China expert Matt Turpin on Beijing’s strategic objectives

China expert Matt Turpin on Beijing's strategic objectives

China expert Matt Turpin on Beijing’s strategic objectives

 
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In this article:
 
 
  • Deputy Director of the CIA
  •  
    General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and paramount leader of China
 
 

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In this episode of “Intelligence Matters,” host Michael Morell speaks with Matt Turpin, former U.S. Army officer and an expert on China economic statecraft and technology innovation at the Hoover Institution, about Beijing’s long-term political and economic objectives. Morell and Turpin discuss the changes that accompanied Xi Jinping’s rise to power, as well as the gradual shift in U.S. policy towards Beijing. Turpin offers insights into the priorities and operations of the Chinese Communist Party and explains why he is optimistic about the United States’ ability to compete with China’s vision for the world.  

Highlights:  

China’s strategic objectives: “[W]hile I don’t think that Beijing seeks to install the clone of the Chinese Communist Party in every country around the world, it doesn’t want a system that confines or undermines Beijing’s ability to achieve what it wants to do. So it’s much more for them about themselves and that the rest of the world needs to get out of the way as opposed to making the rest of the world look like them.” Beijing’s ideological drive: “It’s really convenient for us to want to think that the communism of the Communist Party, the Soviet Union, has been relegated to the dustbin of history and that are our friends in Beijing have learned that that’s not the way to go. But increasingly, it appears that that that language and that ideology infuses much of what the party says to itself.” Prospects for U.S.-China global rivalry: “I think we should be confident, but that does not mean that it will be easy. We will have to make sacrifices and invest significant resources to be able to do this over time. But I think the kind of world we want in the future is worth those investments and we shouldn’t shy away from them.”

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INTELLIGENCE MATTERS – MATT TURPIN / PRODUCER: OLIVIA GAZIS

MICHAEL MORELL: Matt, welcome to Intelligence Matters. It is great to have you with us.

MATT TURPIN: Thanks so much, Mike, this is excellent.

MICHAEL MORELL: Matt, I want to start by asking you a bit about your career. You attended and graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. I want to ask you, how did you end up there? What attracted you about serving in the military?

MATT TURPIN: I entered West Point in 1991, and obviously we had, the summer 1991, we had just fought the Gulf War. I had been kind of interested in the military. My dad is a college professor that had grandfathers in the military and an aunt and uncle. But I had no real experience. But it seemed like something exciting. It seemed like something that I could kind of belong to. And as a high school student coming out of Southern California, amazingly, there were not a whole bunch of people that wanted to go to upstate New York.

So my ability to get into to West Point was much easier than my ability to get into the Naval Academy or the Air Force Academy. So it just sort of turned out that way. But it was something that I was interested in but really didn’t have any idea of what it was like. I’d never been to West Point before. I showed up the day before reception day and drove in on a bus from like Newark, New Jersey. The entire bus was silent as everyone was realizing that this was sort of the end for quite a while and we’d be getting off and getting yelled at and harassed. And it turned out to be exactly that way for for a couple of years.

MICHAEL MORELL: And then where does your interest in China come from?

MATT TURPIN: I did not actually spend any of my academic career, whether it was as an undergrad or graduate school – I actually you have a graduate degree in American history from from from UNC Chapel Hill. And it wasn’t really until about a little over a decade ago as I took an assignment, I got to choose between an assignment being a liaison officer at the Pentagon for CENTCOM, so, focused on the Middle East. Or I could go be a war planner out in Honolulu at Pacific Command. And that was a pretty easy choice, all things considered. And so that was 2010. And obviously, that was sort of the beginning of a pivot or rebalance to Asia. And so I got sort of a front row seat as the US policy community began to pivot and rebalance towards the challenges that we saw in Asia and so have been kind of doing that for I guess a little over a decade now.

But that’s how I got into it. It wasn’t necessarily that I had a long career as I wouldn’t necessarily be called a classic China hand. I was much more interested in U.S. policy, sort of what our national security and foreign policy interests were. It just happened to be that Beijing was beginning to pose some of the most important challenges, which is what pushed me into that area.

MICHAEL MORELL: What did you learn about China in that job at Pacific Command? How did that shape your views?

MATT TURPIN: It gave me a a pretty intense understanding of our military challenge, as well as a view of how our allies and partners viewed the US position. So this was near the beginning of the Obama administration, there were clear efforts by the administration to begin to rebalance what it was focused on. And I got to see that up close from a headquarters that was looking at it every day and one of the most important things on my thinking was the whole experience around the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident in Japan in March of 2011 and where we had been with with the Japanese government and the U.S. government in our relations, up until that point, there had been some drifting and it was it was increasingly difficult to see how the US and Japan would continue to operate as an alliance.

That experience really sort of reset the US-Japanese relationship, and then that kind of came on the heels of a number of things that were happening to Japan and really a real appreciation of what the what the US’s role and how we interact with its allies. And I got to watch it up close with some really impressive leaders at Pacific Command, as well as our folks on the ground in Japan, that the U.S. and Japan could work together and could sort of cement its alliance and begin to deal with an increasingly aggressive and assertive Beijing that was stressing that international system.

And so that period of time, 2011 to 2012, was quite instrumental, at least in my thinking, and made me realize this is something that we need to spend much more time on. And it’s what I decided to then not necessarily return to the regular army, but take a job back in the Pentagon, running China’s strategy in the Joint Staff for what ended up being four years working for General Dempsey and then General Dunford, Admiral Winnefeld and General Selva, as well as Deputy Secretary Work, which was very, very much instrumental in my thinking about what the challenges were and how the United States would have to begin to respond.

MICHAEL MORELL: And in what way?

MATT TURPIN: This period by early 2013, you have Xi Jinping coming to power. And you have two modes of thought inside the US government forming. One, that our strategy that had been in place for really about two to two and a half decades, a strategy of of using economic engagement to drive political mobilization, it was it was becoming frayed. That strategy was not necessarily resulting in the outcomes that we had expected, right? We were certainly seeing some spectacular economic progress inside the PRC and so from that sense, our intention to help the Chinese economy develop seemed to be working quite well.

But the other half of it, which is that we would then expect to see political liberalization, greater freedoms, greater transparency, the strengthening of the rule of law, a division of powers – clearly, as Xi Jinping came in and cemented the position of the party, it became increasingly hard to see how that strategy of economic engagement was resulting in the outcomes that we wanted to see and that we needed to to sort of wrestle with the implications of a change in our strategy. And that transition point kind of happened between late 2013. And then, you know, certainly by the end of the Obama administration, a realization that we were likely going to have to pursue a different course and adopt a new strategy to to secure U.S. interests and to protect the interests of our allies.

MICHAEL MORELL: Matt, then you go to the White House as the Director for China on the staff of the National Security Council and as an adviser on China to the Secretary of Commerce. I want to ask you two questions, real quick questions. One, were you still in the military at that point or had you retired?

MATT TURPIN: I had retired the summer of of 2017 and then interviewed with Secretary Ross during my time in terminal leave from the military. A terminal leave is the last leave you take in the military. It sounds worse than it is the. And then I took the job at at the White House and with the Commerce Department in January of 2018. So I had about a six month window from leaving the military.

MICHAEL MORELL: And then you’re coming back in as an appointee, and then you do both of those jobs at once, the commerce job and the NSC job or did one transition into the other? 

MATT TURPIN: So the commerce job, I was hired to take that job, to then be a detail lead to the White House. So those were simultaneous. You’ve got to get to know the team at Commerce, you know, an absolutely critical department that that probably doesn’t get nearly the attention or interest from the national security community – so I felt absolutely critical be there and was felt myself quite lucky to work in that department. But was on detail to the National Security Council for my entire time, other than two weeks on either end. 

MICHAEL MORELL: And this period of time is really the beginning of the shaping of a new U.S. approach to China, right. We had gone through that realization that you talked about from 2010 to 2014, 2015, 2016. And this was the beginning of a new approach. Can you talk about that a little bit?

MATT TURPIN: Yeah, that new approach certainly became, the outlines of it, you could see in a series of speeches and documents that at the time I remember Deputy Secretary of Defense Work, Bob Work, going out and engaging with our European allies to talk about the kinds of things that both China and Russia were doing. You’ll remember, obviously, at the same time, you’ve got your realization that our approach towards Moscow also was not resulting in the kinds of outcomes that we had wanted.

And so you had these dual challenges, both Moscow and Beijing coming up at the same time, and that there would need to be a new approach. And so certainly the language of competition, certainly the summer of 2016, you’ve got folks like Secretary Carter, you know, testifying along with with with General Dunford, you know, about a need for sort of viewing our relationship with both Moscow and Beijing is as competitive. And then the Trump administration comes in in early 2017, January 2017, and begins really a policy process largely led by General McMaster, who then leads the National Security Council through a policy process that arrives at a National Security Strategy that lays out strategic competition with both Moscow and Beijing are sort of our principal focuses. And that’s published in December of 2017. But you’ll remember that, for instance, the Section 301 investigation, which was really an investigation of China’s economic behavior, begins in August of 17. And you can see that there’s an effort to create a holistic approach, both an economic policy and national security policy that that are combined in a way to be able to begin to compete with the PRC.

And for too long, we had sort of viewed those two elements of our policy, both on economic policy and a national security policy as separate things, existing in separate worlds. And really an effort to bring those things together. And this is done in terms of shorthand. This is sort of, you know, that economic security is national security. And so you have a number of these sayings that are going out there, but really reflecting a wrestling with the idea that ultimately in a world in which you’ve got other great powers that are using all means at their disposal and particularly in the economic, commercial and financial spaces to compete with us, that, you know, untying our hand from behind our back and beginning to sort of use various sorts of economic tools was something that we would have to consider much more strongly.

And so to me, there’s a lot of continuity here from the kinds of things that you had folks in the Department of Defense, as well as Penny Pritzker at the Commerce Department, in the Obama administration, in which they’re looking at sort of Chinese industrial policies, how they harm the United States, how they sort of undermine elements of our national security and our allies, and that we would begin to have to wrestle with; what do we do in response to this and that, in true sort of Washington fashion. That’s a messy debate that unfolds over time. But because we can discuss these things out in the open at a certain point in time, you begin to have a degree of of consensus forming that ultimately we’re in a different position than we had been a decade before with Beijing.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, Matt, I want to switch to China directly, if that’s OK. And I want to ask you two questions. And to be honest, the second of which, I have a hard time finding someone to answer with the kind of precision that I think is necessary to kind of bring the country along with us here. The first question is, can you describe the world order that China would like to see? In other words, what would the world look like if China achieves its ambitions? And how would that be different from the way it looks today?

MATT TURPIN: Yeah. Well, I think it looks like a 19th century world in which you create a world that is sort of pre-international norms and rules in which states can exercise their policies and their desires with a degree of freedom. That the power is essentially the only thing that is a determinant of whether they’re able to do it or not.

Certainly Beijing has benefited economically over the past four decades from a stable international order that allows them to grow as an economic power and as a wider sort of national power. But I also believe it’s quite clear that they view those conditions as constraints on Beijing achieving what the party lays out for itself and certainly what Xi Jinping, both. I think the amazing continuity between the speech he gave as an inaugural speech and in January of 2013 to the Central Committee as he took power and the one that he gave on the 100th anniversary of of the Chinese Communist Party, viewing the party and the Chinese nation in a sort of historical struggle to remake the international system, to secure what Beijing thinks and particularly the party thinks is the appropriate ways for their governance to run. And that would look very different than an idea of rule of law, of separation of power, of transparency.

And while I don’t think that Beijing seeks to to install the clone of the Chinese Communist Party in every country around the world, it doesn’t want a system that confines or undermines Beijing’s ability to achieve what it wants to do. So it’s much more for them about themselves and that the rest of the world needs to get out of the way as opposed to making the rest of the world look like them.

MICHAEL MORELL: A couple of kind of sub-questions. First to that first one, what does Beijing want to use its unconstrained power for? Is it to sustain their economy and sustain the party? Is it for other reasons, that power that they want to use in that unconstrained way? What’s the bottom line for them? What’s the objective?

MATT TURPIN: I think there is a sort of a wide debate, right? Some of the debate within the community of China watchers and those that are looking at one side of it, I think, sees that China simply wants to realize a pure status in the world and then take its place within an international system and then make minor changes around the edges of that international system.

I think that’s a wishful idea that certainly is an idea that we in both the United States and probably our friends in Europe and Japan, could reconcile with; we could reconcile if that was the extent of Beijing’s desires. I’m increasingly concerned, and I think there are plenty of others that watch as well, that that Beijing actually has a much broader set of intentions The PRC views itself in the broad national rejuvenation of the Chinese nation and that the PRC’s rightful place is at the center of of the global order, and that until that the global order is nearly completely reordered around the parties intentions, that it won’t be enough in that there are many other things that they view in sort of a nationalist sense as crimes against the Chinese nation that took place in the 19th and 20th centuries that would need to be rectified. And that, you know, those are certainly around borders and and are about sort of re-establishing the PRC’s place in the world, and so I think that’s sort of a nationalist angle of it.

But I think there is also sort of deep party ideology. You know, there’s a tendency for us to think that the Chinese Communist Party is not communist and that they don’t actually believe in the ideology that comes from a Marxism, Leninism and Stalinist background about party organization and about how the party should rule. And its mission in essentially achieving your broad social revolution. And I think to a certain degree, that’s again, also wishful thinking on our part. It’s really convenient for us to want to think that the communism of of the Communist Party, the Soviet Union, has been relegated to the dustbin of history and that are our friends in Beijing have learned that that’s not the way to go. But increasingly, it appears that that that language and that ideology infuses much of what the party says to itself.

And I tend to think as a historian, I tend to think that folks, when they make speeches and and write papers and and continuously harp on things, right, that they’re in a long term struggle between socialism and capitalism, that they actually believe some of those things, that those terms and that language is not simply thrown out as fluff on the side of a broader speech, but are actually the centerpiece of what the party believes.

And certainly Xi Jinping believes, right, that they believe that there is a broad ideological struggle going on about, you know, different forms of governance and testing of which system is better. And so for the United States, if we’re interested in maintaining an international system which privileges democracies, which privileges the rule of law and privileges individual rights, then we likely have to stand up for that. It isn’t going to happen on its own. And the PRC would prefer a world where those values are not privileged. And that what you see is actually the privileging of an aristocracy or aristocracy inside the PRC, you know, privileging the idea that that the state controls outcomes and does so for the benefit of the ruling regime as opposed to its individual citizens. And many of the things that we would want to see is further progress in from it, from a US perspective and for other democracies would be very difficult in a kind of world that was reordered around what Beijing has in mind.

MICHAEL MORELL: You mentioned Xi’s speech at the 100th anniversary of the founding of the party. And one of the things that I found interesting about the speech, and I’d love to get your reaction to this, is it didn’t sound like the country that was ready to take its place at the center of things. Right. It sounded to me like there was a lot of insecurity in the speech. And I’m wondering if you sense the same thing and if so, why that tone? Do they really feel like they’re not quite there yet? To what extent are they worried about us? Where do you think that tone came from?

MATT TURPIN: Certainly that tone did not arise last week, right? I mean, there’s this long-standing paradox. You’re within the Chinese Communist Party, but ultimately with another sort of authoritarian sort of Leninist model parties in which a relatively small band of elites seeks to claim exclusive rule that can’t be challenged and that part of the ways they legitimize that rule is by trying to assure their population that any potential benefit that they might want, that they have gained or what they want in the future can only come through the stabilizing force of that aristocracy and that without them, that the country would fall into chaos and that everything would be disastrous.

And I think that for the Chinese Communist Party, that is a well ingrained concept, deeply, deeply established. But I think that they have to continuously struggle with the fact that there are are just a lot of places in the world where ruling parties get voted out of power and the entire society doesn’t collapse, and it suggests that maybe that entire sort of ideology that they have, that they must be allowed to continue to rule, no matter what. And that if they don’t rule, that complete disaster faces the nation. It’s without a significant effort to continuously sort of stress that propaganda position. Right. That assertion that folks begin to ask questions about, is that really true? And so I think that is one of the underlying things. It’s almost as if it’s a shrill sort of language of, you know, we are unstoppable and our legitimacy and rule is completely unquestionable. You know, the lady doth protest too much.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, Matt, the second question I wanted to ask you is what are the specific downsides to us, to the United States and China achieving the world that they’re trying to create? You know, would our standard of living be lower than it otherwise would be? Would our privacy and civil liberties be put at risk? Would the world be a less stable place, et cetera, et cetera? You know, in other words, how to explain to somebody in the United States why we should see China as such a significant challenge and to treat it as such.

MATT TURPIN: We could take any number of these angles, but maybe I’ll start with the economic side. There was a thesis broadly held across policy communities that by allowing China into the WTO, even though it had not become a market economy, so even though it didn’t essentially follow the ideas of free markets and hadn’t implemented the policies that would have the states step out of control of of economic policy or step out of control of how prices were determined and things like that, which which was the standard that we had set for nearly every other country to join the WTO, that there had been this theory that through comparative advantages and and everything else, that we would find ourselves in a significantly better position and we would have resulted in sort of political liberalization within the PRC. But we didn’t get the second. But increasingly it was clear and certainly by by early 2016, you have a number of economists writing about the China Shock, the implications of what China’s entry into the WTO, their failure to fulfill their commitments to the entry into the WTO. So they were not a market economy yet, but they essentially had made commitments that they would become a market economy, they would continue liberalization reforms. But those liberalization reforms really began to taper off significantly as China entered the WTO. And certainly the Chinese state never stepped away from an idea that they would be the ultimate arbiter of how the economy ran and while we saw a blossoming of private enterprise, we also saw continued intervention and subsidisation, which then undermined US manufacturing and and undermined a number of parts of the US economy.

And I think it was it was it was the announcement of China’s policy of Made in China 2025 in 2015 which essentially laid out that what China had done to low value manufacturing, textiles and simple electronics and and various industrials, that they would take those same tactics and apply them to high value manufacturing, which for the United States, for Japan, for Korea, for our European friends, this was the lifeblood of our economic prosperity and that the PRC would begin to apply those same tactics to be able to gain national champions and execute the same sort of playbook on high value manufacturing, which really sits at the centerpiece of all of US economic prosperity. And that if that were to play out, that it would be extremely damaging to our own prosperity.

And so what we had seen happen across the Rust Belt, you know, where U.S. manufacturing was carved out as you move to lower cost labor inside the PRC, a period of what was called globalization. But I think it was really much more accurately to be seen as hyper concentration of manufacturing on the east coast of China, that created real impacts inside the United States in terms of of economic prosperity. And certainly the other claims that that while consumers can purchase things for less money, but if you’re not making a paycheck, slightly less cost is really not all that much of a bomb to that broader problem of of losing your livelihood.

And so I think that is what we saw going forward from an economic perspective, if Beijing achieves what it is laying out that it wants to be able to do, we could go on to what the world would look like. But I think one aspect of it is that that you will be very much limited into what you can say and think. So if you touch on things that the party objects to, that there will be sort of extraterritorial reach of how your thoughts are regulated, what you can see on the Internet, what you can be allowed to say.

We’ve seen American citizens inside the United States be coerced and retaliated against for things that they would say online and that would generally find itself established across the world. And we would find ourselves in just a very much less free area and that countries would feel obliged to limit the the the speech and protests of their own citizens in order to stay on the right side of Beijing. And to me, that’s a very disturbing world to find ourselves in.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, Matt, what will determine who wins this competition? Who wins this struggle for what the world is going to look like?

MATT TURPIN: I’ve often compared us to sort of being in an endless relay race and that each of us has a race to run, but there isn’t necessarily a clear finish line. It is a matter of of making ourselves better. And certainly I think the Biden administration has come out very strong in laying out its case about in a long term competition with with authoritarian states like the one that is represented by the Chinese Communist Party, that we need to make ourselves better.

And that’s a critical component of it, and I’m optimistic to see the kinds of things that are being put forward to be able to realize that. But obviously, that isn’t the only thing that you’ve got to be able to do. I mean, you also want to make sure that it’s costly for your competitor to achieve their objectives. And that requires both a combination of carrots and sticks to help you achieve your objectives and undermine your competitor from achieving their objectives. And that makes it sort of wrong with some folks who would think that, you know, what we should be striving for is full on cooperation. I wish that were the world we lived in, but it would appear, you know, very clearly to me that that is not the sort of approach that Beijing wants. They would want us to cooperate with their objectives while they compete strenuously to achieve their own objectives and undermine ours. And that’s just sort of the world that we live in. And so I think that’s kind of what we’ve got right now.

MICHAEL MORELL: So how do you think this ends? There is no finish line, of course, but are you optimistic? Are you pessimistic about our ability to compete with this country and its vision of the world?

MATT TURPIN: I’m very optimistic.I think we should be very confident in our ability to compete over the long term. You know, we need to understand what the stakes are. But Americans and our friends around the world who also enjoy this international system, as we are motivated to be able to protect what we value, I think that we have enormous advantages. And I think, what you brought up earlier about the tone inside Xi Jinping’s speech, as well as the tone that we’ve seen, whether it’s through wolf warrior diplomacy or various other areas, it suggests a real deep concern inside the Communist Party about their ability over time to be able to do this.

And so I think we should be confident, but that does not mean that it will be easy. We will have to make sacrifices and invest significant resources to be able to do this over time. But I think the kind of world we want in the future is worth those investments and we shouldn’t shy away from them. We should also be very open and discuss it amongst ourselves; there isn’t, it is not as if all of these things are over and the debate is over and that we just have to resign ourselves to to a long term competition. I welcome that we have a long term debate about this and that we continuously have had the discussion out there, because obviously Beijing could choose another direction. And if they chose to do so, we should welcome that. If they chose to essentially say, ‘There are things that we’re going to align with the United States and other democracies on reinforcing,’ we should be ready to accept that. But cautious of their intentions, but absolutely ready to embrace it should they choose to do so.

MICHAEL MORELL: but really make the investments we need to make here at home and push back on them and make their life more difficult if they go in the wrong direction.

MATT TURPIN: Right. And I think we also need to be aware that that tactic, that strategy that you just described, very well, will elicit from Beijing the ideas that will lead to sort of inevitable conflict and that we should abandon that strategy. And I think that’s also a degree of real concern because that approach – Do our own thing better and compete with them vigorously and build alliances to be able to make that happen – is what scares Beijing, right. And one of the things they will seek to do to sort of take us off that game is to try to convince us that by pushing back against them, it will lead to conflict and war and catastrophe. And and I think we should you know, we should remain mindful of that. But we should not let that kind of language deter us from from doing the kinds of things that we probably know are right to do.

MICHAEL MORELL: Matt, thank you so much for joining us. This has been a great discussion and we hope to have you back again sometime.

MATT TURPIN: Thank you, Michael. 

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