Beijing: Paper tiger
or world threat?

Geoff Metcalf interviews author, China expert, Chuck DeVore

Editor's note: Is China a backward, economically burdened state or a militarily strong nation bent on world dominance? Chuck DeVore, co-author of "China Attacks," unmistakably subscribes to the latter description of the Asian giant. Along with other critics of China, including Steven Mosher and Bill Gertz, DeVore has studied the strategy, writings and history of China and clearly explains the serious threats posed by Beijing and the Chinese Communist Party.

Geoff Metcalf recently interviewed DeVore about his book and about a recent article on China that has national security experts buzzing.

By Geoff Metcalf
Q: What was your reaction when you read Dr. Richard Russell's piece in Parameters, the Army War College quarterly, about the threat the U.S. faces from China?

A: We were absolutely delighted, frankly. I just recently spoke to the professor who wrote the piece, and his motivation for writing it was the same as Steve Mosher and mine for writing "China Attacks." That motivation was to dispel the conventional wisdom that China, number one, doesn't desire to have any sort of aggressive ambitions toward Taiwan, and number two, even if they did, they couldn't do anything more than just try a blockade or fire missiles to destroy Taiwan's economy and stock market. In fact, they can do a lot more.

Q: What did you learn from speaking with Dr. Russell?

A: Dr. Richard Russell -- out of the National Defense University -- argues much the same way that we argued in the book that by using strategic deception and surprise, China can achieve its objectives very rapidly on Taiwan. More unsettling is that the United States and its allies would be caught completely unaware and would be basically making up policy and reacting to it as they go along, because no one sees this coming. That is the reason he wrote the piece, because he thought that it would be wise to begin to plan what would happen and what we should do if we were surprised by a Chinese surprise attack against Taiwan.

Q: One of the more fascinating items that came out of my early discussions with your co-author, Steve Mosher, was that when the Soviet Union was the boogeyman, we had in the intelligence arena thousands if not tens of thousands of people watching every dot and tittle of what was happening with the Soviets.

A: Right. Absolutely! That's completely different with China.

Q: Why is it different?

A: Let me give you a good example. I won't mention the gentleman's name to protect his privacy, but he's a high-ranking retired general, an intelligence professional, and he doesn't share my view. It dawned on me that the reason he probably doesn't is that China was very useful to us during the Cold War, because we both feared the threat from the Soviet Union. So we had a marriage of convenience.

Q: Much like the marriage of convenience that Russia and China have now.

A: Right. So when the Cold War ended and the wall came down, what is interesting is a lot of our listening posts in China are still there. That's my understanding. They are still being manned, and we're still getting data. Of course, we share that with the Chinese. So many of the intelligence professionals kind of grew up with a very Eurocentric view of the world. Europe, Russia, the Soviet Union -- that was where the action was. And they have this kind of disdain for the Chinese, that they have this low tech/mass conscript army that's kind of ponderous. They're seemingly forgetting that China really shocked the heck out of us in the Korean conflict, and they also achieved tactical surprise against Vietnam in 1979 when they invaded and no one expected it. They made that invasion just to teach Vietnam a lesson.

Q: Of course, they lost more people in about three weeks than we did in 12 years of fighting in Vietnam. But they probably figured they had some bodies to spare.

Here's the inevitable question. You have been talking and writing about the China threat along with Steven Mosher. Bill Gertz has been waving flags about this. In the wake of the Parameters piece, does this kind of put a stamp of legitimacy on our concerns, or some kind of government imprimatur on it where maybe, finally, the Department of Defense is going to start beefing up and focusing on China?

A: I think that is already beginning to happen. You see the administration announcing a shift in prepositioned stores from Europe to Asia. Although really what they meant was to Diego Garcia, which is about as far from the Middle East as western Europe is from the Middle East -- kind of in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Clearly, they've said Asia is where the focus of the future is. The Parameters piece is a step in the right direction. However, it does not represent official U.S. policy.

Q: What does it represent?

A: What it represents is a professor of national security's view, one person's view, that we are blowing it on our China policy, and we need to practice, to war game what it is we will do in the event -- and he thinks it is likely -- that China may attack Taiwan.

Q: Here's my "what if": It is increasingly likely that probably sometime in the not-too-distant future, the U.S. is going to get sucked into "something" in the Mideast. We can't do today what we did in 1991. We don't have the resources; we don't have the equipment and personnel; and we probably couldn't put that kind of allied coalition together again. If we get involved in anything in the Mideast, anywhere in the sand and mountains at all, while we are engaged there the Chinese may say, "Hey, it's time to take Taiwan back."

A: Right.

Q: What can we do except itch and moan about it?

A: I think it's even more troubling than that. Regardless of whether we are involved ... and believe me, crises come up enough in the world that involve our attention that the Chinese don't even have to orchestrate or cause it or work with friends like the Iraqis to cause it. One will happen. But let's assume that one isn't even going on. I think that the fact we still don't have missile defense in place is the Chinese trump card. The Washington Times just announced that the Dong Feng (East Wind) 31 Missile will be in operation by the end of the year.

Q: That's their mobile ICBM.

A: It's a road-mobile ICBM that can reach the West Coast. We feature that missile in the book merely to point out that the Chinese are developing a survivable deterrent and that all they have to do is what the general warned us about in 1995. That general who warned us is now the No. 1 uniformed military officer in China, Chi Haotian. He warned us by saying, in effect, "Hey, I don't think the United States is prepared to exchange Los Angeles for Taiwan." Obviously, that threat is that if we do so much as lift a finger on behalf of Taiwan in a military conflict, China may decide to throw a nuclear weapon at the United States. Yeah, we can retaliate massively, but what if the Chinese made that threat publicly so that our representatives in Congress and the American people would say, "Hey, Mr. President, don't intervene. We rather value our existence here in California or Washington or Oregon."

Q: Unfortunately, that cuts two ways. Number one, we have 2,500 nukes pointed at their 22, and secondly, from the current administration's perspective -- although they would never articulate this publicly -- California doesn't do jack for Republicans anyway.

A: Cold, but not untrue.

Q: I noticed in the Russell piece he started out with a quote from an old, dead Asian guy: "Attack when they are unprepared. Make your move when they do not expect it. ... So a military force is established by deception, mobilized by gain and adapted by division and combination."

A: Right. Sun Tzu, "The Art of War." I quote Sun Tzu quite a bit in "China Attacks," and of course, he is very carefully studied in China. One of his No. 1 tenets is, "All warfare is deception." The Parameters piece asserts that China has the capability to attack, which is the same case Steven Mosher and I make in "China Attacks." It might be good for readers to hear why they would want to in the first place. You hear a lot of folks say, "Why would China kill the goose that laid the golden egg?" They're trading with the United States; they're making all this money; and their economy is expanding 8 to 10 percent per year.

Q: I received a whole bunch of e-mail after my column about China recently in which people said the same thing in different ways: "Why would they do something like that?"

A: Let's tell your readers why they would. Number one, they say they are going to. And it's always good to listen to these folks, because they gave us similar warnings before they attacked in Korea. What they are warning us today is that they will never allow China to be divided. What is important about that is Taiwan is now a democratic state with a freely elected president. That president happens to be an individual who is a native of Taiwan. He was not born in China. In fact, he is part of the ethnic group that is from Taiwan. And there is going to be a very important legislative election in Taiwan on Dec. 1 of this year. Currently, the old KMT Party holds the majority in the legislature in Taiwan. Many people are predicting that President Chen, the current president of Taiwan, will have a working coalition of people who believe "Taiwan First" and believe they have built something very special with the very first-in-history Chinese democracy.

Q: Yeah, but at the same time they are trying to "make nice" with the Chicoms.

A: Over economics. What they are trying to do is hold out a carrot and say, "Hey, look. We'll still invest in you and we'll still trade if you let us have our separate identity and let us have our democracy." And what's interesting is the Chinese communists have rejected that. A lot of analysts were very shocked when Beijing rejected out of hand this very bold proposal that came from Taiwan just recently.

Q: OK. Moving beyond the reason that they told us they are going to do it, what about some of the structural problems in China?

A: There are currently 100 million unemployed people in China. They represent a very restive and explosive group of people in China who are increasingly given to riots and disorder. They are completely disillusioned with the Communist Party. They believe the Communist Party in China only stands up for the wealthy and powerful and they do not stand up for the poor and downtrodden, which is, of course, true. Number two, in China today there is the largest disparity between rich and poor of any nation in Asia. And this just breeds this seething resentment. You are reading about increasing numbers of riots, people who are torching Communist Party officials' homes out in the countryside, running them out of town on a rail, as it were. The government increasingly has to crack down and get violent with its own citizens to maintain order.

Q: But the Chinese government has been successful in doing that for a long, long time.

A: They have been. But things are getting more and more out of control. A year ago last August, the province that Mao took his revolution to when he was on the run had a revolt of 25,000 farmers that took over 15 days to get under control. That's pretty significant. Now you add that to the fact that they have bad loans in their economy, bad debt totaling about 40 percent of their GNP. And that bad debt is going to be very hard to hide any longer.

Q: Why?

A: What's happening is kind of ironic. With the World Trade Organization membership pending and increasing pressure on China to open up and be more transparent in their financial dealings, they are not going to be able to hide a lot of this debt that these state-run or state-owned corporations keep accumulating. Eventually, they are going to have to pay it off. And a debt equal to 40 percent of your GNP is pretty bad. The one thing that all the Chinese can agree upon, even the starving masses, is nationalism. They can agree that China has been attacked and picked on by the European powers for hundreds of years and that prior to that, they were the No. 1 country on the planet going back over 2,000 years. They have a very proud history.

Q: They are far more aware of slights, real or perceived, than we are.

A: Absolutely. For example, the British burned the Summer Palace 150 years ago or so. Of course, the British burned our White House, too, but we still don't hold it against them. China still holds that against the British. They have these historical grievances that they'd like to get even. Well, one of the ways you get even is by making your country whole again by launching this campaign to bring back this wayward province (Taiwan). And if they do that, by the way, it eliminates a source of hope and inspiration for the Chinese people, because they see Taiwan, they see how vibrant their economy is, how vibrant their democracy is, and they wonder, "Why can't we do that, too?"

Q: It was easier when Chiang Kai-shek was running the show.

A: Yes. Then the Chinese communists could say, "Well, he's corrupt and he's a dictator, and he's certainly no better than us." Things are different now. You have a viable democracy with freedom of speech and freedom of religion in Taiwan today. And the Chinese people know that. The Chinese Communist Party, I don't think, can keep a lid on it much longer.

Q: I'm amazed they have been able to maintain this fiction that it is "one China." Clinton helped them by acknowledging it as fact out loud for God and everybody to hear. He said it was "one China" -- there's just some little internal misunderstanding, kind of like that annoying little misunderstanding we had around 1865 between the North and the South.

A: Throughout history there have been many Chinas. China has been wracked by civil war and dissention on and off for its entire history. In fact, the greater part of Sun Tzu's book is about the warring-states period, where there were four or five competing kingdoms in what is today's China. Of course, during the brief periods of time when China was united, it was an awe-inspiring sight. It was, in fact, the No. 1 nation on the planet as far as economic power, military power and land surface area. So when China gets its act together, it is a tremendous power.

Q: But that's a big honking "if." How much does ego really mitigate what they are going to try to do? The reality is the U.S. right now is faced with a military capacity that is at a newfound low point. We may be in worse shape than we have ever been since the end of the World War I.

A: Yes.

Q: But the reality is if China threw the flag up today, we'd still kick their butt.

A: If we had the will to do it. I think that the key issue is that our enemies are famous for miscalculating America's will to fight. Look at the Japanese and the attack on Pearl Harbor. That obviously ended very badly for them four years later. But the point of that is that they made the miscalculation. Today, America's enemies look at what happened in Somalia. They look at the relatively pain-free victory that we enjoyed in the Gulf War. And they look at how we conducted ourselves in the Balkans and still do today, and they draw the conclusion that America today will not accept casualties of any kind. I think that is a false assumption. I think that if the American public is roused to fight over something it cares about, our capacity to absorb casualties far exceeds what any of our enemies could ever imagine or what we ourselves probably ever imagine, too.

Q: I often note the dissimilarities between perception and reality, form and substance.

A: The problem is not with our will to fight, but the perception. In other words, China may perceive that they can simply threaten us with nuclear weapons and we wouldn't do anything. So they'll probably try to start something, and they'll probably try to start something very soon. The whole point of the Parameters piece that Professor Russell is making is that we need to prepare; we need to practice; we need to game plan what would happen if we woke up tomorrow and found that China had already successfully pulled off its first assault wave and was already halfway to conquering Taiwan. What would we do?

Q: You mentioned earlier that China has 100 million unemployed, and farmers are rioting. Despite the Draconian steel fist of government, the natives are restless. What are some of the various internal divisions we never hear about?

A: There is a significant division within the core of China. What we would consider the south is heavily urbanized and industrialized and very wealthy. Then there's the kind of rust belt of China up in the north. The northerners speak Mandarin. The southerners speak with a different accent. They are almost unintelligible to each other.

Q: Kind of like our north and south?

A: Worse than that. I mean, they share a common written language, but the spoken language is very different. The sad truth about the Turkmen and Tibet and Taiwan is that you throw all of those people together, and they are just a drop in the ocean as far as population compared to the core of the Han Chinese. But even within the Han Chinese, there are tremendous divisions between north and south and between rich and poor and between coastal and interior. And these are the divisions that historically have split China asunder. This is why I believe China is becoming more of a threat now, because if you start a war, you can crack down even more and justify it as a war measure.

Q: We have done it in this country from the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1790 to the Smith Act of 1940 and the Internal Security Act of 1950.

A: Absolutely. Every time there is a war, our own liberties suffer. Imagine how much more they suffer in a communist dictatorship. Ever since Tiananmen Square, there has been a very subtle yet very all-pervasive shift in the Chinese communist educational system. They've shifted from teaching the young people about basically Communism uber alles to basically China uber alles. The type of education they are giving the young people is "China Right or Wrong." "Your goal or your destiny is to be part of this great country." So what's happened is they've had some 12 years since Tiananmen Square to recover and retake their children. And what they've retaken them with is not communism but nationalism. If you read what the speeches of the Chinese leaders are and you lay these speeches, these translated documents, side by side with translated documents of Hitler's speeches, you would be chilled with the similarities in the argument -- China as a master race and China's great destiny to rise up and make right the wrongs forced on China by the European powers.

Q: And hegemon.

A: Absolutely. That's part of their doctrine, part of what they believe in -- hegemon. What that means is that they believe that the natural order of the universe is that there must be one nation that leads the whole show and that historically and righteously, China is that nation.

Q: Russia and China are supposedly partners again, kinda sorta. Some folks have asked if maybe Russia chose the wrong side. China potentially could take Russia by sheer size of its military. Russia has to recognize the potential danger of giving the scorpion a ride across the pond. What would be the obstacle to prevent China from turning on Russia like their old pal Hitler did?

A: Exactly the point. Although what's interesting is if you look at the Chinese and Russian cooperation, it is very similar to the cooperation that Russia had with Germany, both before and during Hitler. Gen. Hans von Seeckt, the creator of the modern German army in the 1920s, conducted massive secret maneuvers on the steps of Russia completely secret from Western prying eyes. That's where they developed Blitzkrieg. It's where they developed the airborne concept. They worked with the Russians before turning on them. What's interesting about that is that the Chinese purchases of Russian hardware today, which amount to between $2 billion and $4 billion a year, are the hard currency that is keeping alive the Russian industrial complex.

Q: And without those Chinese billions of dollars?

A: If it weren't for that money, Russia's military industrial complex would have collapsed. What's interesting is the Russians are turning out new aircraft after new aircraft after new aircraft type, new tank after new tank type. They've got some new tanks now that some analysts consider to be equal to or better than our M-1. They are doing some amazing things. China, of course, is getting the benefit of Russia's very practical and very ingenious military development. It's an interesting alliance, but I think it truly is a marriage of convenience.

Q: So you think Russia is aiding and abetting a potential future enemy for basic sustenance and the right-now buck?

A: I think that what Russia is hoping is that by feeding the alligator, the alligator is going to go off and eat someone else first. The other thing is, of course, they are still harboring resentments that they lost the Cold War. This is a good way to kind of unite with a nation in sort of an anti-U.S. alliance and keep the U.S. from being the unchallenged No. 1 power.

Q: Do you anticipate at some point in the next decade when China (according to the old War College estimates I've seen) around 2011-2014 -- in that window -- if we didn't do something in the meantime, China would be militarily ready to take us on? At that point, do you see Russia dealing the Chinese out and siding with us?

A: I think that may be inevitable. But the other thing you have to realize is that Russian political life is exceptionally corrupt, as is Chinese political life. The Chinese just recently offered to rent or lease vast tracts of land in Siberia because the Russians wouldn't sell it to them outright. I could see the Russians agreeing to lease or rent farmland along the Amur River and things like that. You have an area the size of the United States in land mass that only 20 million Russians live in, right up next to 1.3 billion Chinese. So if that's rented or leased, imagine where the money is going to go.

Q: Is Rumsfeld going to succeed? I recently saw a piece in which he said he was going to fight for "every nickel" of the $343 billion in military spending. One of the concerns is the economy is soft and all that politics "stuff" gets in the way. Frankly, we need a whole lot of money, honey, to fix defense.

A: Right. I was back in D.C. a short while back at a defense spending conference, and the mood there was not very optimistic. Basically, all of the speakers -- and these were people who were uniformed officers and many folks who were holdovers from the Clinton administration, not political appointees but the bureaucratic permanent fixtures -- were saying because of the tax cut, of course, we're not going to have the money. Now, none of them pointed out that the economy slowing down is taking a bigger bite out of the budget than the tax cut did. But be that as it may, I don't see a tremendous amount of political willpower right now to spend what is needed to fix some of these problems. We did get an $18 billion supplemental. It did go to improving readiness, buying spare parts, a pay raise -- some very needed things.

Q: What was the reaction to your book "China Attacks" in Taiwan?

A: There was a big reaction. It was paid serious attention to by the Taiwanese War College and Taiwanese lawmakers. When I was in Taiwan in May, I was on eight different TV stations and a radio station, Radio Free Asia.

Q: What can we, the American people, do?

A: I think there is a lot we can do. When you go shopping as an individual, try hard not to buy goods made in China. It is very difficult, but if you spend a few extra minutes you can actually do that. While our government needs to keep lecturing China about human rights, that has little effect. What will have an effect is if we have government policies that encourage capital, instead of flowing to China for low-cost labor, flowing to a country like India. Now India is far from perfect, but it is a democracy, and the labor is just as cheap if not cheaper than China's labor. And by the way, China greatly fears India. So anything that we do to build up India's economy helps us.

Stay politically active and aware. Listen to programs like the Geoff Metcalf Program. Write your congressman. Don't give up! If we thought that way about the Soviet Union, they would have won. But the fact is we were encouraged; we stuck to the task. Ronald Reagan inspired us, and we won the Cold War. Similarly with China, we can win, and one of the best ways we can win is by supporting Taiwan.

Q: One key factor that a lot of people overlook: We won the Cold War not with bullets and infantrymen, rather, we outspent them. The Soviet Union took a knife to a gunfight of the arms race, and we flat-out outspent their capacity to respond.

A: That's part of it, but they also had a bankruptcy of ideals. When Ronald Reagan called them an "evil empire," it was so true and outrageous that even though our liberals wailed and gnashed their teeth, the Soviet propagandists didn't know what to do with it, because it was so right. They were stunned. And the Soviet people were like, "You know, you're right! We are an evil empire." It kind of took the heart out of their fight. Similarly, with China, their Achilles' heel is Taiwan. The Chinese have said that democracy is an alien Western value.

Q: So how come it's working so well in Taiwan?

A: It's working in Taiwan, a nation of 24 million people. They've got democracy, and they've got freedom. And China can have it too if they abandon the Chinese Communist Party. That is why China is so terribly threatened and terrified about Taiwan, because Taiwan proves that the Chinese Communist Party is nothing but a big lie.

Q: So why doesn't big China suck up little China and use Taiwan as the model? They may not want to admit communism is a failure, but they know it is.

A: The problem if they do that is if there was some kind of accommodation, the Chinese Communist Party would lose its monopoly. And all these princes and all these sons and daughters of the people who are now in power who are getting fabulously wealthy, they'd lose their positions of prominence. It is not to their advantage. These folks are living very high on the hog right now. They are very much enjoying life, and they don't want to see it stop. They are in a bit of a dilemma right now. On one hand, a war might be very threatening. On the other hand, there are a lot of things going on in China that would contribute to instability. The one way you can keep everything together is by unifying and by rallying everybody behind the flag. Let us not forget what Argentina did in 1982.

Q: They attacked the Falkland Islands.

A: No one predicted that, but the reason they did was the generals were desperate. The Chinese might do the same thing.