Following the failure of his nomination of Susan Rice to head the Defense Department, President Obama has nominated Chuck Hagel, 66, a former Republican senator and Vietnam veteran as the next Secretary of Defense. Hagel was awarded two Purple Hearts for wounds he received serving as an infantry squad leader in Vietnam, then entered the private sector, co-founding Vanguard Cellular, and serving as president of the McCarthy Group, an investment banking firm, and CEO of American Information Systems Inc., a computerized voting machine manufacturer. He was elected to the Senate from Nebraska in 1996, where he served 12 years. Hagel currently holds positions as the chairman of the Atlantic Council, as a professor at Georgetown University, as a member of the Secretary of Defense’s Policy Board, and as co-chairman of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board.
As a Vietnam War veteran, Hagel’s wartime experience is expected to shape his actions as Secretary of Defense. Although Hagel voted to authorize the war in Iraq, he soon became a vocal critic of the George W. Bush administration’s bungling of the occupation. Hagel has also been critical of the size of the American military, stating in 2011 that the Defense Department was “bloated” and needed “to be pared down.” Hagel’s military service seems to have made him wary about using force unless other options had been tried, “I’m not a pacifist. I believe in using force but only after a very careful decision-making process. … I will do everything I can to avoid needless, senseless war.”
On China, Hagel spoke in 2010 with Zhang Yesui, the Chinese ambassador to the United States, describing the U.S.-China relationship as “probably the most critical relationship for the 21st century.” During the NATO summit in Chicago in May, in an interview with Robert Nolan, editor at FPA, Hagel acknowledged China as one of the more formidable competitors to the U.S., while downplaying any immediate threat to U.S. supremacy given the magnitude of China’s domestic problems:
“China is going to emerge and grow. It should; we should welcome that. They’re going to be competitors, they are now, as are India, Brazil and other nations. That’s OK. Trade, exchanges, relationships, common interests; all those emerging nations and economic, and strengths are all captive to basically the same kinds of things: stability, security, energy sources, resources, people. Everything that we have to have in our country to prosper, so do the Chinese.
The Chinese have bigger problems though. They’ve got huge problems, starting with the fact that they’ve got 1.3 billion people, and hundreds of millions of them live in abject poverty. That means jobs, that mean all the rest. They’ve got energy issues they’re going to be living with. They are a communist, authoritarian, opaque government. There’s no transparency. What they have and what they don’t have, we’re not quite sure. They’ve made tremendous strides. They are a great power today, and they going to continue to be a great power — and that’s okay. But we shouldn’t cower in the wake of that, or we shouldn’t be concerned that they’re going to take our place in the world.”
While Hagel appears to downplay the threat coming from China, he is greatly concerned with the threats associated with cyberwarfare, which he outlined during a “Great Decisions in Foreign Policy” interview with PBS in May 2012:
“Cyber is a huge issue, that cyberwarfare dimension which we are just now just getting our arms around, as other nations are. If you concentrate on that arena of warfare, you can completely paralyze a nation. You can paralyze power grids; you can paralyze financial services; you can stop a country; you can paralyze computers on ships. I think the greater threat to all of us is going to be directly a dagger at the heart of economic interests, and certainly I would start with cyber. All the other threats are still going to be there — nuclear proliferation, terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and all the things we’re dealing with today. But, in the end, we can deal with those; we can manage those; we can work our way through those. The big issues are things like cyber, that’s where we’ve really got to pay attention. It’s not like sending one army against another. You’re not going to win that by having a bigger navy that the other guy’s navy. You need big navies, you need strong security, but you need so much more now today to protect our economic interests, which are our vital security interests.”
While choosing to avoid naming China as one of the leaders in cyberwarfare, Hagel is clearly aware of the threat emanating from China and would likely spearhead further efforts to protect American interests as head of the Defense Department.
Many China analysts will likely spend countless hours trying to determine how the appointment of Chuck Hagel will effect U.S. foreign policy toward China. Perhaps we need only look as far as President Obama’s recent track record — after all, the U.S. President typically promotes like-minded cabinet members. Obama said of Hagel in August 2008, a month after taking Hagel with him on a tour of Iraq, “He’s a staunch Republican, but Chuck and I agree almost on every item of foreign policy.” With President Obama remaining as Commander in Chief for the next four years, don’t expect any dramatic changes for U.S.-China relations with the appointment of Chuck Hagel to Secretary of Defense.