Ex CIA Analyst: China and U.S. in “Existential Struggle” between Democracy and Authoritarian Rule

Beijing does not intend to launch an attack on Taiwan, according to John Culver, who until 2020 was the top CIA analyst on China and Asia. From Beijing’s perspective, “Taiwan is a crisis to be avoided, not an opportunity to be seized,” Culver said in a recent talk at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies. But “if Taiwan, or the U.S., took steps that, from Beijing’s perspective, precluded the possibility of eventual “unification” with China, the PRC would go to war the next day.”

The talk by Culver, who is currently a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub, was part of the Critical Issues Confronting China series. Here are five key takeaways:

Beijing believes the United States is pursuing the overthrow of the Communist Party as a strategic goal

This assumption is incentivizing the Communist Party “to push forward with a host of policies—technological self-reliance, more assertive military reactions to sovereignty challenges, “dual circulation” economic policy, and a hardening of controls over civil society and repression of minorities and dissent.”

China believes historic global shifts are underway

Xi Jinping, who has recently referred to “changes unseen in a century,” envisions a shift in global power. “Xi is asserting that the geostrategic tectonic plates that define world orders, and the fate of states great and small, are shifting disruptively again with speed and violence,” Culver said. “And just as the United States rose to global prominence in the early 20th Century, China now rises as epoch-defining forces reemerge.”

Beijing believes the U.S. is a declining power

Culver noted that the U.S. Department of Defense has concluded that China is massively expanding its nuclear weapons inventory, from some 250 warheads sufficient for “minimal assured deterrence,” to 700 by 2027, and 1,000 by 2030. Such a build-up, he added, seems to have started in 2017—a possible response to Trump’s trade war against China. “This almost certainly validates the Chinese Communist Party’s determination that the United States was declining from its post-war apex with astonishing speed, hastening the intensification of its rivalry with China. The Trump Trade war and intense efforts to blame China for the start of the COVID-19 pandemic only intensified Beijing’s convictions.”

The United States can prevent—or trigger—a Taiwan crisis

“If Taiwan, or the US, took steps that, from Beijing’s perspective, precluded the possibility of eventual “unification” with China, the PRC would go to war the next day.”

China is not pursuing a Sino-centric world order

“They want what most Great Powers want, and that is security. Not all this is benign. China doesn’t want to overturn the world order, but to reinterpret the UN charter, to lend legitimacy to their form of government. We are engaged in an existential struggle between democracy and authoritarian rule…The prospect of major power war, and even nuclear war, is a feature of the global landscape for the first time since the end of the Cold War.”