PacNet #32 – China: The Forgotten Nuclear Power No More

New evidence has surfaced that China may be expanding its nuclear arsenal much more and much faster than previously assumed, as experts from the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies obtained satellite images showing work underway on the construction of well over 100 new missile silos near Yumen. The evidence, which dropped June 30, has since focused the minds of US national security experts, as expected given Washington’s description of China as America’s “pacing threat.”

The discussion is still fluid, but two interpretations are emerging. One offers that China is reacting to US actions and that Washington should pursue arms control with Beijing—negotiate to get both sides to limit their forces and avoid an arms race. The other interpretation holds that the new discovery means that there is a nuclear dimension to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s promise that China will have “the dominant position” in the world by 2049, and that Washington should double down on deterrence, including by fully modernizing its nuclear arsenal and more.

Yet neither negotiating arms control nor strengthening deterrence are straightforward solutions, nor are they necessarily mutually exclusive. The Chinese nuclear arsenal, like other facets of Chinese power, is going to be an enduring problem for the United States. As Adm. John Aquilino, the new Commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, put it during his confirmation hearing earlier this year: “China is a long-term challenge that must be ‘managed’ rather than ‘solved.’”

The Arms Control Response

Anyone with a cursory knowledge of US-China strategic relations is aware that the United States is a major driver of China’s nuclear modernization program. Beijing is concerned by Washington’s nuclear superiority and its improved ability to find and destroy Chinese forces, or to intercept them with missile defenses. China, plainly, fears that the United States might become capable of putting it in checkmate, achieving what Chinese diplomats call “absolute security.”

To solve that problem, Beijing has been expanding and perfecting its arsenal. In addition to building more nuclear weapons, it is investing in road-mobile missiles and sea-based platforms because these systems make it more difficult for Washington to target its forces, and it is adding multiple independent reentry vehicles to its missiles to penetrate US missile defenses. Of late, Beijing also seems to have embraced tactical nuclear use and nuclear warfighting options. In unofficial dialogues, Chinese strategists make clear that China’s modernization program is directed at the United States and, by extension, its allies.

Countering the United States and its allies is not the sole driver, however. In private discussions, Chinese strategists confess that Beijing is increasingly motivated by nuclear developments in India; as one such strategist explained, “Beijing now regards India as a deterrence problem, not as a proliferation problem.” Chinese strategists are less forthcoming when asked whether Beijing considers Russia when it does defense planning, but some admit that it is a factor. While it is unclear if North Korea impacts Chinese calculations, it would be foolish to assume that defense planners in Beijing do not also contemplate conflict with their nuclear-armed neighbor given their complicated relationship. Finally, analysts have explained that domestic and organizational factors are driving the Chinese modernization program as well.

The idea that a US push for arms control with China could solve the problem, then, is not obvious. It’s also not as if the United States has never tried. Since the 2000s, Washington has sought to jump-start bilateral nuclear dialogue with Beijing for that purpose. Yet neither Washington’s initial “patient” approach nor, from the mid-2010s, its more confrontational stance has yielded results. Beijing has declined to engage.

The United States could try harder. Chinese strategists have long insisted that a US statement recognizing that the United States and China are in a situation of mutual vulnerability would help establish a foundation upon which US-China strategic stability can be built, despite the asymmetry of forces between the two countries. Put differently, a US “vulnerability acknowledgement” could entice Beijing to engage in dialogue and arms control.

Research currently conducted by this author, however, suggests that it is not a given and that, in any case, an agreement would not emerge quickly. So, deterrence will play an important—and possibly growing—role in US-China relations regardless of whether there is movement on arms control.

The Deterrence Response

The deterrers, unlike the arms controllers, think that engaging China is pointless. They believe that the latest news makes clear that China seeks nuclear parity with, perhaps even dominance over, the United States, and they argue that Washington should counter with a major nuclear update.

Without minimizing the problem, maintaining perspective about China’s nuclear build-up is essential. The US Department of Defense estimates that China’s stockpile is in the low hundreds—a fraction of the US and Russian stockpiles, which are in the low thousands. So, neither a doubling, tripling, or even quadrupling of China’s stockpile would come close to US and Russian stockpile levels.

It is also unclear whether China seeks nuclear parity or dominance. Some analysts have opined that the latest evidence may show Beijing playing a “shell game,” i.e., move a small number of missiles across a big matrix of silos to prevent its adversaries from locating the missiles. It is a possibility worth considering, especially given that the United States has systematically over-predicted the future size of the Chinese arsenal.

More problematic, focusing on the quantitative growth of China’s arsenal risks coming at the expense of its qualitative improvement, where Beijing has made the most progress. Beijing has not only strengthened the survivability of its forces, but it also seems to have developed new missions. With its new intermediate-range, dual-capable missiles, Beijing is now capable of limited nuclear counterforce use. Beijing is also improving the readiness of its force, including by mating warheads with missiles (a first for China), and possibly moving towards a launch-on-warning posture. Moreover, Beijing has been increasing its cyber and space power, and it is developing an integrated deterrence posture, notably through its Strategic Support Force.

This overview suggests that China poses little risk of nuclear aggression against the United States, and that this will remain unchanged in the foreseeable future. That risk was high in the US-Soviet context during the Cold War, and it has not disappeared in US-Russia relations today. It is low in the US-China context because the Chinese arsenal is and will remain limited in comparison to the US arsenal. China will simply not have a first-user advantage against the United States.

The risk, however, is one of nuclear escalation in a conflict. With a more sophisticated arsenal, Beijing could become more aggressive at the conventional level, which could lead to wars and nuclear use. One pathway to such use is a situation in which China is losing a war (for instance over Taiwan) and launches limited nuclear strikes to force the United States to give up the fight. Another is a situation in which, again during a war, the United States hits Chinese nuclear forces with conventional weapons, prompting Beijing to go nuclear with its remaining forces. This is not far-fetched given the increasingly entanglement between Chinese nuclear and conventional forces.

To be sure, the open-ended nature of China’s nuclear build-up raises legitimate questions for the United States about nuclear policy, strategy, and force planning, especially given that Washington, for the first time, faces two major nuclear-armed adversaries—Russia and China—that are growing their forces (and deepening their strategic cooperation). US nuclear deterrence is also important because it provides an essential backstop to out-of-control escalation.

But doubling down on nuclear deterrence will do little to address the rising risk of conflict and limited nuclear escalation with China. This problem is best solved with stronger conventional deterrence and tighter alliance relationships—to deter Chinese adventurism below the nuclear threshold—and, if there is a conflict, good crisis management with Beijing—to prevent nuclear escalation, at least inadvertent escalation. So, even from a deterrence perspective, there is a role for engagement with China. This is important, and worth noting that the 1963 US-Soviet “hotline” agreement—a crisis management mechanism—was a prelude to arms control.

Just over 20 years ago, a few analysts lamented that China was a “forgotten nuclear power.” Today, Russia is still the United States’ primary nuclear problem, but China is taking center stage. Addressing nuclear China will be challenging, and neither arms control nor deterrence will, alone, be enough. The United States needs a more sophisticated approach, one for which it can—and should—lay down markers in the next US Nuclear Posture Review.

David Santoro ( is President and CEO of the Pacific Forum. He is the editor of a new volume on US-China Nuclear Relations: The Impact of Strategic Triangles (Lynne Rienner, May 2021). Follow him on Twitter @DavidSantoro1

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PacNet #31 – The Structural Limits of the Supply Chain Resilience Initiative

As a hub of global economic activity and great power tensions, the Indo-Pacific is home to an increasing number of minilateral arrangements shaping the future of the region. Groupings like the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), as well as the Japan-America-India, Australia-Japan-India, and France-Australia-India trilaterals demonstrate this trend. The Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI), launched in April 2021 and complementing the Australia-Japan-India trilateral, is the latest such venture.

China’s deep integration in the international financial system and status as “factory of the world” make global supply chains unsustainably China-centric. COVID-19 revealed many states’ over-dependence on China-centered value chains, and the SCRI seeks to reconfigure global supply chain networks to overcome such vulnerabilities.

The SCRI seeks to ensure global supply chains remain resilient to future “black swan” events, such as pandemics and geopolitical tensions. With several states prioritizing supply chain risk diversification, the SCRI can also further Indo-Pacific economic security dialogue between like-minded nations. Importantly, the SCRI can help balance against China’s rapidly expanding influence, including through the Belt and Road Initiative.

Yet, despite its merits, the SCRI faces considerable structural limitations.

Firstly, although primarily a geo-economic mechanism, the SCRI risks losing focus amid the intensifying regional power rivalry. The initiative is a product of strategic necessity brought about by the pandemic, yet this emphasis on supply chain management is frequently ignored in media and scholarship in favor of strategic positioning vis-a-vis China. Yet, like Japan’s Expanded Partnership for Quality Infrastructure and India’s Act East Policy, the SCRI is not necessarily an anti-China venture.

China-dependent supply chains are a major concern for both smaller and major powers across many critical sectors, including essential pharmaceutical products, food, and industrial raw materials. However, the SCRI does not aim to entirely re-route existing supply chains; this would require complete economic decoupling from China, an unfeasible (and undesirable) goal considering Beijing’s economic clout. Instead, it seeks to build alternative, resilient supply chains to reduce over-dependency, diversify risk, and enhance ability to absorb future market disruptions. Rather than isolating China, the aim is to ensure national economies can withstand adversity. The focus on enhancing cooperation with like-minded nations is drawn on the imperative of building “a free, fair, inclusive, non-discriminatory, transparent, predictable and stable trade and investment environment.” The focus on inclusivity implies openness to dialogue (or participation) with all nations committed to similar ideals—even China.

Secondly, the SCRI remains far-fetched, even overly ambitious. Despite their broad-based synergy on China (or matters relating to China), the main proponents of the SCRI—Australia, India, and Japan—have gaps in their global multilateral practices, including trade and economic outlooks. This will limit the progress of the SCRI. For instance, Japan’s reluctance to support the expansion of the G7 to include India and Australia highlights how national interest considerations supersede any prospects of regional cooperation. Japan is a trading economy, and supply chains are critical to its growth. This is not true for India, which prioritizes manufacturing and innovation, even while aspiring to enhance integration with other economies before it can emerge as a trading nation. These differences could impact the SCRI’s direction and the importance each state gives it.

Thirdly, no clear vision currently exists among SCRI founders on how to shape their initiative. To succeed, a clear plan or charter is vital. The lack of a guiding document risks hampering cooperation, as has been the case with the Quad and Quad-plus, which has only picked up steam over the past year amid increased tensions with China. A similar problem emerged with the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. Although India and Australia became AIIB members, Japan and the United States opposed it. With RCEP, Japan and Australia could not continue engaging (or supporting) India, displaying a lack of coordination and resulting in New Delhi’s withdrawal from this mega-trade deal.

These examples show the need for a common understanding, agreed framework, and concentrated dialogue to shape and implement the initiative. A charter would be useful in laying down expectations and requirements for the SCRI. As founding members consider the SCRI’s expansion “based on consensus” and acknowledge the importance of business and academia in further developing it, a charter could be critical in coding and committing to an “inclusive” outlook. A formal document would also mitigate criticisms that the initiative is a cartel or “anti-China,” potentially opening the door to induction for Beijing (or even to countries aligned strongly with Beijing) and allowing the Australia-Japan-India trilateral a rulebook to regulate China’s actions.

Fourthly, the SCRI remains limited to its founding members. With its focus on recalibrating global supply chains, expansion to include the United States must be explored. This would make the SCRI a derivative of the Quad, strengthening the Indo-Pacific concept and furthering their supply chain goals. President Biden’s recent comprehensive supply chain review outlined Washington’s need to build “resilient, diverse, and secure” supply chains; SCRI integration could be a productive move forward.

Similarly, the SCRI must consider full/partial participation of key economies and economic blocs—including ASEAN, the European Union (especially France, given its Indo-Pacific focus), and the United Kingdom. Several such entities, including the United States and ASEAN, have sought to reconfigure supply chains to reduce dependence on China and increase resiliency, but made no concerted effort in this direction. While the SCRI might be an Asian exercise, its ambition to create diverse, expansive, inclusive, and resilient supply chains mandates involvement by other major and middle-ranked economies everywhere. Moreover, the participation of technologically advanced actors beyond Asia would prove crucial given the SCRI’s focus on digital technologies. 

The SCRI’s success will depend on inroads it can make with ASEAN. With Australia-Japan-India at its core, the SCRI promotes inclusivity and multipolarity, but also seeks to build Asia-driven (or Indo-Pacific-driven) supply chains. Japan and India are key East Asian and South Asian economic powers; Australia is a major Indo-Pacific actor closely connected to Asia. In relative comprehensive national power, the Lowy Institute’s 2020 Asia Index placed Japan third in the region, India fourth, Australia sixth, and the United States first (with China a close second). Connecting with ASEAN will be economically lucrative and promote the SCRI’s “Asian” vision.

Despite its merits, the SCRI is structurally limited right now. Yet with economic transformation and post-pandemic recovery shaping regional power distribution, the expectations for the SCRI are immense. To meet expectations, the Australia-Japan-India trilateral must acknowledge the challenges and shape the initiative adequately to overcome them.

Dr. Jagannath Panda ( is a Research Fellow and Centre Coordinator for East Asia at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Dr. Panda is the Series Editor for “Routledge Studies on Think Asia.”

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PacNet #30 – “Moderate” Strategies on China Put Necessary Defense Measures at Risk

A broad policy consensus in Washington, now entering its fourth year, has directed the Biden administration and bipartisan majorities in Congress regarding China. This has resulted in unprecedented legislative initiatives and broad-ranging systematic policies targeting the challenges posed by Chinese behavior at home and abroad. The stakes are seen as high and the need for effective action urgent. A strong perception of danger and need for prompt countermeasures has been at the center of determinants explaining the policy consensus on China since 2018, despite the acute partisanship in the capital.

The challenges involve:

  • Chinese military advances to counter and, if needed, destroy American forces
  • closer collaboration with Vladimir Putin’s Russia targeting US interests
  • continuing state-directed development polices to plunder foreign intellectual property rights and undermine international competitors
  • building and exploiting economic dependencies via the Belt and Road Initiative and other means
  • fostering corrupt and authoritarian governments against the West
  • coercing neighbors to defer to China’s demands
  • using hidden influence operations for subversive ends, and
  • disregarding international law and accepted diplomatic practices.

If successful, the Chinese efforts are predicted to undermine and replace the existing world order with one dominated by an authoritarian party-state focused on advancing Chinese wealth and power at the expense of others. A sense of urgency prevails in Washington, as Beijing has reached “peer competitor” capacities, threatening to dislodge the United States from Asia and overtake it as leader in high-technology industries of the future, thereby establishing China as the world’s economic leader with the most modern and capable military forces.

Strategies Emphasizing Nuance and Moderation

A number of specialists argue that existing US countermeasures have gone too far; they favor a more moderate and nuanced approach in carefully crafted strategies that would avoid exaggerating the threat posed by China and allow for easing of potentially dangerous tensions, and resuming or enhancing US-China collaboration. Unfortunately, these well-crafted policy proposals give little attention to what this writer sees as a more important objective: continuing strong efforts to develop effective American defenses to the challenges posed by China. Without such defenses, Chinese authorities will outmaneuver existing US efforts to deal with China from a position of strength, setting the stage for policy failure.

Flaws in Current Policy

While much has been done in recent years, there are flaws in existing US countermeasures defending against Chinese challenges, especially in two areas:

  1. Chinese authorities are resorting to unprecedented efforts to outmaneuver US-led restrictions on high technology exports to, and acquisitions by, Chinese firms in semiconductor and related software industries. Indirectly or directly cooperative with Chinese authorities in these efforts are a range of US and international firms, advocacy groups, and highly trained specialists pursuing their respective interests. In the process, these groups are assisting Chinese government-led efforts to undermine existing US restrictions and to emerge dominant in this field. US policy has yet to come to a clear judgment on what the US government should do in response as China raises the stakes in this arena of US-China competition. Chinese abilities to influence US and foreign firms, advocacy groups, and experts remains strong, and the latter in turn are essential constituencies in US politics, and important for US economic growth and other interests.
  2. Many US firms, universities, and experts that will be recipients of the tens of billions of dollars being proposed for US high-tech competition with China are often well-integrated with Chinese entities and fellow specialists. Many of their high-tech achievements come through cross-border collaborations that, if stopped, are predicted to reduce their capacity for innovation. How US government policymakers can be secure, under existing circumstances, that the advances they fund will not come into the hands of Chinese authorities remains to be seen.

The problem for US policymakers in these two areas is how to develop and sustain effective defenses in the acute rivalry with China over semiconductors and high-tech industries of the future, while taking into account the interests of US advanced technology companies and experts, as well as those from other developed countries allied with the United States. Right now, there remain important flaws, and they appear important in determining the success or failure of current US policy.

Addressing these flaws in ways that influence the firms and experts to seek their interests in ways that align with US national interests appears unlikely if, as recommended by the specialists, the political atmosphere in Washington plays down the danger China poses and reduces the sense of urgency for effective countermeasures. A prevailing sense of danger and urgency may thus be what is needed to get the firms and individuals benefiting from collaboration with China to adjust their actions.

To conclude, one could use an analogy from American football. The highly nuanced US strategies urging a more relaxed and moderate posture toward China without adequate treatment of important defensive measures resemble an overconfident, well-planned passing game without adequate attention needed for an effective defensive ground game.

Robert Sutter ( is Professor of Practice of International Affairs at George Washington University, USA.

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PacNet #26 –Why Australia Needs an Indo-Pacific National Strategy

An earlier version of this article was published in The Australian.

The events of the past few years have demonstrated that Australia’s strategy for dealing with the rise of China is out of date. It requires a serious and systematic rethink. We cannot go back to the halcyon days of Whitlam, Hawke, and Howard. We can’t go on improvising in an ad hoc manner. Nor can we move forward safely on the lines urged by those, such as Hugh White, who assert that China’s dominance is inevitable and the end of American hegemony in East Asia at hand. Rather, we need to reframe our strategic planning and diplomacy in Indo-Pacific terms.

Xi Jinping has demonstrated that misgivings about of his regime and his overweening strategic ambitions are warranted. He has shown that China under his aegis is not our friend. A trusting relationship with Xi’s China is next to impossible. He requires acquiescence and submission. That’s the context for Home Affairs Secretary Mike Pezzullo’s remarks about the drums of war. We don’t want and won’t accept subordination to Beijing. None of our substantial Asian neighbors, from Delhi to Tokyo, wants subordination either.

We handled relations with China well over the past 40 to 50 years, including disagreements over various things. We have profited handsomely from its long boom. We are still so profiting. Australian Industry Group chief executive Innes Willox urges that we bear this in mind and tread carefully.

But Xi’s China is at a profound watershed economically, politically, and geopolitically. We need a strategy for hedging against possible turbulence. The elements of such a strategy are at hand, but it needs far better articulation. It hasn’t yet been thought through, much less institutionalized as our strategy for the China boom largely was, under Hawke, Keating and Howard.

China under Xi is menacing, but also brittle, not rising relentlessly. The immense expenditure it is putting into surveillance, repression, censorship, indoctrination, trolling, and propaganda shows how insecure it is. Its attempts to corrupt or coerce many foreign governments betray a lack of ease or self-assurance, rather than a mastery of the game. It seeks to bully because it lacks the capacity to lead. Our strategy must play on these things.

Audrye Wong, of the Harvard Grand Strategy, Security and Statecraft program, points out, in her essay “How not to win allies and influence geopolitics” that wherever transparency and accountable government rule, China’s attempts to suborn or corrupt foreign states are floundering. We’ve begun to show that in this country. Beijing needs to learn that leadership must be earned, not brusquely asserted. Its assertiveness is alienating many, not buttressing the case for a Chinese-led order. That’s why there’s the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad)—between the United States, Japan, India and Australia.

In a long front-page piece for the Saturday Paper a few weeks ago, Hugh White reiterated his familiar mantra that China will soon be the largest economy in the world; that, therefore, its will can’t be thwarted and a new Chinese-dominated order is inevitable. He concedes this would be much less to our liking than the US-led order. What he doesn’t allow is that most other countries in Asia feel the same about this. Some favor a rebalancing. Almost none favor Chinese hegemony.

White concluded that coping with the looming Chinese hegemony would require “hard work, deep thought and subtle execution.” Unfortunately, he’s never spelled out the nature of that work, the “deep thought” required or how “subtle execution” would handle a domineering China. Those inclined to his strategic outlook fail to allow that it is only in coordination with our Asian neighbors (especially the heavyweights among them) backed by the still formidable power of the United States, that we could possibly conduct a “subtle” relationship with China. There is, after all, nothing subtle about the way Xi Jinping does business—at home or abroad.

It needs to be made clear to Xi and his Party colleagues that his approach to international affairs is counterproductive. It should be indicated diplomatically, but clearly and firmly, that should China resort to force against its neighbors, including Taiwan, this would set off a chain reaction. That would itself be very costly to China’s own enduring interests—regardless of whether it prevailed in the immediate instance. This is what the Quad is all about—not ill-will towards China, but growing concern about its assertiveness and military build-up.

Should the time come when the rest of Asia, from India to Japan, felt at ease with China’s wealth and power, the American military presence in the Indo-Pacific might become redundant. For as long as China hectors and bullies the rest of us, this is unlikely and undesirable. The clearest index of Beijing’s failure in this regard has been its escalating threats to use force against Taiwan, a self-governing and prosperous state four times the size of Singapore.

Certainly, deep thought and subtle execution are demanded in rethinking and readjusting our strategic and foreign policies. Where White and those like him are in serious error is in their apparent belief that we could successfully do this in bilateral relations with China after the United States had withdrawn its military presence and security guarantees from East Asia and the Indo-Pacific. We need those things precisely in order to induce Beijing to see a slow and equitable rebalancing as preferrable to any attempt to force a radical revision of global order.

The problem is not China’s wealth. It’s an assertive dictatorship in Beijing. Xi’s actions and ambitions have rendered long-cherished assumptions about China invalid. Talk about the “drums of war” is symptomatic of growing alarm. However, our foreign and strategic policy responses had been rather reactive, well before COVID-19 precipitated confrontation.

Disarray concerning the Darwin port, Huawei, and the Victorian Belt and Road agreement betrayed an underlying lack of strategic cohesion. That is not serving us well. The federal government needs to reframe the strategic narrative from first principles.

This isn’t a matter of a white paper or green paper. More than three decades ago the Hawke government released Ross Garnaut’s epochal report Australia and the Northeast Asian Ascendancy. Thirty years on, we need an authoritative report of comparable scope on Australia, commerce, diplomacy, and security in the future of the Indo-Pacific.

Rory Medcalf, Director of the National Security College at the ANU, in his book Contest for the Indo-Pacific: Why China Won’t Map the Future (2020), set the stage. What’s now needed is a report on Australia and the Indo-Pacific future based on probing questions of Medcalf’s reasonings—to inform public debate and the deliberations of the National Security Committee of Cabinet.

Paul Monk (paulmonk@gmail.comwas the head of the China desk in the Defence Intelligence Organization in 1994-95, has lectured on modern Chinese politics and is the author of Thunder From the Silent Zone: Rethinking China (2005) and Dictators and Dangerous Ideas (2018) among other books.

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PacNet #25 – Improving US-China Crisis Communications—Thinking Beyond the Air and Sea

As the Pentagon’s China Task Force prepares to deliver its final report to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin next month, one of the key issues on the table is how to strengthen US-China crisis communications. The focus is likely to center on improving safety for air and maritime encounters near China’s borders and handling crises if they occur. This is logical given the occasional “near misses” between US and Chinese forces—a repeat of the 2001 EP-3 incident could be a disaster. But there are already rules on the books and misaligned interests mean that encouraging China to enforce them will be difficult. US policymakers should not overlook the chance of productive talks for crises in other domains, including on land and in nuclear, space, and cyber, where the rules are more ambiguous and both sides have reasons for restraint.

Crisis communications talks can be useful under two conditions: incomplete mechanisms or “rules of the road” that require new agreements and common interests that promote enforcement and refinement of existing rules. The Obama administration focused on air and maritime cooperation because of the lack of concrete agreements. The 1998 Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (MMCA), created after the 1995-96 Taiwan Strait crisis, provided a venue for the two sides to discuss maritime incidents but lacked the detailed protocols that Washington had reached with Moscow in the 1972 Incidents at Sea agreement. Driven by leadership from both Obama and Xi, the two sides agreed to a similar protocol for US-China naval encounters in 2014; an annex covering air incidents was added the following year. Encouraged by Washington, China also agreed to follow the multilateral Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea at the Western Pacific Naval Symposium in 2014.

With detailed rules already on the books, the next step for both sides should be greater enforcement and consultation when incidents do happen. The problem is that the incentives for each side are misaligned. Washington seeks the predictability and stability of safe air and naval encounters, but China’s strategy for dissuading the United States from operating freely in the Western Pacific or intervening on behalf of an ally (or Taiwan) benefits from the “costly signal” offered by dangerous intercepts—one example was a September 2018 close call in which a Chinese destroyer maneuvered within 45 yards of the USS Decatur in the South China Sea. Chinese representatives, with less to lose, also refused to participate in an MMCA dialogue scheduled for December 2020. Crisis communications talks are of little value when one side refuses to follow existing protocols or participate in discussions.

Given the challenges for making current agreements stick, US officials should have low expectations for “more communications channels and mechanisms” in these domains, as Kurt Campbell and Jake Sullivan put it in 2019. One idea occasionally discussed is expanding the naval agreement to cover the Chinese Coast Guard and the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia, which have been involved in several tense incidents with US ships over the years, or to include representatives from these forces in the MMCA. But China’s incentive is to retain maximum flexibility of these assets, which are helpful in a “gray zone” campaign of gradually expanding control of contested regions without resorting to war. Thus, Beijing has shown little willingness to expand the regime to include “white hull” ships.

There have also been periodic calls for a maritime and air “hotline,” such as a link between the US Indo-Pacific Command and a PLA theater command. The two sides have managed to establish three hotlines so far: a presidential link in 1998, a link connecting the defense ministries in 2008, and space hotline in 2015. However, as Kurt Campbell recently noted, China has been reluctant to use these systems in real-world situations, with the phones essentially ringing out in “empty rooms.” Even if Beijing were more willing to use these systems, a new hotline linking operational forces would be of little value given the PLA’s more centralized decision-making structure.

With limited hope for progress in these domains, members of the China Task Force should look for progress elsewhere. One potential avenue is discussions on land crises. Unlike the air and maritime domains, there are no detailed protocols for how land forces can communicate and resolve crises. The two sides, to be sure, are not preparing for a land conflict against the other but could find themselves in one given a disaster on the Korean Peninsula. Lack of communication could set the stage for accidental fire incidents or miscalculations about each side’s intentions.

Historically, Beijing has had no appetite for discussing Korean contingencies with the United States, apart from some conversations among academics. Such talks, from China’s perspectives, would amount to collusion with Pyongyang’s primary enemy and thus risk narrowing China’s own leverage with the hermit kingdom. Nevertheless, China has an interest in avoiding an unnecessary clash with US and Republic of Korea forces, and discussions with the PLA do not need to be focused explicitly on Korea to have value in such a contingency. The two might, for instance, consider holding a crisis simulation tied to a terrorist threat against China’s overseas interests in which forces from both sides are part of the solution. This would help generate ideas about how both sides would operate and quickly communicate and deconflict their activities, without alienating North Korea.

Crisis communications might also be strengthened in the “strategic domains”—space, cyber, and nuclear. Like the land domain, there are no in-depth protocols between China and the United States covering conflict escalation within or between these arenas. While China has incentives to seek advantage in these domains, including targeting US infrastructure or space systems to achieve what PLA strategists call “integrated strategic deterrence” against US intervention, Beijing is also vulnerable to retaliatory strikes. Several incipient changes in China’s nuclear posture, including a move to a “launch on warning” system and advent of dual-use long-range missiles, are also creating new challenges for nuclear stability that need to be addressed. It is thus encouraging that retired Major General Yao Yunzhu, one of China’s leading authorities in crisis management, has proposed new talks on “strategic stability” in the nuclear realm, including on the targeting of nuclear command and control structures, as well as “standards, rules, and norms” for space, cyber, and artificial intelligence.

The new US administration should consider several mutually supporting ways of bringing crisis communications in these domains into the picture. Detailed talks at the Track 1.5 level might be helpful, especially if the PLA itself is represented; this may include crisis simulations testing the utility of the existing procedures or hotlines in a nuclear conflict (or highlighting the need for changes to those systems). This might be augmented by discussions of space, cyber, and nuclear issues in high-level forums such as the Defense Consultative Talks (which have been on hold since 2014). Finally, Washington should support talks involving forces that currently do not communicate much with foreigners, including the Strategic Support Force and Rocket Force. Such talks would be of use even if they shed a small amount of light into this otherwise opaque part of the PLA.

In short, expectations for new air and maritime agreements should be low and military relations may only be helpful in warding off provocative PLA moves by amplifying US messages about the consequences of conflict. Those messages can be sent diplomatically but are probably more effectively received through sustained presence, new deployments and operational concepts, and coordination with US allies and partners. If a crisis does occur, it is up to China to follow agreements on the books and use existing hotlines.

Instead, US policymakers should focus on areas where the rules aren’t already clear and there are common interests. Coming to agreements in the larger context of mutual mistrust and great power competition will be difficult, but with support of the Biden and Xi administrations, may help make crises beyond the air and maritime domains more predictable.

Dr. Joel Wuthnow ( is a senior research fellow in the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs at the US National Defense University. The views in this essay are his own and not those of NDU, the Department of Defense, or the US government. He is on Twitter @jwuthnow.

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PacNet #16 – Biden Seeking Middle Ground on China Policy

President Joseph Biden has long collaborated with colleagues with opposing views in the interest of achieving important policy accomplishments of broad national interest. In the process, he adjusts his positions on key issues, finding a middle position among competing pressures. For instance, Biden did this in deliberations among clashing Democratic members of Congress in trying to gain congressional approval of the $1.9 billion coronavirus relief plan.

Biden also demonstrated this tendency in adjusting his recent position on China. Candidate Biden’s rhetoric on China throughout active campaigning of 2019 was in line with other Democratic candidates in giving only secondary attention to China. The rhetoric contrasted sharply with the dramatic hardening of US policy carried out by the Trump administration, with bipartisan congressional support, at that time. Biden at first dismissed the danger posed by Beijing and later stressed that the United States had little to worry about as it was much more powerful than China. Ambivalent public opinion about China at this time suggested that the episodic disapproval of Chinese government practices by Biden and other Democratic Party candidates was an appropriate approach. Senior advisor Jake Sullivan agreed, judging that the “inside the beltway” discourse about the acute danger posed by China was politically unattractive and not shared by the American public. As public opinion at first gradually and then dramatically turned against the Chinese government in 2020 and the Republican Party focused on criticizing candidate Biden as soft on China, Biden turned sharply against China and attacked Trump policies as counterproductive and ineffective.

Seeking middle ground on China in 2021—key determinants

China policy is now under review by the Biden administration with final decisions likely coming only after consultations with US allies and partners and congressional decision makers, and following administration actions on more important domestic priorities. Going forward, determinants influencing how President Biden will adjust his approach and find an appropriate middle ground on China push policy in different directions. On one side are strong pressures to remain firm in the face of China’s many challenges to US interests; on the other side are determinants favoring some moderation of existing pressures. Public opinion, partisan politics and bipartisan congressional resolve along with China’s uncompromising behavior head the list of determinants favoring a sustained tough administration approach to China. US business interests and those of allies and partners along with practical need for cooperation with China on important issues argue for moderation toward China.

Sustain Toughness

Public Opinion. Longstanding ambivalence in US public opinion about China seen as late as 2019 has been replaced by overwhelming disapproval of the Chinese government in 2021. The widely used Gallup annual poll measuring US approval and disapproval of foreign governments showed unprecedented disapproval of China’s government unseen since the dark days of the Cold War. It surpassed US disapproval of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Only North Korea and Iran had higher disapproval ratings.

Concurrent polling by the Pew Research Center also showed overwhelming American disapproval of the Chinese government, with 82% not having confidence in President Xi Jinping. The polls illustrated rising American angst over Chinese challenges to the United States on eight issues involving human rights, economic practices, and security matters. Americans were seen in agreement against Chinese human rights and economic practices, but there were important partisan divides.

Partisan divisions; continuing bipartisan congressional resolve against China’s challenges. The Pew findings showed strong partisan division over the priority of US countermeasures against China. 63% of Republicans but only 36% of Democrats favored giving a top priority to long term US efforts to limit China’s power and influence. Recent polling by the Chicago Council on Global affairs went further in underlining a partisan divide, showing that a majority of Democrats favored a policy of friendly cooperation and engagement with Beijing.

The Pew findings also showed a continuing strongly partisan divide since the George W Bush administration in viewing the president’s foreign policy effectiveness, with the out-of-power party supporters viewing the president negatively and the in-power party supporters viewing the president positively. Significantly, overall public confidence in President Biden doing the right thing in foreign affairs was comparatively low at 60%; President Barack Obama’s level at the start of his first term was 74%. And the level of confidence in President Biden doing the right thing on China issues was lower still at 53%, lower than in other areas of foreign policy.

Meanwhile, Republicans seem determined to defend the Trump government legacy of American countermeasures against Chinese challenges. Trump has been consistent in taking a hard line on China for almost a year and he remains a major force in American politics. The annual American Conservative Union CPAC conference in February targeted Biden’s China policy; the 120 member House of Representatives Republican Study Committee sharply condemned Biden’s China policy. Continued bipartisan congressional accord on sustaining US resolve on China showed in hearings of Senate Intelligence Committee and Senate Foreign Relations Committee considering senior administration leaders seeking Senate approval.

Chinese government behavior. Beijing remains uncompromising in the face of US countermeasures. It conducts egregious human rights violations in Xinjiang, imposes authoritarian rule in Hong Kong and targets Australia, India and Taiwan for special coercive treatment. Ever increasing are Chinese military advances to deter and if needed destroy American forces; closer collaboration with Putin’s Russia against US interests; China’s three-decade long efforts using state directed development polices to plunder foreign intellectual property rights and undermine international competitors, fundamentally weakening the free trade economic system; using gains from state directed economic practices to support ambitions to lead future high-technology industries, displacing the United States; exploiting economic dependencies via the Belt and Road Initiative and other means; fostering corrupt and/or authoritarian governments against the West; coercing neighbors unwilling to defer to China’s ever increasing demands; employing widespread influence operations abroad using clandestine means; and disregarding international law and accepted diplomatic practices.


US business has been publicly low keyed in registering its concern over the costs to the American economy coming from existing US restrictions and tariffs targeting adverse Chinese economic practices and warning against perceived dramatic costs associated with further US efforts to “decouple” the US from China’s economy. The business interests of many US allies and partners share these broad concerns. And the governments of allies and partners generally oppose extreme measures undertaken in the last year of the Trump government arguing for ideologically based systemic opposition to the Chinese regime. They favor more nuanced approaches that the Biden government will need to consider in its in-depth consultations with allies and partners. Meanwhile, the administration’s perceived need to work cooperatively with China on climate change, the Iran nuclear agreement, and other matters may involve some easing of US pressures against China.

Clashing middle grounds?

President Biden finding a middle ground with US, allied and partner interests in adopting a more moderate policy toward China appears to run up counter to the president’s efforts to find a middle ground with US public preferences and Republican decision makers to counter China’s uncompromising challenges to the United States. There is no clear path forward on how to avoid or resolve this prospective dilemma.

Robert Sutter ( is Professor Practice of International Affairs at George Washington University, USA. A major revision of his assessment of Chinese foreign policy is Chinese Foreign Relations: Power and Policy of an Emerging Global Force: Fifth Edition (Lanham MD: Rowman & Littlefield 2021).

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PacNet #10 – The New US Diplomacy with China: ‘Keep Your Promises’

“If one day China should change her color and turn into a superpower, if she too should play the tyrant in the world, and everywhere subject others to her bullying, aggression, and exploitation, the people of the world should identify her as social-imperialism, expose it, oppose it and work together with the Chinese people to overthrow it.”

So said Deng Xiaoping in a speech to the United Nations in 1974. As if responding to Deng’s call, there has been discussion about the feasibility of an American strategy to create distance between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Chinese people. No wonder Beijing has responded furiously to this idea, including by criticizing the “longer telegram.” In fact, the author of the “longer telegram” claims that “it would be extremely hazardous for US strategies … to make the ‘overthrow of the Communist Party’ the nation’s declared objective.” The Trump administration’s document on the US strategic approach toward China also states that “US policies are not premised on an attempt to change the PRC’s domestic governance model.” Nevertheless, the idea that the US should urge the Chinese people to overthrow the CCP continues to attract attention.

The idea of creating political division within China deserves further scrutiny, given its potential impacts on the US-China relationship. What is the logic behind this idea? What are the problems? A critical review of the strategy suggests a different approach: Washington should instead focus on pressing China to live up to its own promises and obligations.

There are at least two arguments in support of “creating division” within China. First, China experts have found that Beijing has compromised in international disputes when the CCP faced internal threats, including crises in legitimacy. Therefore, hawks would argue that division within China is beneficial for US national security. But CCP failure to maintain political stability is one thing; the US attempting to engineer a political division is quite another. Chinese people will more likely link a US effort to the memory of national humiliation, when Western powers carved their own spheres of influence into the country in the late 19th century. They will also readily agree to the CCP’s narrative that the US seeks to divide China to contain the rise of a peer competitor.

Second, liberals would argue that the US should support the Chinese people precisely because the US respects their democratic aspirations. However, several surveys conducted by American scholars in China have consistently found that Chinese citizens are highly satisfied with their government’s performance. More importantly, Chinese people think that China has been “democratized” over time: the 2020 annual survey of Democracy Perception Index found that 73% of Chinese respondents consider China democratic—just 49% of Americans believe the same about the US. By contrast, given the widespread perception of rising racism and McCarthyism targeting Chinese scholars and students in the US, efforts to inspire the Chinese people to challenge the CCP would only stimulate anti-American nationalism; the more the US tries to create division within China, the more Chinese people will unite against the US.

However, the assessment that the CCP is already significantly divided over Xi’s leadership remains valid. As the author of the “longer telegram” rightly observes, Xi Jinping’s abrasive foreign policy, over-centralization of power, and illiberal policies have generated widespread frustration among Chinese elites. According to a former Central Party School professor’s testimony, published by Foreign Affairs in 2020, there was hope for the expansion of political reform when Xi took power in 2013. Indeed, during his final press briefing in 2012, former premier Wen Jiabao insisted that China “must press ahead with both economic reform and political structural reform, especially reform in the leadership system of our party and country.” Xi was expected to further open up China’s political system, but instead shattered such expectations; Xi even removed presidential term limits from the constitution in 2018. There are unfulfilled promises by previous leaders Xi has failed to carry out.

The US should ask the Xi regime to live up to China’s promises and obligations. US officials can collect all the statements by Chinese leaders before Xi about the autonomy of Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Xinjiang and the exact wording on civil rights and liberty, as codified in the Chinese constitution. As Ralph Cossa has summarized: “It’s unreasonable to ask them to be like us; it’s not unreasonable to ask them to follow their own promises.” This approach would be effective because there is a human psychology that people feel most pressed when demanded to honor their own words. Likewise, international relations scholars have found that political rhetoric and commitments, if repeatedly made, carry a coercive power over national leaders.

By extension, US officials should be familiar with words of wisdom from Chinese intellectuals and great thinkers officially acknowledged by the Chinese state. A good example is the speech by Matthew Pottinger, the former deputy national security advisor, in May 2020. Speaking in fluent Mandarin Chinese, Pottinger quoted Lu Xun, China’s most celebrated modern writer, to make his point on the problems of censorship in China. He also drew on the iconic student protests on May 4, 1919 to argue that China did its best when it listened to the diverse opinions of average citizens. In another speech, also in Chinese, he even cited Confucius to make his point about the need for candid conversation between the US and China. Chinese officials and scholars criticized Pottinger’s speeches, but the unusually severe censorship that followed also reflects how Xi did not want  Chinese citizens to discuss what the Chinese philosophers and intellectuals have said about open society and free thinking in China.

No doubt Chinese officials will continue to be creative in rebuttal. They may make the usual case that Americans do not understand the unique history or culture of China. They may be more candid, arguing that past promises are irrelevant because situations have changed. But it would not be difficult for Washington to retort that the US is not imposing its own values or visions, but simply asking China to keep its word. For example, Deng Xiaoping once said “after China resumes the exercise of its sovereignty over Hong Kong in 1997, Hong Kong’s current social and economic systems will remain unchanged, its legal system will remain basically unchanged, its way of life … will remain unchanged. … Beijing will not assign officials to the government of the Hong Kong … Our policies with regard to Hong Kong will remain unchanged for 50 years, and we mean this.” These promises were imbedded in a legally binding treaty between China and the UK registered with the United Nations. Washington can present the evidence of all the changes made in defiance of Hong Kong’s autonomy, including the national security law.

The CCP would likely criticize the US with the rhetoric of “what about all those problems in the US?” or “mind your own failure to keep promises.” If China presses the US to live up to its own words, US officials should welcome the suggestion. The need for domestic renewal is something American citizens can agree on. If the standard of competition is about who fulfills their promises faster and more faithfully carries out all the positive promises their leaders have made for their people and the world, there would be no better form of great power competition.

Sungmin Cho ( is Professor of the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (DKI APCSS), a US Department of Defense academic institute based in Honolulu, Hawaii. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not represent the views of DKI APCSS, the US Department of Defense or the US government.

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PacNet #3 – Getting China Policy Right

It should go without saying but I’ll start by saying it: to get China policy right we must first get China right. This means seeing China as it is, not as we would like it to be or as it claims to be. If one were to believe Chinese President Xi Jinping during his annual Davos and APEC speeches, China is today a bastion of free trade and open market access and the great defender of intellectual property rights and the rule of law; its rise is and will be peaceful. We know better. Under Xi’s leadership, China has changed significantly, but not for the better (from a US perspective, that is; whether things are better or worse from a Chinese perspective is for the Chinese people to decide).

For better or for worse, the China guided by Deng Xiaoping’s teaching—“hide your strength and bide your time”; “it doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white as long as it catches mice”—is gone. The color of the cat still doesn’t matter, as long as it faithfully subscribes to Xi Jinping thought. “Hide your strength” has been replaced by Wolf Warrior diplomats stressing that “China is a big country … and you’re not.” Other Deng precepts—collective leadership, term limits, the phasing out of state-owned enterprises, and most recently, the “one country, two systems” Hong Kong formula—apparently have no place in the new “China dream.”

US policy has also evolved, in response to a changing China. With apologies for oversimplifying what was and remains a complicated and deliberate process, I would argue that the Obama administration was slow in picking up the change. It started out with the right policy, but for the wrong China. Deng would have seen Obama’s “outstretched hand” as an opportunity to be embraced. Xi saw it as a weakness to be exploited. As Xi’s power grew, first as vice president and then as the ultimate leader, his policies became more aggressive and assertive; dare we call it a “China first” policy? In return, US policy shifted (in my words, not Obama’s) from “cooperate with China whenever and wherever we can and confront and constrain when we must” to “confront and constrain whenever and wherever we must while cooperating if and when we can.” The two main elements of cooperation and confrontation were still there but the emphasis clearly changed, as Obama began his “pivot” to Asia.

To its credit, the Trump administration (although sadly not the president himself) initially got China and China policy right. His first foreign policy team, under National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (remember him?) saw China (along with Russia) as a revisionist power that was out to directly challenge US regional and global interests. While keeping the door open for cooperation, the key idea was “reciprocity.” While Trump focused on the trade deficit and saw a trade deal as the “solution” to the China problem, his national security team focused more on China’s challenge to US security interests. The focus was, correctly, on Chinese behavior.  Then along came Mike Pompeo. Aided and abetted by National Security Advisor John Bolton and Defense Secretary Mike Esper, Secretary of State Pompeo shifted the emphasis and blame to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), adding an ideological dimension that made cooperation virtually impossible, since it attacked the very source of Xi’s legitimacy.

To his credit, Pompeo did get one thing very right. He understood that “America first” could not mean “America alone” when it came to dealing with China. Trump’s grumbling notwithstanding, he strove to shore up US alliances; the incoming Biden administration has already indicated it will double down on this effort. Most importantly, Pompeo attached a high priority to formalizing the Quad, a coalition of “like-minded” states that includes Australia, India, and Japan, and building a possible Quad-plus (involving Korea, New Zealand, and Vietnam); the latter was focused on fighting the pandemic but nonetheless helped build up multilateral cooperation.

As the Biden administration assembles its Asia team and starts to develop its China and broader Asia policy, it must see China for what it is: a near-peer competitor engaged in a battle for influence vis-a-vis Washington and the West.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m still pro-engagement. Washington needs to properly balance cooperation (in areas like climate change and North Korea where a long-term solution is impossible without Chinese input), while being prepared to confront and constrain (vice contain) where necessary. The Trump administration’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy needs to be retained in some form; sadly it’s likely too much to ask that the name be retained, even though it originated not in Washington but in Tokyo and would thus signal both continuity and respect for our critical Northeast Asia ally.

Top priority should be given to strengthening and expanding the Quad, to bring in additional like-minded states who subscribe to the Quad’s main operating principles: support for the rule of law, freedom of navigation, transparency, and respect for human rights in a “free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific region.” Care must be given to avoid loaded terms like “league of democracies” (as put forth tentatively by Pompeo) or “an Asian NATO.” The former rules out essential players like Vietnam; the latter runs into the Asian allergy to all things European.

In their individual statements following the Quad Foreign Minister’s Meeting in Tokyo in October—there was no joint statement—three of the four ministers played down or avoided mentioning China; Pompeo (as usual but counterproductively) focused on the CCP threat. True, Beijing will see terms such as rule of law and freedom of navigation as code words aimed at China. The proper response in those instances should be “if the shoe fits, wear it.” Promoting an inclusive rules-based order is only anti-China if Beijing is bound and determined to not play by the rules. That’s China’s decision, for which it should expect consequences.

To date, Xi’s grand strategy has been tactically clever but strategically foolish. The new repressive national security law has been effective (thus far) in silencing democracy advocates in Hong Kong but has sent a clear signal to the rest of the world (and especially Taiwan) that Chinese promises, including legal agreements registered at the United Nations, are meaningless. Beijing’s heavy-handed reaction to Canberra’s request for a clear accounting of the origins of the pandemic may have hurt Australia’s wine sales (in direct violation of its World Trade Organization and bilateral trade commitments), but also clearly demonstrated that Beijing has no intention of separating politics from economics even while counseling others to do so. Beijing’s “14 demands” also reflect no hesitancy in interfering in another’s domestic affairs, a sacred principle when it comes to its own affairs. More importantly, China’s browbeating has also fortified Australia’s commitment to strengthening the Quad, just as aggressive Chinese behavior along the Indian border has prompted New Delhi to do the same.

Meanwhile, China’s recent law authorizing its Coast Guard to fire on ships entering what virtually every nation other than China considers international waters around its artificial islands and elsewhere in the South China Sea, is both tactically and strategically foolish. It’s never a good idea to be the first to challenge an incoming US administration. Biden will no doubt feel compelled to reinforce the long-standing dictum that “the US will sail and fly anywhere international law allows.” Passing this law at this time guarantees China’s relationship with the US administration will start off on the wrong foot.

The rush is on to develop—and name—a strategy that is right for the China we are dealing with today. I like “constrainment”; others have mentioned “competitive coexistence.” Regardless of what it is called, it must be a combination of cooperation and (gasp) compromise on the one hand, backed by firmness and a willingness to push back both unilaterally and multilaterally with like-minded states when appropriate. Maintaining and refining the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy, built upon an expanded and redefined Quad, should be the building blocks upon which any new strategy is formed.

Ralph Cossa ( is Pacific Forum president emeritus and WSD-Handa Chair in Peace Studies.

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