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Home : Media : Speeches / Testimony
NEWS | Oct. 9, 2019

Addressing the Complexity, Contradictions, and Conundrums of the U.S. – China Relationship

By ADM Phil Davidson U.S. Indo-Pacific Command

ADM Phil Davidson
Commander, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command

Addressing the Complexity, Contradictions, and Conundrums of the U.S. – China Relationship
New York, NY 
As Prepared


Good evening and thank you, Steve, for the kind introduction.

I have been in command for 16 months, and one of the first groups I met just prior to taking command was a team from the National Committee led by Jan Berris, who provided me an orientation on all things China.

Last year, I had the opportunity to attend the Annual Gala, and then this summer, I spent time with Steve at the Aspen Security Forum.

I am intimately aware of the talent, knowledge, and expertise on China surrounding me tonight, and I am appreciative of those of you with whom I have engaged during my tenure in command.

I will spend the majority of our time today talking with you about China and its long-term strategic threat to our security.

However, until the nuclear situation is resolved on the Korean Peninsula, North Korea will remain our most immediate threat.

As many of you are aware, last night, North Korea fired a Short- to Medium-Range Ballistic Missile some 280 miles into the Sea of Japan. The missile was fired from an afloat test platform in Wonsan Bay.

As North Korea continues its modernization of their weapons delivery inventory, USINDOPACOM is committed to defending our U.S. territories, allies, and partners in the region.

General Abrams at U.S. Forces Korea and I are both focused on maintaining the readiness of our joint and combined forces in the Republic of Korea until the final, fully verifiable denuclearization of North Korea.

I should note that this is an area in which we seek Chinese cooperation. After all, China continues to ignore requests for support in our ongoing multinational efforts to uphold the United Nations’ sanctions designed to limit these activities in North Korea. This is but one example of the challenges in dealing with China.

Tonight, what I would like you to take away from this evening is a sober assessment of the U.S. China relationship that…compares the contradictions…highlights the complexities…and clearly describes the conundrum we currently face.

The contradictions rest in the differences between the two countries’ strategic cultures and what I worry are two incompatible visions of the future.

While neither the United States nor China desire confrontation, both nations believe they have an approach toward foreign and domestic policy that should be emulated, and the other’s behavior is the impetus for tension.

China believes in a conceptual approach to strategy development, and policy formulation. We see this by examining its extensive and diverse history, as well as its cultural, political, and geographical understanding of the initiatives they pursue.

China’s approach is a hybrid of Chinese Confucian culture and Leninist Communism in a system of one-party rule, or what China calls, “Socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

China’s vision for the future is based on a sense of destiny they refer to as The China Dream, otherwise known as “national rejuvenation by 2049”…the 100-year anniversary of the founding of the Communist state…and a new type of great power relationship based on the five principles of a peaceful coexistence.

In Chinese doctrine, The Dream represents China’s effort to return to great power status after experiencing a self-described “century of national humiliation,” one that began in the early 19th century with the First Opium War, and lasted through the end of the Sino-Japanese War.

According to China, their memory of this period recounts a time when it was attacked, bullied, and plundered by imperialists, and this memory serves as the foundation for their current behavior, and their lack of trust for the West.

As China continues to accumulate wealth and power, principal through its economic sphere, nationalism pushes the country toward a more assertive posture in handling territorial and neighbor disputes.

We hear often, that the biggest problem China faces is the contradiction of addressing its people’s immediate social needs, while simultaneously promoting their rising power throughout the world.

China claims to be focused on peaceful economic development, but there is and obvious incongruity between its commitment to peaceful economic development and the equally strong effort to unilaterally impose China’s sovereignty and territorial claims in the East and South China Seas, for example.

This is the classic shell game of authoritarian dictators, who push nationalistic fervor to overcome the lack of progress in meaningful domestic reform.

In China, this trend is well documented, starting with the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre and most recently, with the consolidation of executive power within the party, the extensive anti-corruption campaign, as well as President Xi’s “President for Life” declaration.

Xi is very aware of the fact that a conflict with the United States will all but guarantee China’s failure to realize The Dream by 2049, however, he cannot appear to look weak domestically.

Conversely, the United States is a constitutional republic, with an intense focus on representative government, human rights, and individual liberties.

President Trump cast a vision that reflects these values during the 2017 East Asia Summit, where he announced the United States’ vision for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP).

Inclusiveness-for-all is fundamental to the idea of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific. The United States’ aspiration is for a regional order of sovereign nations that defends their populations, respects human dignity, competes fairly in the market place, and remains free from coercion. I’ll talk more about this in a few moments.

But it was this kind of inclusive effort over the last 70 years that has resulted in the remarkable regional economic development enjoyed today. One in which China and the other Asian economies have benefited from, for some seven decades now.

Senior Chinese officials now openly express dissatisfaction with the existing world order and our vision for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific, describing it as built and led by the United States, cemented in Western values, and operating to Washington’s “great benefit” and the detriment of other nations.

However, Chinese leaders ignore that the world order enabled their rise, helped to lift a billion people out of poverty, and garnered them a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.

I should add, U.S. alliances are also a subject of friction with the Chinese – they specifically dismiss alliances for themselves – because they believe they are relics of the past, intended to contain others and potentially limit China’s rise as a great power.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

From a military commander’s perspective, alliances build mutual trust, understand and respect, help marshal a sense of the regional security landscape and its challenges and give nations large and small the ability to cooperate and contribute to regional and global security.

Alliances also provide the building blocks for a security architecture that promote interconnectivity and interoperability.

While the contradictions of the U.S. – China relationship provide the backdrop to the current tensions, the complexity in the relationship begins with obvious areas of convergence: economics and trade.

America’s post-Cold War strategy for dealing with all nations – including China – was rooted in prevailing liberal values that link trade, economic growth, good governance, and our belief in the universal human desire for freedom.

This strategy assumed improvements to liberal, democratic values and economic growth would be coupled as we integrated transitional economies into the rules-based international system.

Trade liberalization played a significant role in China’s post-1978 economic miracle, providing double-digit economic growth across half ot the time period.

For many years, the West underestimated the resilence of the Communist Party of China’s ideology, and their ability to retain and strengthen the authoritarian role of the state in China.

Not only has China declined to adopt promised economic reforms, it has clearly embraced an economic model dependent on massive market barriers, heavy state subsidies, currency manipulation, product dumping, forced technology transfers, and stolen intellectual property.

While many of these issues are often cited as actions taken only by state-owned enterprises, it does not stop there.

According to the World Economic Forum, China is home to 109 corporations on the Fortune Global 500 list, but only 15% of those are privately-owned.

The public case of Huawei provides a clear example of this. Huawei is the world’s number one telecom supplier and No. 2 phone manufacturer.

Back in January, the U.S. Justice Department unsealed indictments including 23 counts pertaining to theft of intellectual property, obstruction of justice, and fraud related to Huawei’s alleged evasion of U.S. sanctions against Iran.

While Huawei has long-denied wrongdoing – and it continues to maintain its innocence – the core issue with Huawei results from our concern about its cozy relationship with the Chinese government, and the fear that Huawei’s equipment could be sued to gain unauthorized access to various networks on Beijing’s order.

This is why the U.S. government has limited American companies from suing Huawei networking equipment, beginning with last year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and now, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security Entity List, released in May.

Now, the global markets are facing a different scenario, as China is choosing to “decouple” from the major parts of the world economy rather than ensure that bilateral trade is reciprocal and fair.

This action complicates China’s approach to its already slowing economy, as the PRC attempts to transition, from export-led growth to consumer-led growth. The result means the PRC’s reform agenda is beginning to stall, as housing costs are beginning to indicate.

This is telling.

While the Chinese government struggles with how to manage its economy, the antiquated Communist party system is not adaptable enough to consider the level of institutional reforms necessary to maintain its trajectory.

In the security realm, the development of a world-class military to protect the PRC’s national interests is a predictable evolution – indeed, for any sovereign nation with global interests.

China’s military modernization program is impressive and includes a broad asymmetric oreination to help it counter the traditional American strength of projecting military power.

The build-up of the People’s Liberation Army, Navy, and Air Force, and the development of multiple long-range land-based missiles, cyber threats, and anti-satellite weapons, are indicators of China’s assertive foreign policy shift beyond their own borders.

The Communist Party of China makes these investments because it fears the United States is attempting to contain China’s rise, while the United States is concerned that China is focusing its investments to expel U.S. forces from the regions, supplant the international rules based order, and dictate to the region new international norms and behaviors,

This mutual distrust challenges the security relationship and places some limits on potential cooperation.

For the United States to advance and protect our nation’s global interests, we must be able to project power to ensure the uninterrupted freedom of navigation – or communication as I like to say – provides safe access to open markets, and underwrite the security and prosperity of the free and open international order, as we have done so for the past 70 years.

We accomplish this by:

1. Defending our allies in the region: Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia, and Thailand.

2. Assuring access for our global partners, not only to the international sea and airspace – but to all shared domains, including space and cyberspace.

3. Delivering on a strategy that prevents the domination of the Indo-Pacific by a regional hegemon…all of which enables the continued prosperity in the region, around the globe, in the United States, and in China.

This brings me to my final point: the conundrum that has emerged as a major cause of mistrust and friction between China and the United States.

There is a desire by both countries to have a strategy accepted by the region that addresses their interests, their security concerns, and their values.

This conundrum presents a false dichotomy that many nations in the region believe will force them to choose between economic prosperity and relations with China, or a secure Indo-Pacific partnership with the United States. But in my view, both security, and our economic prosperity are inextricably linked.

From an economic and geopolitical perspective, China claims the South China Sea as the territorial waters of China – far exceeding established international rules or norms.

China asserts sovereignty claims through coercive actions, including the building and militarization of artificial islands, which devastates the regions’ fisheries and causes unprecedented environmental damage.

China believes the use of reconnaissance missions in international wares and airspace near their coastal areas infringes upon their security.

On the other hand, the United States believes in the assured access to shared domains, including international sea and airspace, and supports the right for all nations to conduct surface and air reconnaissance within the global commons.

We must remember, the United States normalized relations with China in order to encourage and assist them in becoming a responsible stakeholder in the international system.

This includes increasing contributions to help shore-up the stability of the international system from which, arguably, China benefited from more than any other country.

By all accounts, China is falling short of this objective. China’s gray zone actions include stealing sovereignty and technology from neighbors, taking liberties from citizens in Hong Kong, and imprisoning one million Uighurs. All of these violations speak to their authoritarian bent.

Meanwhile, the United States and our allies resolve to deter other – like China – from deviating from the system, while simultaneously reassuring all that the purpose of our forces and alliances all that the purpose of our forces and alliances in the region is not to keep China down, but to maintain a stable and secure environment for the benefit of all.

China’s economic rise has benefited its neighbors, just as the entire region has benefitted from the presence of a strong U.S. security architecture. The region does not want China contained; nor does it want the U.S. expelled from the region; in my view, it simply wants China to behave responsibly as a major emerging power.

The conundrum the region faces should not be a choice between the United States and China, but a core understanding that the region’s economic prosperity and its security are inextricably linked.

Dr. Graham Allison, the esteemed Professor at Harvard, who coined the phrase “The Thucydides’ Trap,” provides the historical description of the ancient Greek rivalry between an established power (Sparta) and a rising power (Athens) locked in a deadly combination of calculation and emotion that, over the years, turns healthy rivalry into war.

However, I also think it is worth noting another historical description from Thucydides of power and politics known as the Melian Dialogue, which took place between a rising power – Athens – and the tiny island state of Melos.

It was during this historical dialogue that Athens told Melos: “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”

We have observed similar behavior from China as they bully Asian neighbors who cannot match their diplomatic, economic, or military might.

Look no further than Foreign Minister Yang, from China, who in 2010 told a meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum: “China is a big country and other countries are small countries and that is just a fact.”

Our allies and partners across the globe cannot continue to hope China liberalizes its government with its economic rise. They want to ensure they have a voice – to improve their sovereignty – and to be part of the global system – not subject to a hegemonic-led one.

The United States is taking action to promote the vision of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific.

When I say “Free,” I mean free both in terms of traditional security (free from coercion by other nations) and in terms of values and political systems.

Free societies respect individual rights and liberties, the promotion of good governance, and adherence to the shared values of the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Free also means nations do not have to choose with whom they partner and trade out of fear or coercion. Instead, they are free to exercise their sovereignty – and their choice.

That all nations should enjoy unfettered, open access to the seas and airways upon which our people and economies depend. The concept of openness also applies to the cyberspace and space domains, which provide critical avenues for future global prosperity.

According to our vision, nations are able to have open investment environments, transparent agreements between one another, protection of intellectual property rights, and fair and reciprocal trade.

I say it all the time, seas are not borders…they are not boundaries…oceans do not separate us…they bind us together, bringing mutual benefits, common growth, and shared opportunity.

We believe allies and partners are critical to the prosperity of the region. All countries should have a voice in shaping the international system.

Despite these challenges I have described, the international system will benefit if we work together with China in areas of mutual interest.

I see three areas of military collaboration between the United States and China that focus on improving relations:

1. Ship-to-Ship Transfers:

As I alluded to before, the United States is part of a global effort to prevent ship-to-ship transfers of oil between North Korean and other vessels that are violating U.N. sanctions.

China – a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council – remains on the sidelines, as the U.S., our allies, and our partners commit vast resources to enforce sanctions levied by the international community.

China – who shifted control of the maritime militia to the PLA in 2018 – sends all of its maritime militia to the South China Sea, with no presence in the East China Sea.

China should use its maritime militia to patrol its own waters in the East China Sea to prevent ship-to-ship transfers and uphold U.N. sanctions to increase pressure on North Korea.

2. Mil-Mil Communications

It may come as a surprise, but communication occurs on a daily basis at the tactical level, where 99% of the interactions between U.S. and Chinese naval ships and aircraft are conducted in a safe and professional manner.

Conversely, communication at the strategic level of the military suffers for two reasons.
Despite the U.S. government’s repeated attempts to get China to agree to a routine communication method in crisis, none currently exists.

And frankly, if I picked up the phone and called my counterpart at China’s Southern Theater Command – and he actually picked up – I don’t believe he would have the authority to make a difference.

The same is true if I tried to call the Eastern Theater Command, who “owns” forces in the East China Sea and adjacent provinces.
Right now, military-military communications tend to work backwards. It is the first thing to be cutoff when Beijing signals displeasure and the last thing to be reestablished when tensions ease.

3. Humanitarian Assistance – Disaster Relief:

The Indo-Pacific remains the most disaster-prone region in the world. USINDOPACOM is heavily vested in training, educating, and supporting HADR throughout the region, to include combined efforts with our allies and partners.

The PLA does similar engagements. I see this as a great opportunity for cooperation between the U.S. and China.

In fact, each year, both countries participate in a bilateral exercise designed to improve coordination in response to such crises in the region.

We’ve even conducted Humanitarian Assistance – Disaster Relief operations in close proximity – for example, in Nepal a few years ago.

In closing, as China continues its rise and the United States seeks to maintain influence and expand opportunities throughout the region, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command remains committed to a Free and Open-Indo Pacific, despite the unique and evolving challenges presented by China.

I believe that we can, and we will, compete, deter, and win in the great power competition with China because of our values, interests, and mutual security concerns shared with our allies and partners.


If the international community bands together to maintain the established international order and a Free and Open Indo-Pacific, we will win before fighting.

We will cooperate where we can…but vigorously compete where we must…to preserve the established rules-based international order.

Thank you for your time, I look forward to your questions.



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