Western strategists still underestimate the threat posed by China’s emergence as a worldwide power, according to a top Pentagon official.
“The top of the list is China in terms of [being] the one country, the largest country, with the ability to change our way of life in the United States and to change the global order for good or ill,” John Rood, the undersecretary of defense for policy, said Saturday. “It’s not well-understood by security thinkers that we are again in an ideological competition.”
Rood, the Pentagon’s top adviser for defense policy, echoed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent warnings about China’s expanding influence in the Arctic and South America — far-flung but strategically significant locations around the globe. He also cautioned against thinking of rising power as a mere economic competitor.
“It’s promoting an authoritarian model, and it’s closely coupled with military activities: Strategic military activities, intelligence activities and the line between commercial activities in today’s China and those of the state is a very, very thin line that exists mostly on paper,” Rood said.
That habit of mind has driven animated an aggressive diplomatic campaign to discourage allies from partnering with Huawei, a telecommunications giant and technological pioneer that U.S. officials regard as a platform for Beijing’s spy services. But the Pentagon official cautioned that he is not calling for “a return to the Cold War” strategy that drove U.S. competition with the Soviet Union.
“Trade, commerce, investment all welcome,” he said at the 2019 Aspen Security Forum.
But he stressed the importance of maintaining technological superiority over China, noting that the Defense Department has requested more funding for research and development than at any time in the last 70 years, with a clear focus on artificial intelligence.
“I feel very confident if we can get to the point where we are just competing on models for innovation, our model for innovation will beat theirs any day of the week,” Rood said. “The Chinese recognize that. They know it because they have to steal from it, and that’s the central organizing principle of how they’re going to fuel their innovation engine.”
His comments about the scale of Beijing’s competition with the United States nonetheless evoked a senior CIA official’s warning at the same event last year that China is waging “a cold war” that policymakers should recognize.
“China’s Communist Party is selling state-run authoritarianism, with free market principles in some elements of that,” Rood said. “There’s a promotion of that philosophy world wide that we’re seeing to an unprecedented degree.”