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Spoiling for a Fight

American analysts inflate the “China threat”

The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict by Elbridge A. Colby. Yale University Press, 384 pages.

In September 2021, Military Review, an official journal of the U.S. army, published a special issue on China. The cover was illustrated with a map displaying a hostile world: Putin in Russia, Khamenei in Iran, Ortega in Nicaragua, the Taliban in Afghanistan, cartels in Mexico and Colombia. Africa was empty of leaders but dotted with “violent extremist organizations” and Chinese flags. The Five-star Red was planted in much of the world: in Spain and Italy, in Peru and Brazil, in South Africa and Sudan, in Nigeria and Egypt, in Malaysia and Thailand. Even West Papua was marked out as Chinese territory. A Chinese snake encircled the map.

Military Review has form on China. In September 2020, the journal published an essay by Brian J. Dunn, a former Michigan Army National Guardsman, who argued that a U.S. army corps should be on hand in case of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, to “drive the invaders into the sea.” But views such as these are hardly outside of the mainstream. Most American writing about the PRC is marked by eccentric descriptions of Chinese ambitions and a general bellicosity. China’s military strength is routinely exaggerated. Its single overseas military base, in Djibouti, is presented as the first step toward an international archipelago in the American style. In fact, the PLA support base in Djibouti neighbors similar military bases of France, Japan, Italy, and the United States.

Anglophone newspapers have published a string of stories advancing Chinese technology scares. In October, alarms were set off in multiple publications about defunct, fifty-year-old “fractional orbital” bombardment systems (missiles developed during the Cold War that briefly enter the earth’s orbit) as though they were revolutionary advances. The next month, the Financial Times ran a fantastic report about China’s “game-changing hypersonic technology,” inaccurately describing hypersonic missiles and claiming another unprecedented advance. China’s nuclear program, which is negligible beside American and Russian arsenals, is said to pose the threat of “strategic breakout,” changing the nuclear balance. Fears of Chinese technological supremacy are paired with dreams of world conquest not dissimilar to those of the Military Review cover. In November 2020, the State Department’s policy planning staff published an assessment that China was seeking to “fundamentally revise world order, placing the People’s Republic of China (PRC) at the center and serving Beijing’s authoritarian goals and hegemonic ambitions.”

There are clear signs that the Chinese are chafing against the American presence in East Asia.

Elbridge A. Colby’s new book, The Strategy of Denial, follows in this tradition. Hailing from a defense intellectual dynasty—his grandfather headed Nixon’s CIA—Colby became prominent during the Trump presidency for writing the 2018 National Defense Strategy. He is now part of the favoured Flournoy-Blinken clique at WestExec Advisors, a consulting firm that has provided more than a dozen White House staffers to the Biden administration. From within, the U.S. foreign policy community sees itself as a church divided. But looked at from the outside it more closely resembles a large family. The schisms between realism and idealism are no more than minor variations in imperial management. Colby’s preferred euphemism for American empire is “heavy global engagement” and he has little time for talk of retrenchment. The United States is still powerful even if, alas, “its power is substantially outweighed by that of the rest of the world.” How should American leaders deal with the world now that U.S. military spending totals only as much as the next seven states combined, rather than the next fifteen, as it stood a decade ago?

Military Review

Colby begins with the standard argument that much of U.S. foreign policy is a distraction. The only regions that really matter are the major production hubs of the world economy—North America, Asia, Western Europe—as well as the hydrocarbon-rich Persian Gulf. Here, there is only one serious challenge to the status quo: China. The task, then, is China containment. To his credit, Colby does not waste time on fantasies of Chinese global supremacy. He insists that China’s intention is only “to be the predominant power in Asia.” But he agrees with the chorus that it still poses a threat to the United States. Of what kind?

Colby’s first principles are reasonable: it should be the goal of U.S. foreign policy to protect “the nation’s territorial integrity” and “security from foreign attack.” The United States is an unusually secure country, he notes, located “behind two great oceans,” but there is still a danger that China might “use its power to disfavor and exclude the United States from reasonably free trade” in East Asia. The example he chooses to illustrate this risk is “an economic bloc” like NAFTA. If China were able to make good on this terrible threat, it would be able to “more effectively shape its own social and political future.” For this reason, China must be prevented from achieving its goals, and indefinitely. If the PRC is not seeking regional hegemony, it should have no complaints about American “efforts clearly limited to preventing it from doing so.” In this way, defense objectives are seamlessly translated into management of the balance of power across the world.

How should the United States put its military power to work to contain the China threat and keep its “credibility in Asia”? Here Colby agrees with the orthodox method of maintaining a “defense perimeter” around China. Major U.S. military facilities on Guam, bases at Yokosuka, Sasebo, Okinawa, Misawa, and Atsugi in Japan, military facilities in Thailand and Sembawang, and the network of army bases in South Korea already serve this purpose. (The United States also has access to five bases in the Philippines and is constructing a maritime training center in the Riau islands.) It is Colby’s contention that the “defense perimeter” should be strengthened and military commitments elsewhere rolled back. In addition, alliances with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and especially Taiwan should be shored up. Recognition that global economic power is now tri-polar (U.S., EU, China) might lead to the thought that the United States should put aside the brute optimism of hard power and seek a settlement more in line with economic reality. Colby, like most of his contemporaries, does not consider this.

There are clear signs that the Chinese are chafing against the American presence in East Asia. The PRC has reopened petty border skirmishes with neighboring states aligned with the United States, made claims to disputed islands in the South China sea, and increased questionable coast guard activity in regional waters. In October, Chinese planes conducted sorties into Taiwanese airspace. The regional states broadly aligned with the United States have dithered between requesting American security guarantees and more diplomatic wrangling. The consensus view is that a crisis is most likely to emerge over Taiwan. Colby agrees that the de facto American protectorate is a “cork” China wishes to remove. In his view, China’s best strategy would be to erode the alliance of U.S.-aligned regional states by picking them off one by one, with Taiwan as the obvious first target. The U.S. military should therefore concentrate its planning on a defense of Taiwan.

Were a Chinese analyst to make such an argument, they would rightly be considered an apocalypse hawk.

Colby does not analyze the status of Taiwan from a historical or political perspective. His argument is not tied to values of democracy, but framed solely in strategic terms. For the same reason, he concludes that Mongolia should not be defended against a hypothetical Chinese attack; it would be difficult to achieve victory and would not help much with containment. By contrast, the “loss” of Taiwan might lead to a crisis of confidence. It would certainly frighten Japan. In other words, a variant of domino theory: If Taipei falls, how long until Tokyo flips?

Unlike Edward Luttwak, Colby does not think that a stronger anti-China coalition will form naturally as regional states see the benefit of uniting behind the United States. Rather, they must be “convinced” not to side with China. In the event of a Chinese attack on Taiwan, the United States should conduct a “denial defense,” so that any invasion is blunted in the surrounding air and seas to “prevent enough of those forces from reaching their destination.” Like Dunn, Colby believes that American leaders should be prepared to go to war with the PRC—risking nuclear conflict with brinkmanship. Conversely, Chinese leadership will have to accept the failure of its long-term plans with equanimity and without escalating conflict. Were a Chinese analyst to make such an argument, they would rightly be considered an apocalypse hawk. Yet here, too, Colby cannot be singled out. In 2019, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments argued for lager deployments of American military power around First Island Chain, to be used to deny Chinese access to the seas after an invasion of Taiwan. Colby’s account in many ways summarizes the conventional view on China, which explains the many favorable reviews (some defying partisan commitments) it has received.

For a book in which the prospect of a Taiwan invasion is so prominent, The Strategy of Denial says little on the practical details of island defense. Coastal artillery and beach landings are not explored in depth. This gap mirrors the U.S. government’s own approach, which has been to focus on selling Taiwan F-16s rather than shore defenses. (Agreements to provide anti-ship missiles in 2025 and a deal for Howitzers, signed in August, are notable exceptions.) That China has the capacity to take Taiwan by force is not a given. An amphibious crossing would take perhaps eight hours, with landing only possible along a modest part of the coastline. An American defense of Taiwan would have to be coordinated with Japan, which has very good submarines that might be useful in the narrow Taiwan strait, where U.S. aircraft carriers would be vulnerable. The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission has recommended large numbers of missiles be deployed in nearby allied countries.

Taiwan’s defense minister Chiu Kuo-cheng said the PRC could invade by 2025. The former commander of the U.S. forces in the Indo-Pacific, admiral Philip Davidson, has suggested the later date of 2027. But are these anything more than guesses? Divining the reality of Chinese strategy is made difficult by increasing centralization of planning around the Xi Jinping clique. It is easy to find rhetoric, usually vague, to hold up as evidence of Chinese machinations. But even hawkish Chinese intellectuals such as Jiang Shigong still speak of China operating within the ambit of American empire. Xi has said that Taiwan’s independence is “the most serious hidden danger to national rejuvenation.” Yet the PRC has so far played a long game over Taiwan.

The mediocrity of American analysis is one impediment to avoiding catastrophe.

Under president Biden, the Trump-era policy of periodic provocations of China has continued. In February, the United States conducted naval exercises in the South China sea with two aircraft carrier groups. In November, the U.S. Global Posture Review approved the minor measure of stationing an attack helicopter squadron and artillery headquarters in Korea permanently (this fell short of the sort of preparations Colby recommends). American politicians have been making showy visits to Taiwan, sometimes traveling on military planes. On September 30, U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai said the Biden administration was planning to “build on” Trump-era trade tariffs with China. In October, Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen all but confirmed reports in the Wall Street Journal that a small number of U.S. troops have been stationed on Taiwan. The risks are obvious. Whether they can be managed by virtual meetings between Biden and Xi Jinping, like the one held last month, remains to be seen.

The mediocrity of American analysis is one impediment to avoiding catastrophe. In a congested field, Michael Beckley and Hal Brands provided a standout example when, in The Atlantic, they described China as a country that “shoots first to gain the advantage of surprise” and is “willing to pick even a very costly fight with a single enemy to teach it, and others observing from the sidelines, a lesson” (a serviceable description of the Afghanistan War). Worse, China had even “picked a fight with Vietnam.” Yet it is precisely because China is not a threat to the United States that American analysts can blithely consider conflict with it as one choice among many. As Colby writes, the challenge for the United States is to prevent China from developing into a true competitor. So long as the United States can speak of maintaining a defense perimeter in the East and South China seas that extends to a few kilometers from the mainland, it is not dealing with a peer.

If China avoids civil broils and continues to grow at a portion of the rate it has over the past two decades, the United States will eventually have to change its calculations. At that point, as Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has pointed out, American leaders will face a choice between treating China as an existential threat and recognising it as a major power disgruntled by the extent of the American positions in East Asia. The latter course implies some form of settlement; the former leads to catastrophe.