Michael E. O'Hanlon (Canandaigua, New York, 1961) does not speak from hearsay. He is director of research in security, strategy and technology at the Brookings Institute in Washington. He is part of the exclusive panel of 17 advisers to the US Department of Defense. Henry Kissinger is another one of them. And he today defends that the Pentagon and the main US defense agencies "tend to exaggerate the Chinese threat."
"It worries me," he adds.
Their analysis is based on data. And with them he throws examples, because they abound. The official reports highlight that the Chinese military budget grows and grows but ignores – he says – that it is less than the 2% of GDP that NATO indicates as the minimum acceptable among its members. They are also alarmed that Beijing has the largest naval force in the world, although in general they do not agree that the size of the US one exceeds it by far, he continues. More: Xi is criticized for wanting to restrict sea passage through his 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea, and so is India.
He criticizes that the Pentagon and other defense agencies tend to exaggerate the military threat from China. Is there a political reason?
I don't think there is a political reason for the threat to be exaggerated and I don't think it will go well for Biden. It's true that the Republicans, and Trump in particular, have gotten much tougher on China in the last five or six years, but the Democrats were getting increasingly upset as well. Biden was part of the Obama Administration and in those years the criticism of China became stronger and more serious. In fact, the whole country has been changing its point of view on how to think about China and there are dangers that arise from this dynamic. People are nervous. Although, by and large, it is pushed by the US political elite on both sides of the political spectrum.
For 40 years we thought that we could cooperate with China and try to unite constructively in the international system. Then it started to feel like it wasn't working. Since Richard Nixon's presidency, there have been 40 years of consensus to cooperate with China. And now we have about 15 years of increasing criticism.
What are its consequences?
China is a very serious matter. I worry that if we start poisoning the relationship with excessive negativity we may impede cooperation and end up overreacting to small crises and perhaps increase the risk of war or push China closer to Russia. I am in favor of responding to the Chinese military rise but with balance and patience in how it is described. There are many negatives in Chinese behavior. You have to look at it, however, with a broad perspective.
It is Putin who is once again leading a war, causing death and destruction, and yet it is China that presents itself as the number one challenge to the US. Why?
I am concerned that we have lost perspective. It is Putin who is killing people every day and trying to overthrow much of the international system by attacking a sovereign country and with nuclear threats against the rest of the world or at least against the US and its allies. That's why, personally, I think he's more dangerous. But the reason we focus on China is because they have ten times as many people, their economic growth rate is at least five times that of Russia, and their technological capabilities are growing and improving to rival ours. China is the challenge that marks this time. It is the country that can compete with us in all areas. The Pentagon must avoid dealing only with the immediate problem of Russia and focus also on the long-term challenge of China and even its short-term challenge, by Taiwan.
Focusing on both more or less equally as the 2018 national defense strategy already did with James Mattis. Since then Russia has launched a major war in Europe and instead we have somehow de-prioritized Russia and emphasized China even more.
Are Chinese military developments greater than expected?
Yes. Some people expected this result for quite some time because China has become richer and more technologically advanced. It grows at 7% annually and with this boom it has been able to strengthen itself militarily. Some of it was unavoidable, but the issue is his behavior combined with his ability. We really didn't think China was going to become that threatening in the South China Sea or the East China Sea.
And we don't think that China would do what it did in Hong Kong and we don't think that Xi Jinping would stay in office for a third term and push the country towards a more autocratic way with a hardline political agenda. So it's not just that China has more capacity, it's also that it seems more aggressive.
Especially against Taiwan.
Correct. Now they're talking about maybe being less patient and trying to take back the island, and if you combine that with the way they're handling the country having two systems when in Hong Kong they've shown some impatience and aggressiveness, we're just more worried that they'll lose the patience. We have always known that they want Taiwan. We have always known that they would be willing to use force for it. It seems that at this moment they have less patience and hence the possibility of a war also seems greater.
It is repeated, however, that the invasion of Taiwan is almost impossible.
I've been saying that for 20 years. They would need to be able to disable American and Taiwanese air power, use cyber attacks, other command and control… Although if we decide to stay out of the war based on our own choice, it is possible that Taiwan will be conquered by China. It is not impossible that there will be an invasion. But it is quite unlikely. We must be able to convince China not to attack Taiwan because, you know, otherwise it would start World War III.
Isn't going against China partly going against the US, for example in the economic field?
Yes, although we also feel that China has been stealing a lot of our intellectual property and any technology it gets from our cooperation helps it become a potential threat to our own country in the event of certain types of warfare. That is why we have to rethink our economic cooperation. Also, this cooperation is good for the consumer, not so much for the worker. Many middle income jobs have disappeared and that is also a problem in our country. That is why you have to be more selective in the type of economic commitment you have with China.