MIAMI — Where are national conservatives (mostly associated with the nationalist, populist movement) on China? There is no easy answer for that, though there seems to be a strong inclination towards Donald Trump’s approach before and during his presidency: don’t start any new wars, but if someone wants to start a fight, be ready to clobber them.
Even in that, there is a line that is hardly bright: does the U.S. project so much power to “deter” China that it ends up provoking the very war the purveyors of this brand of “America first” foreign policy say they don’t want?
The conundrum won’t be resolved at this third National Conservatism conference — otherwise known as NatCon 3 — this weekend. Most of the panels are decidedly not foreign policy. But an early discussion on the main stage highlighted the realism end of the “realism & restraint” dichotomy on the issue. One in which Professor John Mearsheimer has argued many times — that sometimes a geopolitical challenge calls for more realism than restraint, China being the perfect example.
Elbridge Colby, author "Strategy of Denial," told the audience he doesn’t want any new wars — in fact he said he opposed the Iraq war and every war since, including the increasing U.S. military involvement in Ukraine. But China is "the overriding foreign threat," he charged, and Washington isn't taking it seriously enough. If it does start building up its power visibility and effectively, it may be enough for Beijing to second guess its attack on Taiwan.
Chinese behavior and actions show "they mean to dominate Asia,” he contends, arguing that Beijing has designs far beyond absorbing Taiwan. It is seeking to be an economic hegemon and if not stopped, even the West will be at its mercy, Colby charges. “It will be the gatekeeper of the economic flows globally,” he added. "Think of the economic power that we wield against Russia today and think of it in an even greater scale in China’s hands.”
The means through which China will “need to achieve this ascendency are military,” he said, insisting that Beijing “is embarking on a historic military buildup… not just for Taiwan but to project power” in its own neighborhood and beyond. “They are actively preparing for conflict. My view is to prevent them from dominating Asia without a war. But the only prudent way is to be prepared to fight to show Beijing that there is nothing to gain by initiating conflict.”
QI’s Asia Studies Director Michael Swaine* said instead of preserving the peace, Colby’s approach "would guarantee conflict, produce an open-ended U.S-China arms race, significantly increase the chance of further conflicts over Taiwan or other issues, and of course, destabilize the global economy."
He continues in a recent National Interest essay:
Colby consistently fails to adopt any frame of analysis for the Taiwan issue other than a simplistic force-on-force approach. In doing so, he overestimates the capabilities of the Chinese military to take Taiwan and totally ignores the reality that even a militarily inferior Beijing will still employ force against the island if it believes that the United States were using its military might to back a clear bid by Taipei for independence.
The challenge in the broader national conservative movement is not that there is a lack of realism, or even restraint, as Colby has acknowledged. There is a strong sense from some quarters, however, that China is a bigger threat to its neighborhood, and to American national security interests (as Colby says, he doesn’t much care about promoting democracy but protecting American liberties and economic prosperity and as stated before, he believes Beijing is threatening both).
Not everyone agrees with the level of power projection needed to “avoid conflict,” said columnist David Goldman, who shared a stage with Colby. He represents the free market skeptics of China – who do not necessarily want to “decouple” from China, but insist the U.S. must pursue its own “technological revolution” to match China’s military prowess. He suggests maintaining the status quo and the One China Policy until it can bring a better game (i.e. cyber, satellite surveillance, AI, etc.) He wasn't clear what might happen then, but told me in a quick follow-up interview that we would get “clobbered” if we followed Colby in provoking a conventional war with China now.
So is what Colby suggests in his new book “Strategy of Denial,” ultimately "provoking" conflict ? He doesn’t see it that way, but many do. It will be interesting to hear if there's any more debate on this approach to China at NatCon 3. At the very least this first panel highlights the complexity and frustration over an issue that represents billions and billions of dollars in defense spending, as well as major ancillary trade and economic policy in Washington today. It deserves a strong airing, whether it be on the Left, or the Right side of the dial.
Editor's note: this article has been updated to reflect the correct link and quotes from Michael Swaine's National Interest commentary