China expert John Culver on Beijing’s military prowess

In this episode of “Intelligence Matters,” host Michael Morell speaks with John Culver, a career CIA analyst, former National Intelligence officer for East Asia, and leading expert on the Chinese military. Culver and Morell discuss the decades-long modernization of the People’s Liberation Army and the prowess China has attained across multiple war-fighting arenas. Culver offers insights into Xi Jinping’s rise to and continued hold on power and describes the many challenges of engaging Beijing in a multi-polar, interconnected global system.  

HIGHLIGHTS:    

  • XI JINPING: “[H]e has accumulated a level of power that I think few of his contemporaries thought possible. You know, a lot of checks and balances had been built into that system to prevent another Mao. And he hasn’t quite crossed that line into the personality cult of Mao Zedong, but I think there are a lot of people, including in the party, who are concerned that he has over-accumulated power.” 
  • CLOUT OF CHINA’S MILITARY: “So they basically took our way of war and tried to turn it against us. And I think it’s kind of an open knowledge now that they have largely succeeded; that a U.S. decision to intervene in a military conflict with China would be one that would be fraught for a U.S. president to decide in a way it wasn’t in the mid-90s.” 
  • CHALLENGE OF CONFRONTING BEIJING: “And so there’s a natural tendency to draw from historical experience and kind of imprint onto the U.S. China competition the characteristics of the Cold War, including in the military domain. Few of these assumptions fit very well, and I frankly wish that the current situation we confront with China was as simple as the Cold War. As you know, it’s not this nice, clean, bipolar world. China’s completely integrated into global economics, completely integrated into an international system into the UN and other agencies. And so the ability to kind of divide into sides and then compete in a nice, clean Cold War style isn’t available to us.” 

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INTELLIGENCE MATTERS: John Culver

PRODUCER: Olivia Gazis

MICHAEL MORELL: John, thank you so much for joining us on intelligence matters. It’s great to have you.

JOHN CULVER: It’s a pleasure to be here, Michael, and to hear you again, if not see you.

MICHAEL MORELL: Someday we’ll be back in the in the radio studio together. So, John, I want to start with a couple of questions about you and your career, if that’s OK. And the first question I want to ask you is, how did you find your way to CIA and how did you come to work on China at CIA?

JOHN CULVER: The answer is sort of, but at the same time stereotypical of the era, but then kind of non-traditional. So my first job out of college and I graduated in ’80, was for a defense contractor working on a big army cost-accounting and logistics contracts at the start of the Reagan build-up. And after doing that for about four or five years, there was a guy there that I was working with who formerly was CIA, and he suggested I might be a good candidate for an analytic position. So I was twenty-five, I guess, and looking for something different. So I happened to run across an ad in The Washington Post. And so I answered it with a very stirring, patriotic letter about serving my country.

And I got contacted very surreptitiously and asked to meet some gentleman in a nondescript building down in Arlington. And of course, you probably already surmised this was a DO recruiting ad, so this was the Directorate of Operations. And I went through a pretty laborious process with them for about six months before they decided I wasn’t really cut out to be a case officer, which in hindsight was a real blessing. I’m not sure I have an operational bone in my body.

Yeah, so they passed my file over to, quote, ‘The other side of the house’ and I didn’t know what that meant. And then again, lots of – back then, you didn’t hear from them unless they, there was no number to call, no contact point. You just waited. So eventually I got a call and asked to come down for an interview and it was in probably May of 1985. And, you know, by that time, because I’d been going through the other process, I had already been background investigated, and that stuff, and so I went down and met this very intimidating but cordial woman – I’m sure you know Lynn Enright (ph) – who had done a long interview with seemingly random questions and finally at the end of that, asked me – only one of, which ever touched on China – and finally asked me when I could start. And, you know, I gave her an appropriate answer and said, ‘Start doing what?’
And it was only then that I found I was being hired to fill the job as the sole analyst of the People’s Liberation Army, the actual ground forces. So, you know, if I had been hired to do Russia or Soviet analysis, I would have been one of hundreds. But because the Chinese shop was small and China was at that time the strategic partner of the United States, we didn’t have much of an adversarial posture.

So that’s how I got hired. It was through an ad in The Washington Post, which I never had or I did see them occasionally, but it would be far rarer. And then it wasn’t even the right ad. So that I wound up doing that for the next thirty five years. And it was a wonderful career.

MICHAEL MORELL: John, many analysts at CIA work on many different issues during their career. You stayed focused on China. Why?

JOHN CULVER: Well, you know, I can refer back to, when I joined, China was a strategic partner of the United States. We had hit probably a high point, in hindsight, of a military relationship that included extensive access to the PLA by the US military, Chinese buying U.S. weapons, and then a pretty robust intelligence relationship that others, such as Jim Lilly have written about.

And then, of course, Tiananmen happened in 1989 and shortly followed by, of course, the collapse of the Soviet Union. And so this thing I had been studying, almost for academic reasons, to be smart, to be the best analyst I could be, suddenly took on a really different color. And of course, over the course of the next decade or two or three, that continued to evolve.

So I have to say it was always intriguing and I got to work, as you did, with some of the best in the business. And I was fortunate that the first person that managed me it was my boss and mentor was our mutual friend, Dennis Wilder. And so I had an excellent grounding in analysis and in the tradecraft of analysis. And then the content kept evolving. And, of course, China rose as a global power. And so my kind of insight into the challenge, to me as an analyst and then later and for East Asia never ceased evolving.

MICHAEL MORELL: Let me ask you one more question before we actually move to China itself. Can you explain what it’s like to be an analyst at CIA and how that might have changed over the arc of your career?

JOHN CULVER: Well, I’ll say partly as a sales pitch because I’d love to see the quality of patriotic, bright Americans continue to want to invest in a career in government and especially in the intelligence services. It’s really a unique challenge, as you know. It’s being sometimes fed a very disparate set of facts, trying to really understand it and explain it and make it policy relevant to your customers, which begins with the President of the United States and his cabinet and then can work down through the bureaucracy.

And so you can’t have either more important content or a more important set of consumers. And if you’re doing your job well and also doing the other parts, that aren’t just thinking hard, but also then tasking smartly, getting the resources you need from the collection agencies to be able to do your job, it’s kind of a really unique challenge and in a way, almost an art form.

I think in a way, the oddest thing to me, and I thought about this after I retired 35 years later, is actually kind of how unevolved the basic analytic mission is. And as I thought about that I kind of got concerned, because I think we still rely almost exclusively on sort of exquisite stolen secrets, it’s HUMINT and SIGINT and then their brethren in the cyber and other realms, when a lot more is kind of out there in the open source. China now operates globally. It’s not kind of a closed place like it was when I started.

And yet the kind of basic way that pieces are put together in the sources that are valued, as you know, there’s kind of a conceit that the more classified something is, the better it is. And I think we both know that’s not always true. And it wasn’t even true in back in our day, but it’s true today. And so when I go out in the world, as I look at what’s being done with open source and big data and analytics, geospatial commercial imagery, even things like open source SIGINT and in a form of comment from metadata, metadata from cellular networks, you can build a hell of a robust picture today. That would have been impossible. What would have been a government function in our day is now out there commercially.

And I’m concerned that the US government, its intelligence services, need to do a lot better job leveraging those new capabilities and making it career enhancing for analysts and managers in the intelligence community to take a risk and use these and work them and integrate them into our data, our normal workflows, so that they can really inform our finished intelligence.

MICHAEL MORELL: I could not agree with you more. That’s one of the things I learned when I left government. And it’s something the intelligence community has got to get its arms around.

So, John, let’s focus on China. And maybe the place to start is with China’s ambitions in the world. What are their key objectives in the world? What do they want to accomplish with their foreign policy? What do they want in the world? And why? How do you think about that?

JOHN CULVER: Well, Michael, I know you’ve had Chris Johnson on your show, I think a record number of times. I think you won’t be startled to know that I listened to his last session with you. And I don’t, I’m not going to really disagree with anything he said and I think we both are on the same page when we note that China’s primary ambition in the world is to keep the Communist Party of China in power. That as like a lot of authoritarians and especially good Marxist Leninists – that’s not a value judgment, just what they are – they tend to see the world through the prism of threats. And there are, of course, external threats and even really aggressive threats, which is how they view the United States and a lot of our alliances.

But then especially for an authoritarian government like China, the internal threats, you know, that’s why they reacted so strenuously to Tiananmen and why they reacted so strenuously to Hong Kong. There’s a famous Sovietologists whose name is escaping me right now noted that to an authoritarian, every day is existential. And so that’s why you see the Chinese not only building up their external security capabilities and the People’s Liberation Army, Chinese intelligence services, their diplomatic operations globally, but building up their internal security capabilities because they believe that the United States – and this is a very ideological view – is a jealous hegemon seeking to retain its global position as a dominant power and that China has now risen up to the level of the greatest threat to that over the ensuing decades.

And so they believe that we actively pursue color revolutions, that we seek to overthrow what they view as what the US views as hostile governments, and that they basically can never let their guard down. So they are sufficiently paranoid.

I think, on the more kind of what they hope to achieve beyond survival is to validate their system as legitimate. That’s why you see a lot of investment by the Chinese in the UN system in making sure they always have a candidate or a third country candidate they favor to lead the key UN directorates because they want to show that the liberal values that were enshrined in the UN charter can be redefined in a way that legitimatizes a non-liberal, non-democratic regime like the like the Communist Party of China.

MICHAEL MORELL: Let me ask you another question I asked Chris, and I wouldn’t be surprised to get the same answer, but how much of what you just described is driven by one man, Xi Jinping, and how much is is driven by national interests, historical forces, etc.?

JOHN CULVER: I think from a Chinese perspective, and I’ll speak as an American as well, I think Xi Jinping is obviously the central personality in the political arc of China, but he did not knife fight his way to the top. He was selected by a collective leadership because they felt that his characteristics, both as a provincial leader and a national leader, as vice president, and his legacy as the son of a revolutionary elder, a very important revolutionary elder Xi Zhongxun, that he was going to bring to the leadership essential qualities that would be essential to defend China against a growing litany of threats as China’s power rose.

And you know, the things he attacked first, I think actually represented the collective values of that leadership. First, the anti-corruption campaign that the Communist Party, as wealth grew in China and opportunity grew, crimes, large and small, even some senior leaders, including in the military, took advantage of that.

And the Communist Party understood that a corrupt political organization inside the Communist Party, especially in the military, which controls the guns, was potentially an existential threat to the party. So he didn’t have to overcome resistance to launch that really aggressive anti-corruption campaign, which continues. They knew that they needed to harden the party and to harden that system against both US and external action and against internal threat, which through the nexus of corruption they always feared would somehow come together into foreign — read that US sponsorship of color revolution in China.

So I think, though, that he has accumulated a level of power that I think few of his contemporaries thought possible. You know, a lot of checks and balances had been built into that system to prevent another Mao. And he hasn’t quite crossed that line into the personality cult of Mao Zedong, but I think there are a lot of people, including in the party, who are concerned that he has over-accumulated power.

MICHAEL MORELL: John, how does China’s military fit into its future ambitions? What does the Chinese leadership want from its military?

JOHN CULVER: Well, to kind of echo what I just said, first of all, to defend the Communist Party and ensure its survival. That is from external threats, but also internal ones, and it can never be stated too often that the People’s Liberation Army is the armed wing of the Communist Party. It is not the state army of China.
Secondly, to be the armed force of a great power, capable of deterring threats to Chinese sovereignty and security. And that, of course, means Taiwan, the South China Sea and China’s economic lifelines through the Strait of Malacca or elsewhere, especially for oil and energy, and also to protect Chinese citizens, businesses and the ethnic Chinese diaspora communities from harm or threats of harm.

So that’s a more expansive mission set than the PLA had 10 years ago, which was to defend Chinese borders at that time; now it’s trying to defend Chinese interests.

And finally, another thing, that another role for the military is to complete this arduous modernization that they’ve undertaken and by mid-century to be roughly equivalent to any great military power, especially the United States.

MICHAEL MORELL: So that’s a great transition to the question about the evolution of the Chinese military over the last 25 years. Right. You watched it every day. How did it evolve?

JOHN CULVER: It’s kind of frustrating because even by, oh, my God, this is dating me. It’s almost 20 years ago. You know, you’ll remember we were warning that the PLA was beginning to seriously modernize and had a very coherent strategic set of plans and objectives and that we should assume that they were going to achieve most of their goals. So that was even by the early 2000s. 

So today I feel that I’m in a weird place because I’m almost having to talk down those who are, I think, going over the top from someone who previously was accused of hyping the PLA. So there’s a few – and we had fun in our community. For a long time we were like the lone agency forecasting what has actually now happened.
So when I look around today, there’s sort of a breathlessness about Chinese military modernization that is to me, almost humorous. I saw recently a news article on the debate within the U.S. military services over budget allocations to counter China. And in that article, it called PLA’s Area Denial Capabilities “new.” Well, we first worried about them, as I just said, in the mid 2000s, they were deployed by the early 2010s. So, call the PLA’s modernization whatever you want, but don’t call it a surprise or new.

You know when we used to deliver the infamous scary briefing that I developed with my colleagues around 2004, frequently the response we got over the ensuing years was, ‘Don’t tell me about the enemy I’ll have in 10 years when I’m fighting two wars today.’

So, you know, we saw China start this really extraordinary military modernization by 1999; it’s not a crash program that started in just the past decade. And after constraining resources to PLA in the 1980s and 90s, it’s really ramped up resources. And they probably spend on the order of, I’ve seen various estimates, about $250 billion US dollars a year. But China still probably spends less than 1.5 percent of its GDP on the military and the PLA’s overall share government spending has actually fallen over the same period. This is a strategic challenge, decades in the making. It’s not Germany in the 1930s.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, John, one more question about the the Chinese military itself. What in this evolution that you watched, what came easily to them in terms of of advancing their capabilities and what did they struggle with? What are they still struggling with?

JOHN CULVER: I would probably roughly divide sort of their tasks through two kind of burdens they had to overcome. And one was sort of structural and had to do with manpower and kind of professional military arms, because the last time they fought a serious conflict was 1979. So that they fought that with kind of Korea and Vietnam was with air weapons. And then they watched the United States demonstrate what late 20th century and then twenty first century combat looks like. And they knew they weren’t even in our same league.

And then you turn to the technology side and they had never – at the time I joined the agency and really until after 2000 – had never designed, developed, innovated and built a new weapon from scratch. They were working off old Soviet examples. And then after the collapse of the Soviet Union, buying Russian hardware in order to fill some of the most glaring, primitive hardware gaps. So they bought fighters, submarines, surface to air missiles, some anti ship weapons.

And what they’ve really done in the last, really 30 years, again, this isn’t new and it isn’t a surprise, but we saw some key benchmarks, like in the early 2000s they, for the first time flew in indigenously developed fighter aircraft that was truly a fourth generation aircraft comparable to an F-16.

Now, even there, they had help. The design was largely derived from the Israeli Lavi fighter. But still, it was notable in that what they had done is built not just an airplane, but built a R&D innovation and design capability inside their defense industrial base. And then we saw that replicated across the defense industrial base, especially in shipbuilding and of course, ballistic and cruise missiles and then all of the panoply of kind of derivative technologies. So what they can deploy today, especially in terms of area denial and access weapons, is truly unique. Like nobody has done more with precision guided, conventionally armed ballistic missiles than the Chinese.

MICHAEL MORELL: Can you explain why this anti-access area-denial weapons are so important to them?
Well, I’ll do it kind of prosaic terms, it might work better on radio anyway. What they found out in the mid 90s when there were tensions on the Taiwan Strait, was that the US deploying carrier strike groups, just as we had in the 1950s to protect Taiwan during the Korean War, constituted kind of an American win, where, you know, all we had to do was show up, especially with carrier strikes and then with our regional forces deployed bases in Japan or in the Philippines or other treaty allies.

And China really had no means to target or to reach any of those forces. And so you might imagine, I mean, just put yourself in their shoes for a moment, how maddening that must have been for the senior political leadership that all we had to do as late as 1996 was show up.

So what they did is they kind of then meticulously broke down what I would call the five pillars of American power projection in Asia, and on my list I’d include forward bases, U.S. air power, aircraft carriers, which is kind of a different thing from air power itself, information and space dominance and then undersea dominance.

And then since 2008, they have really attacked each of those pillars, leaving the only area where I would say we really have military dominance over them is undersea warfare. But don’t sleep on that because they’re spending serious money to be able to track and detect and then attack US submarines.

So they basically took our way of war and tried to turn it against us. And I think it’s kind of an open knowledge now that they have largely succeeded; that a U.S. decision to intervene in a military conflict with China would be one that would be fraught for a U.S. president to decide in a way it wasn’t in the mid-90s.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, John, I’ve heard you talk about a number of myths with regard to the Chinese military. Can you talk a little bit about what those are?

JOHN CULVER: Yeah, this will sound like an expert complaining that the perfection of his knowledge is no longer respected. I’m also retired, so you can just kind of write it off to that as well. I’m not sure if this is the right expression, but I think that China has moved beyond the domain of experts like you and me and become kind of fodder for pundits.

And so there’s a natural tendency to draw from historical experience and kind of imprint onto the U.S. China competition the characteristics of the Cold War, including in the military domain. Few of these assumptions fit very well, and I frankly wish that the current situation we confront with China was as simple as the Cold War. As you know, it’s not this nice, clean, bipolar world. China’s completely integrated into global economics, completely integrated into an international system into the UN and other agencies. And so the ability to kind of divide into sides and then compete in a nice, clean Cold War style isn’t available to us.

So in the same way that the PLA has become the pacing threat for the Department of Defense and service budgets, they’re all being oriented to meet that challenge. And today, depending on your media preferences, you may have heard that China intends to build bases around the world or project power globally, including into the Atlantic Ocean; that they want to control the moon. I mean, the the reality of current and emerging PLA capabilities is impressive enough without these kind of exaggerations.

China is the largest trading power in the world and its interests and citizens span the globe. It has one base overseas in Djibouti, and that is really by no means comparable to the eight hundred U.S. military facilities that exist outside the United States.

I’d also add that China has no allies or true security partners. It may have strategic relationships with Russia or Pakistan or formerly North Korea, but it just doesn’t carry the same weight that the kind of real commitments that we make to our allies that they make to us. And so what I’ve seen is a breathlessness about PLA modernization that, again, sometimes strikes me as humorous. I think we don’t have to exaggerate their capabilities; they’re real. You know, they have a real capability to shape and and contest areas that where we used to be able to operate freely without fear about Chinese military intervention.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, John, I want to take a deeper dive on Taiwan, which, as you know, is in the news. In fact, I want to ask you a series of questions. The first is, do you think the Chinese have a timeline for reunification? You hear some people argue that, you hear some people say that Xi Jinping wants that to be his legacy. Is there a timeline in your mind?

JOHN CULVER: Well, Xi Jinping kind of – Short answer, no, I don’t think there’s a timeline. But at some point in the next decade, there might be. I’ve seen timelines be considered and even internally adopted by previous leaders. Half the time they’re doing it for kind of their own internal legacy purposes. They want to be able to put a stamp that says they began the process that would lead toward unification but at the same time, they would set the timeline so far out that they were kicking it down the road to be dealt with by their successors.
What’s different now, of course, is that the factors that kind of created stability over the Taiwan issue over the last 40 years are all weakening. And those three factors are, first, what’s going on on the island, on Taiwan, which, as you know, is a robust democracy, increasingly under Chinese constraint, to curtail Taiwan’s even now limited international standing. 

And what that’s driven is a response among the Taiwan polity that makes the concept of unification under a Communist Party-led China absolutely null and void. It’s unacceptable to the vast majority of Taiwanese. So the idea that China could get a friendly Guomindang, you know, kind of anti independence government on Taiwan that would be more willing to deal with China, I don’t think we’re going to see that again. Even the Guomindang now is a Taiwanese political party that has to compete for votes within a realistic political framework for Taiwan.
The second factor that’s kind of easing my confidence that there won’t be a timeline for reunification is the U.S.-China strategic rivalry. It’s added kind of a new impetus for the U.S. to get involved and to play the Taiwan card. It’s one of the few really bipartisan issues that exist in our country on foreign and even domestic policy.
So I think, as Chris Johnson told you a couple of weeks ago, there’s really not much difference so far between Trump era China policy and Biden-era China policy, even on tariffs and trade. So that kind of superpower, great power competition animation kind of worries me that it’s going to be seen as more useful to treat Taiwan as a card that can be played.

And the third factor is China itself. One of the things that used to give them a reason to back away from what could be viewed as a provocative challenge by us or on Taiwan was it was generally accepted by the Chinese public that they were too weak to be able to push back forcibly. And we saw this certainly after the accidental bombing of their embassy in Belgrade by U.S. forces. They viewed it as a deliberate attack and yet decided that they couldn’t respond proportionally and would just have to eat bitterness, which is a very common phrase in Chinese.

And we saw that again after the EP-3 incident where a Chinese pilot was killed after he collided with a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft near Hainan Island in 2001. Well, today, China no longer has the excuse of being weak and Chinese domestic opinion is increasingly nationalistic. So if there was an incident or provocation, I’m worried that China would feel that this time, unlike in previous episodes, it could not back down and would have to rise to the framing.

MICHAEL MORELL: And what could trigger something like that?

JOHN CULVER: Well, I’ll just throw out some hypotheticals without endorsing any. I think there’s a growing chance of real miscommunication with the United States over security issues, over Taiwan, the South China Sea, possibly the Senkaku Islands, where forces, our forces and theirs are much more in constant contact with one another.

We fly and sail wherever international law allows, and that brings us into much closer contact more frequently with the Chinese military than was true a decade or more ago. And so, if you will, the ingredients for a potential crisis, another EP-3incident, for example, I think is greater today and a kind of then puts a premium on developing some better means of communication and crisis management.

MICHAEL MORELL: Gotcha.

JOHN CULVER: And then just how do the intangibles in the world, like if you have this conversation that year and a half ago, I wouldn’t have brought up a pandemic as something that could be driving U.S. policy toward China, but here we are. So I can’t predict the near future either. So it’s just kind of a more fraught world, kind of increasingly fed by this dynamic of strategic rivalry.

MICHAEL MORELL: John, I want to I want to ask you a question that that sometimes I have a hard time getting a really good answer to. And that’s what’s the challenge that China poses to the United States. To put it another way, if China achieves its vision of what it wants the world to look like, which U.S. national interests are at risk, and, you know, if you think about terrorists, it’s really easy to understand what’s at risk. And I’d love to have you talk a little bit about what’s at risk from China achieving what it wants to achieve.

JOHN CULVER: Well, if China achieves their mid-century goals, which isn’t that far away, they’re stated by Xi Jinping, it’s to be kind of the equal of any power in the world. To have created in China a rich country with a strong army and legitimatized the Communist Party led system, this authoritarian system that – it doesn’t negate or deny that there was such a thing as human rights. It redefines them and it makes them collective rights or rights based on freedom from want rather than freedom of expression or freedom to develop.

And it tends to frame democracy in international affairs as not the rights of the individual with their government, but the rights of poorer, browner Southern countries against the dominant European, United States, Japan kind of model. So you have that kind of Manichean framing in a lot of their framing.

And in a way, I think the most profound threat, I think they could pose a threat to US allies and to create instability in Asia under certain circumstances. We can debate all day long whether Taiwan is worth defending or whether we should reduce our policy of ambiguity. But I don’t think anyone would dispute that Japan is worth defending, that, you know, freedom from coercion in Asia over exploration and exploitation of natural resources in the South China Sea is something that wouldn’t cost the United States, and not just in terms of credibility, but in terms of kind of the viability of our view of what should be the natural relationship between the government and the consent of the governed.

The Chinese don’t buy into that. And what their narrative for the future is kind of runs like this: ‘It’s going to get harder. We’ve seen with pandemics can do to international trade and stability. Technology brings a lot of benefits to mankind, but it also is dislocating societies. We live in an information explosion that makes government harder and that may require new tools of censorship to prevent bad actors from disrupting or committing acts of terrorism or other forms of kind of political vandalism.’

And what China is offering countries in the world is what seems to be a set of answers to those problems, that they’re going to give you, the means for governance, the means for control. And at a time when the world is threatened by global warming, climate change, the threat of new pandemics, of mass human migration because of technological disruption or environmental damage, that China is going to offer governments, regimes, the means to survive. So it’s kind of a dark promise in that way, that’s based on the idea that things are going to get more challenging collectively around the world and for individual governments, and that through technological censorship and monitoring, through artificial intelligence and big data tools, that they’re going to be able to deliver a capacity for governance that has a heavy measure of compulsion. And I think that’s a huge threat not only to the United States, but to kind of democracy writ large on the world stage.

MICHAEL MORELL: So the really hard question, particularly for an intelligence officer, since you never had to do this in the time you at the agency, is what should our policy be? Right. What should the United States do about this challenge that it faces with China? How do you think about that?

JOHN CULVER: Well, I don’t know, I don’t know about you. But as an analyst and even a senior NIO I was always neuralgic about policy statements.

MICHAEL MORELL:We were trained to be neuralgic.

JOHN CULVER: Yes. We pride ourselves on being politically neutral and non-partisan. And so I’ll try to deliver my answer in that spirit. What I think, first of all, that no threat that China poses to the United States is as great to the threat of failing to deal with our own challenges, both in terms of defending democracy – If we’re going to stand up for the system globally, it has to be viable and vibrant here.

And then I think the similarly, we have to show that we should govern, that the US system of governance after I would call real problems if not failure during the most the pandemic – which is still going on, I’m trying to be careful not to talk about it only in the past tense – that it’s not a great brand right now. We need to give the Chinese Communist Party, you know, give them credit for a lot of things, but especially for vociferously defending their brand.

And, you know, they make no bones about being fuzzy or huggable or cute. They’re about delivering governance, about lifting, by their count, eight hundred million people out of poverty in and this year, just announced that they had eradicated extreme poverty in China – there are problems with all these claims, but take them at face value because they do.

And so we’ve got to do all the things that Republicans and Democrats say we need to do, which is rebuild our infrastructure, strengthen our democracy, knit this country together again in a more fundamental and profound way so that we can continue to play the kind of role that I think the world expects in most cases needs the U.S. to play to continue to be that shining city on the hill.

MICHAEL MORELL: John, thank you very much for joining us today. Very insightful. I hope we can do this again.

JOHN CULVER: Well, thanks, Michael. It was a pleasure. And it’s great hearing your voice again.