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Hawks: Time to prepare the nation for war with China

Voices like Elbridge Colby think Biden should back up his tough rhetoric about defending Taiwan with a greater show of force.

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

China hawks have been responding to Beijing’s more aggressive military exercises near Taiwan by calling for increased U.S. efforts to protect it from possible attack. Case in point: Elbridge Colby argued in Foreign Affairs this week that the United States is unprepared for a war over Taiwan and insisted that the Biden administration bring its policies into line with the president’s declarations of support. 

Colby writes, “Given its public statements and strategies, it would make sense for Washington to be behaving as though the United States might well be on the verge of major war with a nuclear-armed superpower rival.” 

If our government’s public statements and strategies have put the U.S. in such a dangerous position, that suggests that the U.S. should seriously reconsider and revise those statements and strategies before our country blunders into an avoidable disaster.

Colby is right about one thing: there is a huge gap between the official rhetoric coming from Washington on Taiwan and the actions that the U.S. has been taking to back up these statements. President Biden has repeatedly made the mistake of claiming that the United States has a commitment to defend Taiwan from attack, and Speaker Pelosi’s ill-advised visit to Taipei included her statement that U.S. support for Taiwan was “ironclad.” As this gap has opened up between public statements and U.S. capabilities, there is a temptation to increase the latter significantly, but ramping up military spending and deployments is the wrong answer. 

The better solution is to scale back the expansive rhetoric and to stop chipping away at the status quo that has helped to preserve the peace in East Asia for more than forty years. 

While the call for a military buildup is framed as a deterrent to prevent a future conflict, it seems practically guaranteed to intensify an arms race with China and to feed the Chinese government’s fear of permanently losing Taiwan. If the U.S. encourages Beijing to conclude that time is not on their side and that the possibility of reunification will soon be foreclosed forever, that might very well hasten the onset of war instead of postponing it. 

In other words, the more that the U.S. builds up its military and focuses it on defeating China, the greater the incentive the Chinese government will have to respond in kind to match what our government does. 

Looming over all of this is the reality that the U.S. and China are nuclear powers with more than enough weapons to devastate both countries. If deterrence should fail for whatever reason, the costs of such a conflict would dwarf anything we have ever seen. The U.S. has pledged to take that risk for its treaty allies, but it should not take the same risk in this case. 

The demand to prepare for war with China takes for granted that the U.S. must go to war for Taiwan if it is attacked, but our government is not obligated to do this and our country does not have any vital interests at stake that would justify doing it.  The U.S. can and should continue to assist Taiwan in building up its own defenses, but it should do this quietly without the frequent rhetorical jabs in the Chinese government’s eyes that serve only to increase tensions to no one’s benefit. 

Actively preparing for a war that the U.S. does not have to fight and does not need to fight will make such a war more rather than less likely. Assuming that there will be a war sooner than later and that the U.S. must be ready to fight it when it has no compelling reason to do so needlessly puts two of the world’s major powers on a collision course. George Kennan remarked on a similar dynamic in The Fateful Alliance, his excellent history of the formation of the alliance between France and Russia prior to WWI: 

“So powerful are such compulsions, at all times and in all places, that the absence of any rational motives for a war, or of any constructive purpose that could be served by one, is quite lost sight of behind them. The assumption of the inevitability of a war is allowed to rest exclusively on the fact that “we” and “they” are both preparing so intensively for it. No other reason is needed for the acceptance of its necessity.” 

The U.S. must avoid falling into this trap in the case of Taiwan.

Colby also calls for the U.S. to encourage “far greater military contributions” from allies for the purposes of countering China and to free up U.S. resources in other parts of the world. It is doubtful that many allied states will want to do this, especially when the Washington continues to increase its own military spending to record high levels. As the U.S. takes on larger burdens and costs voluntarily, that signals to allies that they do not have to increase their own contributions.  

Our government has had the bad habit of promising more than it can realistically deliver, and in practically every case the mistake has been to create false expectations of full U.S. support that was never going to be forthcoming. Loose talk about coming to Taiwan’s defense may encourage the Taiwanese government to take more risks in their dealings with Beijing, but the bigger danger is that it leads the Chinese government to conclude that the U.S. is reneging on its past commitments to them. 

The initial Chinese response to Pelosi’s Taiwan visit indicates that this is exactly how their government perceives the direction of U.S. policy, so it would be reckless for the U.S. to give the Chinese government additional reasons to think this.

The official line from the Biden administration is that U.S. policy has not changed with respect to China and Taiwan. If that’s true, the administration needs to do a better job of managing the relationship with Beijing than it has done so far. The immediate fallout from Speaker Pelosi’s visit has made that harder, but that is all the more reason for the administration to make the effort. The U.S. absolutely should not indulge advocates of so-called “strategic clarity” by making an explicit security commitment to Taiwan, since this would only cause further deterioration in the relationship and put Taiwan in greater danger.

At the end of The Fateful Alliance, Kennan issued a warning of the dangers of great power rivalry in the nuclear age: “If, today, governments are still unable to recognize that modern nationalism and modern militarism are, in combination, self-destructive forces, and totally so; if they are incapable of looking clearly at those forces, discerning their true nature, and bringing them under some sort of control; if they continue, whether for reasons of fear or ambition, to cultivate those forces and to try to use them as instrument for self-serving competitive purposes—if they do these things, they will be preparing, this time, a catastrophe from which they can be no recovery and no return.”

 A policy that puts the United States and China on a path to increasing tensions and direct conflict risks embarking on a march to folly that would be even more destructive than the one that wrecked Europe more than a century ago.

"Malabar 2021" featured tactical training with Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force Special Guard, U.S. Navy Pacific Special Command, and Indian Navy Special Operations Forces. (Government of Japan/Creative Commons/Twitter)
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