China’s “dramatic” military buildup has triggered unease across Asia and was the driving factor behind the recent formation of a three-way U.S., Britain and Australia security pact focused on the region, said President Biden’s top national security advisor for the Indo-Pacific.
Kurt M. Campbell, deputy assistant to the president and National Security Council coordinator for the Indo-Pacific, also said the administration is well-aware the so-called “AUKUS” pact and other U.S. moves — such as building up the pro-democracy “Quad” alignment with Japan, Australia and India — are causing “heartburn” for Beijing.
Mr. Campbell offered the comments at the U.S. Institute of Peace forum on Friday, days after Mr. Biden and Mr. Xi held a three-hour virtual summit to discuss a slate of issues amid growing international concern that a Cold War is brewing between America and China, the world’s biggest communist power.
Mr. Campell said the Biden administration seeks to engage in competition with China in every realm globally but wants to avoid Cold War-style posturing and escalation. However, Chinese leaders have accused the U.S. of fomenting new Cold War dynamics by bolstering ties with like-minded allies, including with nations that might otherwise be within Beijing’s sphere of influence.
“I think it would be fair to say at the virtual meeting, President Xi made very clear that a number of things that the United States is doing cause China some heartburn,” Mr. Campbell said. “And I think at the top of that list is our bilateral, reinforcing and revitalizing our bilateral security alliances with Japan, with South Korea, with Australia, the Philippines and Thailand — new partnerships like Vietnam, the Quad, working constructively with India, AUKUS, and frankly, talking to the Europeans in a more dynamic way about areas of cooperation on technology and the like.”
“I think President Xi made clear that those, from the Chinese perspective, represent what they would describe as Cold War thinking,” he said. “We believe they are essential features, interconnected, overlapping, multipurpose, some formalized, some informal, that together help pursue this operating system that has led to such profound prosperity over the last 30 years. I think the critical thing for us going forward is to be open and transparent about the work.”
Mr. Campell suggested the push for transparency contrasts with what has been a largely non-transparent military buildup by Beijing over the past quarter century.
“Since beginning in about 1996,” he said, “what we have witnessed is one of the largest military buildups across every sector — shipbuilding, nuclear [and] a number of technologies that are concerning on the part of China in modern times, this massive military investment and new capabilities.”
“We’re of the view that some of this is destabilizing, much of it has been done in a non-transparent manner and I think, behind the scenes, many in Asia are worried about this substantial, dramatic set of military investments,” he said. “Indeed, some of those steps have led other countries to respond and I would say AUKUS is one of those responses.”
U.S. military officials have expressed specific concern over China‘s expanding nuclear weapons arsenal. A recent Pentagon report warned that China is on a path to more than double its arsenal over the coming years and could have 700 deliverable nuclear warheads by 2027, and 1,000 by 2030.
While China‘s military muscle-flexing around Taiwan, as well as other weaponry advancements — including a test of a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile — have made global headlines in recent months, a White House summary of the summit that occurred Monday between Mr. Biden and Mr. Xi made no mention of a specific discussion on such matters.
The summary did, however, say that Mr. Biden “underscored the importance of managing strategic risks” with China and “noted the need for common-sense guardrails” to ensure that U.S.-China “competition does not veer into conflict.”
Concerns are particularly high that a conflict could begin by accident, given the accelerating rate at which Beijing’s military capabilities are expanding.
A top U.S. Air Force general told The Washington Times early this month that China’s military advancements continue to surpass U.S. estimates. Neither the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War nor any other country in recent history has so consistently exceeded Pentagon and intelligence community projections.
Lt. Gen. S. Clinton Hinote, the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for strategy, integration and requirements, offered a blunt assessment of how quickly the Chinese armed forces have accelerated key programs such as hypersonic weapons, nuclear arms and a host of others.
“One of the most interesting things about being a China-watcher over maybe the last 10, 15 years has been it’s the only country certainly in my memory … that consistently accelerates faster than we estimate,” Gen. Hinote told The Times. “The Soviets didn’t do that. Certainly not North Korea or Iran, anything like that. But China has done a good job of taking their economic power…and applying that to [the] acceleration of military capability.”
That assessment dovetailed with Mr. Campbell’s remarks on Friday.
“The military capabilities that stretch from nuclear to cyber to space raise a host of concerns,” Mr. Campbell said, adding that Mr. Biden sought during Monday’s summit to open a dialogue with Mr. Xi about the need for transparency and open channels of communication to avoid an unintentional clash.
“What the president sought to do was to say, ‘As great powers, we have an interest in doing what we can to head off problems, inadvertence, miscalculation and accident, that’s at the first level,’” Mr. Campbell said.
“What we would like to do, and we have tried in the past, is to enlist China in discussions about what we would do if we faced some sort of accident or inadvertence,” he said. “We’re at the very earliest stages of that kind of discussion.”
• Ben Wolfgang contributed to this article.