Military aircraft fly over Tian'anmen Square in echelon ahead of a grand gathering celebrating the Communist Party of China CPC centenary in Beijing, capital of China, July 1, 2021.

Military aircraft fly over Tian'anmen Square in echelon ahead of a grand gathering celebrating the Communist Party of China CPC centenary in Beijing, capital of China, July 1, 2021. Zhang Haofu/Xinhua via Getty Images

Danger from China ‘Clear and Present Already,’ INDOPACOM’s Top Intel Officer Warns

Rear admiral urges Washington policymakers to take Beijing's threats more seriously.

Rear Adm. Mike Studeman has an urgent message from the middle of the Pacific Ocean: The threat from China is more pressing than leaders in America’s capital seem to realize.

“I'm wondering in Washington how many folks are truly persuaded by the warning which the intelligence community has already provided, regarding the dangers that exist within this decade, soon, now, with regard to the nature of the Chinese threat, and how it manifests, and what to do about it,” said Studeman, the U.S. military’s top intelligence officer for the Asia-Pacific region. “We would say the danger is clear and present already.”

He spoke last week at a virtual event last week with the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, becoming the latest Indo-Pacific Command official to voice such sentiments publicly.

The Pentagon’s 2022 budget request has been criticized for not reflecting the threat of China’s military and economic rise to America and its interests, though the country is a major focus of the 2018 National Defense Strategy and declarations from top defense leaders, including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

Studeman also questioned whether the United States, even with enough warning, is prepared to move military capabilities into the region.

“We have built up the capacities and the capabilities that we need to be able to handle the type of scenario, which may be unfolding. And that's been part of INDOPACOM’s feedback from multiple combatant commanders over time, which you can read about in the testimonies that they have given with regard to whether or not we are accurately understanding the time elements associated with the danger,” he said.

Studeman's comments come after similar recent public remarks by INDOPACOM leaders. In March, former INDOPACOM commander Adm. Philip Davidson said the threat against Taiwan could manifest “during this decade, in fact in the next six years.” During his Senate confirmation hearing that same month, the current INDOPACOM commander Adm. John Aquilino concurred with Davidson about the threat to Taiwan, and agreed that there must be American and allied forces postured west of the international dateline to be able to respond quickly.

Washington does appear to be listening to some of these messages. Congress has written several laws to stand up against human rights abuses by the Chinese government and to support the democratic governance of its territories, such as the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020 and the Taiwan Assurance Act.

Congress also established the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, or PDI, in the 2021 budget as a means to provide more support and improve America’s competitive edge in the region. However, the Pentagon’s 2022 budget has fallen short of the PDI’s intended goals, said Brent Sadler, a senior fellow for naval warfare and advanced technology at the Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense.

“I’d say it is largely tone-deaf on answering the specific request of INDOPACOM. And it rather is a laundry list of acquisitions that the services—the Navy, Air Force most notably—already had planned and needed to do for overall force structure,” Sadler said.

While the command would benefit from having another destroyer, he said, what Davidson had asked for was more about establishing infrastructure, basing, and a presence in the region. 

One issue is there is no additional money specifically for the PDI, so it must come from the services’ budgets and on top of all their other requirements, he said.

The “tension” between the services and the combatant commands on how to address the urgency of China as a pacing threat is primarily structural, Sadler said. The services are future focused regarding manning, training, and equipping their forces, while the combatant commands are primarily focused on competing in the next few years and having to establish infrastructure and partnerships in the region.

This balancing act between the military services, the combatant commands, and the Pentagon on budget priorities is not new, said Anthony Cordesman, the Arleigh A. Burke chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“In the real world, you are always making tradeoffs and you are always accepting risks. And you always have to deal with this process of triage,” he said.

While INDOPACOM is demanding urgency regarding China in the region, Cordesman said it takes time for America to strategize, fund, and procure assets, as well as to build partnerships with allies in the region who may view things differently.

“I don't think there is an intelligence head of any of the major combatant commands that doesn't feel there isn't some area where we aren't spending enough and you really need to make urgent changes,” he said.

Cordesman also disagreed with Studeman that there is a lack of attention on the global threats posed by China, from space operations to influence. He questioned what specific recommendations the command may have that are time sensitive enough to jump the line and have their region and threats prioritized first.

“Again, you have to make a choice between all these different elements of the Chinese threat, remembering Russia hasn't gone away, we still have Iran and North Korea, we have a host of extremist and terrorist groups. You have to work with your strategic partners, which often view the threats differently and the priorities differently. So, I think you have to be very careful,” Cordesman said.

Studeman’s and INDOPACOM’s calls for more attention from Washington will not be the last.

“So those messages have always been there, but I think they’re becoming more dire as the Chinese are getting more aggressive and their capabilities are growing, like accelerating and growing,” Sadler said. “Which makes understanding their intentions and getting as far out into the future, what their intentions are, not just necessary, but vital, critical. And so this is what Studeman, I think he’s feeling both of those.”