China is arguably the greatest threat to the U.S., and most Americans are largely unaware of why the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is such a formidable foe. In a speech at the WEST Conference in mid-February, Lieutenant Commander Mike Studeman, Commander of the Office of Naval Intelligence and director of the National Maritime Intelligence Integration Office, stated, "It is disturbing how ill-informed and naive the average American is on China."
According to Studeman, Xi Jinping makes no bones about how he sees America. It is no secret the U.S. is the number one enemy of the CCP. The CCP considers the U.S. and its "liberal democracy" as "chaotic and destabilizing" to the order of things. A world without the U.S. as a major power, according to Mike Studeman, makes it safer for authoritarian countries like China to operate without interference.
Tiananmen Square: Democracy is an Existential Threat
According to Studeman, the Chinese "took a look at what happened in Tiananmen Square in 1989" and said, "That can never happen again. To the Chinese, that was an existential threat to the CCP." As a result, they "changed the educational system in China" and "fed a different form of revisionist history with regard to America" to Chinese students. As a result, most Chinese believe America is the devil.
There is no remaining collective memory of how America has historically come to the aid of China either. Xi Jinping's tenure is "unlimited" at this point, and he intends to "execute their grand strategy, the China Dream," of becoming a world power militarily by 2049, says Studeman. Their intent is to "reclaim their place in the hierarchy of states."
According to Studeman, the CCP also believes the U.S. is:
"Behind every color revolution out there and those color revolutions in the name of freedom resulted in chaos in many countries that are still trying to recover. The Chinese view is that that's a bad thing, that the end result of color revolutions turned into societies that had a lot of suffering [and they] still haven't recovered from it. So there's no peace, there's no stability in any of these regions here, and we [America] are to blame.
They also take a look at us as a standard bearer for liberal democracies. Democracy promotion comes and goes with regard to intensity, with different administrations, but they don't think we can actually deliver solutions for the modern age using liberal democracy. They don't think democracies are efficient. They think they are ineffective. They think you can't get rid of poor leaders easily enough in a democracy."
Studeman went on to say that China also believes democracies "indulge in excessive individualism and too much special interest that interferes with advancing the common good. I will tell you, there is a little bit of truth to what they are saying in some of those assessments about where we stand."
Studeman states that nothing will change the tactics or the plans of the CCP, not the lower GDP of the People's Republic of China (PRC), not the demographics of the population, not even their "recent charm offensive—" their "boastful declarations of how "China is back" and "open for business."
A Jan. 23, 2023 article from Foreign Policy explains that one of the "alleged advantages of autocracies is their supposed ability to turn on a dime in response to changing conditions. If one person has supreme power and doesn't have to worry about bureaucratic rigidity, a pesky press, domestic opposition, influential interest groups, an independent judiciary, and all those other messy appurtenances of democracy, then in theory they can just issue a new edict and set the ship of state on a new course."
Americans Do Not Understand the Scope of the China Problem
Part of the reason for American naiveté about the Chinese is because the U.S. intelligence community is so reluctant to "release things out in public" to "[expose] what is really going on." Studeman hopes the intelligence community will begin to "downgrade some of the things that we see that are truly damning with regard to what the Chinese are doing. And get those out into the public domain so we can actually show Americans what the Chinese intentions and activities really are."
According to Studeman, an ill-informed public combined with American myopia about "the scope of the China problem" is equivalent to the "blind men and the elephant metaphor." Studeman believes the problem is massive, and we tend to focus on the parts, not the whole. Our "framework" tends to be fragmented, and the Chinese know how to exploit our myopia.
Studeman points out that Americans tend to be focused on any number of things individually and not as parts of a whole when it comes to China. Some might focus on the Communist party's incursion into our institutions. Examples of this might be the "supposedly innocuous" Confucious Institutes or the Thousand Talents programs that effectively embed members of the CCP as students in our universities. Or how about those Chinese police stations in New York City?
The business community may focus on the theft of intellectual property by the CCP. Political scientists might look at how China thinks about the way other nations think about power. Human rights activists look at the genocide of the Uyghurs in China.
China's nefarious information warfare game is top-notch. Among other things, through social media, controlled messaging, and political influence peddling, they convince certain world leaders that they are environmentally sensitive.
China's ability to leverage data is almost unparalleled, but focusing on those threats still falls short of capturing the threat to America.
Another focus might be how the Chinese "transform the international order through active lawfare measures drip by drip." The China Spy balloon incident showed the Chinese are adept at testing the sovereignty of nations. They pretended a "weather balloon" "inadvertently" wandered into American airspace at 60 thousand feet—allegedly flying too high to threaten our national security.
Make no mistake; there is no doubt China understands how weak the U.S. is geopolitically because of the current administration. The Chinese rarely miss an opportunity to exploit a nation's weaknesses.
Most importantly, Americans struggle to understand how the Chinese think and operate strategically. Unfortunately, that includes some of our political and military leaders and some members of the American intelligence community. The reincorporation of Taiwan is a key strategic piece in the long-term goals of the Communist Party. Studeman states that a failure to resolve the "rejuvenation" of the "One China Dream" to reincorporate Taiwan will be perceived as a failure by the CCP.
China's strategy concerning Taiwan is emblematic of the cultural differences between U.S./China's geopolitical strategies. Studeman explains that while an independent Taiwan is ultimately unacceptable, the timeline for its reincorporation is not necessarily pre-determined as we might think it is. "The Chinese have a view of decision-making, said Studeman, "Which is hard for Americans to understand. But there's no iron countdown. Xi hasn't given an order to his military to get ready by a certain date." Just because the CCP says something might happen in the spring or summer of 2027 doesn't mean it will.
The Chinese are much less transparent and direct in their strategic approach. They tend to be agile and reactive to the landscape, often reserving action for more opportune moments in time. They seize opportunities based on multiple factors and their perceived relative advantage at the time. The Chinese are often forward-looking and somewhat predictively oriented. At the same time, Americans tend to be more historical in their thinking, basing their decisions on an "if this, then that" set of variables. Moreover, the Chinese often play the long game and are extraordinarily patient. The Chinese view time differently from Westerners, for them, time is a "suggestion, not an absolute."
Alliances and relationships are also critically important but are also constantly shifting based on how advantageous a given alliance might be at the time to their goals. Studeman remarked:
"The Chinese will take a look at the geopolitical landscape to find out who is willing to work more closely with the United States; what is the alliance system in Westpac look like? How many countries have I been able to overleverage so I can make them mute or not supportive of sanctions if I do something? What is my domestic strength in my power right now?
There are a million factors, including the correlation of forces that will play into China's decision, and there's a word called 'shi.' Shi is essentially the propensity of things or opportunities. And if the propensity of the geopolitical environment suggests that now is the time to move, and it may be more opportune for you because if you act, then the conditions may flow like a mountain stream, flowing down to help you in achieving your victory.
Americans have different criteria for the "decision to move. We establish A, B, C, and D and then we go. The Chinese are always sensing the conditions in the environment to see if they should act because they will always take advantage of opportunities."
Saving face and projecting strength are also very important in Chinese culture. If challenged overtly, the Chinese may most likely feel they have no choice but to respond with equal or greater strength to a direct challenge. Studeman states that "Credibility and power" are important for Xi and his party. America must carefully weigh its strategy with Xi in such a way that does not force him to respond in a face-saving way. It is all about "smart statecraft." Studeman continued:
"The issue is whether or not the environment around Taiwan is so public and so known to the rest of China that Xi Jinping's failure to stand up for what they've long called for or respond in a very assertive way could lead to some undermining of Xi's credibility and power within Beijing.
And so, the issue is actually we talk about smart statecraft whether or not we when we support Taiwan, are we doing it low profile. Are we doing quiet mil to mil work, quiet foreign military sales or are we going to do highly public things that Xi Jinping and others have to respond to? So, for example, when the Speaker of the House visits. Those things you can expect that there will be a strong reaction because Xi can do nothing other than stand strong."
Studeman warns that China's lust for world domination is no minor threat to the U.S.
"So the root of concern, I'll just distill it down into something that I think will resonate with you that history tells us—that a messianic leader with centralized control, in charge of a totalitarian society with grievances, with a lot of hard power at [his] disposal and an ambition to change the international system to [his] preferences.
Put that combo together, and it represents one of the most dangerous trends in geopolitics. And that's what we're facing. [It will] require our very best effort. And I believe that we need to have more conversations [within our] country about this at all levels, including the very highest levels, because we need to truly understand the problem, diagnose it right, and then figure out the best way to mobilize our society to deal with this. Arguably, this is a tougher problem than what we faced against the Soviet Union in the Cold War."