The rise and fall of the China Question
Balance China realistically: let her overstretch and bleed
The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict by Elbridge A. Colb (Yale, £30)
Former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Elbridge Colby’s new book, The Strategy of Denial, is a fine contribution to the literature dealing with the end of the post-Cold war era. Colby, the architect of the 2018 National Defense Strategy, argues for a total recalibration of the American grand strategy, shifting from the “war on terror” era, to focus on the coming era of great power rivalry. Colby’s arguments are straightforward. Unipolarity is over, and great power rivalry is back. In reality that means that the relative power of the US is in decline, compared to the rise of a peer rival in China. Colby isn’t the first to argue that the American strategy of imperial policing and counterinsurgency has wrecked American relative power. Jacqueline Hazelton’s new book argues succinctly as to why counterinsurgency should return to its brutal roots and forego any idealism. But Colby’s focus is on China, as Beijing is the strongest peer rival that Washington has ever faced, based on sheer aggregate power.
The policy prescription is straightforward. America grand strategy historically ensures that no great power achieves hegemony in two of the core theatres, Europe and Asia. In that cause, the US should seek “favourable military-economic balances of power” in the key regions, such as Asia, Europe, North America, Persian Gulf. Of those, North America and the Persian Gulf have no chance of seeing any regional hegemons. In Europe, potentially the EU of the future could turn imperial, but so far the military balance remains in America’s favour, and the local actors remain divided. That leaves China and Asia.
To stop a Chinese attempt at hegemony the US needs to facilitate what Colby terms as an “antihegemonic coalition”, to prevent China from dominating Asia, “by convincing important states that it would prevail in a systemic regional war.” Colby writes that the hegemon’s “goal is positive: establishing predominance. The coalition’s goal, by contrast, is negative: denial.” Colby argues that in order to do that the US should be ready to defend Taiwan, as the fall of Taiwan would result in a loss of American credibility. The US, therefore, should focus on defence planning that denies China any fait accompli, by arming Taiwan and making it clear, that the Chinese invasion of Taiwan would lead to a war with this “anti-hegemonic” coalition.
It is not certain that an anti-hegemonic coalition will emerge
There is a lot to learn from this book and agree with. China is the greatest challenge to Pax Americana, and as the world turns multipolar, America should indeed focus on Asia-Pacific. However, there are questions, which for the sake of, well, balance, we should consider. For example, Colby is confident that an anti-hegemonic coalition will emerge, almost as an iron law of international relations, but it is nowhere certain that such a coalition will, nor even if it does, that it would risk a potential war with China.
It is one thing for America, Australia, and Japan, alongside the UK and the rest of the Anglosphere to confront China as a reaction to an invasion of their homelands, but other than that, it is unlikely a coalition will form. The idea that China can be deterred simply by American resolve over Taiwan, barely miles from the Chinese coastal missile batteries, and where China has a historic interest, is essentially a bluff. The problem with bluffs, is that they can be called. If China engages in a seaborne invasion of Taiwan, the burden of “escalation dominance” will then be on the US. Are Texans or Tennesseans, for example, willing to risk an actual nuclear war to save Taipei, the fall of which does not alter the actual balance of power in the region?
And no, even the hypothetical fall of Taiwan, does not alter the regional balance. Chinese aggregate power is due to trade with the West, economic growth, and the simple fact that it never faced a long, bleeding war. Change those variables, and the scenario to contemplate will be not Chinese hegemony, but a major shock from sudden Chinese state collapse. India, Australia, Japan, Taiwan, and Vietnam are all adversaries of China and are all stable, powerful, and moderate to rich powers. Is there any scenario where one can realistically contemplate China being engaged in simultaneous great power wars of expansion with Japan, India, and the US, three major naval powers, two of them with functioning nuclear triads? If not, then what Chinese expansionism should one be worried about?
Colby noticeably never engages with a very classical American grand strategy of “buck-passing”
For a realist, Colby noticeably never engages with a very classical American grand strategy of “buck-passing”. In crude terms, America, as Britain before her, has always relied on foreign foot soldiers first in a great power war as cannon fodder, only engaging herself as an “offshore balancer” of the last resort. Nothing wrong with that, it is a clever strategy that ensured American hegemony. The same principle is applicable here as well. China, even though a peer-rival, isn’t like the Soviet Union. It’s massive, but also completely alliance-less, surrounded by rival powers, who are currently far more powerful to balance China, compared to war-shattered Britain and France in 1949. Both of whose populations, metropolitan and colonial, had activist cadres of Soviet sympathisers. China enjoys none of this today.
The prudent and cynically realist strategy, in this case, would be to wish for a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, a heavily armed hostile province of 24 million people, giving the People’s Republic their own twenty year quagmire. A Chinese seaborne invasion and subsequent occupation of Taiwan would bleed China dry and will do nothing to increase any threat of invasion to mainland US. Why should the US then risk kinetic conflict with China herself, when all the great war a Tainwanese tripwire would trigger would be for is whether or not a Chinese Afghanistan is prevented? If the goal is stopping Chinese hegemony, isn’t letting Beijing enjoy one of those the more prudent and risk-free way? Empires collapse after overstretching and bleeding themselves dry trying to restore order for the sake of prestige or moral crusades whipped up by deluded mobs.
Despite some such unanswered questions, The Strategy of Denial is a terrific new contribution to the literature. Colby is right to point out that there are limitations on what the US can do, and that it is time for threat prioritisation and trade-offs: this is a vital injection of realism to an American strategic debate sorely in need of it.
The main lesson from this book is that the days of idealism are over, and realism is back, and with that, hard choices loom, not just for the US, but for all the European free-riders who relied on American hard power for the last seventy years. To quote a formidable grand-strategist, Gregory Peck, from The Guns of Navarone, their by-standing days, are over soon too.
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