“I would contend that in the past decade or so China has exceeded most of our intelligence estimates of their military capability and capacity every year,” said Admiral Robert Willard at the end of last month. “They’ve grown at an unprecedented rate in those capabilities.”
Bill Triplett called these words “public bomb-throwing.” The noted author is right: It’s not often that a commander of the U.S. Pacific Command will tell everyone off, even if done, as Triplett noted, “very politely.”
Is this an intelligence failure? That is undeniable: once again America’s intelligence community deserves criticism for missing a major trend that was in plain sight. But this time we need to keep some perspective in assigning blame. The intelligence has been consistently wrong primarily because, beginning with the Clinton administration, Washington’s political establishment has not wanted to speak candidly about China, either in relation to that nation in general or its military buildup in particular. Intelligence analysts are, understandably, swayed by their perception of White House politics.
Moreover, if Admiral Willard were really candid, he would blame his predecessors, who were the worst offenders when it came to assessing Chinese intentions and capabilities. Even after the EP-3 incident near Hainan in April 2001—when our reconnaissance plane was knocked down by a reckless Chinese fighter—Navy brass has consistently refused to speak plainly about a series of acts showing aggressive Chinese intent.
For instance, since at least September 2002, Chinese vessels have, without provocation, harassed American intelligence gathering ships in international waters. This March in the South China Sea, a Chinese boat attempted to separate a towed sonar array from the Impeccable, an unarmed vessel. This constituted a direct attack on the United States. The Navy, however, has sought to handle incidents such as these through dialogue, as if they were the result of misunderstandings.
Of course they are not, and by failing to respond appropriately, the Navy has encouraged Beijing to engage in more serious provocations. “China is not our enemy,” Willard said last month. At the moment, this is true.
But what about tomorrow? Unfortunately, an arrogant Beijing now generally thinks the United States is in irreversible decline, so the probability that aggressive Chinese admirals will engage in hostile acts in the future is high. In short, they think they will be able to get away with them—and so far they have.