GOP Lawmakers Push Chinese Threat at Indo-Pacific Commander’s Hearing

Adm. Davidson called China the “greatest long-term strategic threat of the 21st century.”

Republican lawmakers portrayed China as a growing national security threat during a Senate hearing on Tuesday. 

“As commander of INDOPACOM, you’re on the front lines of military competition with China,” Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., told Adm. Philip Davidson, who leads U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. “Your job, as I see it, is to ensure that there never comes a day when the Chinese Communist Party leadership concludes it can achieve its goals through the use of military force.”

Davidson concurred.

"Our deterrence posture in the Indo-Pacific must demonstrate the capability, the capacity and the will to convince Beijing unequivocally, the costs of achieving their objectives by the use of military force are simply too high,” Davidson told the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. “Indeed, we must be doing everything possible to deter conflict. Our number one job is to keep the peace. But we absolutely must be prepared to fight and win should competition turn to conflict." 

Davidson, who last appeared before the SASC in 2019 and is not expected to appear again, called China the “greatest long-term strategic threat of the 21st century.” 

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., asked Davidson whether China could achieve “nuclear overmatch” against the United States before the end of the decade if it were to triple or quadruple its nuclear weapons stockpile — something that might happen, according to U.S. Strategic Command leader Adm. Charles Richard. 

Davidson responded that, yes, China would surpass the U.S. in nuclear capability should China quadruple its stockpile. He declined to endorse the notion that China might again boost its arsenal fourfold by 2030, though he said, “They’ve quadrupled their nuclear capabilities since the turn of the century and they will at least double it during the course of this decade.”

But it’s not clear that China has even one-quarter as many nukes as the United States, nor that it is trying to achieve “nuclear overmatch.” Two years ago, the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency put the Chinese nuclear arsenal in the “low couple hundreds,” while nuclear researcher Hans Kristensen put it around 290. Today, Carnegie fellow Ankit Panda noted that quadrupling that total would still leave China short of America’s 1,457 deployed nukes, not to mention its nondeployed stockpile.

Cotton portrayed the situation as an arms race.

“It is very expensive and hard work to win an arms race, but it is much better to win an arms race than to lose a war,” he said.

Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., posed similar questions regarding capabilities — this time concerning China’s growing arsenal of aircraft carriers, amphibious assault ships, and other warships. Citing an unnamed report, Wicker said China would within four years have three times as many aircraft carriers and amphibious assault ships and nine times as many other warships as the U.S. Navy.

“If we don’t make changes in our posture forward, it will demonstrate the Chinese have greater capacity than us,” Davidson responded.

Democratic members of the SASC posed different questions. Rather than emphasizing the need for more resources and funds allocated to INDOPACOM, Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, used her time to ask Davidson why the budget for joint training exercises increased from $300 million to $2.8 billion last year.

The admiral explained the additional funding will “enhance and make improvements in our joint exercise program” because our allies are doing the same.

Davidson is expected to retire this year. The Biden administration has nominated Adm. John Aquilino, currently head of U.S. Pacific Fleet, to replace him.

The Democratic Party and President Joe Biden specifically have historically displayed more lenient positions when it comes to China. In 2011, then-Vice President Biden said in 2011 that a “rising China is a positive, positive development, not only for China but for America and the world writ large.”