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In October 2022, the Chinese Communist Party elected Xi Jinping for a third term as general secretary, setting Xi on a path to be the longest-serving leader since Mao Zedong’s rule ended in 1976.

The extension of Xi’s rule carries significant implications not only for China, but for the broader Indo-Pacific region and global geopolitical order. No country is more aware of this than Taiwan, which has carefully walked the line between its own autonomy and Beijing’s desire for reunification since the 1940s.

After a summer of rising tensions, many experts believe that Beijing’s timeline for an attempt at reunification is much shorter than conventional thinking has assumed. On the World Class podcast, Michael McFaul, director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, discusses the prognosis for Taiwan with Oriana Skylar Mastro, an expert on the Chinese military and security, and Larry Diamond, a scholar of China’s sharp power and the role of Taiwan in the Indo-Pacific region.

Listen to the full episode and read highlights from their conversation below.

Click the link for a full transcript of “What We Need To Talk About When We Talk About Taiwan.“

The Likelihood of Invasion


In stark terms, Oriana Skylar Mastro, a center fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, believes there’s a 100% chance China will use some sort of force against Taiwan in the next five years. For the last twenty years, China has been making concerted efforts to modernize its military and increase its capabilities not only to assert force against Taiwan, but to deter intervention from the United States.

In the majority of scenarios, the United States wins in a conflict with China over Taiwan. But the United States also carries a distinct geographic disadvantage. The distance across the Taiwan Strait between the island and mainland China is approximately 100 miles, which is roughly the distance between Richmond, Virginia and Washington D.C. If China moves quickly, PRC forces could take Taiwan before U.S. forces have time to move into position.

When considering possible outcomes in Taiwan, it is equally important to consider the motivations driving Beijing’s ambitions. The leadership on the mainland has been planning and thinking about how to retake Taiwan since 1949. With the modernized capabilities coming online, the balance of power has shifted in China’s military favor, and the cost-benefit calculus favors Beijing’s ambitions. The long-term planning stage is now reaching its end, and the prospects of direct action are increasing.

The clock is ticking. The problem is we don’t know how fast it’s ticking. But we need to move faster than we're moving.
Larry Diamond
Mosbacher Senior Fellow in Global Democracy at FSI

The View from Taipei


Political leaders in Taiwan recognize the growing danger they face across the Strait. In Larry Diamond’s assessment, the end of Hong Kong's autonomy and the suppression of the “one country, two systems” model, the rising military incursions into Taiwan's air defense identification zone and coastal waters, and the whole rising pace of Chinese military intimidation has sobered Taiwan and visibly impacted Taiwanese public opinion.

Concerningly though, while the political elite recognize the real and present danger of the situation, polling of the general Taiwan public suggests that the vast majority of citizens still feel like an attack or an invasion by China is unlikely. Similar majorities suggest that they would be willing to fight in Taiwan’s defense, but volunteering for military service remains at a minimum.

To maximize safety, Taiwan needs to find ways to strengthen itself in its ability to defend, resist, and deter China, while still avoiding any appearance of moving toward permanent independence or any other action that could be deemed by Beijing as a provocation, says Diamond.

There are things that can completely change Beijing's calculus, but it takes a lot of work, and I just don't see us doing the work yet.
Oriana Skylar Mastro
FSI Center Fellow

What the United States Can Do


When it comes to the defense of Taiwan, the strategic crutch hobbling the United States is geography. Most of the U.S. Pacific forces are not in Asia. The majority are in Hawaii and California, as well as a few bases and airfields in Japan. To be able to effectively deter China, the U.S. needs far greater forward deployed military capability in order to be able to either stop or stall the movement of Chinese troops into Taiwan, says Mastro.

Taiwan needs greater onshore military deterrence capabilities as well. One such strategy is the “porcupine approach,” which increases the number of smaller mobile lethal weapons. By Larry Diamond’s assessment, increased citizen participation in military training is also crucial, with an emphasis on weapons training and urban defense tactics. The U.S. could support these aims by overhauling the current system for weapons procurement to speed up the production and delivery of weapons systems not just for Taiwan, but to the benefit of U.S. defense and other contingencies as well. Working with leadership to create strategic stockpiles of food, and energy should also be a priority, says Diamond.

The U.S. also needs to put much more effort into its diplomatic efforts on behalf of Taiwan. Many U.S. allies and partners are reluctant to ostracize China because of economic ties and concerns over sparking their own conflict with China in the future. A key ally in all of this is Japan. If Japan fights with the United States on behalf of Taiwan, it is a guaranteed win and enough to effectively deter China. But much more needs to be done much more quickly in order to secure those guarantees and present them in a convincing way to Beijing.

“The clock is ticking,” Larry Diamond says. “And the problem is we don’t know how fast it’s ticking. “Taiwan is moving in the right direction. But we need to move faster than we're moving.”

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Larry Diamond and Oriana Skylar Mastro join Michael McFaul on the World Class podcast to discuss China’s ambitions against Taiwan, and how the U.S. and its allies can deter Beijing.

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There are strong indications that the Biden administration intends to continue strengthening U.S.-Taiwan ties. The Biden team invited Taiwan's representative Bi-khim Hsiao to the presidential inauguration, supporters of Taiwan now hold senior roles in the administration, and officials have pledged "rock-solid" U.S. commitment to Taiwan, warning that PRC military pressure against Taiwan threatens regional peace and stability. But Cross-strait deterrence is arguably weaker today than at any point since the Korean War, according to Chinese military and security expert Oriana Skylar Mastro, FSI Center Fellow at APARC.

On February 18, 2021, Mastro testified to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission at a hearing on Deterring PRC Aggression Toward Taiwan. Her testimony on the political and strategic dynamics underpinning deterrence across the Taiwan Strait is available to watch below.

[Subscribe to APARC's newsletters for the latest analysis from our experts.]

Beijing has turned to increasingly hostile and combative rhetoric and actions since the democratic election of Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen. PLA air and water operations around Taiwan, particularly in the Taiwan Strait, have increased significantly in the past year, and concern is growing that the Chinese Communist Party is imminently planning to use force to compel Taiwan to accept unification with mainland China.

Drawing on her expertise in both policy and military security, Mastro explains why deterrence in Taiwan must be based on military capabilities rather than signaling through policy.

Catalysts to Conflict

Foremost, Mastro argues that the basic circumstances of aggression towards Taiwan have changed. In years past, it was accepted that China would launch military operations against Taiwan in response to actions or policy positions taken there or in the United States. However, Mastro believes that China is now primed to force a campaign of reunification regardless of either Taiwan’s or the U.S.’s policies moving forward.

By Mastro’s assessment, China is now in a position where it could prevail in cross-strait military contingencies even if the U.S. intervenes in Taiwan’s defense. The reform overhaul and modernization of China’s military have vastly improved the quality it equipment and confidence in its capability. China now possesses offensive weaponry, including ballistic and cruise missiles, which if deployed, could destroy U.S. bases in the Western Pacific. Sophisticated cyber attacks on domestic infrastructure both in Taiwan and the United States are also a credible threat and viable form of retaliation.

As long as President Xi is confident that the PLA can successfully back a forced unification in Taiwan, Mastro argues that action of some kind against Taiwan is not a matter of if, but of when, and what severity.

Types of Escalation

Failure to reunify Taiwan is too high a political and military cost for the PRC to risk, but there is also growing agitation amongst the mainland Chinese population for a resolution on the half-baked status of the island and its governance. Mastro believes that this pressure will ensure that action will be taken on Taiwan in the next 3 to 5 years.

Since Taiwan cannot withstand a sustained, active assault from China on its own, the deciding factor in when and how China moves against Taiwan is largely dependent on the signals the U.S. sends. And since China is increasingly confident in its own military, the signals the U.S. sends must likewise be ground in military capability, not policy, says Mastro.  

As long as the U.S. does not make significant changes to improve its force posture in the region, China can afford to wait. Until Beijing is ready to take Taiwan by force, its leadership will carefully calibrate responses to U.S. or Taiwan actions so as not to escalate to war.
Oriana Skylar Mastro
FSI Center Fellow

If China believes there will be little or no intervention or support from the U.S., it is likely to follow a graduated plan of attack, using economic blockages and targeted military action to bring about capitulation. If, however, it appears the U.S. will intervene, China is much more likely to move quickly and escalate violence and force rapidly to maximize damage before a full U.S. defense response can be coordinated.

Policy Recommendations

To effectively counter China on Taiwan, Mastro recommends crafting policy that creates doubt over China’s ability to successfully absorb Taiwan through military means. To do this, the United States needs to focus forces and develop operational plans that credibly off-set China’s goals while not triggering a panicked response from Beijing that could escalate into rapid conflict.

Mastro also urges the allocation of more resources toward intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), base development, and firepower in the Asia-Pacific region. Investing in these signals U.S. commitment to determent and the capacity to follow through if need be.

Finally, Mastro urges additional research into U.S. war termination behavior. Any involvement in Taiwan must be as limited and without the possibility for escalating levels of violence and long term unsustainable, unwinnable commitments. In preparing to potentially fight a war, she reminds policymakers that they need to know how to end one as well.

A recording of the full hearing is available courtesy of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.

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China’s South China Sea Strategy Prioritizes Deterrence Against the US, Says Stanford Expert

Analysis by FSI Center Fellow Oriana Skylar Mastro reveals that the Chinese military has taken a more active role in China’s South China Sea strategy, but not necessarily a more aggressive one.
China’s South China Sea Strategy Prioritizes Deterrence Against the US, Says Stanford Expert
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China may now be able to prevail in cross-strait contingencies even if the United States intervenes in Taiwan’s defense, Chinese security expert Oriana Skylar Mastro tells the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. Changes must be made to U.S. military capabilities, not U.S. policy, she argues.

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FSI Center Fellow at APARC Oriana Skylar Mastro joins NPR's Weekend Edition host Scott Simon to discuss the rising tensions between China and Taiwan and how the United States should respond.

Listen to the complete interview below. This conversation originally appeared on NPR's website.

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FSI Center Fellow Wins Best Book in Security Studies Award

The American Political Science Association recognizes Oriana Skylar Mastro for her work on military strategy and mediation.
FSI Center Fellow Wins Best Book in Security Studies Award
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"The current threat is that the CCP is running out of patience, and their military is becoming more and more capable. So for the first time in its history, there's the option of taking Taiwan by force," Mastro tells NPR's Weekend Edition host Scott Simon.

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Uneasy Partnerships presents the analysis and insights of practitioners and scholars who have shaped and examined China's interactions with key Northeast Asian partners. Using the same empirical approach employed in the companion volume, The New Great Game (Stanford University Press, 2016), this new text analyzes the perceptions, priorities, and policies of China and its partners to explain why dyadic relationships evolved as they have during China's "rise."

Synthesizing insights from an array of research, Uneasy Partnerships traces how the relationships that formed between China and its partner states—Japan, the Koreas, and Russia—resulted from the interplay of competing and compatible objectives, as well as from the influence of third-country ties. These findings are used to identify patterns and trends and to develop a framework that can be used to illuminate and explain Beijing's engagement with the rest of the world.

This book is part of the Studies of the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center series at Stanford University Press.

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John Lewis & Xue Litai
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In 2013, China’s president, Xi Jinping, launched a massive reclamation and construction campaign on seven reefs in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Beijing insisted that its actions were responsible and in accord with international law, but foreign critics questioned Xi’s real intentions. Recently available internal documents involving China’s leader reveal his views about war, the importance of oceans in protecting and rejuvenating the nation, and the motives underlying his moves in the South China Sea. Central to those motives is China’s rivalry with the United States and the grand strategy needed to determine its outcome. To this end, Xi created five externally oriented and proactive military theater commands, one of which would protect newly built assets in the South China Sea and the sea lanes – sometimes referred to as the Maritime Silk Road – that pass through this sea to Eurasia and beyond. Simultaneously, China’s actions in the Spratlys complicated and worsened the US-China rivalry, and security communities in both countries recognized that these actions could erupt into armed crises – despite decades of engagement to prevent them. A permanent problem-solving mechanism may allow the two countries to move toward a positive shared future.

You can read the full article from CISAC co-founder John Lewis and Xue Litai on the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Web site.

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In the wake of the recent historic meeting of the leaders of China and Taiwan, the Stanford News Service asked two of the university's Asia experts about the aftermath of that meeting and its possible effects on political relations between the two countries, the military situation and Taiwan's Jan. 16 presidential and parliamentary elections.

The first presidential meeting between the leaders of the communist mainland and the democratic island, split by civil war in 1949, was held in early November on neutral territory in Singapore.

Kharis Templeman is the Taiwan Democracy program manager at Stanford's Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. He recently wrote about why Taiwan's defense spending has fallen as China's has risen. Thomas Fingar is a distinguished fellow at Stanford's Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center. He served as the chairman of the National Intelligence Council and in other key positions in Washington. 

Do you anticipate any lasting effects from the face-to-face meeting of Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou?

Thomas Fingar: At a minimum, the meeting appears intended by both sides to validate and lock in the much-improved cross-Taiwan Strait relationship that has evolved over the past several years.

Kharis Templeman: I do think the Ma-Xi meeting itself will have one lasting legacy: it has created a precedent for treating the directly elected president of the Republic of China as an equal and as the rightful representative of Taiwanese interests in cross-strait relations. From now on, leaders in Beijing are going to have a hard time arguing that a non-KMT (the Kuomintang, Taiwan's governing party,) president is illegitimate, as they did during the [former Taiwanese president] Chen Shui-Bian era, or to continue to insist on referring to Taiwan’s leaders as provincial-level officials. So, the next president will come into office somewhat strengthened by that precedent.   

Will the meeting have any effect on the January elections in Taiwan?

Templeman: I don’t think it will make much, if any, difference. Taiwanese public opinion is deeply divided about Ma Ying-Jeou’s meeting with Xi. Ma himself remains quite unpopular, the economy is barely growing, and the KMT presidential candidate remains at least 20 points behind in the polls. There’s little indication that this meeting has shaken up what has been a large and steady lead for DPP (Democratic Progressive Party) presidential candidate Tsai Ing-Wen, and I would be shocked if she didn’t win a comfortable victory in January.

Fingar: Probably not. Beijing seems to have learned that its past attempts to influence elections on Taiwan have been ineffectual or counterproductive, and the meeting is unlikely to change minds or votes on the island. 

How might the elections affect military spending on either sides, or China's aggressive island-building for military bases?

Fingar: The meeting will not have any effect on military spending or the building of artificial islands in the South China Sea, but Beijing may have hoped that agreeing to meet with Ma to demonstrate how "good" the relationship is might persuade Washington not to approve another round of arms sales to Taiwan.  Regardless of who wins the election on Taiwan, the next administration is likely to seek another round of U.S. arms sales in order to prove that it has the support of the United States.

Templeman: The meeting will have no impact on the security balance in the region. Ma reportedly raised the issue of PRC (People's Republic of China) missiles within easy range of Taiwan, but Xi claimed, implausibly, that they were not targeted at Taiwan, and that was the end of it. The broader trends are unchanged: the PRC’s military budget is growing annually by double-digit rates while Taiwan’s remains essentially flat. The consequence is that the PRC’s capacity to take coercive measures against Taiwan continues to expand, even as cross-strait cooperation has been improved and institutionalized.

Dan Stober is at the Stanford News Service.

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Regional conflicts present their own set of unique challenges to the international community. These conflicts may be political, economic, environmental, or social in nature, but are deeply tied to a sense of place. These conflicts can only be resolved with multiple nations involved. 

This research area includes issues as diverse as China-Taiwan military competition, nuclear nonproliferation on the Korean Peninsula and South Asia, and political instability in the Middle East and North Africa. 

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Beth Duff-Brown
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Amy Zegart, one of the nation’s leading experts on national security, intelligence and foreign policy, has been appointed the next co-director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation.

Zegart, a CISAC faculty member and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, will take up her new role July 1. She succeeds Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, who was named director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, CISAC’s parent organization.

“Amy Zegart is an award-winning scholar, an accomplished professional with public and private sector experience, and a trusted voice on national security and foreign policy,” said Cuéllar. “Her multi-disciplinary scholarship, diverse experiences, and commitment to getting it right will complement the Freeman Spogli Institute's growing focus on governance problems, and will make her a dynamic leader for CISAC as the center continues its vital work on international cooperation and security.”

Zegart, once named one of the 10 most influential experts in intelligence reform by the National Journal, said she intends to continue expanding the center’s focus on emerging security issues, such as cybersecurity, drones and challenges to governance while building on CISAC’s distinguished reputation in nuclear security.

“The international threat environment is changing faster and in more profound ways than anyone could have imagined 10 or 20 years ago,” said Zegart, who is also a professor of political economy (by courtesy) at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, where she co-teaches a course on managing political risk with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

“CISAC will continue to be at the forefront of addressing these new challenges with the same secret sauce it’s had since its founding in 1983: world class talent; a commitment to teaching the next generation; and a deep belief that bridging the natural and social sciences is vital to solving the world’s most dangerous problems,” she said.

 CISAC, more than any other institution, provided a scholarly environment that was intellectually challenging and personally supportive at the same time. That’s quite a rare cultural combination."

Zegart’s research examines the organization of American national security agencies and their effectiveness. She served on the Clinton administration's National Security Council staff and as a foreign policy adviser to the 2000 presidential campaign of George W. Bush. She has testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee, provided training to the Marine Corps, and advised officials on intelligence and homeland security matters. From 2009 to 2011 she served on the National Academies of Science Panel to Improve Intelligence Analysis. Her commentary has been featured on national television and radio shows and in The New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times.

Zegart writes  regular commentary for Foreign Policy about national security issues. In this excerpt from one of those posts about the privatization of American intelligence and the growing businesses of political risk management, her approach accentuates her ability to bring complex issues to a general audience:

In the old days, the ‘free world’ and ‘Soviet bloc’ were two different universes. Not anymore. Now everything is connected. Sweden’s Ikea has stores in Russia. My CIA alarm clock was made in China. Unrest in Cairo can cause legging shortages in California. And communications happen everywhere. Wifi can be found in Bedouin tents, on the top of Mount Everest, and on buses in rural Rwanda. Kenyan fisherman may lack electricity, but they can check weather conditions and fish market prices on their cell phones. All of this connectedness means that political risks – civil strife, instability, insurgency, coups, weak legal standards, corruption – have more spillover effects. What happens in Vegas does not stay in Vegas.

Zegart recalls being fascinated with politics since she was a kid. She spent her childhood tracking election night tallies and writing her congressman. When she was 13, she followed on TV the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s historic visit to the United States in 1979 and was thrilled when he donned a cowboy hat at a Texas rodeo.

“I was enthralled,” Zegart said. “My mother, an antique dealer who can find anyone and anything, tracked down a local Taiwanese graduate student and convinced her to teach me Mandarin after school.”

She would continue studying Chinese at Andover, majored in East Asian Studies at Harvard, and would win a Fulbright Scholarship to travel to China and study the 1989 Chinese democracy movement and Tiananmen Square tragedy. Zegart then earned her M.A. and Ph.D. in political science from Stanford and became a full professor of public policy at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs as well as a fellow at the Burkle Center for International Relations.

Zegart notes she’s been connected to CISAC for more than two decades. She first showed up at the center’s former Galvez House headquarters during her first quarter as a Stanford graduate student. She kept coming back even after she got her Ph.D.; both of her award-winning books were germinated in presentations she gave to CISAC seminars.

“CISAC, more than any other institution, provided a scholarly environment that was intellectually challenging and personally supportive at the same time,” Zegart said. “That’s quite a rare cultural combination.”

This academic year, she co-taught with Martha Crenshaw the popular CISAC-sponsored class International Security in a Changing World, which culminates in a U.N. Security Council simulation in which students debate a pressing global issue.

CISAC has a tradition of appointing co-directors – one from the social sciences and the other from the natural sciences – to advance the center’s interdisciplinary mission to conduct and promote cutting-edge research to make the world a safer place.

“Amy brings to CISAC a wealth of expertise in international security issues, a deep commitment to scholarship and a sincere desire to strengthen and expand the center’s activities and impact,” said David Relman, CISAC’s other co-director, a Stanford microbiologist and professor of infectious diseases, as well as expert on emerging biological threats. “We share an interest in emerging technologies and the effective international mechanisms that address 21st century challenges and threats.”

Zegart is the author of two award-winning books. Flawed by Design, which chronicles the development of the Central Intelligence Agency, Joint Chiefs of Staff, and National Security Council, won the highest national dissertation award in political science. Spying Blind, which examines why American intelligence agencies failed to adapt to the terrorist threat before 9/11, won the National Academy of Public Administration’s Brownlow Book Award. She has also published in International Security, Political Science Quarterly, and other leading academic journals. She serves on the editorial boards of Terrorism and Political Violence and Intelligence and National Security. Her most recent book is Eyes on Spies: Congress and the United States Intelligence Community.

Before her academic career, Zegart spent three years at McKinsey & Company advising Fortune 100 companies about strategy and organizational effectiveness.

She serves on the FBI Intelligence Analysts Association National Advisory Board and the Los Angeles Police Department’s Counter-terrorism and Community Police Advisory Board and is a lifetime member of the Council on Foreign Relations. 

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About the topic: When in late 2009, President Obama ordered the surge of an additional 30,000 troops into Afghanistan to reverse Taliban momentum, major tenets of the U.S. military counterinsurgency doctrine shaped the resulting campaign plan.  Adages such as "protect the population" and "clear, hold, and build" served to guide civil-military actions.  With the hindsight of four years, however, it seems clear that some of the important assumptions upon which the plan was premised were significantly flawed.  Karl Eikenberry, who served in both senior diplomatic and military posts in Afghanistan, will examine the logic of counterinsurgency doctrine as it was applied during the surge and discuss its strengths and shortcomings.

About the speaker: Karl Eikenberry served as the U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan from May 2009 until July 2011, where he led the civilian surge directed by President Obama to reverse insurgent momentum and set the conditions for transition to full Afghan sovereignty. Before appointment as Chief of Mission in Kabul, Ambassador Eikenberry had a thirty-five year career in the United States Army, retiring in April 2009 with the rank of Lieutenant General.  He has served in various policy and political-military positions, including Deputy Chairman of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Military Committee in Brussels, Belgium; Director for Strategic Planning and Policy for U.S. Pacific Command at Camp Smith, Hawaii; U.S. Security Coordinator and Chief of the Office of Military Cooperation in Kabul, Afghanistan; Assistant Army and later Defense Attaché at the United States Embassy in Beijing, China; Senior Country Director for China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Mongolia in the Office of the Secretary of Defense; and Deputy Director for Strategy, Plans, and Policy on the Army Staff. 

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Karl Eikenberry William J. Perry Fellow in International Security at CISAC; CDDRL, TEC, and Shorenstein APARC Distinguished Fellow; Former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan; Retired U.S. Army Lt. General Speaker
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Timothy Junio Cybersecurity Fellow Speaker CISAC
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Whitfield Diffie is a consulting scholar at CISAC. He was a visiting scholar in 2009-2010 and an affiliate from 2010-2012. He is best known for the discovery of the concept of public key cryptography, in 1975, which he developed along with Stanford University Electrical Engineering Professor Martin Hellman. Public key cryptography, which revolutionized not only cryptography but also the cryptographic community, now underlies the security of internet commerce.

During the 1980s, Diffie served as manager of secure systems research at Northern Telecom. In 1991, he joined Sun Microsystems as distinguished engineer and remained as Sun fellow and chief security officer until the spring of 2009.

Diffie spent the 1990s working to protect the individual and business right to use encryption, for which he argues in the book Privacy on the Line, the Politics of Wiretapping and Encryption, which he wrote jointly with Susan Landau. Diffie is a Marconi fellow and the recipient of a number of awards including the National Computer Systems Security Award (given jointly by NIST and NSA) and the Franklin Institute's Levy Prize.

Whitfield Diffie Affiliate Commentator CISAC
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