Two decades ago, China was a Third World country with a huge population and a large army, but little ability to project military power beyond its borders.

How times have changed.

A China expert who spoke last week in Livermore described China as a major military and economic power that is competing with the U.S. in science and technology, steadily following a long-range plan to achieve superiority in dozens of areas, from artificial intelligence to rocketry to supercomputing.

The description comes from Brad Roberts, director of the Center for Global Security Research at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. He spoke to a meeting of the Valley Study Group.

Both inside and outside the government, Roberts has spent more than two decades interacting with Chinese colleagues in formal and informal settings.

From 2009 to 2013, he was deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear and missile defense policy in the Obama Administration. Before that, he was a policy analyst at the Institute for Defense Analyses and an adjunct professor at George Washington University.

He holds a bachelor's degree in international relations from Stanford University, a masters degree from the London School of Economics and Political Science, and a PhD in international relations from Erasmus University in the Netherlands.

He is the author of a 2016 book, “The Case for U.S. Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century.”

His remarks to the Valley Study Group indicated deep concern at the possibility of military confrontation with China, both because that country is increasingly aggressive in pushing for dominance in its geographic region, and because the U.S. has not developed a plan that might deter it.

Pushing Back

China’s President Xi Jinping “is pushing back against the regional security order,” Roberts said.

“He is committed to the recovery of Taiwan. He is committed to expanding sovereignty and rejecting international legal adjudication of all sovereignty claims on the seas.”

In contrast to the patience shown by past Chinese leaders with regard to Taiwan, Roberts said, Xi boasts that, “We’re not going to wait anymore” to fulfill the “Chinese dream.”

That dream is to unify the entire country as China completes its recovery from the so-called Century of Humiliation, when the major Western powers are said to have “carved up China.”

By contrast, past leaders like Deng Xiaopeng reflected patience in their comments about the future of Taiwan, although they also considered it a province that must inevitably reunite with the mainland.

Roberts summarized Deng’s attitude as, “Taiwan? We can wait 200 or 300 years. It’s not going anywhere, and our position is only going to improve over time. We can wait.”

Sometimes called the Architect of Modern China, Deng led the nation from 1978 through 1992.

As for the U.S., a succession of presidents since the 1990s has tried to find areas of agreement with China from which both sides could explore further cooperation and opportunities for arms control.

During the Clinton Administration, the prevailing theme was, “towards a constructive strategic partnership.”

Under George Bush, the national security strategy spoke of a “historically unprecedented opportunity” to establish a new relationship of “common interests, common responsibility and increasingly common values.”

The Obama administration, in which Roberts served, followed a similar path, which he describes as cautiously optimistic.

‘How Much Hope We Have Lost’

As the years passed, however, it has become clear that China was far more committed to competition than to cooperation. “I (am) struck by how much hope we have lost in this relationship,” Roberts said.

China has refused to share information on its strategic nuclear posture, which has evolved from 20 or so missile-based warheads four decades ago to today’s modern triad of land-based, sea-based and air-carried delivery systems.

Little more is known about the Chinese nuclear capability.

Whereas the U.S. and the old Soviet Union exchanged nuclear arms information and visits for the purpose of confidence building and a reduction of tensions, the Chinese “even rejected the notion that there was a nuclear relationship between our two countries.”

Today, Roberts said, the Chinese consider their nuclear arsenal their business and no one else’s. It is hidden away, available for potential use in the event of a military crisis.

Perhaps as an inevitable outgrowth of China’s refusal to seek common strategic interests, the two countries now look at each other with “mutual suspicion,” Roberts said.

Xi claims that the U.S. is out to achieve “absolute security in order to gain unlimited opportunities for political and military pressure on its opponents.”

In reality, the shoe is on the other foot, Roberts said. “That’s what China is doing. It’s pressuring its opponents all of the time.”

Although the Trump administration’s national security strategy speaks of militarily dominating strategic competitors — achieving “overmatching capabilities” against them — the time is long past when that was a realistic prospect in our interactions with China, Roberts believes.

“We are not going to (be able to) compete to dominate China.”

As an example of China’s technological abilities, he said that China has become “the world’s premier missile country,” carrying out “more missile tests and missile launches last year than all of the rest of the countries of the world put together.”

He said that in its region, China has 1,800 medium-range missiles, compared to zero for the U.S.

He recalled the tensions of the U.S.-Soviet arms race half a century ago offering an alternative approach to the China relationship, one he considers more promising than the U.S. claiming or pursuing dominance.

Back then, the U.S. had the dual objective of assuring allies that it would remain strong while reassuring Soviet leaders “that America was not going for supremacy,” which might raise a destabilizing level of insecurity.

‘Second to None’

Instead of going for supremacy, the U.S. adopted a “second to none” policy, suggesting strength without domination, and assured deterrence, rather than destabilizing fear.

To reinforce his argument that the U.S. has not yet found the right approach to dealing with China, he summarized some of the conclusions of last year’s report from the National Defense Strategy Commission, a high-level, bipartisan, congressionally mandated group whose findings are widely read and respected.

In so-called gray-zone competitions short of war, the U.S. is “currently losing” to both Russia and China as they “employ multiple tools of statecraft to expand their influence and weaken U.S. alliances and partnerships,” the report concluded.

“We don’t really have any ideas about how to prevent wars with major power competitors, whether to deter their escalation in the war, how to win them, or how to compete in the long term so we don’t actually find ourselves at war,” Roberts said.

The non-threatening, second-to-none approach would be constructive and realistic, he said. That “was the goal of the competition with the Soviet Union in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. This seems to me to be a pretty good goal, a better goal than seeking ‘overmatching capabilities’ to dominate.”