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Dennis Wilder
Dennis Wilder
February 22, 2022

China’s Nascent Military Footprint with Dennis Wilder

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U.S.-China Nexus Podcast

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The U.S.-China relationship grows increasingly competitive, verging on what many analysts are characterizing as a “great power rivalry.”

This dynamic is further mired by shared distrust and suspicion between Beijing and Washington, particularly in the military realm. Dennis Wilder joins the U.S.-China Nexus to share how he came to build a career around the study of China’s security apparatus and the emergence of China’s military footprint.

For an episode transcript, visit us at

Eleanor Albert: Welcome to the first episode of the U.S.-China Nexus, a podcast from Georgetown University's Initiative for U.S.-China Dialogue on Global Issues. I'm your co-host, Eleanor M. Albert. Today, my guest is someone whose voice will be familiar to future listeners, as he'll be co-hosting this new podcast series we're launching. Dennis Wilder, welcome to the show.

Dennis Wilder: It's great to be with you, Eleanor.

Eleanor: You are a senior fellow and the managing director of the Initiative for U.S.-China Dialogue, but you came here with quite a career under your belt. You served as the National Security Council's director for China, and then as the NSC special assistant to the president, and senior director for east Asian affairs. You were also senior editor of the President's Daily Brief, the world intelligence update produced under the auspices of the director of national intelligence. And your most recent service in government was as the CIA's deputy assistant director for East Asia and the Pacific. But all that must have started somewhere. I was wondering if you could start off by telling us your China story. How and when did your interest in studying China come about?

Dennis: Let me say that I come by my interest in China honestly. My parents were Methodist missionaries, so I grew up in Southeast Asia, Singapore and Malaysia, and my father served overseas Chinese communities. The huaqiao they were called, I believe, in Southeast Asia. And, so I learned from a young age about Chinese culture, Chinese traditions, Chinese holidays. And when I went to college, I was bound and determined that I would go back to Asia, and go back into the Chinese world.

And so I found my way back through a program through Franklin and Marshall College, to the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and spent my junior year abroad at the Chinese University, where I came in contact with the works of a man named William Whitson who had studied factional politics in the Chinese high command. And I was absolutely fascinated by this topic, by the topic of the Chinese People's Liberation Army. And so I more or less dedicated myself to study the Chinese military in the rest of my college career and then in my graduate career at Georgetown. And from there, I joined the CIA as a military analyst looking at China. And as you noted, the rest is kind of my career.

Eleanor: It must have been fascinating to have that be the start, especially given how China has changed.

Dennis: When I went to Hong Kong, in the time period I was there, it was right at the end of the Cultural Revolution. And one of my roommates actually had Red Guard brothers. The other was a Hong Kong civil servant. And it was the end of the Mao era. It was just before the beginning of Deng Xiaoping's reform and opening up of China. So, a lot has changed since I started in this field.

Eleanor: To fast forward a little bit, if you had to characterize or describe the current state of U.S.-China relations today in two or three words, what would that be? I know this is a question that might be a little simple, given the complex dynamics that we live in today, but, what comes to mind?

Dennis: I've thought a lot about this question. And I think at the moment, my favorite characterization of it would be that it's a “great power rivalry.” We have entered a distinct phase where the United States and China are rivals for influence both regionally in the Asia-Pacific and globally. And you see this in many different spheres of competition: the military rise of China, the great expansion of the Chinese navy, the expansion that's going on of Chinese strategic forces, nuclear forces. All across the board we're seeing very real, profound changes in Chinese military capabilities. And there's no question that the Chinese are seeing in this an opportunity to expand their influence, to try to move out the border of the area where the United States operates its military. At the same time, the United States is taking steps, counter moves, countermeasures in what we refer to as the Indo-Pacific region, with new alliance or relationships, nuclear submarine sales to the Australians, a greater degree of public support for Taiwan.

A lot of different measures are being taken on both sides. And it's not just in the Indo-Pacific. China has moved out into the world in a big way with port developments and even some military bases overseas for the first time in its history. And so we are in a great power rivalry, but at the same time, there's also a great deal of cooperation.

If you look at American business, American jobs depend on the Chinese market, over a million American jobs it's estimated. American companies want the China market, want to be involved there. The trading relationship is the largest in the world in terms of goods. China's our third largest market. And so you do have this rather schizophrenic relationship. On the one hand you have this emerging, no question about it, for real great power relationship that's going on and competition that's going on, and at the same time you've got a lot of mutual interests and economic interests at stake here.

Eleanor: Both a rivalry, but also schizophrenic. I think those are great ways to think about the relationship, especially given the degree of complexity in the ways in which we interact.

Dennis: Yeah. It's not simple to explain this relationship and where it is at any moment. I don't think it's a cold war yet. I'm not one of those who believe that we are in a new cold war of the sort of the relationship we had with the Soviet Union. I think it's something different. It's much less intense than that in terms of the strategic rivalry that occurred with the Soviet Union. But there are definitely elements of that kind of competition.

Eleanor: When people think about describing it as a cold war, the context can be fundamentally different. We are much more linked between the U.S. and China than the U.S. and the Soviet Union were in terms of the way our economies are. Even people-to-people exchanges, diplomatic ties. We have a plethora of ways in which we engage. Whether they're all positive or not is another story...

Dennis: You look at the number of Chinese students in the United States and the continuing high demand for education here. That clearly is very different from the way things were with the Soviet Union.

Eleanor: I want to tap into some of your security expertise here and think about the trend lines for U.S.-China exchanges. They've changed significantly. We are obviously in a much more strategic, competitive context, but the U.S. invited China to RIMPAC [Rim of the Pacific Exercise] and there are opportunities where there's been maybe more of a willingness to be open to some type of military-to-military exchanges. And now, of course China isn't necessarily always game for those types of interactions, but I'm curious if you could give just a quick overview of how the things in the security realm have changed.

Dennis: It's been a fascinating ride in the security realm ever since the reform era in Deng Xiaoping opening. If you'll remember at the beginning of the reform era, we actually, the United States and China, were engaged in very significant military-to-military cooperation. This was of course against the Soviet Union. And so you had things like what was called the Peace Pearl Program at that point, which was assistance to Chinese fighter jets. You had mortar-locating radar; I remember that we were selling to the Chinese to use on the Vietnamese border. There was a real detente in the sense in the military sphere for a time there. And then of course Tiananmen came, and all the military-to-military programs basically shut down, and sanctions were put on the Chinese military at that point in time.

I think that ever since Tiananmen, the relationship has never quite recovered. There have been attempts to build a solid relationship between the two militaries, but the level of distrust and suspicion remains quite high. And, certainly as the Chinese military has grown in capabilities and as China has more and more considered that the United States was trying to keep China weak, I think the Chinese military attitude has been one of great suspicion of American outreach in the military-to-military field. And we had this fast development this last year, where apparently the Chinese were concerned that the United States might attack in the South China Sea, and then we had these high-level phone calls of reassurance conducted by the secretary of defense and others.

So I think that the relationship is one where mutual trust has not been created, where there is very real concern on the Chinese side that the United States wants to keep China from achieving its place in the sun, if you will. And on the American side, a real concern that China wants to remove our preeminence in East Asia. Doesn't mean there can't be dialogue and certainly there are military-to-military exchanges that go on at senior levels and discussions, phone calls, that sort of thing. But I don't think I would say that the military relationship is in a stable place at this point. I think it's still evolving, still trying to figure out exactly what's doable, what kind of crisis management can be achieved. And I think that's probably the best that can be achieved in the current environment is managing crisis, making sure or that nothing explodes, if you will.

Eleanor: This distrust, is it rooted purely in a geographic strategic context as being isolated kind of in East Asia and what China envisions as its neighborhood, or are there fundamentally different things about the way in which China's military is evolving? What do you make of the changing dynamic of China's military and how it's engaging, not necessarily with us, but with other countries and their militaries elsewhere?

Dennis: We are beginning to see China establishing a global reach in its military capabilities. It's nascent capability at this point, but certainly in places like Cambodia, of course, Djibouti with the base there, and other parts of the world, the Chinese are trying to establish a footprint, and the beginnings of a global footprint. How large that will become is an interesting question. China doesn't have a tradition of a global footprint, and so they are sort of exploring this carefully. And they know there is always the danger of pushback.

They're much more concerned primarily with their region and their periphery than they are going global. But, they for example, are very interested in the Arctic, as an area for Chinese naval operations. And as the Arctic seas warm for use of those sea lanes. So China is going global. How it goes global, I think will depend on what kind of reaction it gets from foreign powers, how the regions, the various regions of the world react to China. It doesn't want to be seen as a hegemonist, but one of the problems with being a global power is that there are many unintended consequences when you move into this kind of sphere.

Eleanor: Responsibility and curiosity, I guess. I think it's interesting too that China has taken on training roles with its military. But we see an increased in joint military exercises, various types of training, that definitely seem to be a growth area that maybe doesn't get as much attention because it's not a potential conflict.

Dennis: One of the interesting challenges that we're seeing playing out right now is Afghanistan. Where the Chinese clearly have an opportunity to move in to some degree after the American withdrawal and create some sort of relationship with the Taliban. And it's going to be very interesting to see how that evolves and whether or not that relationship can achieve the objectives the Chinese want of securing their Western border and securing them from terrorist attack.

Eleanor: I think it's had an interesting experience in Pakistan where it has obviously a very high-level good relationship, but the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) hasn't exactly been risk free. And they've increasingly found themselves in tough security dilemmas.

To wrap things up, we want to be forward thinking, and I wonder if you have any recommendations or steps that you think both Washington and Beijing might be able to take to redirect U.S.-China exchanges, especially within the security realm. Are there ways to diffuse the mistrust?

Dennis: Right. Well, I think that certainly you want to do as much high-level crisis management discussion and interaction as possible. And so I would recommend that the Department of Defense work very hard to get the Chinese to the table to discuss scenarios, discuss how you deal with each other in crisis to make sure that we don't blunder into something. Particularly given the Taiwan Strait situation. And I do think that that is one that could easily run off tracks. That there is so much going on in that area, so much military activity now going on, and so much level of distrust that it requires both sides to show real statesmanship and maturity to make sure that we don't blunder into a completely unnecessary conflict over the Taiwan situation.

I think that the other thing that is needed and is difficult for the Chinese is transparency. I think that transparency in the relationship and in what is going on is terribly important. There may need to be some discussion of strategic arms control. China is moving into new areas of capability, such as these hypersonic glide vehicles and building 350 new silos. I would think that there's a need for discussion between the two sides of what does this all mean and where are we headed in terms of our strategic postures, because you don't want to get into a situation where we begin to have a truly destabilizing arms race, and a situation where we don't understand each other and don't have a good understanding of the parameters of the strategic dimensions.

Eleanor: I think especially when we look to developments in, and investments in, space technology as well, we see a lot of that. I think the strategic arms control facet could be really interesting. China has previously been a willing participant. It hasn't seemed to be interested in the present, right. But I wonder what type of negotiating tactics would make them more willing to come to the table. It seems that we might be at a stagnating point currently, but we can hope.

Dennis: Right. Well, I think you have to keep trying. And I think one thing that is important is that we handle the Taiwan issue from the Washington side very carefully, and that we both assure and deter both sides of the Strait. I am not one who believes that we need to go to strategic clarity on Taiwan. I think that could be a very destabilizing factor. I think that the strategic ambiguity that we have had has been very useful. I think the Taiwan stability and sort of the continued kicking the can down the road, as inelegant as it may seem at times, is actually the best we can do in the current circumstances given that nobody really sees an optimal solution to the problem. And so I think for now we need to keep the strategic ambiguity. We need to keep reassuring Beijing that we're not going to support independence, but we need to keep deterring Beijing from any thoughts that it can use coercion as a means to resolve this issue.

Eleanor: I think when it comes to Taiwan, we being far away aren't necessarily as attuned to kind of the domestic politics in both China and Taiwan as to how their populations also impose certain constraints when it comes to escalation and that makes things even more challenging. So if the U.S. isn't capable of communicating clearly enough, behind the scenes and publicly, then the risk gets even higher.

Dennis: There's a lot of dynamics at play, and they can move very quickly on us if we're not careful.

Eleanor: Absolutely. Well, thank you so much. This has been a great conversation and we can hope that, the powers that be heed some of your recommendations.

Outro: The U.S.-China Nexus is created and produced by Dennis Wilder and me, Eleanor M. Albert. Our music is from Universal Production Music. Special thanks to Tuoya Wulan, Leann Deckert, Shimeng Tong, and Amy Vander Vliet. For more initiative programming, videos, and links to events, visit our website at Be sure to subscribe to the U.S.-China Nexus on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or your preferred podcast platform for future episodes.