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A former defense official warns about China's military power


Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived here a short time ago to pursue a U.S. goal - managing competition with China. A U.S. official says that means confronting China on some issues while working together on others. Blinken is traveling during an American election year, and Republicans back home are debating what they would do differently.

A Republican congressman and a former Trump administration official wrote an article saying the U.S. should push for a regime change in China. Another former Trump administration official says that's a disastrous idea. But Elbridge Colby, who was deputy assistant secretary of defense, is warning about China's military power.

ELBRIDGE COLBY: The Chinese navy is larger than the U.S. Navy. The Chinese air force is on track to being larger than the U.S. Air Force.

INSKEEP: Much of that force is near Taiwan, which China claims as its own. Republican Elbridge Colby says it's fine to talk with China while also pressuring China, which the Biden administration is doing. He does worry, though, about a side effect of the pressure, provoking a war the U.S. isn't ready for.

COLBY: The Biden administration's approach is very focused on long-term strategic competition, some degree of focus on the military challenge from China, but really, as you can see by their, you know, effective prioritization of Ukraine and now the activities in the Middle East, a lot less of an emphasis on building up our military in the Pacific to match China's extraordinary awing military buildup focused on the Western Pacific. The way I think of the Biden administration's policy on China is it really presumes that there is no war in this decade.

You know, meantime, the Biden administration - by its own admission, the intelligence community's assessment is that Xi Jinping has instructed the PLA to be ready for an attack on Taiwan by 2027. President Biden himself has said that we would come to Taiwan's defense four times. The situation is now that much closer to the iceberg, is the way I think about it. So that's really a key difference, I think.

INSKEEP: If you were advising the president, would you say you should assume a war within the next decade?

COLBY: Yes. I think you - the only prudent assumption is to plan for the very, very, very real possibility of war. Here's how I think about it, Steve. Anybody who's telling you they know what Xi Jinping is thinking - and that includes Avril Haines or Bill Burns - you can't take them seriously about that point.

INSKEEP: Granting that you want to be ready for anything, the Chinese government has said again and again and again, we don't want war. What we want is the status quo, and we want ultimately...

COLBY: No, no, no.

INSKEEP: ...To get Taiwan.

COLBY: That's actually not what they've said.

INSKEEP: Go for it.

COLBY: They've specifically reserved the right to use military force.


COLBY: They've expressed a preference for peaceful resolution. But Xi Jinping, specifically, when Biden said - Xi Jinping introduced apparently in Northern California that the Taiwan issue is the most dangerous issue in Sino-American relations. President Biden said, OK, but it needs to be resolved peacefully. Apparently, Xi Jinping - and this is from what the White House said - peace is well and good, but this needs to be resolved.

INSKEEP: The United States, of course, is trying to prevent China from advancing economically in a way that would add to their military power. That's the purpose of a lot of these sanctions and other moves. Is the United States provoking China or moving up to the edge of provoking China by taking those steps?

COLBY: Well, it's interesting you put it that way because that's the way China sees it. That's not - we say that we're not trying to hold down their economic growth. But of course, Xi Jinping and most Chinese I've heard from do believe that we're trying to inhibit their future economic growth. Unfortunately, whatever we say, what Xi Jinping is saying is that the United States and its allies are trying to strangle China.

INSKEEP: How would you evaluate the Biden administration's effort to work with, deal with China, at the same time the United States confronts China where necessary?

COLBY: Well, I mean, look, I actually think, you know, talking to the Chinese is good. The problem with the Biden administration is I think the Chinese appear to ascertain that we, in a sense, are kind of talking out of both sides of our mouth, that a lot of our measures and the trajectory of our policy are headed in this one direction. So as much as we may try to allay their concerns in Beijing, they can observe what's going on overall.

I'm not faulting our system for moving in that direction. I think there's a sense in the Biden administration that we can open channels with China, that we can convince them that this is a managed competition. And my problem is that, according to Lingling Wei of The Wall Street Journal, Xi Jinping appears to regard the United States as an existential enemy. I don't think he should. I don't think we should view China as an existential enemy, but they appear to be in that mindset and that we're strangling them.

INSKEEP: Is part of the challenge here that the United States is concerned about China for some of the same reasons that it likes China? A simple example that comes to mind is solar panels. The United States doesn't want China to flood the solar panel market in the United States. And at the same time, we sure would like cheap renewable energy.

COLBY: Yeah, I think there's something to that. I mean, I think the reason I'm so concerned about China is because I have such admiration for China, because it's extraordinary how much it's developed over the last 40 or 50 years in particular and the extraordinary economic and industrial and technological achievements that they've made. But that also gives them tremendous power, and that power needs to be balanced and checked.

INSKEEP: Elbridge Colby, it's a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.

COLBY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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