US must be ready for military clash with China, Pentagon official Chad Sbragia says

Mark Magnier

The United States must prepare for a possible military conflict with China by developing new weapons, strengthening ties with allies and improving the Pentagon’s efficiency, a senior Trump administration official said on Thursday.

“The stakes of the challenge of conflict with China, in other words, are formidable,” said Chad Sbragia, deputy assistant secretary of defence for China. “This is a long-term process. We have to be agile, smart.”

The People’s Liberation Army is an increasingly formidable adversary that is marrying long-standing ambition with unprecedented new resources, Sbragia, the former US defence attaché in Beijing, told the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission.

This is allowing China and the PLA to expand the military’s global presence, modernise its capabilities and more effectively challenge US national interests, he added.

As China expands its ability to project force far beyond its shores, the Pentagon needs to “build and deploy a more lethal, resilient joint force”, including more hypersonic weapons, artificial intelligence, robots and laser weapons, Sbragia testified.

A second Defence Department priority is to strengthen alliances and attract new partners, he told the commission, which was set up by Congress in 2000 to evaluate the defence implications of US-China trade and economic ties.

This pairing would give the US a potential “asymmetric” advantage that Beijing could not easily match, given the many US treaty partners, strong diplomatic ties and history of free and open borders and trade, he said.

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While the Pentagon has emphasised alliance building in Southeast Asia and the Pacific as part of its Indo-Pacific strategy, other Trump administration policies have irritated many long-standing European and Asian allies.

Traditional partners have bridled over President Donald Trump’s aggressive use of tariffs, his decision to withdraw from multilateral agreements and his focus on “America First” policies.

Sbragia declined to say whether the Pentagon was surprised by Manila’s announcement this month that it would end the Philippines-US Visiting Forces Agreement. The island nation is strategically located in the South China Sea, a potential hotspot as Beijing ramps up its island-building activities in the contested region.

Chad Sbragia says Beijing’s effort to sway allies is no surprise. “It’s a competition”, he said in his testimony. Photo: Handout

But Sbragia said Beijing’s effort to sway allies is no surprise. “It’s a competition,” he said. “We have to be very clear-eyed. These countries are coming under increasing pressure.”

Dennis Blair, a fellow with the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, a former admiral and an ex-director of National Intelligence, told the commission that Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s views often run counter to those of his own military establishment. Duterte reportedly scratched the visiting forces agreement in retaliation for a cancelled US visa involving a personal ally.

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“It throws grit into the gears,” of serious US-Philippines military cooperation, Blair said. “But it doesn’t eliminate it.”

Finally, Sbragia said, preparing for a more ambitious PLA requires the Pentagon to clean its own house. This includes improving American military strategy and performance, using the Defence Department’s budget more efficiently and drawing more effectively on civilian innovation while safeguarding US technology.

US Marines arrive in an amphibious assault vehicle during landing exercises in US-Philippines war games last year in Zambales province, Philippines. Photo: Reuters

In recent weeks, the administration has shocked the science community with the high-profile arrest of a Harvard University chemistry department head for his China ties and by investigating top universities for failing to disclose links to Beijing and other countries. Science policy experts warn, however, that too many restrictions risk undermining collaboration and US competitiveness.

While China has an ambitious military blueprint – including more bases overseas; the unification of Taiwan with the mainland by force, if necessary; and closer overseas investment, trade and military linkage – an armed US-China clash is hardly inevitable, the senior defence official said.

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“Competition with China does not mean confrontation, nor must it lead to conflict,” Sbragia said. The PLA briefed US officials after releasing its 2019 Defence White Paper and Washington hopes to maintain a “constructive, stable and results-oriented defence relationship” with Beijing, he added.

With the coronavirus spreading globally, amid some evidence that it has peaked, the PLA was drawn in early to help Beijing fight the epidemic that originated in Wuhan, Sbragia said. The Pentagon is watching how this deployment plays out for insights into the PLA’s ability to mobilise rapidly and respond effectively overseas, he said.

But the jury is still out on how well it has performed. “The PLA is being brought in early, often,” Sbragia said. “At the end of the day, this will make the PLA better, or not.”

The PLA now has around 2 million people in uniform, not counting paramilitary, armed police, coastguard or reserve forces, although it has been reducing that number to create a more responsive force. This contingent compares with about 1.3 million people under US active duty and another 800,000 on reserve.

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China’s official military budget reached US$177 billion in 2019, up from US$28 billion in 1999, although analysts say this figure excludes hidden funding.

This budget increase has allowed the PLA to deploy an “increasingly formidable” array of ballistic and cruise missiles, fighter aircraft and cyber and space technologies “postured to deny the US military access to the Indo-Pacific theatre if called upon”, Sbragia said.

Beijing’s spending – the world’s second highest after Washington’s – compares with a 2020 US military budget of US$748 billion. The Trump administration has called for a slight reduction in US military funding next year to US$740.5 billion as part of a budget deal with Congress.

The exterior of The Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Harvard University. The head of the department, Dr. Charles Lieber, has been charged with lying to the federal authorities in connection with aiding China. Photo: Reuters

Kristen Gunness, chief executive with the Vantage Point Asia consultancy and a Rand Corporation analyst, told the commission that China increasingly is working to align its overseas military and economic objectives.

This effort is seen in its growing clout in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the Pakistan corridor, she said, as military ambition is coordinated with the Belt and Road Initiative and other strategic programmes.

But its growing presence has also increased tensions with neighbours, analysts said. “We should be prepared for a China that will use its military as an overseas policy tool,” Gunness said. “Of course, this carries some risk for China. Increased use of the military overseas may backfire.”

Sbragia added that China continues to challenge the Pentagon and Washington’s place in the world. “There’s a great risk if you see things that China does as one-dimensional,” he said. “If you’re prepared, you’ll win. If you’re not, you’ll lose. It’s no longer steady state, but a continuum.”

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