Already rocked by the war in Ukraine, the world uneasily looks toward Asia and the Chinese Communist Party. The authoritarian state has cast its gaze toward the small island of Taiwan and dreams of conquest.
America inevitably will be drawn into any potential conflict between China and Taiwan, but author and defense expert Elbridge Colby says we are woefully unprepared.
“We’re not doing what we need to do,” Colby says. “We spend a lot of money on defense, honestly, but we have not focused enough on dealing with China and adapting our force to deal with that specifically. I think we’re just asking for trouble.”
To Colby, an ascendant China is the biggest geopolitical threat facing the globe. And America needs to step up to deal with that threat.
“American interests in the world are Americans’ physical security, our freedom, and our prosperity,” he says. “What is the chief danger of that? Well, by far it’s China, and it’s China dominating Asia in particular.”
Colby joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss what makes China so dangerous, and what steps America must take to neutralize the threat.
Doug Blair: My guest today is Elbridge Colby, principal of The Marathon Initiative, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development, and author. His book “The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict” comes out in paperback this month. Elbridge, welcome to the show.
Elbridge Colby: Great to be with you.
Blair: Let’s talk about great power conflict. Let’s talk about some of the foreign affairs issues of the day. We are seeing that Russia is continuing its invasion of Ukraine and that China is beginning to eye possibly invading Taiwan in the near future. Is America ready to deal with those threats?
Colby: Not well enough. I think in the case of Russia, actually, the Russians have, if anything, showed that they’re less formidable than at least I had supposed. But where the real challenge is is in the Pacific, in Asia, with China. We’re not doing what we need to do. We spend a lot of money on defense, honestly, but we have not focused enough on dealing with China and adapting our force to deal with that specifically. I think we’re just asking for trouble.
Blair: Is there anything that we could do right now, right this second, that would make us more prepared to deal with the conflict with China?
Colby: I think the nature of defense stuff is that it often takes a long time, it’s about producing complicated weaponry and platforms. We have a lot. … We don’t know because a lot of this is secret information, but I would just make sure that we have whatever we need available in case the Chinese do move.
I don’t know when they’re going to move, if ever, but what worries me is, if they think they can get away with an invasion of Taiwan successfully, that’s going to mean they’re more likely to try to do it.
Then I think over time, but this means acting immediately, one of the things that’s tough about the situation is, if we want to have an impact in five years, we need to pull the emergency door or the emergency belt now, because you need to act with that degree of urgency to have an impact in three, five years.
That’s not what we’re doing. We’re thinking that this problem’s going to be out there in the 2030s. We’ll be lucky if it’s still out there in the 2030s.
Blair: Should we be preparing for a land or a normal military-style invasion with tanks and planes and all of that, or should we be preparing for a subterfuge campaign that maybe will try to take down Taiwan from within?
Colby: My view is that the only way China is ever going to bring Taiwan to heel is through a direct military assault. It sounds old-fashioned, but look, at the end of the day, there’s a lot of talk about cyber and influence and blah, blah, but usually, if a country doesn’t want to be subordinated, it’s not going to be hoodwinked into giving up its freedom.
And people in Taiwan do not want to live under Chinese rule. To the contrary, they’re moving in the opposite direction. If China wants to force them to come to heel, it’s going to need to use overwhelming military force. This is now the official assessment, from what I understand, of the U.S. intelligence community.
If you look at what’s happening in Ukraine, the Ukraines are bravely resisting the Russian assault, armed with Western weaponry and so forth and training. That’s what stopped the Russians from bringing them to heel. It’s not some Russian subterfuge campaign. The fact that the Russians couldn’t seize and hold their critical territory has meant that the Ukrainians are still free.
Blair: Now, that actually is an interesting point because we seem to be, as you’ve mentioned, unprepared for this. Is this something that’s been a recent development within the past 20 years or has this been always something that we’ve been unwilling to deal with China?
Colby: Well, look, China’s risen almost astronomically in the last 25 years. Its economy grew for many years at something close to 10% and now even somewhere around 5% if we look over the last five to 10 years. That’s very significant growth.
During the Cold War, we were really focused on the whole on the Soviet Union, China was not the primary challenge that we thought about, but this has really become much more of a problem over the last 10 years, when it’s become clear that China was really going to be a peer, that they were going to continue growing economically, and that they were going to turn that economic wealth into military power and challenge our interests and those of our allies and partners around the world.
Fifteen years ago, when George W. Bush was president, maybe you could think that China would behave, you’d pat them on the head and they’d stay in their place—nuh-uh, that’s not what’s happening. People started to sound the alarm, I’d say, around 10 years ago and it’s become louder. We tried when we were in the Pentagon under the Trump administration, but now it’s a five-alarm fire and we’re acting like, “Ah, we’ll get to it.”
Blair: Right, right. Now, what does that look like? What does a prepared America look like? Is it somebody that’s willing to go to war over this in the Pacific? Is it somebody that’s going to give weaponry to the Taiwanese, much like we’re doing [with] the Ukrainians? What does that look like?
Colby: Well, both. There’s no way Taiwan can defend itself without American help, in my view, just because of the scale. Ukraine is about a quarter of the population of Russia, Taiwan would be between 1/50th and 1/100th. We’re just a totally different order of magnitude.
I don’t want a war, I desperately want to avoid a war, but I’m a firm believer in if you want peace, prepare for war. What that means is not some kind of generic readiness, but it means you’re specifically ready to defeat a Chinese attack in a way that they understand will mean that they fail.
Look, China, they really want Taiwan back, they really want to dominate Asia and so forth, but they’re not insane. Mao Zedong is one of the worst people who ever lived, really close to the top, or the bottom, and he wanted to take Taiwan over and never tried because he knew he would fail. That’s what we want.
What that means, it is rocket science, literally, but it’s not rocket science from a planning perspective. We need to buy a lot of the right munitions, we need to have a defense industry that can produce this stuff at scale, we need to be able to have our ships be ready, they need to be able to be repaired and supplied, our forces need to train focusing on this.
This sounds like stuff that you think the military is doing, but no, because we’re spending a lot of time in Ukraine, we put a lot more forces in Europe, there’s still a lot going on in the Middle East. People think, “Oh, I’m doing all million things.” No, no, no.
My view is, make sure you get China right. China’s priority one, two, three, four, five now. If you’re doing something else, you should probably be worried about your job. That’s the kind of attitude that we need and we’re not seeing that enough. There are green shoots in the defense establishment, but not enough.
Blair: You mentioned that Mao Zedong wasn’t crazy, but obviously, Mao Zedong is not in charge of China anymore. Do we know how willing a modern China, how far they’re willing to go to reclaim Taiwan?
Colby: We don’t know, we just don’t know anything. I always say, if anybody speaks about what China will or won’t do with too much confidence, I just discount it because nobody knows.
[Chinese President] Xi Jinping doesn’t even know, … probably, what he is going to do next year. Maybe he does, maybe he has a plan for what he’s going to do next year, but he could always change it. So we don’t really know. What we can look at are the factors, the incentives and disincentives, that would go in.
But look, this is pretty clear, China has been very clear that it regards Taiwan as part of China throughout the existence of the People’s Republic. Xi Jinping himself has talked about it repeatedly in very specific terms, underlining how important it is to him personally and to China. He specifically links it with what is his central political project, which is called the great rejuvenation of Chinese nation. They’re building a military specifically to do it and they’re exercising it.
My view is, if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and talks like a duck, maybe it’s a duck.
Blair: One of the things I think is interesting, as we’re watching the conflict in Ukraine unfold, is that there is a portion of the American conservative movement that feels there’s too much involvement in Ukraine right now. What are your thoughts on that and how does that relate to the Chinese threat?
Colby: Well, look, I look at this, I start from American interests. What are American interests in the world? American interests in the world are Americans’ physical security, our freedom and our prosperity. What is the chief danger of that? Well, by far, it’s China and it’s China dominating Asia in particular.
First and foremost, we absolutely must take care of the China threat and, in particular, deny it its ability to dominate Asia. We’re not doing that, so that’s the main prism.
We have a strong interest in Europe. We do not want Europe to be dominated by Russia or anybody else, we don’t want Europe to turn into a massive conflict area, etc. And we, of course, want to support, I think, countries that are fighting for their freedom and independence, like Ukraine, but we have priorities, like a business has priorities, a family has priorities, and we’re not taking care of our top priorities.
My view is, we should support Ukraine to the extent that it does not interfere with our ability to get us to a place where we’re very comfortable on the Asia, China front. That’s not what we’re doing. The notion that they’re not trade-offs is ridiculous. We’ve increased our level of forces, that’s money, that’s time, that’s attention, some of the weapons we’re using, etc.
The administration’s approach, it actually just doesn’t make sense because they’re building up, again, in Europe, they’re spending a lot of time and attention there, they’re not making huge shifts in the posture in the Pacific, they’re not trying to get the allies to do a lot more, and they’re not upping the defense budget.
If you’re going to do all this stuff in Ukraine and do the China stuff, you got to do one of these things, and they’re not doing that. It just doesn’t even make sense to me.
Look, I think this solution, we’ve got to start from a realistic point of view. Our military, it can’t be everywhere at once, it can’t fight the Chinese and the Russians, even the weakened Russians, at the same time. We need to be realistic about that. So we focus on China.
The good news is, the Europeans, they’re much richer together than Russia, they’re willing to spend more on defense, the Russian military has been weakened. Let’s help them out, but let’s not act like Europe is the No. 1 priority. Europe’s going to be 10% of global [gross domestic product] in 20 years, Asia’s going to be well over half of global GDP.
What we’re doing, to me, it’s just irrational, it’s certainly not in Americans’ interests, but I’m not saying that we shouldn’t support the Ukrainians. I do think we should support the Ukrainians, but it’s got to be consistent with our prioritization of Asia.
Blair: Right. You’ve mentioned that the idea would be to prevent Chinese dominance of Asia. What does that look like exactly, where we say, “Mission accomplished. China is no longer dominating,”? Where does China stand after that?
Colby: Well, I actually think it’s basically a balance of power, which is to say it’s actually one of the reasons I think we could achieve this goal and it could be stable, is that it would be pretty good for China.
It would be a situation in which China would be enormously powerful, it would be one of the two most powerful countries in the world. It would probably have an area, a sphere of influence in Asia and possibly elsewhere, but it wouldn’t be enough to control us. And countries like Japan and India and Australia and Taiwan, South Korea, they would be on our side.
We might have some exchange across the divide, but basically, China would be in a pretty good shape. They could still have a huge economy, they could become more prosperous, but they couldn’t dominate all of us. I think, to me, that’s a reasonable goal and it’s one that China could accept with pride.
Because look, there’s a strong strain in American foreign policy, American life that says we’re going to democratize China and they’re going to completely transform into this fuzzy panda or something. It’s not going to happen. Even if China does democratize, it’s probably still going to be a big problem for us because they’re going to have a lot of similar incentives. I think they’d be easier to deal with.
Certainly, if I were Chinese, I’d rather live in a democracy, but we’ve got to look at it from our own interests. I think that’s a goal that could sustainably lead to peace and, frankly, we would hopefully never have to fight a war, but the critical predicate to that is being so ready to fight a war that the Chinese never try it.
Blair: Right. It seems like an obvious question at this point, but look, why does Taiwan matter so much in this equation?
Colby: Well, the thing is, it matters a lot. The way I think about Taiwan is it’s not important because it’s a democracy or it’s got a great economy, although we might admire that and sympathize with that a lot, it’s important because the only way America’s going to be able to stop China from dominating Asia is with a coalition and Taiwan is very important for coalition.
It’s not fair, nor is it realistic, for America to stop China from dominating Asia on its own. We need to work with Japan, India, Philippines, South Korea, etc.
If Taiwan falls, that coalition’s going to take a huge hit, both directly in military terms, it means it’s going to really increase China’s military position and power, but also, everybody in the region’s going to say, and quite reasonably, “Wait a minute. I can’t really trust the Americans, I’d better make a deal with China.”
If we lose Taiwan, frankly, I think we’re going to have to do some crazier things to compensate for it [that] actually [are] going to be worse.
The problem here is that Taiwan, I think of it as it’s a 70 out of a 100 interest. It’s not defending Texas or Washington state or whatever, Alaska, it’s a foreign country, it’s far from us, but it’s really important. But the key then is to be able to have a military posture and a military strategy that allows us to fight the war in a way that’s not so existentially costly.
The thing is, we can do that because really what we need to do is defeat a Chinese invasion, which, missiles, aircraft, ships, submarines, satellites, air bases, etc., we can pull that off.
Blair: One of the things I’ve been reflecting on a little bit as we’ve been watching this conflict in Ukraine and then the discussion about China is that there was this idea amongst many thinkers about this end of history. We were at this point where neoliberal democracy had succeeded in the world and we would never have this type of conflict again. Why was that idea so prevalent and how, I think, are people responding to the idea that it’s probably dead?
Colby: Yeah, it’s really interesting. I’ve only met Francis Fukuyama once, and some of his more recent commentary, I’ve been less than impressed. I thought that “The End of History” was a phenomenal book and article. Actually, interestingly enough, in the actual book, he talks about wars at the end of history, in fact, that people might get into wars out of boredom, which is pretty meta.
But I think the way that most people thought about it was the kind of, “Hey, we’re at the end of history, everybody agrees it’s not worth fighting wars anymore, big powers aren’t going to fight each other anymore.”
I think, why did it appeal? Well, I think it definitely appealed to progressives because that’s core to their idea that human society would advance and become more pacifistic and left-leaning and so forth.
The way Fukuyama talked about in the book was social democracy, that actually Europe was the end of history, not America, we were still in history a little bit. I was like, “I think I want to be in history then.”
I think it played to a lot of the predilections of—you can see it in the response to the Ukraine situation, the way I talked about the Ukraine situation just now, there are obviously some people on the right and so forth who are saying we’re supporting them too much, but by far the dominant line in Washington and the political establishment is an end of history, it’s an existential struggle between democracy and autocracy.
That’s not how I look at it.
Part of the Ukraine response, I think, is connected to almost trying to resuscitate that idea. Whereas, I look at it fundamentally through a realistic lens. History is never going to end, there’s always going to be competition, it’s going to be endemic.
We need to look at this through our national interest lens in a way that’s responsible and moral, of course, but I think sometimes I look at the Ukraine debate, particularly on the elite side, and people are putting Ukraine flags on their hashtag or whatever and of course, I think we all sympathize with the abominations that are happening there and the terrible suffering, but it’s like people are identifying with it in a way that suggests that they’re trying to make a much, much broader point. Fukuyama himself has said that.
I think that’s a mistake, I think it miscasts what’s going to happen there, what our interests are there, but that’s a lot of what’s going on.
Blair: Sure. This is a final point, given that strain of thought is so prevalent in Washington and given that it doesn’t seem like the direction we’re going in—will America be able to counter the Chinese threat, at least given what we’ve been up to right now?
Colby: I have real questions, I’m very worried. I think, implicitly, a lot of Washington is basically acting as if they think they’re going to consolidate Europe and, hey, we might lose Taiwan, but we’ll figure it out because Europe will be on our side, which I think is wrong because Europe won’t be strong enough and I’m not really sure that Europe is meaningfully on our side.
I think the current administration, there’s a strain of too clever by half. I think they give off the impression that they’ve got it all figured out. It’s, they’ve got this special ninja move that they’re going to balance things and sequence them.
It’s like, I think it’s really kind of simple. It’s like Occam’s razor, “Keep it simple, stupid.” Are we allocating the military resources to the China problem? Are we putting the forces necessary? Are we putting the political capital there? If not, we’ve got a real problem. If the Chinese know that and they know that we’re eventually going to get around to it, they have an incentive to move before we actually do get around to it and that worries me.
Blair: Well, that was Elbridge Colby, principal of The Marathon Initiative and former Pentagon official. He’s also an author and his book “The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in the Age of Great Power Conflict” comes out in paperback this month. Elbridge, thank you so much for your time.
Colby: Great to be with you.
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