Navy Intel Brief Urges Robust Challenge to China

China is “actively destabilizing” the Indo-Pacific region and undermining the international rules-based order—with its island-building, stifling of democracy in Hong Kong, objective to take Taiwan, and dangerous brinksmanship with other countries’ ships and aircraft—yet somehow projects more “moral legitimacy” than the U.S., according to an analysis from the Office of Naval Intelligence.

The U.S. needs to call out China’s bad behavior, hold it accountable, and mount a muscular communications campaign to counter China’s messaging on American actions, according to a recent unclassified Office of Naval Intelligence briefing obtained by Air & Space Forces Magazine.

“We are engaged in an international struggle between competing visions. China is executing a grand strategy, and has been unified in pursuing it comprehensively and aggressively for many years,” according to the briefing, released under the signature of ONI commander Rear Adm. Mike Studeman.

Those ends include being first a regional then global hegemon, wresting influence away from the U.S., and imposing a new world order that favors Beijing, Studeman said. The goal—internally called the “rejuvenation” of China as the world’s greatest power—justifies “any mean” of achieving it, the briefing said.

China is increasingly using “espionage, coercion, pressure, subversion, and disinformation” to achieve global advantage and “shape the international system.”

Winning the competition of visions—between democracy and authoritarianism—means the U.S. cannot afford an “anemic information instrument” and must challenge China’s narrative about its peaceful rise and intentions. Not speaking out “makes the [U.S.] more vulnerable,” according to the brief.

“We need to win the peace as well as prevail in a crisis/war,” Studeman said.

The briefing—marked “unclassified” and intended for members of Congress and the Administration—was dated in June.

Despite China’s obvious heavy-handedness in suppressing ethnic minorities, oppressive domestic surveillance, bullying international neighbors, employing predatory government-to-government loans, international property theft, overfishing and environmental destruction, “abetting global corruption,” and attempting to convert disputed territory by building illegal military bases, Chinese leader Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party “are not being held sufficiently accountable for their actions,” the ONI said.

Chinese ships and aircraft are also harassing those of Taiwan, Vietnam, Japan, and the U.S., among others, making too-close intercepts, discharging flares and chaff in their paths, and making illegal military incursions in other nations’ sea and airspace. It backtracked about allowing “two systems” of government in Hong Kong and Macau, and makes no secret of its plans to assimilate Taiwan by any means necessary, though the preference is through pressure and not military action.

“Xi is most dangerous leader since Mao in terms of willingness to use creeping expansionism and force to resolve territorial issues at his neighbors’ expense,” the ONI said. Meanwhile, China’s military has become “a formidable, highly lethal fighting force” that is “very much a peer” of the U.S. military.

Asked by a reporter if the DOD views China “as a competitor or an adversary” Pentagon Press Secretary Air Force Brig. Gen. Patrick S. Ryder said July 6 that America’s “National Defense Strategy makes that very clear. We view them as a competitor and as our pacing challenge.”

The ONI said the U.S. public and the world generally are not paying attention and China’s message of its peaceful intent is winning through. This “lack of attention” or “acquiescence” to China’s moves “invites bolder moves,” Studeman noted.  

If China was to win control of Taiwan, which it claims as a rebel province, it would be disastrous for the U.S. even if China did not use military force, the ONI said.

Such an achievement would give Xi “extraordinary new legitimacy” both domestically and internationally. It would signal an “ideological win over democracy, freedom and the West,” and allow China to absorb a major economy. China would gain greater military power, greater reach into the Pacific domination of China’s near-abroad sea lanes and chokepoints, and give the People’s Liberation Army “confidence in pursuing other territorial claims.”

It would also give Beijing control over critical Taiwanese technology, particularly semiconductor manufacturing, and instantly put China in a position to exploit U.S. weapon systems in Taiwan, such as fighter aircraft, air defenses and other systems.

More nations would likely defer to China after it absorbed Taiwan, and its influence would grow markedly.

Conversely, American influence and credibility would sharply decline if the Mainland absorbed Taiwan, the ONI predicted, as the U.S. commitment to a “free and open” Indo-Pacific would be questioned, and U.S. allies and partners in the region would likely reassess their U.S. relationships. The U.S. would lose access to a “top ten” trade partner, deterrence would be weakened, and it would be much harder for the U.S. to “forestall further erosion of international norms [and the ] rules-based order.” There would be a perception of “U.S. decline” and there would be no Chinese-speaking democracy in Asia.

Taiwan’s absorption into China would also mean the loss of “critical intelligence collection opportunities” versus China and U.S. influence and standing in the world would be diminished.

The ONI brief suggested that China’s efforts to establish the conditions necessary for a successful takeover of Taiwan seem timed to coincide with Xi’s fourth term as president, in about 2027. Those conditions include isolating Taiwan, setting advantageous military conditions, and increasing its political-military-economic pressures on Taiwan and its partners. The ONI also noted that 2027 is the year by which Xi has ordered the People’s Liberation Army’s “military modernization” be complete.   

“The survival of Taiwan’s democracy is a critical geostrategic issue that carries long-term consequences for China, the U.S., and the broader international community,” the ONI said, but “the China problem is not all about Taiwan,” noting that all of China’s neighbors, both on land and sea, are facing military, economic and diplomatic pressures from Beijing which would be extremely hard to hold at bay individually. The briefing noted ten geographic areas where China is actively challenging borders and territory, and it is increasingly characterizing itself as an “arctic nation” with rights to exploit resources in that area.

The ONI also noted that China controls 40 percent of the world commercial shipbuilding market, with 50 domestic drydocks that can accommodate an aircraft carrier.

However, the ONI noted that both Washington and Beijing have similar self-assessments regarding their military and political capabilities of each other. Both countries perceive that their military deterrent “is eroding or failing.” In response, the U.S. is “taking major actions to enhance perceived shortfalls,” while China is “concerned with its own deterrence strength and lack of effectiveness to date.”

Both sides’ deterrence actions “will lead to responses likely to be interpreted by both sides in the most threatening terms, based on long-held perceptions,” the ONI said. The outcome “may be shifting key timelines, more assertive efforts to signal and show resolve, and systemic instability.” In other words, both sides will be building up to hold the other at bay, and inflate the chances for miscalculation.

The ONI pushed for a relentless communications campaign against China, noting that “people, publics, [and] elites are more easily swayed and misled than assumed. China is succeeding in muddying the already-mistrusted infosphere with conspiracy theories and misinformation, making it harder for decision-makers and citizens to “connect the dots.” The U.S. must “operate” in the information environment employing “both surgical and broad info ‘fires’” to get its message through, the ONI said.

The U.S. is putting all its effort into physical capabilities to deter China, but has a “gap” in shaping its message, which is the foundation of deterrence, the ONI said. China excels in this area, and must be challenged, it said. China views the tension “as the norm” and engages in it every day, Studeman noted. The U.S. has to adopt a similar pace to match its adversary, ONI said.

Misinformation is “filling vacuums” when the real facts are not pushed front and center, Studeman said. The report notes “whoever frames the narrative, dominates the narrative.”