Expert Chris Johnson on China's path and Xi's political future

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In this episode of Intelligence Matters, host Michael Morell speaks with former senior CIA China analyst Chris Johnson, now President and CEO of the China Strategies Group, about the state of play in the U.S.-China relationship and how China's approach to Russia, its COVID lockdowns and economic policies are affecting the bilateral and global dynamic. Johnson and Morell discuss President Xi Jinping's political objectives ahead of the 20th Party Congress this fall, including whether there exists a timeline for “reunification” with Taiwan. Johnson also offers views on the Biden administration's recently announced China strategy. 

HIGHLIGHTS: 

  • China's support for Russia: “I have to think that they must be feeling more comfortable with the idea that the Russians seem to be doing a little bit better, militarily – although I think if you read some recent analyses, there are real concerns about how sustainable that is – but that their goals are more modest, and therefore less likely to create a worldwide conflagration that may engulf China.” 
  • Xi's political trajectory: “My speculation is that, most likely, he has three goals for the Party Congress, right, which is to stay in power formally and under whatever title – there's been discussion about maybe bringing back the chairmanship and so on. He wants to run the table on personnel. And he wants to get this further aggrandizement ideologically that will put him formally on a pedestal just with Mao Zedong alone. My guess is he's very likely to get all three of those.” 
  • Timeline for “reunification” with Taiwan: “I'm not aware of a discussion inside China about 2027 as a timeline for reunification. And in fact, it's hard for me not to be skeptical about this because I remember a period in the early 2000s where there was a lot of talk about Jiang Zemin having a Taiwan reunification timeline or deadline, and that proved to be incorrect.  That doesn't mean that history always repeats itself or that Xi Jinping isn't a very different guy, and obviously their capabilities are very different now. But if anyone is talking about a timeline for 2027, it increasingly seems to be US officialdom. From my perspective, we see senior U.S. military commanders making public references to it in their congressional testimony or in interviews and so on. There does seem to be an enterprise within the administration, trying to sort of create this as a reality.”  

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 Intelligence Matters transcript: Chris Johnson

Producer: Olivia Gazis

MICHAEL MORELL: Chris, welcome back, again, to Intelligence Matters. I really appreciate – and I know our listeners do – you taking the time to join us for another conversation. So thank you.

CHRIS JOHNSON:Glad to be here, as always.

MICHAEL MORELL: Obviously lots to talk about. Lots going on with China. I'd love to start, Chris, with Beijing's current approach to the ongoing war in Ukraine. I'm wondering, how you would characterize China's current diplomatic position – both what its policy is and then what it's saying to the world, as well as their domestic messaging, right, to their own people. Can we talk about that a little bit and talk about how that might have evolved over time?

CHRIS JOHNSON: Sure, sure. Well, I think actually the most salient feature of China's approach to the conflict so far has been its striking consistency, really. Despite all the changes that we've seen on the battlefield, and the posturing, really, of the major players, especially – probably most relevant to us, in our conversation – the consistent upgrading by the U.S., right, of the war material and other support it's willing to provide to Ukraine to help it weather Russia's war of annihilation and attrition.

I think the explanation for that consistency – and China's policy probably turns on several factors, both strategic ones and tactical which are reinforcing – in my mind, strategically, it reflects Xi's, Xi Jinping's and the Chinese Communist Party's assessment of the geopolitical situation, and the major players that make up that geopolitical situation from their point of view.

You know, really the leadership since 2018 – which was kind of an important inflection point for them, in that it was sort of the depths of the trade war with the Trump administration, which was then sort of formalized in what they call a Foreign Affairs Work Conference, which are these very rare but high-level conferences that they have, where they kind of set their geostrategic framing of the world. And since then, this idea has solidified the judgment that they made at that time that the U.S. is really now China's implacable strategic enemy or foe, bent on stifling China's rise, and they believe that viewpoint now is bipartisan and fully baked into the geopolitical order they're confronting.

So as such, the previous guidelines calling for more restraint in China's position often summarized by Deng's exhortations to keep a low profile and so on, are outdated in their view. China must act more assertively and actively and demonstrably to show that it won't be cowed by a hostile U.S., and I think this is exemplified in many ways in the embrace of Putin's Russia.

And in fact, if the U.S. is the enemy, Russia is probably China's strategic partner, and has a fundamental interest in Russia remaining a viable helper in blunting U.S. hegemony, as the two of them often like to call it, and they therefore need Russia to be stable and not engulfed internationally by setbacks. And that I think is a key element and some of their thinking around this conflict.

And then I think there's the EU as the other major player in their mind, which in China's calculus does remain a viable mitigator, I guess I would put, it of U.S. hostility toward China, despite the increasing attacks within Europe, over China on the conflict and other things.

And I think then, tactically, the actions of each of these major actors tend to bolster these strategic assessments in his mind. So the U.S. shows its intention to maintain its grip despite what they perceive as its declining power by creating what they call ‘chaos' in Europe with its escalating support and also increasing the likelihood of a major conflict, right, that could be world conflict.

Russia has managed to, even if temporarily, and I know there's a lot of debate about that, mitigate some of its initial setbacks and I think China feels that those revised war aims that they seem to be sticking to in terms of sticking in the east, they are achievable, and that would increase the chance then that Russia, in its current form, can survive.

And I think, for Europe, criticism of China, at least publicly, has been a little less prominent than it was in the early phases of the conflict, and certainly calls from the likes of President Macron of France, for Ukraine to accept some compromise with Russia and not to listen to nuclear war and so on, reinforced Beijing's assessment that Europe is sort of in play.

And then I think in terms of their domestic narrative, basically, these strategic guests, sort of assessments are blasted to the public through the regime's control apparatus and meshing apparatus and seemingly with good effect.

MICHAEL MORELL: So you don't think, Chris, that Xi thinks that he made a mistake in any way in so openly and strongly supporting Russia and Putin just before the invasion?

CHRIS JOHNSON: I don't think so. No, I think certainly they may have some questions about, as the kids would say, how awkward the situation was, so soon after having made that commitment to be suddenly confronting this war, but I think it's really important not to forget that the strategic importance of this idea of a viable Russia – we in the West, I think we assume that if Putin went away either by death or by being thrown out of power, you know, ‘Mafioso Number Four' would come in behind him and run Russia.

Their view is, there's an equal chance – maybe a greater chance, because they're very paranoid about this topic – that Russia could in fact, become an anti-China, pro-West hostile power on their northern border. And you know, it's important for us to remember that they've had a peaceful Northern 4,200-ish kilometer border for 30 years.

You know, we forget sometimes I think that when the Soviet Union ended, I believe the Chinese had nearly 20 divisions in Mongolia. At the time, China hasn't had to think about that problem for a very long time. And therefore, my sense is that they've been able to then concentrate all their emphasis in terms of their strategic planning and military planning toward what we might call their front door and running with the South China Sea and Taiwan and even into the Western Pacific.

MICHAEL MORELL: So would you say that Xi sees this as a particularly important moment in history?

CHRIS JOHNSON: Oh, definitely. Yeah, and confirmatory of his worldview that the geopolitical change – you know, they like to talk about this phrase, ‘changes unseen in a century,' which both does reflect their assessment that the East is rising and the West is declining, and that the UK, US is in decline, and it's China's time, but also that that decline of the US will create a lot of chaos and the international system and this sort of pretty stable, late bipolar, Cold War and post-Cold War period that China and all the rest of us benefited so much from has gone away.

MICHAEL MORELL: And do you get any sense at all of how they think this important historical moment is so far turning out for them? Do they think it's headed in their direction? Do they think it's not headed in their direction? How do they think about that?

CHRIS JOHNSON: I think they can't make a judgment on that. There's this assessment, right, or an assumption that they have chosen their side or chosen the stakes. They certainly want to keep the Russians in play and do their best not to mess up that relationship. But my sense is that, like some of the rest of us, they're kind of going on developments, right? And they have a series of strategic guidelines that they follow and are following. They haven't had a chance to update that strategic assessment yet because the outcome of the war is uncertain.

And so my view is they're running on their old guidelines and adjusting tactically as they go along. I have to think that they must be feeling more comfortable with the idea that the Russians seem to be doing a little bit better militarily – although I think if you read some recent analyses, there are real concerns about how sustainable that is – but that their goals are more modest, and therefore less likely to you know, create a worldwide conflagration that may engulf China.

MICHAEL MORELL: Chris, I ultimately want to get to U.S.-China relations, because that's so important. But let's switch for a moment if we can to Chinese domestic affairs. And let me raise first the COVID lockdown.

The scenes and some of the stories from the Shanghai lockdown were sort of shocking for an advanced country. I was struck by the degree of compliance on the part of Chinese and I'm not sure that most people in the world and in the rest of the world would have been so compliant.

I wanted to ask you, do you think that compliance stems largely from fear of the security forces, or respect for the party, or a little bit of both? How do you think about that?

CHRIS JOHNSON: Yeah, I mean, I agree that compliance was noteworthy and in my mind, I think it stems from a number of factors. I think first and foremost, obviously, Chinese, culturally, are dispositionally inclined to think more about the collective good than the individual. That's both a truism but also, truly, in fact, it's just a fact.

And I think there are also still enough Chinese – although their percentage of the population is declining – who remember the truly horrific periods from the past such as the Great Leap Forward to the Cultural Revolution. And so while their numbers are declining, there's enough of them around to think, ‘Well, this is difficult, but it's nothing like those periods.'

I think a challenge for the regime – and we're seeing some aspects of this – is that for the generation that doesn't include that generation, the younger generation, the more cosmopolitan and upwardly mobile generation, the Shanghai lockdown was pretty difficult for them and we can come back to that in a minute as to what implications that may have.

I also think, though, that we in the West are far too quick to sort of discount the efficacy of the regime's messaging enterprise on some of this. I mean, I think it's fair to say that until Omicron arrived, it was very clear that most of the public bought into not only zero-COVID as a policy and what that meant for maintaining the people's safety and health, but also that that policy exemplified one of the ways in which perhaps, China's system was at least the equal to, if not superior to that in the West, and that I think it's an important bit.

The Shanghai experience, I think, has dented that confidence among the public, but we need to be careful I think not to over-inflate that. First, I think also, at its worst, let's call it, quote unquote ‘worst,' the situation in Shanghai, I think really reflected outbursts, not proper protests, or demonstrations. And I really think this is a point where nuance is really important and it matters.

You know, the sociologists who study protests or mass demonstrations, the literature basically says you need two things, right? You need organization, and you need scope, geographic scope. Generally, neither of those were present in Shanghai except on a very small margin. And I think that's really important to emphasize.

MICHAEL MORELL: And then the the second issue is economic slowdown, which everybody's talking about and people are talking about, you know, perhaps a recession and slowing Chinese growth, etc., certainly related to COVID, but probably bigger macroeconomic factors at play as well. And I'm wondering what the reaction has been among the public, the business community, the party, the government – how do you see that?

CHRIS JOHNSON Sure. I mean, I think it's fair to say the economy is clearly facing the worst challenge it has since 2008-2009, the global financial crisis, and its aftermath. 2020 was bad of course, because of the near stoppage, seizing of the economy, because of COVID lockdowns and so on. But the quick rebound, I think, mitigated that quite a bit.

And arguably, I think we can make the case that the best analogy here is not even the GFC, but really the late 1990s In China, which was a similar period of both economic difficulty and malaise, like we saw in other challenging periods, like 2007-08, or 08-09, rather, but also deep structural readjustment in the system.

You'll recall that the premier at the time, Zhu Rongji, went on this campaign to dramatically downsize state-owned enterprises, fired a bunch of people. It was a major change in the way this sort of economic model was functioning, and I think they're feeling a lot of those pressures now.

So you know, in terms of the different categories of observers that you mentioned, I mean, the public obviously is feeling it very dramatically. Whether you're a new college graduate, a tech wunderkind of some kind working for one of these internet companies that the government has had in their crosshairs or a migrant laborer or a truck driver, you're feeling this very, very seriously.

I think they're nervous. And so therefore, they're not consuming, and there's a real problem in that wage growth just has been lagging badly, even before COVID, and that's been exacerbated which also obviously has a huge downward impact on consumption.

I think the business community feels caught between a rock and a hard place and we can make some distinctions between the onshore or Chinese business community and maybe foreign businesses.

The onshore folks I think they're still gun shy about whether the government's crackdowns last year on the internet companies, as I mentioned, the property sector and other areas is really coming to an end or it's just a temporary pause while the government tries to restart and boost a flagging economy.

And I think they're also obviously unhappy about the side effects of the lockdowns, whether the supply chain spirals, logistical problems, all sorts of problems. And if you're running a restaurant or some other business and you just don't know whether you're going to be locked down from day to day, that's obviously challenging.

I think foreign businesses have been shocked by the lockdowns, and also China's approach to the Russia conflict. That's been a one two punch for foreign business sentiment. And I would say all those factors come together for them, the foreign businesses, and exacerbating the instinct to at least have a serious think about supply chain diversification.

And then I think the thing that brings both the onshore and the foreign business types together is this growing sense of skepticism, I think, about what we might call ‘happy talk' or nice words from the leaders without follow through. You know, they make positive noises – they did this initially, for example, in March when Liu Ha, Xi Jinping's right hand man on the economy, kind of came up with a statement saying, ‘we want the internet companies to do well.' ‘The real estate sector has to survive and thrive,' and so on. But then no policies came behind it.

And we saw that actually repeated after the Politburo met in late April, for its assessment of Q1 economic performance in China. You know, typically in the system when we see those kinds of statements, policies followed very quickly, and they haven't this time, and I think the reason for that is that the government's response really has been messy and erratic.

And I think in a nutshell, it can be explained by the fact that China's usually efficient and very effective economic technocrats have looked paralyzed, probably because of several factors. I think one is their real constraints on the economic toolkit that they can use to address some of these challenges. Their monetary policy solutions, I think, are very constrained by the fact that the U.S. and just about everybody else is hiking, while they're cutting rates. And of course, that prompts fears for them of a repeat of the debacle in 2015-16, where there were seriously destabilizing or at least potentially destabilizing capital outflows from China.

I think their fiscal toolkit is also challenged because they're not exactly sure how much stimulus is needed and they don't want to overdo it. They definitely feel that the risk of over stimulating and creating a bunch more bad debt and bridges to nowhere and so on, outweighs under-stimulating and maybe coming in a little lower on growth.

And I think they're also questioning in the political environment, how sure are they, just like the foreign and domestic business players are, that Xi Jinping really wants to relent or is this some sort of tactical thing? So I think that then leads to mixed messages where they talk about relief, but they're also quick to say that, you know, these policies should not complicate the problem of financial risk and so on, so forth. It just leaves the whole situation confused.

MICHAEL MORELL: So Chris, let's put all this together. You've got the war in Ukraine and China's position vis vis it, you've got the COVID lockdown, you've got the slowing economy, and you've got Xi going into a Party Congress this fall where he hopes to get a third term, right? How does all this play out politically for him?

And before you answer that, I want to mention here that you just wrote an op-ed for the Financial Times that dealt with this very question and it had what I thought was a great title: “Rumors that Xi Jinping is losing his grip on power are greatly exaggerated.” So give us your take on what all this means for Xi going into this fall. Is he going to get a third term?

CHRIS JOHNSON: Yeah, well, let's answer the easy question first: of course, he's gonna get a third term, or at least it's very likely, You know, one can't say anything is 0%, but it's very unlikely that he won't.

I think we have to be honest and say that this is not the year that he thought he was going to have. Coming into 2022, there was a sense of, he just had this great celebration around the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. We had this history resolution at the plenum last fall that further aggrandized his position in the sort of ideological pantheon of China's leaders. Talked a lot about how important his rule has been and, you know, as a major inflection point in history, and so on, so forth. And then the hope for this year was, have a nice Olympics that, again, bolsters our international position and so on and then cruise our way to a Party Congress where I get crowned, so on.

So obviously, things have not quite turned out that way for him.

So, the pressure and the stresses and so on, I think, are definitely there. To the degree that it is a setback for him or has dented his viability – not as leader but as sort of an all-consuming and all-important leader – I think it's a situation where, historically, we've seen in their system, when a leader can be criticized for sort of policy failures, it can allow other rival interest groups, – let's call them within the system – to build leverage in the personnel horse trading around these five-yearly Party Congresses, so whilst his own positions – which currently are president and general secretary of the party, and head of China's military – probably are not in doubt, there's a lot of positions below his vaunted awesomeness that will be in play that, you know, other folks are trying to influence.

And so things like Russia, things like the handling of COVID, if indeed he can be criticized for them – and I think this is really important, to your questions earlier about how they view what's going on with Russia. Is it good for them, bad for them, you know, it's very TBD.

So my speculation is that, most likely he has three goals for the Party Congress, right, which is to stay in power formally and under whatever titles – there's been discussion about maybe bringing back the chairmanship and so on. He wants to run the table on personnel. And he wants to get this further aggrandizement, ideologically, that will put him formally on a pedestal just with Mao Zedong alone. My guess is he's very likely to get all three of those.

MICHAEL MORELL: And do you think he's worried about this in any way?

CHRIS JOHNSON: Well, if you're the top guy in an authoritarian system, you're always worried.

But I think one of Xi's particular sort of instances of political acumen is this skill he has for keeping the plates spinning, and keeping the others guessing. You know, the term I use is from the beginning, he's engaged in a policy of what I think we can call ‘political shock and awe,' which is a combination of anti-corruption, smartly figuring out that ideology still matters in a Leninist system like China's, and that if you declare yourself to be not only the leader, but also the purveyor of the party's line, it becomes very difficult to criticize him, right. And he's done this very masterfully in a very clear, stepwise campaign throughout his tenure so far in power.

So I think he's managed that. And then of course, the other thing that he's done that his immediate predecessor, Hu Jintao arguably never did, and even his predecessor Jiang Zemin did with mixed results, is to have absolute iron control over what we might call the ‘key levers of power' within the regime. And that would be obviously the party bureaucracy, the propaganda sector, the security services, and the military. And there's very little evidence that his grip is not incredibly strong there.

And in fact, despite all the rumors about pushback or that others are taking the fight to him and so on, if you actually look at a lot of the very important personnel changes that are happening in sort of a sub-rosa level, the one sector where arguably he has had a surprising lack of highly personalized control has been the party's body that looks after the courts, the police and the intelligence services – obviously, very important area in an authoritarian system. His personal control of that area has been somewhat lacking during his first two terms, but we're seeing him make massive gains in that area in the run up to the Congress. I don't think you'd see that from somebody who's on the ropes.

MICHAEL MORELL: OK, Chris, let's turn to U.S.-China relations. Some recent developments. We finally got a public sharing of the administration's China policy in the form of a speech by Secretary of State Tony Blinken at GW University, George Washington University, here in DC. Can you summarize the policy for us and then give us your view on it?

CHRIS JOHNSON: Sure. I think the main summary points would be that there wasn't a lot new, it seemed, and this was telegraphed by the administration, to be fair to it and to Secretary Blinken. “No surprises,” right, was sort of the line that was put out in ahead of the speech.

And so I think from my perspective, the best way to describe it is a formalization of the approach that the administration largely has trotted out and has been following since the beginning of the administration. And I think actually, in some ways, the most striking and perhaps disappointing element of the speech was that there was very little difference between it, at least in terms of content, and the overarching foreign policy speech Secretary Blinken gave when he first came into office, un terms of the sort of China substance.

I think the best way to describe it is as follows. The first is to look at the strategic framing of it, and there he made no bones about the fact that the framing is one of ideological framing: democracy versus autocracy, pretty much. In my assessment, I think that's problematic for a number of reasons.

First, I think it puts serious restrictions on your flexibility in terms of your ability to pursue a policy that is purely about the U.S. national interest. When you frame things as democracy versus autocracy, you have to take certain stands. I think it runs into some potential problems of, you know, inclining us toward making actions towards Taiwan – and I'm sure we're going to talk some more about that – because they're a democracy. So of course, we need to be following up with them.

And then I think also, it makes the cooperative element that Secretary Blinken talked about, definitely ring hollow in Beijing. And I think it makes a lot harder for the U.S. to do so meaningfully, even when we have good intentions.

And I think just finally, I would highlight that one of the things that's different about this kind of a framing of democracy versus autocracy instead of, as compared to say, the Cold War period, is that in that period, market economics was a major part, a major thrust, and neoliberal economic policies were a major part of the US democratic sort of approach.
This administration is very suspicious, if not hostile, toward neoliberal economic policy, so that element's missing.

And then I think the tactics, as described are what I frequently refer to as a surrogate China policy with two main pillars. The first is what they call domestic strengthening, right, so this is improving our capabilities, our manufacturing and so on so forth. I think it's fair to say that that's been kind of a mess. We had, you know, the shambolic approach on Build Back Better. We have the Chips and Competes Act or USICA and the Competes Act on the Hill that have yet to have a conference process to deliver much needed funds to say our wafer fabrication folks, and so on.

And then the second element is, of course, coordinating with allies and partners. And I mean, here, I think, obviously, the administration has done much better, but it gets somewhat problematic in the economic and trade space where our allies and partners often have different interests vis a vis China than we do.

MICHAEL MORELL: ‘Other than that, what did you think of the play, Mrs. Lincoln?' [Laughter]

What amazes me is how long it took for this to come out, and how little new there was here at the end of the day.

CHRIS JOHNSON: I agree with that.

MICHAEL MORELL: So I want to talk a little bit about what President Biden said during his recent Asia trip about the U.S. coming to the defense of Taiwan, right, if attacked by China. First, what did he say? And how was it different from what every other president to date has said?

CHRIS JOHNSON: Well, in the moment of impact, he said that – when asked a direct question – that the U.S. would come to Taiwan's defense militarily if it was attacked, and described that as the commitment we have made, and also elaborated by saying the idea that Taiwan could be taken by force is inappropriate.

And this obviously is different and we saw the White House and the usual mechanisms scramble quickly to say, ‘Look, there's been no change in policy. What he meant to say was that we support the ability to provide Taiwan with the means for its defense, under the rubric of the Taiwan Relations Act, Six Assurances and other policies, as we always have done.'

But it did seem to telegraph perhaps a little bit more than that, in that, interestingly, when the President was given the opportunity, I think, either that day or shortly thereafter to clarify, and was asked the question, ‘Do you want to clarify?' he said, ‘No.' So obviously in his mind, he didn't say anything at odds with US policy.

MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah. So you wonder if this was a gaffe, right, another in a string of unforced errors by the President, or was it more than that? Does it reflect discussion inside the administration about how they're thinking about this? It really makes you wonder about that. What do you think?

CHRIS JOHNSON: I think it's obviously very difficult to tell; there's a lot of different views. I think, one of your former guests, the historian Hal Brands, had an interesting piece where he sort of said, ‘Once is a mistake and thrice is what President Bush used to call “strategery.”‘

My view is I'm skeptical of that, given the President's long track record, for 40 years, really, of making these kinds of gaffes and so on. I guess one thing to emphasize, though, whether it was “strategery” or senility, it probably doesn't really matter in the grand scheme of things, in that where it really matters is how will Beijing interpret it? And they will see it as yet another link in the chain of what they perceive to be a steady erosion in our commitment to the traditional U.S. One China policy.

MICHAEL MORELL: And in your view, is that a policy mistake to send them that message?

CHRIS JOHNSON: I think it certainly can be. I mean, two things to highlight there.

One, this may be an area where, unfortunately, they'll do some unhelpful mirror imaging within their system. So their view would be, ‘Well, if the president of the country says it, it must be the policy,' right, ‘because he would never make a mistake of that scale, because our president would never do that.' I think that's part of it. That's kind of a side point. I'm not sure that's that relevant.

The part that really matters is that China has shown that – under the PRC anyway, and really in its history – has shown a strong tendency toward when it believes things that really matters such as, in their view, the One China policy, which they see as the underpinning for the entire U.S.-China relationship. We like to try to handle Taiwan as one of many silos in the broad, bilateral relationship. The Chinese see them all as interrelated.

Typically, when they feel that is coming under challenge, they do feel the need to do something – I'd use the term ‘demonstrative' – in response, and the best example is from the '90s when then Secretary of State Warren Christopher promised his Chinese counterpart that the United States would not issue a visa to then Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui, and then turned around and did so, which then prompted the military exercises that you and I both worked on at that time.

And again, actually, in a more recent, historical example, when President Trump began touting publicly that he might just drop the One China policy, Xi Jinping cut off all communications on all subjects, including North Korea, which was a hot issue at the time in the run up to the Mar-a-Lago summit until the President very publicly genuflected and repeated the Catechism.

So, we're always at risk then of provoking that again, and the big difference, I would argue, between that mid-90s episode and now, at that time, the Chinese military was something of a made-for-TV movie, right? That's not the case anymore.

MICHAEL MORELL: So I'm wondering if, to the extent that the administration might be discussing this internally, I'm wondering if it's a reaction to discussions in China about 2027 being a date by which we need to have reunification. What's your sense of the discussion in China about 2027 and how it might be affecting thinking here?

CHRIS JOHNSON: Yeah. Well, I'm glad you raised that. I guess my view is that I'm not aware of a discussion inside China about 2027 as a timeline for reunification. And in fact, it's hard for me not to be skeptical about this because I remember a period in the early 2000s where there was a lot of talk about Jiang Zemin having a Taiwan reunification timeline or deadline, and that proved to be incorrect.

That doesn't mean that history always repeats itself or that Xi Jinping isn't a very different guy, and obviously their capabilities are very different now. But if anyone is talking about a timeline for 2027, it increasingly seems to be U.S. officialdom. From my perspective, we see senior U.S. military commanders making public references to it in their congressional testimony or in interviews and so on. There does seem to be an enterprise within the administration, trying to sort of create this as a reality.

I think there's a couple of things that are driving that, perhaps, that perception. One is that, if Xi Jinping is successful in getting a third term, which he probably will be, as we've discussed, there's this idea that, ‘Well, that's an anomaly for someone to have that and therefore he needs some grand legacy win in order to justify that.' And 2027, of course, would be when that third term would be coming to an end.

The other thing I think that drives some of this discussion is that the military, the People's Liberation Army, will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2027. So some then feel, well this is a great opportunity for them to have a party by testing out those capabilities and, and bringing Taiwan back into the fold.

But all kidding aside, I mean, I think this is an important issue. And it reminds me of things that we dealt with at the CIA and in intelligence work and in thinking about different styles of analysis. And my concern with talk about 2027 is that I think it risks confusing what we in the intelligence industry would call the difference between capabilities analysis, right, where you look at what an adversary can do based on the number of bombs and chips and troops they have, and what we might call plans and intentions analysis, where we look instead at what they actually will do – either what they intend to do or what they can do based on constraints that don't include counting ships, and so on.

My sense is that those two things are getting confused in this assessment and that we're over relying on capabilities analysis, perhaps because our insights into plans and intentions – which are always very, very difficult – are even more complicated in an ecosystem like the one Xi has created where the circle of knowledge is very small inside China these days, and the borders are hermetically sealed.

MICHAEL MORELL: I just want to restate what you said, which I think is really important: You don't see anything based on what the Chinese are saying publicly or the people you're talking to, that 2027 is a date by which they want to reunify.

CHRIS JOHNSON: No, or any more or less likely than any other day, either between now and then or in the future. And just to close that off, I get a lot more concerned about the period 2035 and beyond, because that's when their capabilities and some of their other things really come into play.

MICHAEL MORELL: Chris, you've been great as usual. I just want to ask you one more question. And that is, which country, the U.S. or China, do you think its policy toward the other is more based on the national interests of that country rather than politics? And do you see a trend in either country, or both countries, in the direction of politics rather than national interest?

CHRIS JOHNSON: Interesting.

MICHAEL MORELL: That's a tough one and you've got, like, two minutes.

CHRIS JOHNSON: Well, it's a really tough question, I think in part because it's so open to interpretation, right, of what a country's, quote unquote, ‘national interests' are.

So you know, as we discussed earlier, in our discussion in terms of the zero-COVID policy or some of the moves China makes in its foreign policy, it's almost reflexive, now, I think, for foreign analysts to say those policies aren't in China's interests, or they just plain don't make sense, right.

And as I've tried to lay out, I think when you look at it through their view of the world, and the way that they frame it, given the objectives that they have, it starts to make at least some sense if only through those Chinese Communist Party goggles.

But at the same time, I suppose, one and perhaps the best measure right of a country's interests are whether the policies ultimately are efficacious. And so I don't think we know whether China's more activist approach to the world will deliver the stronger, safer, more prosperous China in the future that Xi Jinping tells us it will.

I think what we can say is that Xi certainly believes it will, and so the policies will remain as long as he does, and secondarily, he's making what I call increasingly big bets with equally big or binary outcomes.

So, some of the economic policies, certainly some of the foreign policies, you get increasingly the feel that he's comfortable in a space where he's making choices where he's either going to succeed at some level, whatever percentage level that is, or perhaps crash the plane on the way along, which is nerve-wracking.

I'd say the U.S. policy for most of the period since normalization has been in the national interest. Certainly, prosperity abounded and major war was avoided. I'd say those are pretty big outcomes. And of course, there's the debate, which has raged for years now, about whether engagement was a failure and therefore not in the U.S. interest. That's obviously way too big a topic to address in two minutes.

But, my bottom line is that it generally was in the U.S.'s interests, even if changing power dynamics mean that adjustments now have to be made.

And finally I would just say there's no doubt in my mind that the U.S. policy toward China has become almost entirely political. You see this manifested in many different ways. The Biden administration's seeming inability to move off of the Trump policy in almost any area. Just in the last couple of weeks, this almost comical debate over tariffs, taking some of the Trump era tariffs off of China that's playing out in the public rather than in the Situation Room, or concerns about a sort of us-versus-them dynamic developing. That all shows it, and I think that's potentially troubling.

And then I think, compared to what I just said about Xi Jinping, we are very risk averse. We don't want to take risks, in part because we're distracted and in some difficulty domestically. The general IR, international relations, theory would say that it's always the rising power that's the risk taker. It used to be the status quo power, but I think that's true in general.

But at some point, the status quo needs power needs to take more risks if it wants to maintain its status as the status quo power. And that's something we're not doing very well and I do think some risk-taking is in our national interest, and we're just not doing it.

MICHAEL MORELL: Well said, Chris. Thank you so much. Thank you so much for joining us. Terrific conversation as usual. Thank you.

CHRIS JOHNSON: My pleasure.

 

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