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Question: Is China leading an effort to build a nuclear submarine fleet to rival that of the United States?

Wesley Clark:  We don’t know exactly what the aim of the Chinese shipbuilding program is, but they are building a Navy.  And they do have commerce and it’s a very natural thing.  

China is now a major economic power.  I was in China several years ago, I talked to a young man who is a private citizen in China, but he’s very close to the Chinese leadership.  He was the head of their youth movement for several years, and so he would occasionally sit in on top meetings and so forth.  And he put it this way to me.  He says: “China... For 200 years, China was attacked and exploited and dismembered by its neighbors.”  He says: “I don’t mean the United States, I mean the neighboring countries.”  He says: “Now China is a great power.  This will never happen again.”  And he meant it.  And he’s obviously speaking the way with some voice of authority in this matter, and it’s the way the Chinese see the world.  

They see China as the middle of humanity, the middle kingdom.  It’s the... and if you go back historically, it really is.  It’s where the bulk of humanity has been.  It was the origin for most of the inventions of mankind from everything from the lode stone to gunpowder to paper to bureaucracy to promotion by examination proved by merit, proved by examination.  All of that came from thousands of years of Chinese civilization.  

And for 200 or 300 years, they lost their lead.  Jared Diamond’s, book, "Guns, Germs and Steel" is—which many of you have probably have read—is one attempt to account for, why was these relative barbarians in the West suddenly take over the world?  And from the Chinese perspective, civilization is starting to look more normal again.  They’re putting their economic team together; they’ve got a huge middle class.  They’re middle class now in China is larger than the population of the United States of America.  They’ve got over 300 million people in their middle class.  They’ve got another 950 million people who want to be in the middle class, at least and who are struggling to have jobs and education and come to the cities and China’s leaders are working with this and trying to make something happen.  They are very heavily focused domestically.  

But to feed that economic expansion they need energy and they need resources that China doesn’t have.  Some of that energy and some of those resources will come from their Asian neighbors, overland.  They’re working with Kazakhstan, a lot of Chinese are living over the border in the former Soviet Far East, and people in the region say, “I wonder how long Russia’s gonna hang on to its eastern provinces because the Chinese keep coming in?”  But a lot of those resources have to be brought in by sea, so it’s a very natural thing that China would want to expand its naval power.  

Why?  Well look, there’s pirates off the coast of Africa, for goodness sake.  There have always been pirates in the Straits of Malacca, around Thailand and Singapore and Malaysia, in that area.  And that’s the main shipping channel.  And every day super-tankers pass through that area worth tens of millions of dollars, and they’re vulnerable.  So the United States Navy, really as the British Navy pulled back in the mid-20th century, and after World War II, the United States Navy took up the role of... We were the guarantors of the sea lanes.  And we occupied the western Pacific after World War II.  We have our base structure that was completely set up.  In fact, we, you know, wanted to be in China with the defeat of the nationalist Chinese, then we moved offshore and we supported Taiwan which was called China for a long, long time.  And we still have our troops in Korea, we have bases in Japan, we’re in Okinawa, we’re in Guam and we have at least one aircraft carrier, sometimes two or more that are in the Western Pacific.  Those aircraft carriers can strike hundreds of miles away, they’re accompanied by defensive submarines.  We probably have missile submarines, but we never know about that, and where they are.  

And so, if you were China, you would say, "Why would these aircraft carriers be coming, you know, 100, 200 miles off the coast of China.  Why does the United States need to do this?  Why can’t we take care of ourselves?"  And if you put the shoe on the other foot and you look at this as an American, you say, "What if the Chinese said to the United States, 'We’re worried about your border with Mexico.  You seem to be really uncomfortable with Mexico and you seem to be talking to their government and sometimes in nice ways and sometimes in tough ways, there’s some violence along your border.  Would it help if we Chinese put a couple of aircraft carriers off the coast of San Diego just to show the world that we, China, are very interested in the peaceful resolution of  these border issues between the United States and Mexico.'"  And of course America would be offended.  We’d be outraged.  We’d say, "Oh no, no.  You can’t do this we don’t want to see…" you know, it would be like; it would be like a red flag in our face.  We wouldn’t like it.  

And yet, we’ve done this for years to China.  So some of the pushback is to be expected.  And on the other hand, when you look at it, you can’t quite get a clear understanding of what China’s goals are.  It’s clear there’s some pushing and shoving going on in the South China Sea associated with the Spratly Islands around the Philippines, a lot of different nations claim sections of this because there’s a lot of oil down there. And there’s still some of these territorial issues that result in some problems.  

China and Japan recently had a naval incident.  There’s a naval incident between North and South Korea where a South Korean ship was torpedoed and we’re asking China to do something and it’s not clear what China’s view on this is, but they don’t seem to want to condemn North Korea exactly the way we want to condemn North Korea.  So different nations have different perspectives.  

And so as we look at the China shipbuilding program, and we look at the other aspects of Chinese technology; they bought a lot of Soviet equipment, Russian equipment, early on, they copied it, they probably enhanced it.  They certainly got high-tech capabilities; they’re proving that every day in the economy.  It’s natural that there be some concern about where China’s military power is going.  

And in the military business we always used to say, “It’s really more about capabilities than it is about intent.”  You have to look at capabilities because intent can change with the incumbencies of leaders or suddenly overnight with different events, whereas capabilities don’t change so fast.  So you look at the emergence of these capabilities and you say, “Hmm, what does this mean?  What could this mean to us?”  

So, clearly we’re watching the emergence of increased military capabilities in China and we’re asking, "What does this mean?"

Recorded September 23, 2010
Interviewed by Andrew Dermont

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