RDML Henderschedt Shares Unique Insights on U.S.-PRC Relations During January’s Virtual Speaker Series Event

Rear Admiral Thomas Henderschedt, Senior Defense Official/Defense Attaché Beijing, provided uniquely insightful comments on U.S.-PRC relations over the last fifteen years during 2021’s first monthly Virtual Speaker Series event on 21 January. A record number of 183 NIP viewers dialed in to listen to the admiral, who provided some opening comments before fielding several questions from the audience.

During the NIP Chairman’s introduction of the guest speaker, Rear Admiral Cothron rightly noted that “No one, certainly in Naval Intelligence, knows China better than Tom Henderschedt”.  In addition to all the time he has spent studying and focusing on China in other assignments during his career, Admiral Henderschedt’s time spent in the country and region is impressive. In addition to serving as the Navy Liaison at the American Institute in Taiwan, he has served three attaché tours in China: Assistant Naval Attaché (2006-2009), Naval Attaché (2016-2020), and now Defense Attaché in Beijing, People’s Republic of China. This has given him a front row seat to witness the evolution of the Chinese military and the relationship between the United States and China over the last fifteen years. 

Admiral Henderschedt opened his comments by humbly stating that “No one is more mystified by China than me. And I’m still learning!” He framed his comments around the change he has seen in the PLA and the in the U.S.-PRC relationship over time, pointing out that this is one of the most interesting times in that relationship. 

Modernization and post-2015 reforms of the PLA

He contrasted the PLA(N) he first witnessed in ’98, which had a mere 2 LUHAIs and a LUHU DD, with the current one, which saw the commission of 31 ships 2020. This was roughly the same total number of major combatants commissioned by the U.S. and the rest of the world combined. Watching the improvements in software and hardware, and the evolution of the PLA leadership has been fascinating from his perspective. The year 2015 saw the largest re-organization of the PLA in its history. As a result of those efforts, the Chinese military today is far more joint and less stove-piped. It is also a far more capable force for supporting Chinese policy and diplomacy.

Interestingly, the PLA believes it had an extremely successful year in 2020, touting a long list of accomplishments ranging from how they resolutely fought COVID-19 to how well they strengthened their military diplomacy and defended China’s land, air and maritime borders.

Impact of COVID-19

Admiral Henderschedt spoke briefly about the impact of COVID-19 on the USDAO office, beginning in early January 2020 when they knew it was a significant disease. By Feb they were deeply involved in evacuating U.S. personnel from the Wuhan province. It was interesting to watch the U.S. COVID response through the eyes of the Chinese; 

Evolution of U.S.-PRC relationship

Turning toward the U.S.-PRC relationship, Admiral Henderschedt discussed the creation of the new Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for China in 2019 to more effectively manage that relationship. He also highlighted how our goals toward the relationship have evolved through cooperation to competition and risk reduction. During the Q&A session, Admiral Henderschedt noted how the PLA’s comfort level in talking about their capabilities has changed over time. Years ago, they would adamantly deny certain military developments whereas today they are a bit more willing to discuss them. Nevertheless, access to the PLA remains very difficult, particularly from the DAO’s perspective. 

 At the end of the Q&A session, Admiral Cothron asked, “It’s all interesting, clearly. But what is the most important thing from your perspective that we need to know about?” Rear Admiral Henderschedt’s response was “the confidence of the PLA.” And it is laser-focused on building a military force that can rival the U.S. military.