Military expert John Culver on Chinese spy balloon fallout — “Intelligence Matters”

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In this episode of “Intelligence Matters,” host Michael Morell speaks with former senior CIA analyst and national intelligence officer for East Asia John Culver about the rippling implications of the Chinese surveillance balloon shot down over U.S. territory. Culver and Morell discuss Beijing’s possible intentions behind deploying the balloon, as well as the potential information it — and other Chinese surveillance efforts — may have targeted. They also discuss the ways in which heightened tensions between Washington and Beijing could raise the risks of conflict over Taiwan.

Highlights: 

  • China’s possible rationale: “[T]he U.S. flies a lot of intelligence collection on China’s periphery, especially off their east coast. We don’t violate the 12-mile limit. We strictly abide by international law. But it’s long been a sore point and they had no means to reciprocate. So I wonder if the idea about sending high altitude balloons over the United States wasn’t in and of itself something that would have been attractive to them. They’ve always had a desire to be able to strike back, not in a kinetic sense, but to conduct surveillance and then see how we feel about it.”
  • Heightened U.S.-China tensions: “I think the atmosphere has degraded to the point where we could have a crisis at any point. And I think the balloon incident over the last week or so has really underscored the nature of the political environment for a major crisis with China. You know, you had the kind of resonance with the U.S. public, with U.S. Congress that I don’t recall that we had in earlier incidents involving China. It’s become, in some ways a domestic political issue in the United States. And I think the Biden administration seems especially, you know, sensitive to the idea that it cannot be soft on China.” 
  • Possibility of nuclear conflict: “China is a very capable nuclear power. They’ve probably got around 200 nuclear warheads that can target the U.S. today. And they’re building out toward about 1,500 over the next 12 years or so. So very credible, large-scale nuclear capability. I don’t think they plan to wage nuclear war. They’re not suicidal. But it’s the kind of calculus that really no president has ever had to sort of present to the American people.” 

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Intelligence Matters transcript – John Culver

Producer: Olivia Gazis 

MICHAEL MORELL: John, welcome back to Intelligence Matters. It’s great to have you on the show again.

JOHN CULVER: It’s great to be on here. And I suspect I know what you’re going to ask me.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, John, as you know, we wanted to spend the entire time talking about China, Taiwan. And I do want to get to that since there’s so much discussion about it. But obviously, there’s great focus last week and this week on the Chinese reconnaissance balloon and maybe balloons. We still don’t know yet if the additional ones over the weekend that were shot down were Chinese or not.

But I’d love to ask you just a couple of questions about the balloons. One is that the White House today – today being Monday, this will run on Wednesday – but the White House today said that they didn’t think that the Chinese were gaining much additional intelligence here compared to what their spy satellites were capable of producing.

And I just wonder what your reaction to that is. Is it too early to come to that conclusion since we haven’t actually seen what they’ve collected yet? How do you think about that question?

JOHN CULVER: Well, yeah, I think it might be a little too confident at this stage, but I don’t – I was not a balloon expert until last week. And so, you know, I’m still not a balloon expert but at least I’m conversant on this particular topic.

Until we finish exploiting the recovered parts that were being picked out of the Atlantic and any other material they get from the other three – whatever they were – shot down over the weekend, I think it’s a little premature. Maybe he was informed. I think it also presumes a lot about what we may or may not know about Chinese satellite collection. And I wonder if our former colleagues are now scrubbing their assessment about the proficiency of Chinese satellite collect.

But I think there’s also – we have to consider non-intelligence related reasons for doing this. I mean, it could have intelligence benefits, but there’s also a political dynamic, always, with China. And from their perspective – and I’m not defending their perspective, but I’ll just tell you what I think it is – the U.S. flies a lot of intelligence collection on China’s periphery, especially off their east coast. We don’t violate the 12-mile limit. We strictly abide by international law. But it’s long been a sore point and they had no means to reciprocate.

So I wonder if the idea about sending high-altitude balloons over the United States wasn’t in and of itself something that would have been attractive to them. They’ve always had a desire to be able to strike back, not in a kinetic sense, but to conduct surveillance and then see how we feel about it.

They don’t have aircraft, you know, they could fly nonstop and surveil our coast the way we do, and they don’t have bases in the Western Hemisphere.

So this is an interesting option. I also wonder if we’re too focused on what this balloon may or may not have collected – and maybe we come back to this – is what could be the wartime potential of China’s ability to conduct high-altitude balloon operations, particularly at scale.

MICHAEL MORELL: John, when you talked about the U.S. government exploiting the debris to learn more, in your experience, roughly how long will that take? JOHN CULVER: I’m trying to think of anything similar. It’s going to be looked at hard, first by, it sounds like, the FBI – and I don’t know that they have great experts on signals, but, sure, and then probably be turned over to the requisite authorities across the DOD services and intelligence community. I wouldn’t expect them to have anything definitive for, you know, weeks and perhaps even a matter of several months.

MICHAEL MORELL: John, in terms of the Chinese President Xi, would he have knowledge of this program? Would he have approved this program? Would he approve individual flights? What’s your sense on that?

JOHN CULVER: Well, again, I mean, instant balloon expert. But it appears now the Chinese were doing these since at least 2018, although sometimes the U.S., usually unnamed officials, say it’s been going on for five years, but at least since 2018 and until two weeks ago or, really, just last weekend there had been no public reaction by the United States. I have no idea if we privately demarched them.

But in a way, let’s assume we hadn’t, then they’ve been getting away with it. And so either they decided that doing this directly over the central part of the U.S. would have been no big deal because we wouldn’t see it. Or it was worth it, for either intelligence or political reasons.

And typically, Xi Jinping would have approved the program. He’s chairman of the Central Military Commission. This thing has a budget. They would have approved the existence of the program. They would have approved especially early flights. He would have been privy, if not interested, I don’t know, about anything gleaned from these activities.

And so it’s, to me, it’s less likely that he would have been personally briefed or had personal approval authority over the individual flight that we shot down over the Atlantic a few days ago.

MICHAEL MORELL: And then last question, John, on the balloons, any risks here that people should be concerned about – risk of escalation, how the Chinese are likely to respond to our shooting down one of the balloons. How do you think about that?

JOHN CULVER: I think, somewhat perversely, the fact that China’s flying balloons over the United States for reasons I mentioned earlier is probably popular in China; although I’ve seen that they are censoring the U.S. accounts of this as an espionage platform and are sticking with their story and compelling their Internet to stick to the story that it was weather balloon, and then taking kind of a high, you know, high-profile view that it is the US who conducted a violent act against a peaceful balloon.

Well, you know, that’s all a little silly and probably primarily for domestic consumption. I don’t, I think by now if they were going to escalate, if Xi Jinping had allowed that, we would have heard about Chinese reactions, aggressive reactions against U.S. reconnaissance flights off their coast, which happen pretty regularly, I would, you know, think several times a week.

So if there was some kind of direct heel-to-toe response, we, I think, we’d already know it, although I’m not in government and I’m not sure.

So I think it’s going to be more subtle than that. I saw today that the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs made a counter-accusation that the U.S. has flown ten balloons over China. And I don’t put a lot of weight in that. I mean, where would we have launched from? You know, the prevailing winds are going to carry everything west.

So either we would have launched from the U.S. and circumnavigated the globe, almost, or we would have had, you know, accomplices in the central republics or India, I suppose. So I think that’s also for domestic consumption.

MICHAEL MORELL: Okay, John, thank you for that. Let’s turn to what we were planning to talk about, which is China-Taiwan. And let me ask the first question here. What is China’s long-term objective regarding Taiwan and what is its approach today to achieving that objective?

JOHN CULVER: Officially, their objective is and always has been something they call reunification. You know, their view is that Taiwan, prior to Japan taking control over Taiwan as a colonial possession in 1895, has always been a part of China and is still a part of China.

At a more practical level, their approach has been to move toward either peaceful reunification through improved economic people-to-people and political ties across the strait, and then have a coercive capacity in the form of threatened PLA action, People’s Liberation Army, military action in the event that Taiwan permanently moves toward separation, toward political independence.

Taiwan has not done that. So we’re kind of been sitting in the status quo now for, well, since 1949. And the last time military force was attempted by the Chinese was around 1958. So, you know, decades.

And so there’s, as you can imagine and no doubt and have seen, there’s sort of an active debate in the U.S. analytic community about whether China has changed its position and is now shifting toward accelerated moves toward unification, including the use of military force, or if things are basically the same as they have always been. That is, China reserves the right to use military force but hasn’t done so and probably wouldn’t do so unless Taiwan moves toward permanent independence.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, John, what is your view on that debate? Where do you fall?

JOHN CULVER: I think that we’re closer to war than we’ve been. So it isn’t this static situation that hasn’t been affected by five years of intensified U.S.-China rivalry.

The modernization of the Chinese military, which hasn’t been a crash modernization, but has been going on for, you know, 20 years and has certainly achieved capabilities that give us more cause for concern that they have an assurance or the capability to actually conduct compellence operations to try and resolve this by force.

I think Xi Jinping has had an impact on China’s attitude toward Taiwan, but I don’t think it is direct as, ‘Xi Jinping’s prepared to go to war on his own timeline within the next few years.’

My main concern is that the factors that create stability on the Taiwan Strait since we normalized relations with China in 1979, that, if you will, there are three pillars of stability and they’ve all eroded in the last five or six years.

So the first one is that military balance. Taiwan used to actually have a pretty big qualitative advantage over China. But the the rise of the People’s Liberation Army as a modern multi-service military force has really eclipsed that. And there’s there’s really no military balance on the strait between China and Taiwan, absent, you know, large-scale U.S. intervention.

The other pillar that’s eroded is that Taiwan is a vibrant democracy, that this isn’t a deal that can be cut between, you know, leaders in Taipei and those in Beijing without concern for the feelings of the Taiwan people. You know, Taiwan is an extremely robust, free, democratic entity. And the United States increasingly has had to concede that the people of Taiwan will have a say on this. It’s not going to be an agreement that can be reached either across the street through, you know, political back channels or, God forbid, the United States. I think it would be terrible for the U.S. to involve itself directly in this.

The third thing is that – you know, this is a little abstract. China is no longer a weak country. It’s got a generation of people who, their whole life, all they’ve known is a rising China. The image of a powerful People’s Liberation Army is reinforced in Chinese media every day. And the kind of control we used to see – like after the accidental NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgorod, the former Yugoslavia, in 1999, China was very angry. The U.S. admitted that it had committed a mistake and error. It resulted in the death of three Chinese citizens at their embassy in Belgorod. But they were frustrated that they couldn’t respond more proportionally.

Similarly, after one of their fighters collided with the U.S. reconnaissance aircraft over the South China Sea in 2001, the so-called EP-3 incident, they didn’t feel that they had the requisite political, military or diplomatic clout to respond more vigorously.

But China today is a strong country. I think domestic public opinion there, if there were similar slights or if there was a new crisis on the Taiwan Strait propelled by, say, a president elected after 2024 who’s more overtly pressing for permanent separation, then I think that China would be mindful of its own domestic opinion and there would be a greater compulsion to respond strongly to any provocation.

MICHAEL MORELL: John, can you imagine a situation where the Chinese respond aggressively to the point of of an invasion or a blockade of Taiwan if the U.S. made a significant policy change, if we changed our One China policy, if we changed our policy, strategic ambiguity, with regard to the conditions under which we would come to Taiwan’s defense. Could we trigger something here?

JOHN CULVER:I think the atmosphere has degraded to the point where we could have a crisis at any point. And I think the balloon incident over the last week or so has really underscored the nature of the political environment for a major crisis with China.

You know, you had the kind of resonance with the U.S. public, with U.S. Congress that I don’t recall that we had in earlier incidents involving China. It’s become, in some ways, a domestic political issue in the United States. And I think the Biden administration seems especially, you know, sensitive to the idea that it cannot be soft on China.

MICHAEL MORELL: Right.

JOHN CULVER: So you’ve seen adjustments in U.S. policy, but not without sort of breaking the standard rubrics you mentioned about strategic ambiguity or U.S. definition of commitment to One China. But that doesn’t mean that we aren’t changing things.

So we’ve expanded our arms sales to Taiwan and added a new capability to fund weapons sales through loans to Taiwan rather than their direct purchase, you know, cash on the barrelhead, which is what we’ve always done.

So I think it’s likely you’re going to have much larger weapons sales to Taiwan in a more compressed period. I also think that the visit by Speaker Pelosi last August and a prospective visit later this year by Speaker McCarthy are setting a kind of a new normal. And the Chinese are frustrated by that because they prefer to pretend that they don’t understand that Congress is a separate, co-equal branch of government, and they demand that the Biden administration somehow stop this. Well, I don’t think that’s feasible, likely or even the right move.

But it just sort of adds to this atmosphere where another incident like an EP-3 collision or some other, you know, incident involving our military forces in the South China Sea or of Taiwan, I think would escalate much more quickly and probably much more deeply than any crises that we usually refer to in our lexicon.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, John, if Xi were to take military action today for whatever reason, how confident, given the military balance, how confident could he be of victory and how much risk in his mind would he be taking at this point?

JOHN CULVER: Well, as you know, the People’s Liberation Army is a very large and increasingly modern force, but it’s also one that hasn’t actually engaged in combat on a large scale since 1979. So he has a very shiny toy, but he doesn’t know if it will actually work the way he intends.

So the riskier the operation – an invasion, certainly we’d be at the upper end of what I would consider a highly risky operation for any any military to undertake, let alone one that isn’t battle tested. And so I think that he would have to consider sort of the full spectrum of coercive and other pressure options and not maybe put all of the weight on the PLA to succeed in a single throw of the dice, you know, through an invasion. And certainly they have a lot of options.

Taiwan’s economy depends to a large extent on trade with China. Before the pandemic, there were 2 million Taiwanese living in the mainland, usually in all the factories in this pretty integrated economic relationship. And you had a million Chinese visitors to Taiwan every year before the pandemic.

So they can certainly, and have – the pandemic cut off tourism and travel pretty much. Trade continues to be robust. But China has a lot of options. You know, they could launch a blockade under different guises. You know, they could call it a quarantine to prevent delivery of U.S. arms. And they certainly have the means to enforce that kind of quarantine for a while. They have the largest Coast Guard in the world, also very modern. They have a large Chinese navy, which is building very rapidly, far more rapidly than we are. And the thing is, that would still be sort of a Rubicon crossing.

Once China uses lethal force or even threatened to use lethal force for the first time since 1958, we live in a new world. And you know, China, after watching Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, has to understand that China won’t be the only one using a stick, that they’re going to face deep economic sanctions led by the United States, in all likelihood, and probably with support from much of the rest of the developed world, as we have with Russia.

And I think then that the idea that they’re going to achieve peaceful reunification or patient is going to, you know, the last shreds of that will be lost. And so then Taiwan will suddenly be arraigned to defend itself in a way that they really haven’t up to this point.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, John, both – or I should say all three, right, China, the United States and Taiwan. And then I guess you could put out a fourth, our allies, you know, Japan, Australia. We’re all trying to build capabilities, right, with this fight in mind down the road.

Which way is the balance headed? Is it headed in China’s favor? Is it heading in our favor? How do you think about where the balance is today and where the trend lines are?

JOHN CULVER: The DOD reports to Congress, statements by the president and others underscore that China, now, today poses a really significant military threat not only to Taiwan, but also to our allies and, you know, at least U.S. Pacific forces. So they have been modernizing very steadily and very broadly, now, for quite a while with greater intensity since about 2009.

And they have a lot of material advantages, even if you consider that they have a combat force that hasn’t seen combat, as I said. And so I don’t know how it turns out. I don’t think they do. So that almost certainly imposes constraints.

They have a lot of inherent kinetic capability. So even if they can’t get an invasion across or they can’t reinforce it and get the follow-on forces they’d need to actually win the war through an invasion option. They have the ability to strike all of the U.S. bases in the western Pacific, all of our bases on Japan, Guam, northern Australia.

And so it would be – there’s no recent conflict, even the one in Ukraine, that you could really use to compare. It would be a maritime and air conflict with some involvement of ground forces over island seizure. And it would probably be a long war. Now, the problem that confronts for the United States is you’ve heard different senior U.S. officials, officers in the military usually, worrying that there could be a war by 2027.

MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah. Yeah.

JOHN CULVER: I think General Minihan just a couple of weeks ago worried that it could be even by 2024 because of Taiwan’s election cycle. The problem is, is that kind of, you know, near-term uncertainty makes our decisions about modernization harder rather than easier, because if you really believe there’s going to be a war in two or five years, then you’re not going to have time to build major platforms and really address some of the deeper implications of China’s massive shipbuilding and aircraft building.

You’re going to have to spend, really, all of your money in the next two or five years on munitions and infrastructure. You have to harden your forward bases in the Western Pacific. You won’t have time to build a lot of new ships because we have a very limited number of shipyards, especially compared to China, which produces 43% of the commercial shipping in the world, whereas we produce virtually 0% of the commercial shipping in the world.

So I hope I see coherence, especially out of the most senior parts of DOD and the administration, on exactly what the plan is. Because if we are really worried about near-term conflict, then the defense budget, currently, even with the increases we saw for the current fiscal year, they don’t really reflect that.

If you really think you’re in a fight, a war, with China within 2 to 5 years, you don’t have an $812 billion defense budget, you have about a trillion and a half dollar defense budget. So, you know, I pay less attention to generals and admirals on this point than I do the heads of intelligence, both the DNI and the director of CIA. And I like the way they frame it.

I think, you know, it feels correct to me that they’re saying Xi has not made a decision to use military force, but he certainly has told the PLA to be prepared to use military force at any time, which is what militaries do. They are situated and tasked with being ready to respond on order, just as our military is.

MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah. I wonder how much of what we hear sometimes from our military officials about more of a near-term fight is designed to win budget battles on the Hill, as opposed to what you hear from our intelligence leaders, which is, you know, the reasoned judgment of their analysts.

JOHN CULVER: And I think that talking to the troops – I think that they don’t want any kind of lackadaisical attitude. And there’s a term that was coined in Pacific Fleet after the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941, which is, I refer to it as a ‘fight tonight’ mentality, that the job of especially frontline commanders is to ensure that their forces, no matter what, how passive the geopolitical situation may appear, has to be prepared for any contingency.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, John, one of things I wanted to ask you is Taiwan’s ability to defend itself. I think you talked the last time you were on about the decline over time in Taiwan’s investment in its own defense. I think you talked last time a little bit about, it hasn’t bought the right weapons systems. And I’m wondering to what extent you see the folks on Taiwan changing course and moving in the right direction.

JOHN CULVER: President Tsai and senior officials under her and her national security are saying the right things. So they’ve announced recently that they’re going to return to one-year conscription instead of four months of conscription, and they’re going to improve the content of that training that young people get when they go in the Taiwan military for a year. And they’ve also announced the largest increase in their defense spending.

But it’s still, you know, even with the increase, it means they’re going to spend $19 billion a year, instead of $16 or $17 billion a year. So it’s not nothing, but it’s also not the actions of a country or a government that thinks that it’s an imminent threat because this is still kind of a hotly debated issue in Taiwan.

A lot of people either don’t think the war will ever happen, even now, or they think that Taiwan could not prevail unless the U.S. military shows up very quickly. And that’s part of what the U.S. has been telling Taiwan, that, ‘In the event, you have to be able to give us time to flow force and be able to make a material contribution to defense.’

So they’re doing the right things. I’m still going to wait and want to see exactly what they do in terms of acquisitions. If they really move away from big ticket items that would have little utility in conflict and I’ll be a little less convinced that they’re really moving with alacrity.

But if they really build, like not only military, but the national resilience, increase their stockpiles of fuel so they can generate power even under pressure from China, you know, beyond words, that they can take care of their own defense to some extent, that they can make a material difference, especially for a counter-amphibious operations, then I think that would do a lot to improve deterrence against China. It would make it a riskier proposition if Xi, Xi Jinping ever thought that it was something that was achievable.

It’s better to break your adversary’s war plan that they have to defeat their military. So anything you can contribute that lowers Chinese confidence in the efficacy of a direct military attack on Taiwan would probably be a good thing.

But I still believe that a Chinese decision to use military force is not capabilities-based. It’s conditions-based, meaning that Xi Jinping is not waiting for the PLA to give him the thumbs up, that they’re good, and then he’s going to launch an attack. In fact, that if we had elections in Taiwan in 2024 and a pro-independence, very active, pro-independence candidate won the election and Taiwan started to move toward permanent separation and announced that, the Chinese would go to war the next day.

Now, that war would look different from one that the Chinese might launch in ten years, but we would still be in a state of conflict across the Taiwan Strait and probably directly involving the United States.

MICHAEL MORELL: John, when we talk about U.S. military capabilities, you hear oftentimes the Pentagon talk about numbers of ships and numbers of aircraft, and you don’t hear them talk about new concepts of war fighting. And I’m wondering to what extent you think that needs to be a bigger part of the discussion in the planning – perhaps it is, right.

But we’re going to have to fight the Chinese different than fought past wars. And I wonder to what extent we’re actually thinking that through and working on it.

JOHN CULVER: I think the services and the U.S. military have actually embraced the idea that they need a new way of waging war should it come to that. And so it means that, in the past, the way that we would do things was that we would flow massive men, materiel, weapons and ammunition across the Pacific. We would build up large logistic and force postures, probably with our allies in Japan, northern Australia, other places where we have security relationships and, you know, then conduct operations at a time of our choosing.

The problem is that Chinese missile capabilities, both ballistic and cruiser, are so robust that you have to consider that there are no sanctuaries to do a logistics build-up. So you have to be able to operate with a lot of kind of time-space agility where you can build up forces to conduct an operation and create effects that positively shape our intentions for battle and cause harm to China’s operations, but don’t do it so in a way that there’s a large footprint that becomes a compelling target for them.

And all services have adopted a version of this, they’re all kind of early in the implementation phase. The visit by Secretary of Defense Austin to the Philippines last month was a really strong signal, as was the recent improvement, even further of our defense relationship with Japan. So the U.S. is doing the necessary things, assuming that, you know, we still have a time and I think we do have time.

But I think we don’t have the kind of wholesale changes that you see in Washington, especially in defense acquisitions, where, from the time that you design a ship until you build it, 17 years will go by. And the same thing is true of aircraft.

So we’re going to need more platform agility. There seems to be a pretty good consensus that large aircraft carriers and large bases close to Chinese missiles are probably not a winning strategy, but, it’s going to take time, I think, for the services to adjust to that and really build the weapons and then train for the kind of war that a war with China would look like.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, John, if the Chinese didn’t need to respond in a day, right, to a declaration of independence by Taiwan, but had more time and were able to to take their time in planning for war, how much warning time would we have of a Chinese military move?

JOHN CULVER: I think we’d have a fair amount of warning time if they really decided that political actions by Taiwan and/or the United States compelled conflict. Then they have to mobilize their entire defense industrial base and even their entire society. You know, they have to start by adjusting the expectations of their population that, if their idea of the future hinged on constantly rising standards of living and better opportunities for their kids, well, they’re going to have to change. You know, the Chinese are going to be engaged in the great battle for the unification of the motherland. And there are going to be sacrifices. And that will include the sacrifice of lives for the first time in the in the history of most of the people living in China. The last time that was a factor was the again, the late 1970s.

So I think that at a minimum, we’d have several months if we’re paying attention. We’d have to see to try to make the same moves that I just talked about the U.S. military having to make. They’d have to build a lot of munitions. Modern warfare, especially with precision-guided weapons and persistent surveillance is a very munitions-intensive thing.

I think in the first few weeks of our invasion of Iraq, we used 20,000 precision-guided weapons. And so all armies are going to have to build for that eventuality. I think there’s actually a risk that we sort of hit an exhaustion phase in conflict and shift to sort of a more sustainable long war frame.

But in terms of warning, too, I think we’re going to see them mobilizing and alerting their public. We’re going to see them mobilizing hundreds of thousands of people for national defense, not just soldiers, but also people organized into groups to repair bomb damage that the U.S. or Taiwan might cause along their coast. You’re going to see wholesale industrial transformation then turn over to defense production.

And I don’t think it’ll be subtle, in other words. I don’t think there’s the secret plan, you know, for a Chinese attack on Taiwan. I don’t think that’s how their system operates. It will be a political decision that will then spill out across the whole of Chinese society and China’s economy and the entire regime.

MICHAEL MORELL: John, you don’t have any doubts, do you, that a Chinese leader would have public support for military action against Taiwan?

JOHN CULVER: No, not much. I mean, Taiwan is an issue that Chinese are inculcated in from grade school. Literally, the version of history that’s taught to every Chinese kindergartner and up to senior, middle school is that Taiwan is Chinese territory, that it was basically stolen from them, first by the Japanese in the Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895 and then sold again with U.S. help by the, you know, ROC Guomindang party that fled to the island in 1949. And that Taiwan has been separated from China only by the military interference of the United States. So there’s already a strong understanding from that perspective across the body politic.

I think where it gets a little dicey for Chinese leadership is when casualties start coming. Because I think a lot of, again, this idea that China is strong, that imbues kind of the thinking, especially the younger people, that hasn’t been tested. And so, you know, you’ve got a country where the military, like the rest of society, consist of one child per family, soldiers and officers. And so every family is going to be touched if the PLA ends up getting involved in Taiwan and you have the kind of intensive combat that I think would occur. It’s going to mean a lot of casualties, both for Taiwan and for the United States.

I mean, it’s likely the U.S. would see casualties in the first month of intense combat with the Chinese, especially in Navy and air combat, that would exceed losses we’ve had in every war since Vietnam. In a matter of a couple of weeks. Well, the same thing would be true in China. So I think that will be one where the surveillance state of China will kick in. You’ll see a lot of intense filtering of the Internet because they know that – you know, people in China, and you know how things are, people usually think the war will be over by Christmas or I guess in the Chinese Lunar New Year; that’s probably not going to happen.

And so it gets harder as time goes by and you see deprivation. Chinese exports are cut by international sanctions. Incomes fall and they’ll be falling globally. Trade will be disrupted globally. And that’s when becomes a test for the regime, whether – not whether Taiwan’s worth it, but whether the sacrifices people are making in what may appear at some point to be an open-ended contest, if that’s going to end up, you know, creating longer term problems in a regime that’s had nothing really, but – COVID notwithstanding – kind of good news for the last 40, 50 years.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, John, I just want to explore something with you here as we head to the end of the podcast. A president of the United States in deciding to join Taiwan in a fight against China would have to accept some pretty significant things. Right?

You have to accept mobilizing the U.S. military for one of the most significant fights in American history. Would have to accept risking escalation into a nuclear exchange and would have to accept creating essentially a global economic meltdown. Right. These are the two largest economies in the world. Trade between them is is hugely significant.

JOHN CULVER: And we just hit a new record this year of over $800 billion.

MICHAEL MORELL: Exactly. So I just want to get your reaction to what I just said.

JOHN CULVER: Well, I think I’m probably a pessimist on this, so you might want to discount a bit.

But I think the balloon incident sort of showed us where we are, collectively. I think there would be a big appetite in the United States for confrontation, if not war, with China. I think people right now don’t think war is likely. I hope they’re right. But I think that initially there would be strong support for a president.

But I think the same kind of calculation I made for Xi Jinping: it’s going to be very intense. Would be, as you noted, the first combat we’ve ever undertaken with another nuclear power. And China is a very capable nuclear power. They’ve probably got around 200 nuclear warheads that can target the U.S. today. And they’re building out toward about 1,500 over the next 12 years or so. So very credible, large-scale nuclear capability.

I don’t think they plan to wage nuclear war. They’re not suicidal. But it’s the kind of calculus that really no president has ever had to sort of present to the American people.

So he’s going to have to make a point that the goal here is to defend Taiwan because of U.S. commitments under the Taiwan Relations Act. But our goal is to prevent the conquest of the island. It’ll be a little bit of a trick, but, you know, we’re going to be saying we want to prevent China’s conquest of Taiwan, which we don’t necessarily even then support Taiwan independence, because we’re going to be looking for off ramps.

And I think that that will be a key characteristic of this war that I hope doesn’t obtain, is that you’re going to have a situation kind of like Ukraine, where I think stalemate, at least after initial high-intensity combat, is going to be an option or an opportunity to try and look for ways to seek resolution.

I think those will be difficult to find, especially kind of in their current, you know, environment, where the president’s going to be second-guessed only by the public, but of course, by Congress.

So I think, you know, the president seems to indicate that he understands that. And I think his statements about support for Taiwan are designed to bolster deterrence. But I worry that we are in some ways kind of walking along the edges of a deterrence trap where the actions we take unilaterally by ourselves, with our allies, and with Taiwan create the conditions for the war that we’re trying to deter.

MICHAEL MORELL: John, thank you very much for joining us to talk about this incredibly important topic. Thanks for taking the time.

JOHN CULVER: Yeah. I’d say it was my pleasure, but I always bum myself out when I talk about this.

MICHAEL MORELL: Well, that’s what analysts do. Thanks very much, John.

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