Did James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, utter an inconvenient truth last month when he told the Senate Armed Services Committee that China presents the greatest “mortal threat” to the United States?
Several committee members were aghast at Clapper’s observation that China and Russia have the actual ability and the potential intention to attack the continental United States with nuclear weapons.
Asked whether any country intended to pose such a threat to the United States, he responded that China did. The stunned senators pressed the DNI to soften his stark judgments and dispel any impression that either China or Russia presently contemplates such drastic action. After a confusing colloquy, Clapper gave ground and said he was describing only those countries’ capabilities, not their intentions, barely mollifying the agitated committee members.
But his initial statement clearly meant that he was weighing both capabilities and intent, and his judgment stands up to analysis.
Russia easily surpasses China in both the number and range of ballistic missiles that can reach any part of the continental United States. China’s far smaller arsenal can target only the U.S. West Coast.
Nevertheless, despite Russia’s clear superiority in strategic nuclear capabilities, the DNI said he ranked China as the greater threat because Washington has a nuclear arms treaty with Moscow. But the New START agreement does not significantly reduce the number of Russian weapons or the Russian threat.
Why, then, does the DNI fear China more than he does Russia? One reason might be the fact that China keeps building up its own nuclear stockpile even as the United States and Russia stabilize or reduce theirs. That actually says as much about the countries’ respective intentions as it does about capabilities. And it was the combination of Chinese intentions and capabilities that Clapper found so worrisome before the senatorial browbeating changed his answer.
There is good reason for the DNI’s concern. In 1995, when China fired missiles toward Taiwan to protest a U.S. visit by Taiwan’s president, the United States sent aircraft carriers to the region. Major General Xiong Guangkai of the People’s Liberation Army warned Washington to stay out of the dispute because China could use nuclear weapons and “you care more about Los Angeles than you do about Taipei.”
Discussing a possible Taiwan conflict in 2005, Major General Zhu Chenghu escalated the message of China’s nuclear threat: “The Americans will have to be prepared that hundreds of cities will be destroyed by the Chinese.”
Western experts have dismissed those apocalyptic statements as mere military bluster—as if any Chinese general were free to say such things without the Communist regime’s authorization. Not only were the generals not sacked, they were promoted.
By contrast, when Russian and American interests collided in 2008 as the United States sent aid to Georgia after the Russian invasion, Moscow did not threaten a nuclear attack on New York. (But it did move short-range ballistic missiles closer to Western Europe, presumably brandishing a “mortal threat” against Paris, Rome, and Warsaw.)
This is an uncomfortable subject for senators (and private citizens) to contemplate. But when the Senate committee confirmed Clapper as director last year, they said they expected him to provide honest assessments of the world untainted by political considerations. That is what he was doing at the hearing, not only on China but also when he predicted that Qaddafi would prevail in Libya despite President Obama’s statement that the dictator must leave.
Clapper’s comments and state of mind have been the subject of much public comment. But the exchange revealed a lot about the senators’ own mindset regarding China’s increasingly aggressive behavior and where it could lead—i.e., don’t talk about it and maybe it will go away.
As for the president’s reaction, the White House issued this statement: “Clearly China and Russia do not represent our biggest adversaries in the world today.” Given the accuracy so far of the DNI’s prediction about Qaddafi’s survival, the president would be well advised to take very seriously his assessment of China’s intentions.
Indeed, prior to international intervention, the success of Qaddafi’s bloody crackdown when less brutal regimes in Tunisia and Egypt fell must have been vindication for the perpetrators of the Tiananmen massacre and a guide to Beijing’s future actions.
Calls by senators and others for Clapper’s resignation perhaps reflect the cumulative effect of his earlier controversial comments on terrorism. As one senator put it, “three strikes and you’re out.”
But if Clapper’s career ends abruptly, it may be more because he has touched the third rail of American foreign policy—the growing possibility of military conflict with Communist China.
Joseph A. Bosco is a national security consultant. He was China desk officer in the office of the secretary of defense from 2005 to 2006*. [*When first posted, and in the print edition, Bosco’s period of service as China desk officer was stated as 2005-2010. It was an editor’s error.]