly, on the coercion piece, I think the report is really strong in talking about how the PRC is using the PLA increasingly as an agent of statecraft, including in the coercive space, especially against our Indo Pacific partners and allies.
We had an example of that just this weekend, right, with the Chinese vessels colliding with Philippine vessels in the South China Sea. But, so, I want to get a little bit more granularity on what you think is, are in the key, arsenal of things that the PRC is using in terms of coercion, but specifically on Taiwan, where, of course, we’ve seen more military flights close to to Taiwan, overflights, these kinds of things, missile overflights. And we’re heading towards this election, presidential election, in January in Taiwan.
So any thoughts you might have on what’s most concerning to you in terms of what we’ve seen in terms of China’s coercion against Taiwan, and what, you can suspect might play out over the next six to nine months, as we lead towards that election in January, and then go towards the inauguration of whoever wins in May.
ELY RATNER: So maybe I’ll start just on the operational behavior question. And then maybe Mike can build on some of the Taiwan points, as you all may have seen last week, Admiral Aquilino and I did a presentation before the Pentagon press corps, and the Defense Department put out a press release describing a series of events, specifically, air events, air intercepts against U.S. aircraft operating in international airspace, according to international law in both the South China Sea, and the East China Sea.
And this was of a variety of different behaviors. It was air intercepts that were coming in too fast, that got too close, that brandished weapons, that engaged in risky and dangerous maneuvers around U.S. aircraft, that we think is important to be highlighting, because they really are dangerous. They put lives at risk, and they risk, also potential crises that could lead to inadvertent conflict. So it’s a really important issue.
I think the one of the important insights from the report, from the China Military Power Report that I cited in that press conference is that we do believe that this is a coordinated campaign by the PLA. This is not a set of individual rogue pilots doing this. And we have various reasons to believe that, including just the pattern of behavior, which has been relatively constant, and quite worrisome. And obviously you ought to ask the PLA specifically what their intentions are. But I think broadly, we understand that they have ambitions to drive the United States out of the region. They have an interest in driving wedges between the United States and our allies and partners.
I should add that this behavior is also occurring against not just the United States. So that was the highlight of this particular the focus of this particular release, but also against other allies and partners. We’ve seen the Canadian government out talking about this. The Australians experienced a very dangerous incident in the South China Sea last year, where one of their jet engines ingested chaff in the South China Sea. So there’s a pattern of behavior here against lawful behavior. In the case of the Canadians, this behavior has occurred well, those Canadian aircraft are actually implementing UN Security Council resolutions that the PRC voted for, enforcing DPRK sanctions against the DPRK. So this is counter normative behavior.
It is against the trying to interfere with lawful behavior. And I think it’s part and parcel of a broader effort by the PRC to refashion the Indo Pacific Region away from the kind of free and open Indo Pacific that we’re trying to build.
MICHAEL CHASE: Yes. I think what I would add to that is that it also illustrates the importance of resuming the normal military to military channels of communication, because we should be meeting to talk with the PLA in what’s called the MMCA at the operator to operator level to talk about ensuring that air and maritime encounters are safe and professional, that both sides should know that that’s a predictable outcome when they’re operating in close proximity. But the PLA has declined to hold those talks with us now for a couple of years. So that’s something that we would very much like to get back on the calendar. We don’t want to have a repeat of the aircraft collision incident that occurred in 2001. But the behavior the PLA is engaging in, increases the risk that that’s going to happen either with the United States or the Australians, or the Canadians were potentially with another country. And so, again, I think that just underscores the importance of the PRC resuming those normal military communications with us as soon as possible.
On Taiwan, you highlighted some of the operational behavior the PLA is conducting around Taiwan, which appears to be intended to intimidate people on Taiwan. And so, that includes crossing the Taiwan Strait centerline routinely. That was something that until relatively recently was reserved for occasional signaling purposes. Now, it’s something that the PRC does increasingly on a routine basis, as well as the large numbers of aircraft entering Taiwan’s air defense identification zone and some of the naval operations around Taiwan.
We also talked about some of the periods when the PRC has mounted more higher intensity, coercive activities around Taiwan, such as following then Speaker Pelosi’s visit when they launched missiles over Taiwan, and also in response to President Tsai’s transit visit of the U.S. So we have definitely been seeing the PRC leaning on the PLA as more of an instrument for its coercive activities aimed at Taiwan, in addition to some of the other things that they’ve traditionally done, trying to reduce Taiwan’s number of diplomatic allies, putting some economic pressure in a way against different parts of Taiwan’s economy.
And then the kind of information activities that they’ve conducted also, sort of psychological operations that they have mounted against Taiwan, which the PLA refers to as cognitive domain warfare in some of their own professional military publications. So those are all illustrations of the kinds of activities that we’ve seen aimed at pressuring and in coercing Taiwan that are covered in the report.
ELY RATNER: And I would just say, I mean, I think this is evident, obviously, to folks sitting on the stage and maybe a lot of people in the room here, but, Dave, when you opened your question with the point of we see the PLA playing a more prominent role in PRC statecraft. And the report has said that over the last couple of years, but it is a really important change in Chinese foreign policy. And if you went back a decade ago, 15 years ago, folks would say, yes, the PLA is modernizing, we see that, but it’s way in the background, and the PRC is leading with investment and economics, in diplomacy, in the military, and the PLA are not a central instrument of their foreign policy and their strategy. And that has changed. And that’s really important. And so, that is, I think, amid sort of the details here, that’s one of the key findings of this report over the last couple of years.
DAVID SHULLMAN: Absolutely.
WHITNEY MCNAMARA: I think a lot of folks have pointed to China’s waning economic growth and their domestic demographic challenges. You guys mentioned chronic corruption as sort of a sign that the PRC might not be as strong as a competitor, as we imagine in the next few years. But as you know, a weaker Beijing might be more isolationist, or they might be more hostile. So how do you see these sort of domestic trends shaping China’s pattern of coercion, especially in light of these recent trends of the PLA playing a much bigger role in foreign policy?
MICHAEL CHASE: I guess I would start on that one by noting that it’s something I think we’ve tracked to the reports that have been coming out for more than 20 years now. And so, there’s a baseline there. And readers can look and see how it’s evolved over time. And you know, as you just heard, the PRC is leaning on the PLA much more as an instrument of advancing its foreign policy objectives. I don’t think that that will necessarily change one way or the other as a result of economic slowdown or other internal pressures. I think that’s a decision that they’ve made that this is an instrument that they can use to advance their goals alongside the economic, and diplomatic, and information tools that they have available in their toolkit. And they’ve decided to rely on the PLA more heavily in those areas where it’s applicable for them.
I do think one of the interesting things to look for maybe in future reports, is whether a slowing economy imposes some tradeoffs between different projects that are important components of PLA modernization. They are getting into areas that are more expensive, more technologically complex. The large scale expansion of the nuclear force, the aircraft carrier program, and the pursuit of the global network of installations for the PLA, among others, stealth bombers, other things that we talk about in the report. And so, I do think that that’s another area to watch is whether not necessarily it changes the importance that they’re attaching to using the PLA as a tool of foreign policy, advancing their foreign policy goals, but rather whether some tradeoffs are inevitably going to have to be made in terms of some of the big ticket programs that the PLA has embarked on.
ELY RATNER: Yes. I totally agree with that. And I think we may be seeing some of those tradeoffs already. And we have seen for instance, over the last couple years, Belt and Road investments by the PRC dropping dramatically around the world is something that, again, a decade ago when it was launched, was one of the top priorities for the leadership in Beijing. And now, because of their economic slowdown, you see them less able and less willing to be supporting those kinds of investments overseas. So even things that are high priorities are getting cut in the face of this economic slowdown, and the PLA will be no different over time.
I think the other thing to keep an eye on is also how these changes, or the changes in China’s economic trajectory, affect the decision making of the rest of the countries in the region and around the world. Because we have seen the PRC predicate their security behavior also around the assumption that they are the economic juggernaut of the future, in the way countries were making decisions about the ways in which they challenged PRC coercion, the ways in which they aligned with each other, or took the PRC on various issues was based upon, again, this perception of what we thought was China’s rise that clearly is not the picture we’re likely to see into the future. So I think it’s not just a question it is an important question, about how does this affect decisions within the PLA, but I think it’s also for the region and for the world, something absolutely to watch over the next several years.
WHITNEY MCNAMARA: It’s a great segue into the next two questions, too, which is a lot of folks in the tech space, are noting the billions that Beijing is funneling into modernization in terms of space and cyber domain. Also the billions it’s funneling into its own commercial sector, for tech modernization and tech self sufficiency. And that, of course, has implications not only for Beijing’s military performance, its ability to carry out sophisticated espionage, but also just its role right in the global tech competition. And so, how did these factors sort of play into the report as you are sort of judging China’s military power?
ELY RATNER: So, I think it’s a big part of the overall strategic competition between the U.S. and the PRC. I think the PRC very much sees it that way. We highlight in the report some of what Xi Jinping and other leaders have said about strategic competition with the United States. And we note that earlier this year, in March, he talked openly and publicly about the U.S. and its allies trying to suppress, encircle and contain the PRC. And I think that this is undoubtedly part of what they have in mind there.
For their part, they’re still pursuing, what we for years have known as a Military Civil Fusion Development Strategy. They’re not talking about it in those exact words anymore, but they’re still trying to do exactly the same thing. They’ve just changed the language that they use, I think, to maybe try to downplay it a little bit because of all the international attention and concern that it was receiving. But they’re still very much trying to pursue that approach.
MICHAEL CHASE: And I would just say, it’s also obviously animating our own side of thinking about the technology competition, and what it means for the ways that we’re shaping our own policy. We’ve seen, as a result of some of the national security concerns, not entirely, but based on some of the national security concerns, the Biden Administration making major investments here in the United States at home, the CHIPS Act, and other elements to ensure that we are running as fast as we can, in terms of the technology race. So we have made those kinds of investments.
We have a number of new, not only dialogues, but cooperative activities with our with a number of allies and partners on technology issues. We have launched one at the National Security Adviser level with India, which has been quite impactful with a defense element. We recently launched another one, with Singapore, also hosted by both the National Security Advisor and the Secretary of State, and their Singaporean counterparts, it also has a defense element to it. So lots of work with allies and partners in this regard. And then of course, ensuring that we’re taking the steps, we need to protect our own technology.
You’ve seen a new Executive Order, putting restrictions on U.S. outbound investment into the PRC into areas in particular that have applicability to some of the capabilities that we’re most worried about in this report. So as we are focused exactly, Whitney, on what you’re describing, we’re taking a number of steps on the U.S. side as it relates to the technology competition.
WHITNEY MCNAMARA: And speaking of tradeoffs too, I mean, for you said in your opening remarks, Michael, that, the military intelligence communities have been warning for years about coming nuclear parity. There’s 500 operational warheads that Beijing has, probably a thousand come 2030. We also have the, in conjunction, the report says that China’s developing conventional ICBMs, which can reach the U.S. How should the U.S. think about their tradeoffs in light of these developments, when we also have to contend with our conventional modernization force structure and the emerging tech sort of spend that we just talked about? How should the U.S. government be thinking about it?
MICHAEL CHASE: Well, I think certainly we’re going to continue to invest in a safe, secure and effective nuclear deterrent to make sure that extended deterrence is credible. And we’re going to invest also in the military technology of the future and the operational concepts to ensure that we’ll be able to employ it effectively, maybe in ways that are unexpected, maybe by having new technologies that are unexpected, or employing existing capabilities, or some combination of new and existing ones in unanticipated ways.
And, of course, we’re going to work closely with allies and partners on some of those initiatives. And then I think we’re going to also have we already are moving much more in the direction of having a diversified posture in the region that’s going to enable us to do different things to deter or respond to aggression.
So, I think we’ve done a lot already. There are some major investments already, that have been made, and that will be made in the future to that end. But I think do you want to say a little bit more about it?
ELY RATNER: No. I think it’s great.
MICHAEL CHASE: Okay.
WHITNEY MCNAMARA: Pass over to you.
DAVID SHULLMAN: Okay. So, I want to ask about the role of Russia. And Ely knew I would get to this, one of my favorite subjects. So the report states that China views its partnership with Russia as integral to its development and emergence as a great power, which I think is absolutely right, and certainly helps to explain China’s support for Russia’s war on Ukraine.
But can you talk a little bit about how the Pentagon is viewing the China Russia military relationship, at this point, the strategic partnership more broadly, and to what extent it complicates DoD planning for contingencies, at the same time in the context of deterrence, contending with multiple theaters, both in the conventional and the strategic sense?
MICHAEL CHASE: Sure, I guess what I would say about the military relationship is they’ve continued to do more exercises together, more activities like the joint bomber exercises. It’s something that they portray as a no-limits partnership.
And I think they want to use the military exercises to signal the growing closeness of that relationship. At the same time, it’s, of course, not really a completely unlimited partnership. And I think we’ve seen that with respect to China’s support for Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, that they’re balancing a perceived need to be supportive to Russia, for the reasons that you just stated about the importance of their bilateral relationship, also, with some concern about the reputational costs and the other costs that they might incur if they went really across the line in terms of the level of support they’re providing to Russia.
And so I think that’s moderated and been a factor in their calculations in terms of what they want to do. So I guess I would highlight that while it’s a critically important strategic relationship from the PRC’s perspective, it’s also one that comes into some level of friction with some of their other interests in terms of maintaining productive relationships with the European countries in particular, as well as in other areas. And so I do think it has some constraints that are part of it, notwithstanding the no-limits label.
ELY RATNER: Yes. I mean, that was one of the points I was going to make, to the extent that the Russia China relationship brings to bear the sort of unity of the different theaters between Europe and the Indo Pacific.
The negative externalities of that relationship have actually come home to roost in Europe, before they have in the Indo Pacific. And I think that has been a wakeup call for European partners about the challenges that the PRC presents to them directly.
Similarly, for partners such as Republic of Korea, Japan, they’re now seeing the potential threat of this kind of activity to their interests as well. So, I think the bottom line is, this is not just a problem for the United States. It’s a problem for Europe. It’s a problem for our allies in Asia.
And we’re talking with them about this as well. And how we were thinking about responding is in a coordinated fashion with them as well. But David, let me ask you, if you were advising Secretary Austin, and he asked you, you know, how should the Pentagon be thinking about this issue of the Russia China relationship, or why does it matter most for the Indo Pacific, what would your answer be?
WHITNEY MCNAMARA: No pressure.
DAVID SHULLMAN: Well, I mean, I think it’s clear that they’re talking more across the board and including in terms of their military relationship and what they’re potentially looking at in terms of more cooperation on the strategic level, potentially even more even in the offensive cyber domain. Some of these areas where in the past we’d say, okay, Russia would never go along with that or there’s too much distrust between the two of them.
And I think now we’re at a place where, especially if China were to ask, Russia is in no position to say no. And so, I think, looking at what that means for different contingencies that could be faced in the Indo Pacific, and then obviously, in multiple theaters, we see what Russia is doing. And in Europe, this could be something that I think could be a real problem going forward. And I’m sure that the Pentagon’s thinking about that problem and how to game it out and prepare for it.
ELY RATNER: Yes, yes.
DAVID SHULLMAN: So my follow up to that, kind of, is related to what you just said, Mike, I think earlier on the diversified force posture, and the general presence in the region. This has obviously been a top priority for the Department, for the administration, working with the Philippines, working with Australia, and many others and looking to have a presence that’s more mobile and lethal and resilient, as you and others have put it.
At the rollout of this report last year with our friends at AEI, Ely you said that 2023 was likely to stand as the most transformative year in U.S. force posture in the region in a generation. So we’re pretty well through 2023, do you do think it’s going pretty well thus far? How’s it going?
ELY RATNER: Absolutely. I think I’m happy to report that I think we’ve delivered on that promise. Absolutely. We between the work that we have done with our Japanese allies, bringing forward the Marines’ most lethal and advanced capability in the Marine Littoral Regiment forward to Japan, which should be in place within the next couple of years, hugely important to maintain deterrence in the first island chain.
We’ve expanded the number of sites we have in the Philippines. These are Philippine bases, but places under a 2012 agreement to which the U.S. military has access over the last year. This year, we added four new strategic sites to the Philippines, three in northern Philippines, one on the border of the South China Sea.
Heading down to Australia, we’ve had a remarkable year in terms of the agreements that we’ve put forward, developing and advancing and diversifying our force posture in Australia, which is hugely important for our alliance with Australia. Really important for issues related to power projection in logistics across all domains, with the Australians.
And then we’ve been taking a number of other actions as well. Secretary Austin was the first U.S. Defense Secretary ever to visit Papua New Guinea, just within the last several months, where we signed a new – or in the wake of signing a new Defense Cooperation Agreement that will provide the United States access to ports and airfields there.
We recently within the last couple of weeks, had a team from INDOPACOM down in PNG, looking at some of those sites and thinking about some of the infrastructure investments that we’ll be making down there. And all the while, throughout the region, have been engaging in a number of campaigning activities, that is also leading to this more diversified, lethal, distributed, mobile force posture.
I think of those items that I described earlier, whether it’s Japan, Philippines, Australia, any one of those would have made for a banner year and have been a historic announcement. The fact that we did them all at the same time, I think has been a massive contribution to deterrence in the region. It’s really important, and we’re not done yet. We’re going to keep moving. But I think, yes, we’re proud of the year that we’ve had so far.
WHITNEY MCNAMARA: Mentioning allies and partnerships as well. Beijing is no doubt watching the Ukraine conflict closely, not only from a military dynamic perspective, but also to just the role of U.S. allies and partners have played in countering Russian efforts. What do you think Beijing is taking away from watching the Ukraine conflict, whether from a military perspective and ally perspective or diplomacy perspective?
MICHAEL CHASE: So I think that there, of course, the PLA studies other countries’ conflicts very closely in large part because they themselves haven’t been involved in major combat operations since 1979.
So, I think they’ll try to take away a lot of tactical, operational, strategic lessons from the war. But at the broader diplomatic and economic and kind of grand strategy level, I think they’re definitely going to look very closely at what you just described, which is the huge contribution that allies and partners have been making, stepping up in support of Ukraine.
And I think that the PRC will look closely at that, and hopefully take away the lesson that the U.S. and its allies and partners will work together very closely and can form a coalition that will be enduring and successful, where we need to. I think that they also will undoubtedly try to take measures to insulate themselves better, to mitigate the risks that they think they face to be better prepared, on their own end, based on what they’ve seen here. I think we can count on that.
ELY RATNER: And I would say just look, everybody’s watching what’s happening in Ukraine, drawing lessons. Of course we are. There’s a huge process inside the Department to understand this. And from the operational perspective, it’s quite important as it relates to a smaller military holding off a much stronger military.
So, I think we are all watching this very closely, learning lessons. And what I will say, is that there’s been a lot of debate about how is Beijing interpreting what’s happening in Europe? I think I would say confidently, that what is happening in Ukraine is reinforcing deterrence in the Indo Pacific based on the information that we have.
WHITNEY MCNAMARA: Great. Want to go to our audience for questions?
DAVID SHULLMAN: Shall we go to questions? Okay. So, let’s jump in. We have one question from the audience here from the Director of our Indo Pacific Security Initiative, Marcus Garlauskas. And you’ve touched on this a little bit already, but I think this really nails down into the question of how our friends in Taiwan and our allies in the region and around the world going what do you really want them to focus in on or keep in mind as they read this report? Because we know they’ll be reading it closely. What are the one or two things that you really think they should focus in on?
MICHAEL CHASE: Well, I think different countries will probably focus on different aspects of the report. But I think one of the things that we want them to take away as an explanation of why we refer to the PRC as our pacing challenge, the areas in which we see them moving very rapidly to improve their capabilities. We also cover some of the areas in which they continue to assess that they have some shortcomings. I think it’s important for our allies and partners to have a realistic understanding of where the PLA has made rapid progress, and where they still have what they would themselves characterize as some vulnerabilities or shortcomings.
I think it’s also important for them to look closely at what we say about the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, about not only the implications for the immediate area and for the Indo Pacific, but the global economic implications that a crisis or conflict across the Taiwan Strait would have.
That, I think is one of the important factors for a number of our allies and partners to take into account, and for them to also to think about what they can do to contribute to ensuring that the deterrence that we have across the Taiwan Strait right now remains real and strong, that we do everything that we can to strengthen that in the coming years. There’s a big role for others to play there as well, in part because of those global implications. I think that’s one of the important takeaways from the report.
ELY RATNER: It’s interesting, just reflecting on that question, I think there has been a time in which if you were around back again, maybe five, ten years ago, when a report like this would be really important to ensure that regional countries understood the kind of pressure and threat that the PLA may present in the future.
I think what we have seen over the last couple of years, is that a number of regional countries don’t need to be told, that they’re experiencing this for themselves as a result of some of the operational activity that we were responding to earlier. And in fact, we’re seeing them coming forward wanting to invest more in themselves, wanting to work more with each other, looking to the United States to strengthen our own presence in our own relationships and ties in the region.
So, of course there is sort of an information dissemination part of this report, but the overriding strategic point of, I think we have a problem here with a major country in the region, that is looking to revise the rules and norms, that fact is actually relatively well understood. I think one takeaway that could be valuable here is a lot of countries are looking at, okay, well, what should we do about it from a military perspective? Because they may not have the experience or necessarily the analytical capability that the United States has.
So one thing that we have been doing, really across the board with both high end and less developed partners, is helping them think through what are the types of ,particular asymmetric capabilities and investments that would be useful for them, to help them defend their own national interests, their own sovereignty to counter the kind of coercion that they’re hearing from the PRC.
And I think this report really illuminates both the ways in which the PRC is engaging in that behavior, the types of capabilities that they’re bringing to bear but also, as Mike said, some of the vulnerabilities that they have that can be exploited with some of these asymmetric capabilities.
WHITNEY MCNAMARA: It’s a good segue into the next audience question, which is we talk a lot about it’s an easy sell for the countries in China’s near abroad to see their course of behavior. What about their broader influence in the global south? How successful do you think they’ve been in sort of influencing the narrative there?
ELY RATNER: Well, I think this has been a focus for the PRC. And you see in their diplomacy, trying to generate support for their broader vision for international politics. And I think this remains an open question about how successful they will be. I think we’re cognizant of this, we’re watching it closely. Clearly we are looking to work through major regional institutions and international institutions to keep a focus on approaching security issues through the lens of international law, and then working with close allies and partners throughout the world on this issue.
DAVID SHULLMAN: Well, I have another question here from the audience, from Alice. Specifically on elaborating on the future potential of the Quad, right? The quadrilateral security dialogue and its deterrence capabilities.
ELY RATNER: Well, maybe I’ll take that on and Mike may want to build on this. The Quad itself, which is the United States, Australia, Japan and India, has not been predominantly focused on defense issues or hard national security issues, it’s been focused on delivering public goods throughout the region whether that’s related to global public health, infrastructure. It has done some important work on maritime domain awareness. There’s a particular initiative. The Indo Pacific Maritime Domain Awareness Initiative, the IPMDA…
DAVID SHULLMAN: Yes.
ELY RATNER: …which has come through the Quad and is an effort to deliver commercially provided, unclassified satellite imagery to a number of allies and partners throughout the region. That’s been really important. So we will continue working in that regard. But what I would say, I think what you’re identifying Dave, I mean we can talk about the Quad in particular. But one of the important changes that we’ve seen in the emerging regional security architecture over the last couple of years is stronger and more mini lateral…
DAVID SHULLMAN: Yes.
ELY RATNER: …types of initiatives that are creating a multilayered security architecture in the region. Really, complementary with each other, not one meant to displace another. Of course, we do have elements of the Quad, we have AUKUS, we have a very robust trilateral set of arrangements and activities between the United States, Japan and Australia. We have a number, particularly in the wake of the president’s Camp David Summit with ROK in Japan. We have really invigorated that trilateral defense relationship.
The Philippines is engaging in more of these activities as well. And we see partners, importantly, starting to, as I mentioned earlier, engage more with each other. And that redounds absolutely to the benefit of regional security and to our alliances and partnerships.
Just to give you one example, we recently saw Australia and Japan sign a Reciprocal Access Agreement. And what that allows is exactly what it sounds like, which is now their forces are able to operate and have access to each other’s facilities. We’ve seen it in the wake of that which was only signed just recently, F 35s from Japan travel to Australia and then vice versa, Australian F 35s traveling to Japan.
And then an agreement between the three of our countries to integrate Japanese F 35s into U.S. force posture initiatives in Northern Australia. So you can start to see these different pieces coming together. And, again, in a way that is emergent. But really, really beneficial to deterrence in the region.
DAVID SHULLMAN: All right.
WHITNEY MCNAMARA: We have a question from Byron. Is there any indication that China may be more concerned about instability in Central Asia giving Russia focus on Ukraine? And on the issue of China’s slowing economy, have we seen any evidence that the PLA is adjusting its modernization plans in response to economic growth yet?
MICHAEL CHASE: So on the second question, I think we’re probably beginning to see some of that evidence. And I think we’ll see more of it over time. And I think it’s a function not only of the slowing economy but also of the nature of some of the programs that the PLA is pursuing. I mean, again, we have roughly 20 year body of these reports now. And if you go back 10 years ago or so, you could see that the kinds of things that the PRC was pursuing have really evolved over this timespan into some of the things that we highlight in this year’s report, the third aircraft carrier and that being launched, and they’re becoming increasingly technologically sophisticated and therefore increasingly pricey as well.
So, some of those challenges I think are inevitable for those reasons. In terms of the part of the question about security in Central Asia, I think the PRC remains strongly concerned about all of the areas along its borders and areas where they perceive also potentially, a threat that could implicate domestic stability concerns that they have. And I think that they don’t want to see Russia sort of severely diminished as a result of the conflict in Ukraine because of the importance that they see for Russia as a security partner.
Although as you pointed out earlier, David, that to the degree that Russia becomes more reliant, it might give them more leverage to gain some concessions or some additional forms of cooperation that haven’t been forthcoming in the past. So there may be a little bit of sort of two sides of that coin there.
DAVID SHULLMAN: Great. We have a question here that’s fairly specific, but I’ll broaden it out a little bit. So the question is, and this is from Dawn, can you confirm that the Pentagon has received and accepted an invitation to attend the Xiangshan Forum which the Chinese are going to host next week or this week. I think next week. And who will participate in it? And can we expect more military contacts in the coming weeks?
And I think the broader question is, you’ve already talked about the importance of the mil to mil dialogue and relationship. Is there any hope that with, hopefully a new defense minister coming on the scene imminently, since we’ve been waiting for since Li Shang Fu’s disappearance in August, with the lead up to potentially a summit between President Biden and President Xi at APEC, does that create the conditions where maybe we’re going to see more in the realm of more conversations at the military to military level?
MICHAEL CHASE: Ah, yes. I’ll say we did receive an invitation to the Xiangshan Forum. We have accepted it and we’re going to send participants at a level that’s consistent with what we’ve done in the past. And in terms of hopefully kind of kickstarting some of the military to military engagements, yes, I’m hopeful that we’ll have an opportunity to do that in the coming months.
ELY RATNER: And I would just say the last face to face meeting, in fact, the last discussion that Secretary Austin has had with his PRC counterpart occurred last November, during the ADMM Plus meetings then in Cambodia, those meetings are coming up again next month and we’ll look forward to potential opportunities there.
DAVID SHULLMAN: Okay.
WHITNEY MCNAMARA: The last question I’ll ask, I think, has to do with our domestic politics especially when we’re thinking about the US contending again with three theaters. And I’m sure a lot of us that deal with these issues don’t need to be convinced that China is a threat but sometimes we leave D.C. and we go to our homes and maybe they’re less convinced. Either we have folks that say, “I don’t feel invested in U.S.’s role abroad in conflicts like Ukraine or Israel, or the opposite. I feel very compelled for the U.S. to be involved in Ukraine and Israel. Well maybe we’re taking our eye off Beijing.” How do you see sort of the role of U.S. government explaining sort of U.S.’s role in these theaters, how to prioritize them, right? Sort of like you’re sitting down at your aunt at Thanksgiving, what is sort of the pitch to sort of keep our eye on the prize and what are the implications of this competition long term for your average American?
ELY RATNER: Maybe I’ll start and then Mike can tell us how he talks to his relatives at Thanksgiving. You can warm us up for how you’re going to deliver a compelling case on this over Thanksgiving.
But, look, it is a super important question. I guess what I would say is I’m relatively encouraged at this point on a couple fronts. Number one, there has emerged a bipartisan consensus on the China challenge. Of course, there are some disagreements around the edges and we need to be doing more to work toward a consensus around the solution set to the challenge and that’s something that we’re working on every day.
But it is the case that the China issue has not been politicized in the way that other elements of U.S. foreign policy have, that’s really important. I think we ought to protect that and preserve that. Every time I go to Capitol Hill, I always make a point of saying, “Hey, this is really important and we do need to protect this from the impulses of partisanship.” And thankfully, that has been the case. And we see folks on both sides of the aisle talking about this issue in an important way and in a nonpoliticized way. And, again, we need to preserve that.
The other thing I would say is that the public opinion polling has increasingly reflected concern among the American people about the China challenge. So this is not an issue that’s foreign to the American people. But you’re absolutely right, that more needs to be done and events like this help us do that, so thank you for hosting us today. But this needs to be an ongoing conversation about what we see as the stakes involved here, which are really important.
And one of the things you’ve seen from the Biden Administration’s National Security Strategy documents, right from the start, including the interim strategy that came out within months of the beginning of the administration was this phrase that has been repeated in the National Security Strategy, in the National Defense Strategy, about China being the only nation in the world with both the will and increasingly the capability to try to refashion the international order in a way that would really have negative implications for the United States.
Now Whitney, you’re right, that needs to be translated down from ‘think tank speak’ down to why does this matter for folks living their daily lives? But that is true, it’s true in the economic front, it’s true related to some of the technology issues before, and it’s true for the kind of world that we want to live in and we want our kids to live in. But it’s a really important question. Mike, I don’t know if you want to add more.
MICHAEL CHASE: I guess I would just add that the more that this becomes kind of a global problem‑set for us, the more it becomes clear how the different theaters are interconnected. So sometimes we’re asked questions about, “Well, how are you going to deal with Ukraine and also with the Middle East and also with the security in the Indo‑Pacific Region?”
And the answer is that we have to deal with all of them and that, in fact, I think that we see growing linkages and so do our allies and partners. That’s why our European allies and partners in a lot of ways are focusing more on the Indo‑Pacific, you see them releasing their own Indo‑Pacific strategies, operating more in the South China Sea and other parts of the region.
And our Indo‑Pacific allies and partners likewise have stepped up in a pretty big way, in some cases for the European security situation as well. So, I think part of what I would try to explain if this becomes a topic of conversation at Thanksgiving, which remains to be seen, I can report back next year when we do this again. But would be to emphasize that we have to be able to deal with all these situations because they’re increasingly interconnected. And what happens in one location has important implications for what is happening or is going to happen in the future and other.
WHITNEY MCNAMARA: Okay.
DAVID SHULLMAN: Absolutely. Sounds like a good script for Thanksgiving. Thank you.
WHITNEY MCNAMARA: I’ll write it down.
DAVID SHULLMAN: So we’re remarkably almost at time here. So I wanted to ask Ely and Mike if there’s anything that we haven’t covered today that you think you want folks to know about this report or about what the Department’s doing on the China challenge? Or one big takeaway that you want the audience to have?
MICHAEL CHASE: Well, I guess the first thing I would say is, again, if you track the developments over now 20 plus years of these reports you’ll see why the PRC is the pacing challenge. And you’ve also heard some today about what we’re doing about it. And I think that the big takeaway that I would want to leave people with is that we’re doing a lot about it, to make sure that we can sustain and strengthen deterrence. That’s not so much the focus of this report. This report really is about the PLA and Chinese foreign policy and security policy and how they’re using the PLA increasingly as an instrument to advance their goals in those areas. But we’ve got a lot of, a very strong body of work in terms of posture, capabilities, operational concepts, working closely with allies and partners in terms of what we’re doing in response.
ELY RATNER: And maybe I would just say, finally look, this is a congressionally mandated report, it’s something we’ve been doing for 20 years now but it’s also a labor of love for the Department.
DAVID SHULLMAN: Right.
ELY RATNER: We’ve got a phenomenal team of analysts who work on this report and it really is a Class A product in terms from an unclassified perspective what can be said about the PLA. It’s important for the public, it’s important for our partners. We obviously do briefings, we engage with Congress on this report and it’s a terrific resource. And for folks out there, I would encourage you to pick up a coffee, give it a read and stay tuned for next year.
DAVID SHULLMAN: Well, I couldn’t agree more. I mean, it really is just an incredible resource to have this open and out there, this authoritative assessment from the Pentagon on China’s military power. So congratulations on the report. Please join me in thanking Dr. Ratner and Dr. Chase for joining us today to discuss this report. Thanks to Whitney McNamara for joining me as my co‑moderator today. And thanks for our audience for tuning in and for joining the conversation. Hope you have a good rest of your day.
ELY RATNER: All right. Thank you.