Chinese President Xi Jinping renewed his calls for the “reunification” of China and Taiwan on Sunday during the opening session of the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party.
“We will continue to strive for peaceful reunification with the greatest sincerity and the utmost effort, but we will never promise to renounce the use of force, and we reserve the option of taking all measures necessary,” Xi said.
China is “determined to pursue reunification on a much faster timeline,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Monday.
“So, now it’s sort of pretty clear that the Chinese are thinking seriously of making a move. So, why aren’t we acting like it?” says Elbridge Colby, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development in the Defense Department.
“Why aren’t we acting on a national mobilization effort precisely to avoid a war? Because once we get into a war, it’s definitely going to be far more expensive and costly in terms of lives and resources. And it may be too late if we wait that long,” Colby says.
Colby joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss Xi’s comments, his recent article in Time magazine about why the U.S. should defend Taiwan, and what message could be sent if the U.S. is not able to successfully deter China from invading Taiwan.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript.
Samantha Aschieris: Joining the podcast today is Elbridge Colby. He’s the co-founder and principal at The Marathon Initiative and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development in the Defense Department. Elbridge, thank you so much for joining me.
Elbridge Colby: Great to be with you, Samantha.
Aschieris: Now, the National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party is meeting this week. And during the opening session on Sunday, President Xi Jinping talked about complete reunification of China and Taiwan. But before we get to his comments, I want to discuss with you a piece that you actually recently wrote for Time, titled “Why Protecting Taiwan Really Matters to the U.S.” Can you walk us through some of the reasoning that you discuss in your piece?
Colby: Sure. Well, thanks for asking. And I think this is a very important issue. It seems one that’s very removed from most Americans’ concerns, and I sympathize and understand that. But what I wanted to try to do in the piece is actually really make the case for why defending Taiwan is so important to Americans in a very concrete and brass tax interest.
And let me just say up front that I’m generally against military interventions. I’ve been against most of them in the last generation. I don’t want to see the U.S. military be used. But my view is also that the U.S. military should be used when it’s in the concrete core interest of the American people. And that’s how I approach it. It’s not out of a special affinity for Taiwan. I admire Taiwan and its democracy, it’s prosperity, etc., its society. But that’s not enough for Americans to go to war, in my view.
And what is the reason for Americans to go to war? Basically, my view is that if we’re not prepared to defend Taiwan, certainly our allies in Asia, it’s very likely that China, in my view, will ultimately establish a dominant position over Asia.
And again, Asia’s halfway around the world from the United States. But the fact of the matter is today, that Asia’s going to be upward of 50% of global [gross domestic product] going forward.
And I think what’s pretty clear, and I think that the party congress this week provides further evidence, if any was needed, that Beijing’s ambitions—it’s certainly about Xi Jinping, but it’s not only Xi Jinping—are about establishing a dominant position over that enormous area, and basically establishing a kind of control, sort of a soft control over the global economy.
From there, look at it, and this is the argument that I lay out in the Time piece, is we can imagine what the Chinese are going to be capable of because we can already see them doing that, using their economic leverage, vis-a-vis Australia. On social media, collecting enormous amounts of big data. Heck, they already do that to their own people. So that’s the future that we have to look for.
Why is Taiwan important for that? Because if we want to basically block China from being able to get to that point, we have to have a coalition of countries in Asia in particular. Those are the ones who are most relevant, who are going to stand up together to China.
And fortunately, many countries do want to stand up to China. That’s actually the good news. Countries like Japan, India, Vietnam, Taiwan, Australia, etc., they don’t want to live under China’s thumb.
But they’re all deciding, “Is it prudent for me to be able to stand up to China? Because sure, I’d like to be able to be free of living under Beijing’s boot, but if my choice is getting crushed by China and failing in the effort, then I’m going to probably cut a deal.”
And it’s in that context that Taiwan becomes important because everybody is looking at Taiwan and Asia to say how trustworthy are the Americans.
And again, it’s not all about, we don’t have to defend freedom in every corner of the world, far from it. But we need to prove to countries in the region that it’s prudent to stick with us because only we are strong enough to stand up to China in Asia. If you’re Japan even or South Korea, if you’re left alone, you’re going to cut a deal. And so, that’s where Taiwan becomes very important.
And it’s also a very militarily significant island. And oftentimes, people often today mention it’s important in the semiconductor chain, which is obviously very important in our economic life. But the critical point here, Samantha, is what I’m trying to do is get us to prepare so that we never have to fight a war. Because if we can convince Beijing that it’s going to fail to take over Taiwan, it’s unlikely to try.
Mao Zedong was one of the worst people who ever lived. He lusted after Taiwan. He wanted to get his hands around Chiang Kai-shek’s neck, but he never tried because he knew he would fail. And that’s the frustrating thing.
Tony Blinken, the secretary of state, he’d said yesterday that China, in his view, has accelerated the timeline to seize Taiwan. So now, it’s sort of pretty clear that the Chinese are thinking seriously of making a move.
So why aren’t we acting like it? Why aren’t we acting on a national mobilization effort precisely to avoid a war? Because once we get into a war, it’s definitely going to be far more expensive and costly in terms of lives and resources. And it may be too late if we wait that long.
Aschieris: Just speaking of that timeline, the Communist Party congress meets every five years, do you expect China to have invaded Taiwan by the next time it meets?
Colby: Honestly, I’m very reluctant to make predictions because I have no idea what’s going on in Xi Jinping’s mind or the mind of the people of the Central Committee, Standing Committee of the Politburo and so forth.
But here’s the way I look at it, if I were doing the job that I think of myself as doing here, which is thinking about what’s best for America, if I were doing that job in Beijing, or thinking about what’s best for China, I could see a lot of very compelling reasons for moving before 2027, or certainly the end of the decade.
And look, we know it’s publicly stated that Xi Jinping has set the objective that he wants the military of China, the PLA, People’s Liberation Army, to be able to solve the Taiwan issue militarily by 2027. Now, that’s more of a bureaucratic aspiration. So we don’t know, they could go after or they could go before.
But there are a couple things why that might be the case. Look, they’re not going to get Taiwan to fall into their lap, they’re not, the Chinese. It’s clearly not going to happen. So if they’re going to get it, they’re going to have to force the Taiwanese.
And I think one of the lessons of Ukraine more broadly is, if you’re going to do that, don’t mess around, go in, smash Taiwan, leave nothing to chance, and then rebuild afterward. But first, make sure you win. So we’re not going to have a lot of warning.
One thing, this administration’s been talking a lot about China, but it’s not been doing a lot about China militarily. So if you’re Chinese, you’re saying, “Hey, well, if we wait around 10 years, maybe these Americans and Japanese and Indians and even this Taiwanese who are not doing enough, maybe they’ll get their act together and we’ll lose the opportunity. So let’s maybe act in this decade.”
So that’s what really worries me, is that I could see very good reasons for Beijing to act in the coming years.
Aschieris: And as I mentioned at the top of our interview, President Xi Jinping on Sunday discussed this reunification of China and Taiwan. Specifically, he said, “We will continue to strive for peaceful reunification with the greatest sincerity and the utmost effort, but we will never promise to renounce the use of force and we reserve the option for taking all measures necessary.”
So with that in mind and what we’ve been seeing over the last couple of months, with China’s heightened military aggression in the region, is it inevitable at this point? And what would U.S. potential involvement look like, in your view?
Colby: Well, I fear it’s getting more and more likely, and this is something I’ve been sort of trying to push for the last few years, because the sooner that we act, the more likely we are to be able to head it off, because China will see that we fail.
Look, at the end of the day, China’s got to be able to project a lot of military power across a hundred miles of water. It’s difficult, but it’s not impossible. And they’ve been laser focused. Meantime, we’ve been distracted in the Middle East, now in Europe, Ukraine, etc. We’re not focusing as much as we should. We’re doing better, but we’re not doing as well as we need to be.
What would American involvement be like? I think at this point the ship has sailed on whether people are expecting the United States to be involved. I think, actually, the Chinese probably very clearly expect the United States to be involved.
So even if you wanted to cut off Taiwan at this point, I think it’d actually be hard to do. Because I would not be surprised if the Chinese expanded their attack well beyond Taiwan itself, to U.S. bases in the region, because they’ve listened to what [President] Joe Biden has said, they’re looking at the overall tenor of the discussion in Washington and across the country, and they’re saying, “Well, we’re going to get in a war with the Americans anyway. So if we’re going to do that, we’re going to get our licks in first.”
And the thing to remember here, Samantha, is that people tend to think back to the Pacific War, World War II, when Japan attacked and rampaged all around Asia, it was one-tenth the economic size of the United States. China is about the same size as the United States. In 1941, the United States had the world’s largest industrial base in ship building industry. Now, that’s China. So actually, China could make something like that work potentially if we’re not ready.
So my view is, if it comes to that, we should act with resolve and effectiveness and basically, don’t mess around because in war, as in anything really competitive, you’ve got to act clearly and with resolution to take advantage of opportunities before they flee away. So that’s my sense of what we should be doing.
We should really seek to focus, as I argue in my book, on denying the Chinese invasion. We’re not going to be able to make Taiwan perfectly secure. That’s not our job. But if we can defeat the Chinese invasion, that’ll be enough for our purposes.
Aschieris: And if we aren’t able to defeat the Chinese invasion, if we aren’t able to deter them from invading Taiwan, what message does that send to our allies? You talked about before with different countries in Asia building that coalition to help Taiwan. And also on the flip side to our adversaries, if the U.S. isn’t able to successfully help Taiwan in this regard.
Colby: It’s very damaging. Look, again, these are called credibility arguments, how countries look at how believable we are. I tend to think that we talk too much about U.S. credibility and in a kind of undisciplined, undifferentiated way.
But look, Taiwan is very, very important in the central theater to countries that are wondering whether it’s prudent or not to stand up to China. If you’re Japan, like Taiwan, you are an archipelago situated off the Chinese coast. The Philippines, even South Korea, Australia are in some ways not dissimilar. So you’re thinking, “This tells me very clearly whether the Americans have the ability and the resolve to help me defend myself.”
And by the way, if China wins, especially if China wins relatively easily, then China’s going to say, “Well, I guess we did pretty well on Taiwan. And maybe we’re going to go settle those scores with Vietnam or the Philippines, and ultimately try to isolate Japan and get South Korea to defect.” Because nothing succeeds like success.
We’ve felt this in our own foreign policy and military discussions over the years, when you think you’re doing well, your ambitions get higher. Look at the Ukraine war, leaving aside the merits and so forth, what people are expecting from the Ukraine war is much, much higher now than it was even six months ago because the Ukrainians have done so well.
Or in Korea, in the war which involved China, at first, the Americans and the South Koreans were pushed almost off the peninsula. And then with the Incheon landing and so forth, pushed the North Koreans back. Suddenly, we’re talking about unification of the two Koreas. Then the Chinese intervened and things turned out very differently.
But that’s a big point. If China can basically be quite successful, not only are our allies, but also the Chinese are likely to say, “Well, why shouldn’t I keep pushing?” And I think that’s a kind of basic human nature point we should observe.
Look at Xi Jinping, look at the way he talks, look at the leading Chinese voices out there. These are not shy and retiring, sort of self-flagellating people. These are people who if they think what they’re doing is right and they think their nation’s interests are valid and deserve to be served, and if they can do so effectively and advantageously, we should expect them to do so.
Aschieris: You talked earlier about what the current administration is doing and I want to also talk about what Congress is doing. Do you think on both sides of the aisle that Congress is doing enough to help Taiwan to deter China? And if not, what else would you advise that they be doing?
Colby: No, I don’t think that Congress is doing enough, or certainly not the administration.
But talking about Congress for a second, I think things like the Taiwan Policy Act have a lot of really great stuff in them that gives more capability to Taiwan. I think, though, the situation is so urgent that we need to be putting a lot of pressure on Taiwan. This is not merely a matter of reassuring Taiwan and helping improve that arm sales process and making it easier to meet with Taiwanese government officials, etc. We’re not sure Taiwan’s going to survive over the next five to seven to eight years.
And five to eight years in defense planning terms, it’s not a blink of an eye, but it’s a little bit longer than that. It’s not a lot. It takes a long time, not only to build weapons systems, but also to train military formations.
Look at the Ukrainians, that eight years to work between the Crimea seizure of 2014 and 2022, that’s a lot of time.
And so, I think what we need is a sense of urgency to say, “This problem needs to be addressed right now.” And a big part of the problem, Samantha, is Taiwan’s own lack of effort and urgency.
And this is a really difficult problem because here, I’m talking to Americans and I’m saying why it’s worth defending Taiwan, but at the same time, when I talk to Taiwanese, I tell them to their faces, I say, “You are on the verge of being cut off, because if you continue in this direction and not do enough, not spend 10% of your GDP on defense, not really reform your military to be ready to fight the PRC alongside America … ” They need to understand that they are really gambling with fate.
Because the ultimate point, and this is the point I’ve made in the Time piece, is our interest in Taiwan is very significant, but it’s not existential. If we get to the point where defending Taiwan becomes simply too costly, we’re going to have to cut it off. And that’s a lot about what Taiwan itself does to help its own defense. But we shouldn’t also be deluded that cutting off Taiwan is going to make things hunky-dory.
The analogy I like to use is Winston Churchill wanted to deploy more aircraft to help France defend itself as the Anglo-French defense of France was collapsing in 1940. And what the head of the Royal Air Force said to him was, “Look, Mr. Prime Minister, if we send those aircraft, we won’t have enough to defend the home islands,” which was critical later in the Battle of Britain.
That’s the kind of situation we can get in. But it wasn’t good that France fell. That was really, really bad. But that’s sort of the situation that we’re heading to if Taiwanese don’t get religion and we don’t get much more focused.
Aschieris: I just have one final question for you about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. You talked a little bit about it earlier and some of these lessons that either the U.S. can learn, maybe what President Xi Jinping is seeing or learning from the invasion of Ukraine over the last couple of months. Do you think they’re applicable to a potential invasion of Taiwan, in terms of what Xi Jinping is seeing? And then also, lessons that the U.S. can learn and of their involvement and what impact that has had over the last few months?
Colby: I think we should be more cautious than many people are about saying what lessons there are for China from the Ukraine fight. There’s some very significant differences.
One is the scale issue. Russia is about three to four times the size population-wise of Ukraine. China’s somewhere in between 50 and 100 times the size of Taiwan. Ukraine is a huge country that’s very difficult to get your arms around if you’re an invading force. Taiwan is a very small island.
Ukraine has very long land borders with NATO countries that, I don’t know, but I assume that’s one of the ways that weapons resupplies are getting to the Ukrainians, which is critical for their success. Taiwan is an island. It’s 100 miles from China, but it’s also hundreds of miles from U.S. bases and logistics supplies and so forth. So there’s a lot of differences.
I also think the Chinese are much more powerful and rich and technically sophisticated on the whole than the Russians are. It doesn’t mean they’re 10 feet tall, but hey, even if they’re 7 feet tall, that’s pretty high.
So I think the lessons that are relevant for China, I think the biggest lesson China’s probably taking away from this is don’t mess around. Because I think one of the big sources probably of the Russians’ failure was they got too cocky and too sort of baroque, if you will, too complicated.
Early on, there was something like five separate lines of advance for a force that, by historical standards, is not that big. I think [Russian President Vladimir] Putin expected a lot of people in Ukraine to defect. And that all fell apart. And now he’s in a really bad situation, thankfully.
I think for China, you say leave nothing to chance. If you were thinking of sending two missiles, send six. If you were thinking somebody was going to defect, kill him. If you were going to put 10,000 soldiers on a part of the island, put 20,000 soldiers. And so, that’s a caution.
I think this has been pretty clear, the U.S. intelligence community has been open about this, the Chinese aren’t giving up. And we can see that clearly by what Xi Jinping has been saying. They’re not giving up on their ambition.
So I think the lesson here also, though, for our point of view is, what’s stopping the Russians? It’s not sanctions, it’s not the U.N. General Assembly or the G7, it’s the fact that the Ukrainians are beating them on the battlefield. That’s the key thing.
And so, the key thing for us is, for the Taiwanese and the Americans, to some extent the Japanese and Australians, to be ready to defeat a Chinese invasion, and to do that now so we never get in the war. Because if we can deter war, that’s much better. Because once China gets into this fight, given how important it is for Xi Jinping and China and the People’s Republic, it’s going to be hard to end.
Aschieris: Yes, definitely. Elbridge Colby, thank you so much for joining me. I just wanted to mention that you are the author of “The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict.” Thank you so much for joining me. I really appreciate your insight and I hope you can join us again soon. Thanks so much.
Colby: Happy to. Thanks a lot.
Aschieris: Thank you.
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