The Physics Major Goes To China

Roger Cliff ’83 brings his insight into Chinese society, politics and the military to the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command

Written by Leslie Mertz Photo by Dana Edmunds

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With almost a fifth of the world’s population, a geographic surface area that rivals the United States and a swiftly growing economy and military, China has emerged as a major player on the global political stage and one that the U.S. government has sometimes struggled to fully understand. This is where Roger Cliff ’83 comes in.

Over the past 25-plus years, Cliff has conducted research and analysis for numerous public policy- and national security-focused organizations from the Rand Corp. and Project 2049 Institute to the Atlantic Council and Center for Naval Analyses. And, as of July 2022, Cliff is the senior defense intelligence analyst for China at the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, the Department of Defense organization that oversees all U.S. military forces in the Asia-Pacific region as well as those in Hawaii and some on the West Coast. “I was brought in because they wanted someone who could provide an understanding of how China’s political, social and cultural background affects what it is doing in the region,” Cliff says.

China is certainly a diverse and complex nation, especially considering its rapid shift from a quite poor nation to a technological and manufacturing leader, and from a politically isolated country to one with a prominent seat at the global political and military table, Cliff says. “People who are new to the topic tend to jump to conclusions that may be based on pretty reasonable deductive logic, but people and nations and cultures are more complex than simple logic would dictate. So, I hope that I will bring some of that dimension to the job to supplement the people who are far more knowledgeable than I about the specifics of military operations.”

Cliff’s journey from the physics program at Mudd to China analyst and strategist had many twists and turns. “I chose Harvey Mudd because it was a place where I could get a first-class degree in physics, but still have time to spend on social science and the humanities, because I was interested in those things too,” he says. That broader interest led him to step outside the physics realm after he graduated. He took a job as an engineer with a defense contractor in San Diego while also enrolling in the China studies master’s program at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). As part of the program, he spent two years studying at Peking University in Beijing, which allowed him to hone his Chinese language skills and immerse himself in Chinese culture and society. Upon returning to the U.S., he began working with UCSD economist Barry Naughton, one of the top economists on China, and centered his thesis on technological progress in China’s steel industry.

World events during that period got Cliff thinking about a possible future in public policy. “We were still in the Cold War at that time, and in looking at U.S. foreign policy over the previous decades, it seemed that our policy was often misguided because of an inadequate understanding of the countries abroad that we were dealing with,” he says. “I believed we had to interact with them in a way that was both in our own interests, as well as in the broader interests of the world.”

Along those lines, he then sought a doctorate at Princeton University, where he concentrated on the relationship between China and Taiwan, and also lived a couple of years in Taiwan. It was during his doctoral years that tensions rose between China and Taiwan and led to the so-called 1995–1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis, during which China test-fired missiles into the waters around Taiwan. “All of a sudden, everyone became interested in China as a potential future military challenge for the U.S.,” he says. That included the Rand Corporation, a public-policy think tank that was launching a project to study China as a potential security challenge. Rand hired the newly graduated Cliff as a political scientist. “I focused quite a bit on China’s defense industries initially because I had a background in defense technology through my engineering job and in China’s steel industry as a master’s student,” he says. He also found that the Chinese military is a prolific publisher of its own research, ranging from the technical to the strategic, so his Chinese language skills became a great asset.

“Living abroad for four years, traveling extensively throughout East Asia, learning a foreign language—this particular career path has led to a very different life experience.” ROGER CLIFF ’83

Since then, Cliff has continued moving from one compelling project to the next. He remarks, “When an opportunity to pursue an idea comes up, I have pursued it.”

His current position as senior defense intelligence analyst with the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command offered a way to influence U.S. policy but to do it a bit more directly. Most of his previous work involved doing research and writing detailed reports, he says, “but this is a job in an operational command, where the commander is making decisions every day about where to send his forces, and every morning when he wakes up, he’s worried about whether a war with China has started. So, to be able to be here advising someone who’s in a position to actually affect the course of events is an exciting opportunity for me.”

Cliff is quick to point out that his influence only goes so far. “Even in this fairly senior position, I am still just one cog in a huge apparatus that is grinding along with its own momentum.” Still, he says, it is gratifying to have a voice at the table and affect public policy.

In reflecting on his journey from Mudd to senior defense intelligence analyst, he is aware his life has taken many turns. “Living abroad for a total of four years, traveling extensively throughout East Asia, learning a foreign language—this particular career path has led to a very different life experience.” While he knew he wanted to keep his options open by the time he left Mudd, he adds, “I couldn’t have predicted or even guessed the way my career would take me. It has been exciting.”

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