Former Secretary of Defense Harold Brown on the US-China Relationship – Part 3 of an Exclusive Interview
Harold Brown was the 14th US Secretary of Defense (1977-1981) during the Carter administration, and the author of Star Spangled Security: Applying Lessons Learned over Six Decades Safeguarding America. He also served in the Johnson administration as Director of Defense Research and Engineering (1961-1965) and Secretary of the Air Force (1965-1969). In 1980, Secretary Brown became the first American Secretary of Defense to visit the People’s Republic of China.
Lei Guang, Director of the 21st Century China Program; Jude Blanchette, Assistant Director of the 21st Century China Program; and Jack Zhang, Senior Advisor of China Focus, sat down with Secretary Brown for an exclusive, wide-ranging interview about his thoughts on China and the US-China relationship, from its early days to the present time. This is the final part of a three-part interview.
What’s your assessment of the rising Chinese military capability?
I think that balance is shifting, and shifting adversely for the US.
China’s military capabilities are substantial. It’s true that China is probably not spending as much money as the U.S. is on the military, but the U.S. efforts on the military side are global in scope and sometimes wasteful. For example, the U.S. efforts in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf do not contribute to our military capabilities vis-à-vis China. And so, if you look at the potential of a military confrontation between China and the U.S., China may be spending more on preparing for such a conflict than we are. Of course there is the question of how efficient those expenditures are. Theirs may be diluted by corruption, and ours by politics.
Clearly there is a lot of corruption in China. Xi Jinping is very concerned about this. But on the U.S. side, politically motivated misallocation of resources exists. Not that our military steals money or even that our members of Congress steal money. But members of Congress often insist on wasting money to take care of their districts and their political futures.
In terms of the Pacific theater, China is spending more, and it is catching up in many ways. It is strategically doing better than we are in some areas. They have really concentrated in undercutting US military capability in the Western Pacific and pushed out the geographical limits of their capability where they can threaten or perhaps dominate vis-à-vis the United States – whether we are talking about Taiwan, their ability to target Guam with conventionally armed ballistic missiles, or their terminal guidance activities that may allow them to target US carrier forces. I think that balance is shifting, and shifting adversely for the US.
That is not to say the US can’t manage things, at the moment. I think that in submarine warfare we are probably still substantially ahead and in tactical aircraft we are surely still ahead. But when it comes to ballistic missiles, I think the Chinese are doing very well. So I think that, militarily, the US is going to have to pay a lot more attention to be able to counter Chinese capabilities. And we have to accept that, in the long run, the balance is going to have to shift geographically in China’s favor for some time. How far out that geographical boundary goes is not clear. It remains to be seen whether the U.S. or China can come up with a different way of looking at things that makes the first or the second island chain less relevant than it is now.
To take as an example, the U.S. is much more vulnerable to anti-satellite activity than China is, not because China is better at it, but because the US depends much more on its satellite capability for communication, command and control, intelligence, and lots of other things. We have hitherto assumed that space will be a realm of peace simply because a lot of people have said that that’s how it ought to be. But China is actually concentrated on being able to negate US satellite capability, and with it a lot of what we depend on.
Should we be concerned about the rise in Chinese military capability?
It’s inevitable, so being concerned is not an answer. You have to decide how you deal with it.
How can we not be concerned? It’s inevitable, so being concerned is not an answer. You have to decide how you deal with it. And you have to deal with it in a variety of ways. You have to build military capabilities to counter it. At the same time, you try to find some political accommodation acceptable to both sides and limit arms on both sides. You have to encourage China’s neighbors to increase their own military capabilities while at the same time discourage them from provoking conflicts between us and the Chinese that might lead to war.
Will we be able to do it? I don’t know. But I don’t think that the US can concede East Asia to Chinese dominance: military, political, or economic. Now if their system turns out to be economically more successful than ours, there’s not much we can do about the rest. That’s a separate question, but an important one. At the moment, they seem to be growing their economy pretty fast. But on the other hand, it’s easier to catch up with an economic leader than to take the lead because you can learn from the leader’s mistakes while you are behind. It’s a lot harder to continue to lead after you are already equal.
I wanted to bring up the F-35, which has been the focus of defense R&D and spending for a decade or so. What’s your view on that? Is the cost justified by the benefits it provides in terms of power projection?
So I think that aircraft is the most wasteful expenditure of funds in strategic terms in the defense budget.
The F-35, as someone earlier today was showing me, has a cost that exceeds the combined cost of the next eight largest programs. So far as the Pacific theater is concerned, its range is so short that it requires multiple refuelings, which essentially undercuts its capability, as the bases are all within range of the Chinese medium-range missiles.
It’s a cost ineffective weapon for use in the Pacific theater simply because it is under the gun and it has a short range. My view is that it’s partly the result of a series of Air Force chiefs who came out of tactical air command with the misguided belief that we will always have forward bases from which we can fly them. We will have them, but they may be wrecked. Now there are ways to mitigate this – you can have rapid runway repair, you can fly them in and out so that you don’t have too many at a forward base at any one time – but all of that greatly reduces their efficiency and effectiveness. So what you really want is a long-range bomber for this purpose, but that’s going to take another ten years. So I think that aircraft is the most wasteful expenditure of funds in strategic terms in the defense budget.
Can the U.S. and China reach some kind of agreement? Didn’t the U.S. and the Soviets manage to agree about space contest, and they even signed treaties to that effect?
We need to restore a strategic vision to the U.S.-China relationship.
Yes, but China is not a signatory to those treaties. The US and the Soviets have agreed not to have medium-range ballistic missiles – although the Soviets now seem to be trying to cheat on that – but the Chinese aren’t a signatory, so they have concentrated on developing their capability in that area. The U.S. bases in the Pacific are accordingly threatened by the Chinese capability, which our treaty with the Soviets prevents us from imitating. Now I’m not saying that’s the only way we can do it, or the best way, but it’s a significant way and we are barred because we were looking at something else.
In 1979 and 1980, then-Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and the State Department people were saying that we should not deal with the Chinese in a way that would threaten our relations with the Soviets. Now I suppose people would say, let’s not upset our relations with the Soviets because we need to deal with the Chinese. This is an example of a U.S. tendency to focus on one thing or one place, one adversary or potential adversary at a time, rather than looking at the complete picture. We need to restore a strategic vision to the U.S.-China relationship.