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Could we win a war in China? Forcing Beijing to escalate could be in our interests

Bring it on (Getty Images)


November 9, 2021   8 mins

This piece was first published in November, 2021

Over the past year, the question of whether or not the United States will defend Taiwan from a Chinese invasion has shifted from abstract speculation to an almost existential question for America’s foreign policy elite. For decades, the US has pursued a policy of “strategic ambiguity” on this question — an ambiguity arguably heightened by Biden’s recent claims that it will defend Taiwan, swiftly followed by the State Department’s corrections that US policy on the matter has not changed (whether or not Biden’s personal ambiguity is intentional is of course another matter). 

In a new book, The Strategy of Denial, the American strategist Elbridge Colby aims to resolve this ambiguity once and for all: not only should the US defend Taiwan, it must — for the crucial reason that the integrity of the American empire depends on its winning or preventing this looming conflict. As one of the writers of the Trump administration’s 2018 National Defense Strategy, which reset America’s defence posture away from the greater Middle East and towards strategic competition with China, Colby is an influential voice: and if followed, the policy prescriptions within this book will affect Europe perhaps more than European policymakers realise.

A foreign policy Realist, Colby aims to bury the atmosphere of triumphalist liberal imperialism which has served America so badly since the fall of the Soviet Union. “The generation of post–Cold War primacy unmoored some Americans, or at least some of their leaders and eminent thinkers, from underlying realities, giving them a highly exaggerated sense of what the United States could and should accomplish in the international arena,” he notes at the beginning. But “that world is gone. The fundamental reality is that there are now structural limitations on what the United States can do — it cannot do everything at once. Thus it must make hard choices.”

Stripping away all the accretions of “defending liberalism” or “promoting democracy” with which American politicians are accustomed to shroud their defence of empire, Colby breaks down the raw facts of power to their essentials. Asia is the most important economic sphere in the world, and thus, to maintain its global preeminence, America must maintain hegemony in Asia. 

Europe is of secondary importance, and with no realistic hegemonic challenger to American dominance, can be relegated to a second-order priority. The rest of the world is of very limited importance: there is no challenge in the Western Hemisphere, and Africa, if of interest at all, will likely be dominated by whoever wins hegemony in Asia. 

To prevent China dislodging America from hegemony in Asia is, therefore, the central task of US foreign policy: but it is not an easy task. As Colby notes: “Restoring military dominance over China is infeasible, given its size and growth trajectory.” China’s economic growth has been of such historic, transformative proportions that “in purchasing power parity terms it is already larger than America’s, and China has been vigorously turning this economic strength into military power”.

As Colby notes, the result is that a simple Cold War arms race to maintain military dominance is out of the question: China currently spends far less of its GDP than the US on defence, and can potentially vastly outspend any American increase. Moreover, he adds, “given the enormous demands of attempting to attain dominance against a power like China, the economic costs could be crippling, seriously stressing the US economy, the ultimate source of America’s military strength”.

Instead, the US must pursue a role as “cornerstone balancer” in International Relations terminology, the central linchpin of a vast multinational alliance which, when combined, will outweigh China’s military might. Rattling through the list of potential allies, Colby observes that Japan is central, and India, South Korea, the Philippines and Australia highly desirable, along with the militarily insignificant but geographically useful island nations of the Pacific. Other countries, such as Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand, should be armed so that they can mount a solid defence of their own territory, without the US extending them a security guarantee it will find itself unable to fulfil. 

But for Colby everything centres on Taiwan: exploring all the potential rationales and options for China, Colby settles on a military fait accompli by China — an invasion — as the most likely course of action. Taiwan, internationally recognised as part of China even by the US, is politically the most obvious target, as the ratcheting up of bellicose Chinese rhetoric makes clear. Strategically, not taking Taiwan will prevent Chinese expansion in the wider Pacific, and taking it will offer China greater ability to project its power in the region. And invasion it must be: strategic “Greyzone” tactics short of war like a blockade, or “punishment” tactics like bombardment, are unlikely to succeed, he argues, as they would firm up Taiwanese and international resolve against China without delivering victory to Beijing. 

Having focused on the most likely Chinese course of action, Colby war-games how to defeat it. Allowing China to invade Taiwan is highly undesirable: to wrest back control of the island once the Chinese have gained a foothold and erected defences would place the US at a great structural disadvantage, forcing it to escalate the conflict into something akin to the great amphibious campaigns of the World War Two Pacific. This would, Colby notes, be “a highly costly, risky, and arduous venture for the United States,” in which America and its allies “would need to redirect their economies to develop and sustain the forces needed for such a conflict, which would likely involve high rates of attrition,” and in a situation, unlike World War Two, where “the United States would not enjoy a decisive advantage in industrial capacity”— indeed, where industrial advantage has already passed to China.

With recapture out of the question, the American focus must be one of denial: denying China the ability to seize Taiwan, and preferably, dissuading it from even attempting it. Colby suggests that the US and its allies “seek to disable or destroy Chinese transport ships and aircraft before they left Chinese ports or airstrips,” to “try to obstruct key ports; neutralize key elements of Chinese command and control and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance networks; or attack other critical enablers, including other targets on the Chinese mainland, so that surviving assets were more vulnerable to interdiction when they entered the Taiwan Strait” — and then disabling or destroying any ships that made it through.

Yet here we enter the most contentious aspect of Colby’s strategising. As he himself observes repeatedly, once the shooting starts, it will be very difficult to prevent a Taiwan conflict between the American-led alliance and China escalating into a broader war. Colby is bullish at the prospect of avoiding a nuclear exchange, reasoning that the consequences would be as catastrophic for China as they would for the US. Instead, he argues, America should make clear that it is interested only in fighting a limited campaign centred on the defence of Taiwan. 

But such a campaign would not be limited to the Taiwan Straits, with Colby observing that “if the United States forswore the ability to attack targets on the Chinese mainland that were materially involved in the war, it would gravely weaken its ability to defend Taiwan. After all, treating mainland China as off-limits would raise questions about American resolve.” And yet the consequence of such an approach would surely be retaliation, which “would likely include at least some air and naval bases in the United States as well as cyber and space assets. The defenders should therefore propose and seek acceptance only of rule sets, Colby argues, “whose implications they can live with”. How much bombardment of the American mainland the American public can live with for Taiwan’s sake is, of course, an open question.

The essential thrust of Colby’s argument is that America is unlikely to win an all-out war with China: the costs for America will be too high, and China’s geographic and industrial advantages are too great. In his words, “The plain reality is that China is too powerful for the United States simply to make it cease fighting; the United States and any engaged allies and partners would therefore need to persuade it to do so.” Ultimately then, it is on America’s diplomatic and military powers of persuasion that his strategy stands or falls. Firstly, he proposes to “bind” American partners and allies into a web of Pacific alliances, through treaties and joint military basing and operations in the region (we think here of AUKUS). Even if, for European allies like ourselves, our military contribution will be marginal to any Pacific campaign, the moral shock of being targeted by the Chinese in a pre-emptive strike might “bind” us further into the American-led system, Colby argues, as the outraged public demands a response to Chinese aggression.

Indeed, such political considerations are essential to maintaining the great, if loose, alliance system to maintain American hegemony in Asia. China must be provoked into initiating any escalation of the conflict, so that it will always appear the aggressor; it must be permitted to strike as indiscriminately as possible (Colby urges the US not to provide potential civilian targets with air defences, reasoning that collateral damage will whip up the public anger against China necessary to winning a war); at every stage, China must be manoeuvred into situations where it is forced to escalate the conflict and so lose world sympathy, or back down. Over time, he reasons, the Chinese leadership will realise that the costs of seizing Taiwan will outweigh the benefits, and will be reassured enough by American pledges that the US will not aim to launch a wider war or dismantle their state that they will sue for peace.

Perhaps. It is a strategy that involves a great deal of careful, narrowly applied violence, which depends on what is ultimately the hope that China agrees to fight a war on America’s terms, playing to America’s advantages and negating its own. His hope is that by forcing Beijing to escalate the conflict beyond Taiwan, the American public, along with the publics of its allied nations, will fling themselves into support for a war to deny an aggressive China mastery of Asia; and that by forcing China to escalate, the war is, paradoxically, kept limited to the narrow bounds in which American victory is, though far from certain, at least possible.

This is a difficult balance, as Colby himself makes clear, “it is hard to overstate the scale and sophistication of the resources Beijing can bring to bear to subordinate Taiwan,” and even fighting a war against China on America’s chosen terms “would be exceptionally challenging”. And yet, Colby argues, it is necessary. Will the American public agree? It is difficult, from where we stand, to see that they agree on anything much. As Colby himself observes, “Americans may not be convinced that taking a leading role in denying another state hegemony over a distant region, however key, is worth the sacrifice and risk entailed”. Colby argues his case well, but there are a lot of ifs to think about here, not least for modestly capable allies like Britain plunging headlong into an Indo-Pacific tilt.

Colby himself argues that European countries such Britain would serve the American war effort more effectively by taking a greater role in the defence of Europe itself. Unlike British and German defence analysts who, for their own different reasons, are aghast at the prospect of American diminution of its commitment to Nato, Colby stresses that America’s interests in Europe are by a long way secondary to its interests in Asia, and that European countries — particularly Germany — should be obliged to take up the slack.

A foreign policy Realist, Colby rightly urges America to give up its draining Middle Eastern commitments, to force Europeans to defend themselves, to extricate itself from the web of defence guarantees it has given to nations of no meaningful strategic importance and to focus all its efforts towards maintaining its global dominance through the defence of Taiwan against a rising China.  Colby’s strategy rightly roots itself firmly in a clear-eyed understanding of America’s diminished global reach following its unchallenged period of post-Cold War dominance, and indeed, Biden’s foreign policy so far has followed Trump’s (and Colby’s) Realist lead. Yet even after its pragmatic listing of all the ways it could fail and the great odds stacked against victory, Colby’s analysis seems to glide over what is surely America’s greatest weakness. 

Which actual or potential ally can be certain that an internally-divided America, whose chaotic politics is beamed daily across the world, has the solidarity and wherewithal to maintain even a limited shooting war at the other end of the world against the most powerful rival it has ever faced? How well-placed is 2021 America to walk such a narrow political, diplomatic and military tightrope, where the prospect of success is so slender, and where the risks of escalation are so great? Colby places great emphasis on the difficulties the US will find in holding together a fractious alliance in East Asia: yet whether it can hold itself together long enough to fight and win a costly major war is surely the greatest question challenging the empire’s survival.


Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.

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Ludo Roessen
Ludo Roessen
2 years ago

When you have an army where some of your top brass are openly BLM supporters and others praising their new gender neutral 4 star general you really think they stand a chance at all?

Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
2 years ago
Reply to  Ludo Roessen

The easiest way to turn the United States military into a terrifyingly effective force would be to fire everyone over the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. American generals are politicians first and soldiers second. Historically, in the case of a war which threatens a countries very existence, the useless generals are usually replaced by lower ranking officers who have seen combat and have the trust of their men. Unfortunately, this transition is often done after terrible disasters force the military and government to act. Also, the grunts and lower officers really don’t like to fight under clueless political butt kissers for some reason.

Last edited 2 years ago by Matt Hindman
Fred Paul
Fred Paul
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

Sir, I read your comment. I don’t think changing the driver will make the car run faster. The car is stuck where it is. You need to apply a strategy. Changing everyone above the rank of Lt. Col is not a strategy.

Andrew F
Andrew F
1 year ago
Reply to  Fred Paul

If you really think that complex military systems are comparable to a car, then you never run anything in your life (maybe a bath).
It is proven historically that peace time military high command is not suited to conduct serious military operations.
So replacing dead wood is necessary, if not sufficient, condition to success in the war.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  Ludo Roessen

An army is only ever as good as its officers……History proves that over and over. General Miley, busy getting all the ‘White Rage’ out of his officer corps does not seem very promising.

Andrew Horsman
Andrew Horsman
2 years ago

“Europe is of secondary importance, and with no realistic hegemonic challenger to American dominance, can be relegated to a second-order priority.”

Apart from the challenger which has stolen our technology, infiltrated our institutions, corrupted our journalists and our academics, bribed, cajoled and bullied our politicians, warped our citizens’ minds, sown mistrust and division, aggravated existing racial and other tensions, shell-shocked our economy and extracted enormous rents from us in the process, and has caused our politicians and our people to self-harm and to go on self-harming, by making them feel permanently fearful, confused, ashamed, and guilty? Yeah, apart from that there is definitely no challenge to the US-led world order in Europe.

Clearly, it’s not all about tanks and bombs and it never has been. They’re prosecuting a war in Europe, and in other theatres of the formerly liberal democratic world, without having fired a single bullet, and done it so cunningly successfully that still most of us don’t even know – or, perhaps more accurately, want to know – that we’re being attacked.

Illusion, meet reality. Reality, meet illusion. I’m sure you’ll get on like a house on fire.

Geoffrey Wilson
Geoffrey Wilson
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Horsman

Interesting comment on a very interesting and well-argued article, the best I have read for quite a while. I simply don’t understand what this commenter is actually saying! Yes, one world power is indeed doing all the nasty things he mentions, but surely that is China/CCP, so surely that is agreeing the thrust of the article, which is that the US should concentrate on resisting Chinese aggression? My own comment is that there is probably no alliance against China possible now to “maintain US hegemony”, we need to be cleverer and build an alliance of those opposed to China threats, including Taiwan invasion, intellectual property theft, anti-democratic mass surveillance, etc. Define our values, and build a military alliance committed to defend them.

Andrew Horsman
Andrew Horsman
2 years ago

Thank you, yep I was agreeing that the US and others need to do something about Chinese Communist Party aggression, but I was disagreeing with suggestion that there is “no realistic challenger to American dominance (of Europe)”. There is, in the form of the communist cabal that has seized and maintained undemocratic control of mainland China and the provinces they have occupied. In order to protect, maintain and enhance that domestic control they are, in my opinion, seeking through the various means I describe and others to oust or at least reduce American dominance of Europe (and other places). Which is what belt and road is all about. No accident that Italy was the first European country to fall to their lockdown lies, given B&R money that has gone into that country.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Horsman

You are seriously suggesting China somehow got everyone to implement lockdown? If we are going to drag various divisive culture war, climate and political tropes into the foreign policy argument, let’s save time, effort, blood and treasure and let ‘the West’ give up now.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago

Unfortunately, I am not sure ‘we’ (the West) actually shared values any longer, as a quick look at the comments on here would seem to indicate…..

Fred Paul
Fred Paul
1 year ago

After the last four years with Trump, our allies mistrust the Americans. Our treaties are only as good as the originating president’s term in office. We have shown the world that a new president will not honour those treaties. We, as a people, elected someone who made it clear that American interests are above the free world. Why would our allies follow us? By the way…. CCP (sic) or CCCP no longer exists. Russia is not a communist country anymore. It is far right. Interesting, eh?

Fred Paul
Fred Paul
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew Horsman

“Apart from the challenger which (sic) has stolen our technology, infiltrated our institutions, corrupted our journalists and our academics, bribed, cajoled and bullied our politicians, warped our citizens’ minds, sown mistrust and division, aggravated existing racial and other tensions, shell-shocked our economy and extracted enormous rents from us in the process, and has caused our politicians and our people to self-harm and to go on self-harming, by making them feel permanently fearful, confused, ashamed, and guilty? “
And so if we let the fox into the hen house and then blink after the hens go, who is really at fault here? Always blaming everyone else isn’t going to solve a problem. Our population, the half that voted Trump in, is stupid. And our founding fathers didn’t trust democracy for that reason. No, the problem is the American people.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
1 year ago
Reply to  Fred Paul

Ah yes. Those 50% of Americans that are stupid. As opposed to the brilliant purveyors of ESG theology and those who “voted” for our current brain trust.

Andrew F
Andrew F
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew Horsman

All of what you posted is true, but I fail to see how it is relevant to article claim that Europe is of secondary importance to USA global policy.
Lets not forget that article was written 5 months before Russia invaded Ukraine.
It should be Europe responsibility to defend Europe.
Europe GDP is greater than USA, so it can afford the bill.
What it lacks is political will.
Obviously because countries like Spain, Italy and Hungary don’t perceive Russia as threat, unlike Baltic States and Poland.
Whereas countries like France and Germany ignore the political realities to trade with Russia.

John Riordan
John Riordan
2 years ago

This analysis misses the history of why the West won the Cold War even while touching upon the reason: the USSR collapsed economically because it could not match military spending to the USA without colossal economic damage to itself. What eventually pushed the USSR over the edge was in fact the USA’s successful manipulation of oil prices ever downwards during the 1980s, depriving the USSR of one of its few large export revenues, thus putting the final nail in the coffin of the USSR’s attempt to maintain the arms race with free market capitalism.

China not only has far more room to move on military spending than does the USA, it also holds an economic whip hand equivalent to what the Arabs had in the nearly 1970s: the ability to drive inflationary effects in the rest of the world by withholding access to cheap commodities. The Arabs did it with oil, China can do it with rare earth raw materials and its vast control of manufactured commodities that has – until now – kept inflation under control in the consumer economies of the West even while western policymakers debauched their currencies and built up huge sovereign debts since the financial crisis.

This position amounts to a very powerful weapon China has against the West that could enable China to beat the West without a shot being fired. As the comedian Al Murray once joked: “the only way to have enough bullets to invade China is to get them made in China…”, but frankly China could probably keep military threats off the table long before they became real by simply refusing to allow the West continued access to its manufacturing base on the West’s terms.

Last edited 2 years ago by John Riordan
James Joyce
James Joyce
2 years ago
Reply to  John Riordan

Spot on, mate! I remember that Al Murray bit very well and re-watch from time to time!

Colin M
Colin M
2 years ago
Reply to  John Riordan

Absolutely correct. I wondered at that omission too.

Fred Paul
Fred Paul
1 year ago
Reply to  John Riordan

“This analysis misses the history of why the West won the Cold War even while touching upon the reason: the USSR collapsed economically because it could not match military spending to the USA without colossal economic damage to itself.”
As sad and shocking as it may sound, China’s economic and manufacturing engine is greater than the US. And in order for the US to claim economical and manufacturing reserves in the formal alliance, that alliance has to trust the US. Trump made it clear that the US is only interested in itself. NATO increased spending not because of Trump’s assistance but because it can no longer rely on America and must muster what it can now.  
As an example, there is a strong talk for Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the UK to form a union, and this movement is called CANZUK. Note that the US is not invited.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

I have a great military history interest, it runs in my family, and as I have wide experience in the world, and all history ultimately is Military, then military is the ultimate tale of mankind.

Anyway, I do not watch the Netflix/Prime/TV drek, and so find a lot of Youtube free stuff is where I go for for entertainment – There is a lot of good stuff in there, and to anyone tired of the degenerate Entertainment Industry output I would recommend some Military history – it can open a world – I had a passion for military ethics once, could anything be more interesting than that? An ethics which is so full of extreme and real situations and intent one can pose questions…

Anyway, here is an excellent youtube producer, a Naval Historian, https://www.youtube.com/c/Drachinifel/videos The Guadalcanal series I just re-watched, and the Mediterranean, really top class stuff – give it a whirl for education and thought and reality. Vasile Luga also has excellent military WWII documentaries on youtube, try Battlefield s1e5, Battle of Normandy to see what a contested beach landing is, Monteyor and his videos on Midway are excellent… Much better place to spend time than modern junk, and with this article, all on Naval Invasion it is very topical…

I would agree with this writer, but I think the West is so degenerate now, that people would have gone through the tyrannical Lockdown shows that….China watched us, I do not feel we have the will to do anything but bury our head in the sand, even if our very survival depends on it, but who knows – maybe there still is some toughness in USA, Florida, South Dakota, Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, Alaska, and others still show some spirit… Europe has none left I think…
Japan, Korea, India, Indonesia, maybe they too have some toughness, and maybe would be natural allies in this new times.

But I have felt (as the writer said) that if Tawian is taken it means the Rubicon is totally crossed, and it will be a rear guard action from then on, for the free world.

Matt M
Matt M
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Thanks for the recommendations Galeti. If you don’t watch Mark Felton on YouTube, he’s worth a gander.

Also – not really military history – but David Starkey (the historian they couldn’t hang!) is back with his own YouTube channel and doing 15 minute talks on various bits of British history. Always interesting and entertaining.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt M

I have watched all the Starkey Monarchy series, and other ones, I really like his output – a national Treasure, and thus the enemy of the Neo-Marxist Woke (90% of university staff and students), and so they destroyed him for the crime of being a patriot.

One thing most people fail to understand of military history is they think of the horror – and that is valid…But the flip side is only during times of great suffering and horror can man be really Noble, courageous, self sacrificing, honorable, and the best.

Military history brings out the highest side of people, as well as the lowest. When I was young the popular movies and TV were all about the good and the bad. Post WWII this was the theme people wanted, the good to be put through harshness, and to triumph over the evil and hardship – to show Decency, courage, and Nobility, and thus succeed.

Now is the time of the anti-hero, and the wars are the anti-war of the politician and military industrial complex and $ and votes and fake motives. The entertainment is also horrible totally – all sides degenerate, all motivations low.

Back in recent time people knew some military history – this is VITAL if one is to be actually educated and enlightened. The modern have had this completely left out of their education as it teaches all sides of history and humanity, the best and the worst. Most great intellectual thinking has come out of times of post war, of upheaval – not of peaceful, Pig Satisfied, like now – and the modern thinking only allows degeneracy and dreariness and empty pleasure as what life is – it is anti thinking, anti-intellectual as it will not confront great issues.

Tony Buck
Tony Buck
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Please stop worshipping War and Mars, god of War.

War is inherently evil – people shouldn’t kill each other – and only excusable when NOT going to war would be even worse.

There are other crises which can bring the best out of people – economic, environmental or political crises for example.

With the West tottering, it seems likely we’ll have our fill of crisis anyway, China or not.

Peter Branagan
Peter Branagan
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

‘Free’ world? I presume that’s intended as a joke.

Roger le Clercq
Roger le Clercq
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter Branagan

I think he means free to speak out. Can the Chinese? No. Can Westerners? Also probably No. So it is no joke really.

Ludo Roessen
Ludo Roessen
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Thank you for the link. I have watched lots of the Vasile Luga ones. They are all old school top quality documentaries.

Last edited 2 years ago by Ludo Roessen
Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
2 years ago

Probably the most frightening essay I have read on UnHerd.

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

The fact is that China looks upon Taiwan no less scornfully than Westminster looked upon the upstart residents of Pimlico in the 1940s Ealing comedy ‘Passport To Pimlico’., a black-and-white movie in which Pimlico declares itself independent, on account of the discovery of historical documents proving it had been given as a gift by a king of England in the Middle Ages to basically France. There was simply no way that England was going to see part of its territory cede itself to French hegemony. A blockade of Pimlico ensued, and the residents brought to heel. And by movie’s end, all was well that ended well. Westminster had been in a huff.

If China were to make moves on Taiwan, like major-major moves, might it try to make Taiwan appear like the returning prodigal son? To ward off an American-led coalition-of-the-frowning? Or a coalition-of-the-very-very-cross? As it states in the above article, in quoting the chap Colby, “It is hard to overstate the scale and sophistication of the resources Beijing can bring to bear to subordinate Taiwan.”
During the Obama era, Crimea was annexed. Just like that! Remember?

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

I’ll just add that earlier this year, President Biden had informed his nation that all was well in Afghanistan, and that there was no need to panic: the Afghan army was basically in control.
But within weeks the picture had changed. Like the weather, the outlook changed, I suppose.
But the President had come across a little like the mayor of that little seaside town in the movie ‘Jaws’. Come on back into the water, there is nothing wrong! In other words, a denial of reality.
So the debacle in Afghanistan has provided further dollops of confidence to those within China who see America as weak and therefore ripe to be challenged.

Terry M
Terry M
1 year ago

Miss Trump yet? You think Putin would have invaded Ukraine if Trump were still in office?
Biden has now drone-killed Al Qaeda’s leader, so that is a good sign and will make the ChiComs think twice…maybe.

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
1 year ago

Biden is daft. He has blown with the wind his entire career. He’s the jerk that wants to be popular and most people can’t stand. He’ll do and say anything to get power. No vision, no strategy, no brain. Even Obama once said, ‘that you can depend on Biden to f VK things up.”

John McKee
John McKee
1 year ago
Reply to  Cathy Carron

And he certainly has!

Geoffrey Wilson
Geoffrey Wilson
2 years ago

Bad final analogy, I am afraid. Crimea had not spent the last 70 years resisting Russian aggression and building a successful independent economy and cohesive society.

John Cole
John Cole
2 years ago

And most Crimean’s regard themselves as Russian.

John McKee
John McKee
1 year ago
Reply to  John Cole

AND IT IS INTEGRAL, NOT PERIPHERAL, TO RUSSIA’S NAVAL STRATEGY.

Matt B
Matt B
2 years ago

And if Megan becomes POTUS, and Hubby Harry the de facto first king of the US since George, America could, then, like Pimlico, ‘come home’ to Her Majesty. Re-Freedom, at last. We’ll free the Iroquois, go back to square one and try again. The Brits are truly coming! (Again).

Last edited 2 years ago by Matt B
Tony Buck
Tony Buck
2 years ago

Gosh, how very dreadful !

Fortunately, we didn’t get ourselves incinerated over Crimea, which has long been a Russian possession.

Thank God for Obama.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
1 year ago
Reply to  Tony Buck

Ha, we saved ourselves for Ukraine, I guess. Funny how 8 months changes things.

Andrew Collingwood
Andrew Collingwood
2 years ago

If the US loses Taiwan, its entire position in the Western Pacific unravels. China would over a decade or so be able to, by means of diplomatic tour de force, flip all the countries in that region. Japan goes and the Philippines, too. Ultimately, the US would be pushed back to the Second Island Chain, and thence to Hawaii. At that stage, China would have regional hegemony, and be able to compete with the US globally on an equal footing.

Nothing like Crimea.

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
2 years ago

So if we have a good chat with our enemy before the shooting starts, agree a whole series of do’s and don’ts, with a bit of good will on both sides of the killing, we could win.

It worked so well with the Taliban why wouldn’t we give it another go.

Ri Bradach
Ri Bradach
2 years ago

This article misses the key point: the growth of China is a function of regulatory arbitrage, forced consumerism and absent leadership.

It also ignores COVID: at best an act of gross incompetence that should be punished, at worst an act of biological warfare.

Stop buying anything “Made in China” and impose enormous tariffs on anything made there. Remove all Chinese state owned companies from the West. Deport all Chinese students.

In short, make China into a pariah nation that sells nothing to anyone else and is denied everything by everyone else.

No need for bullets, nor hopelessly anachronistic carrier based naval power projection. Just economics.

james goater
james goater
2 years ago
Reply to  Ri Bradach

The wisest comment on this article; I concur totally, but fear that both Ri Bradach and myself are micturating in the wind. Militarists generally have much louder voices than us.

Andrew F
Andrew F
1 year ago
Reply to  Ri Bradach

Exactly.
People who claim that China geopolitical position is great did not look at the map for years.
USA can quite easily stop goods going in and coming out of China.
How long would China survive without oil and other resources?
3 months, 6 months?

Last edited 1 year ago by Andrew F
James Joyce
James Joyce
2 years ago

The author gets the first part wrong: under Biden, the US has subtly shifted from a policy of “strategic ambiguity” to a policy of “strategic stupidity.” Isn’t that obvious?
And why should the US defend Taiwan, when it seems clear that the people of Taiwan have little to no intention of doing what is necessary to defend themselves?
The days of American hegemony are over. The American infrastructure is falling apart–and the new “infrastructure” bill will do little to solve the problem, as there is so much corruption baked into the bill. The country is more divided than ever in the past 150 years. Wasn’t it Lincoln who said “A nation divided against itself cannot stand?” Civil War coming. Lock and load!

Mel Shaw
Mel Shaw
2 years ago
Reply to  James Joyce

I am not sure what qualifies you to say that the people of Taiwan have little to no intention of defending themselves. I have family there and I am equally sure they would try. But they would be in a similar position to the Poles in 1939 – outgunned by a much stronger aggressor. And, in another parallel, I doubt whether China would care much how many of the people of Taiwan survived. It is the island they want so they can better project power across the Pacific, as the article explains.

James Joyce
James Joyce
2 years ago
Reply to  Mel Shaw

Hedgehog. Has Taiwan seriously undertaken a “hedgehog” strategy–where if China invades, Taiwan will make things really, really prickly for China, so it won’t be worth it.
What qualifications would I need for you to consider and not reject my thoughts? I’m reasonably well-informed on the issue and I believe that the Taiwanese military is nowhere near up to the task of defending the island, nor do I believe that there is much interest on the part of MAMs–military age males–or females, in defending their own country. Are they lining up for military training? Is the training taken seriously? I remember being in Germany some decades ago and there would be periodic reports that the Swiss had essentially completely shut down a city or region for military training–and I remember seeing pictures of horses with gas masks–stayed with me. Is Taiwan spending money commensurate with the threat?
I’ll stack up my knowledge of the situation against your family there. Game on?
Finally, your Polish example is inapposite, as is your point that China might kill everyone in Taiwan to take the island. Does that mean that Taiwan should not even bother trying to defend the island?
Hedgehog?

Riccardo Tomlinson
Riccardo Tomlinson
2 years ago
Reply to  Mel Shaw

I don’t really buy this. I studied in Taiwan back in the 80s. Back then it was a genuinely militarist country which was very much ready to fight. It seems to me you can no longer say that. Given Taiwan’s wealth and technical strengths they could have done way more in terms of making and buying weapons to defend themselves. Submarines are a case in point. They have 4. They need a highly developed anti-aircraft and anti-ship defence system, which is well within their capabilities.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
1 year ago
Reply to  Mel Shaw

Comparing Taiwan vs. China to that of Poland vs. Germany in 1939 is a bit of stretch, wouldn’t you say? Please look a map.

Andrew F
Andrew F
1 year ago
Reply to  Mel Shaw

Great post.
The only correction:
Poland was invaded in 1939 not just by Germany but by Germany ally Soviet Russia as well.
Unfortunately, very few (even educated) people know this in the West.

Andrew F
Andrew F
1 year ago
Reply to  James Joyce

And why is USA divided?
If you don’t protect your borders and allow your country to be invaded by low IQ, violent criminals from South America and Mexico you are heading for serious trouble.
Add black underclass into mix which is being supported in their grievance culture by crazed Democrat lefties and you are screwed.

Christopher Bradley
Christopher Bradley
2 years ago

Russia is the country facing the greatest strategic threat from China. It has a vast frontier backed by a miniscule population and resources, especially water, that China is is dangerously short of. Russia needs to be brought onside by every effort. If accomplished the situation changes dramatically. In 50 years demographic drag and the rise of India will recreate the multi polar world of the past.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago

The USA looks weak and indecisive because Biden looks weak and indecisive. The Chinese would take more care if Trump was at the helm. Another demo around N Korea is due, I think.

Mel Shaw
Mel Shaw
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

In a strange irony, I suspect that Biden’s weakness and indecision may be causing China to think more carefully before making its next move. It is better to have an opponent whose moves you can predict. Can anyone predict what Biden would do if they attempted invasion? He could do something rash, as the manner of the withdrawal from Afghanistan showed.

James Joyce
James Joyce
2 years ago
Reply to  Mel Shaw

Yes. Biden would wake up, talk about how his son Beau was killed by an IED in Afghanistan, then go back to sleep.

Terry M
Terry M
1 year ago
Reply to  Mel Shaw

It is better to have an opponent whose moves you can predict.
Was anyone ever more unpredictable than Trump? That is one of the reasons the Europeans hated him.
Biden? If China invaded Taiwan he would ask ‘Dr’ Jill if he could go back to bed.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
1 year ago
Reply to  Mel Shaw

I predict the first thing he would do is dribble on himself.

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
1 year ago
Reply to  Mel Shaw

Because of Biden’s failed state of mind & fecklessness some scholars are predicting a Chinese move on Taiwan before the 2024 election.

Bogman Star
Bogman Star
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Trump was a 5-times draft-dodging p***y who ran away from international conflict. N Korea made a fool of him and used him for photo ops. Putin has him in his back pocket.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
1 year ago
Reply to  Bogman Star

It’s wonderful to read these comments from 8 months ago. How foolish you must feel these days?

6zib836tiq
6zib836tiq
2 years ago

I don’t often see comments on just how hard it would be for China to invade Taiwan. To invade a hostile heavily defended country and project enough forces to subjugate 23 million people AND provide ongoing logistic support for your army would be almost impossible even with no American intervention. Hitler never invaded Great Britain for the same reason. Look at what was needed to make Dday or the pacific campaign possible or even limited modern maritime assaults.
Mass sinking of Chinese troop ships by hunter killer submarines would be the end result.
Taiwan’s biggest protection will always be the sea.

Tony Buck
Tony Buck
2 years ago
Reply to  6zib836tiq

Indeed. But China dwarfs Taiwan in a way that Hitler’s Germany didn’t dwarf Britain.

Marcia McGrail
Marcia McGrail
2 years ago
Reply to  6zib836tiq

‘..biggest protection will always be the sea.’ — didn’t they once say that about us?

Matt B
Matt B
2 years ago
Reply to  6zib836tiq

The Germany/UK-China/Taiwan and sea defence parallel is tenuous. After not pushing into England he turned east and made the far more monumental error of idiotically (no surprise) invading the USSR across its ‘winter moat’ – ignoring history. A vast armada of plain tanks ‘sank’. Game over Guderian, as Paulus is now reported to have cited 4 reasons for the postponement:

-the risk of a ‘loss of prestige’ if the invasion had failed.

-the hope that the mere threat of submarines and bombing would make Britain want peace.

-the illusory calculation of ‘not hurting the enemy’ in order to be able to forge an alliance later.

-Hitler’s intention to attack the USSR since the summer of 1940.

Last edited 2 years ago by Matt B
John T. Maloney
John T. Maloney
2 years ago

In response to Chinese Communist belligerence:
1.) wind down the military restrictions placed on Japan after WWII; 2.) tie trade tariffs to Chinese aggression; 3.) sanction all senior members of the CCP; 4.) finally, pare down the absurd number of 372,000 active ‘education’ visas for PRC Citizens-Students’ studying’ in the USA.
(That’s twice as many education visas as the second country in the US higher education system – India).
BTW, according to US State Dept records, Beijing Biden issued 33,896 F1 Student Visas to Chinese PRC Nationals in June 2021; President Donald “America First” Trump issued eight F1 Visas to the PRC in June of 2020.
“When it comes time to hang the capitalists, they will vie with each other for the rope contract.”Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov aka Lenin

Last edited 2 years ago by John T. Maloney
Andrew F
Andrew F
1 year ago

Great post.
Not only West is competing to sell China rope to hang us with.
We are actually training the executioners.
Completely mad.
The only reason we do it is short (very short) financial gain.

J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago

It is a strategy that roots itself firmly in a clear-eyed understanding of America’s diminished global reach following its unchallenged period of post-Cold War dominance, and should be applauded as such. Colby’s strategy rightly roots itself firmly in a clear-eyed understanding of America’s diminished global reach following its unchallenged period of post-Cold War dominance, and indeed, Biden’s foreign policy so far has followed Trump’s (and Colby’s) Realist lead.
Does no one review articles for typos before they’re published on Unherd?
Sloppy copy editing aside, this is an interesting and disturbing article. We’re all aware of China’s aggressive expansionist policies but I doubt most people really believe they’d invade Taiwan or any other Asian country/state. But it’s a real possibility and I doubt the American people have the stomach for another conflict.
My real worry is that military action by China would quickly escalate to a nuclear exchange. Yes, as the article notes, it would be disastrous for both sides but never underestimate the ‘fog of war’. Let’s hope the CCP leadership are as addicted to their cheap consumer goods, and other benefits of globalization, as everyone else.

Last edited 2 years ago by J Bryant
Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

I know, I know. I did a double-take on seeing that.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

MacArthur wanted to use nuclear bombs on China during the Korea War. He was in charge and:

“In his 1964 book Gen. Douglas MacArthur (Gold Medal Books, Greenwich, Conn.), Bob Considine writes, “MacArthur’s final plan for winning the Korean War was outlined to this reporter in the course of an interview in 1954 on his 74th birthday. 
 ” “Of all the campaigns in my life—20 major ones to be exact—the one I felt the most sure of was the one I was deprived of waging properly. I could have won the war in Korea in a maximum of 10 days, once the campaign was under way, and with considerably fewer casualties than were suffered during the so-called truce period. It would have altered the course of history.
The Nuclear Solution“The enemy’s air would first have been taken out. I would have dropped between 30 to 50 tactical atomic bombs on his air bases and other depots strung across the neck of Manchuria from just across the Yalu at Antung (northwest tip of Korea) to the neighborhood of Hunchun (northeast tip of Korea near the border of the USSR).”

Truman had the bombs moved forward in case he decided to use them, but instead fired MacArthur, and did not use them. Also MacArthur’s plan was to use Chiang Kai-shek’s army on Formosa (Taiwan) to attack Mao’s military and get rid of Communism.

Be a different world, and it came close…..

Tony Buck
Tony Buck
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Fortunately, Truman (sane) prevailed over MacArthur (insane).

Matt M
Matt M
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

You can say that again!

Gayle Rosenthal
Gayle Rosenthal
2 years ago

In other words …. preemptive war. Israel is the best example and not only does Israel survive today because of it, the world respects Israel. Having an incoherent president – Biden – is strategic ambiguity in and of itself. But it’s terrible policy and the BIden Administration, by its very existence, renders the US and Taiwan vulnerable.

Sue Blanchard
Sue Blanchard
2 years ago

Putting American lives in harm’s way? To defend a country’s right to exist, thousand of miles away? Fun to speculate unless you have a son in the US military as I do.

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

For now, China may point out a hypocritical stance of the American political establishment’s attitude to the status of Taiwan. There is a tendency in Washington to believe that Ireland should not be exposed to British political interference, especially in Northern Ireland. Or too much of it. China believes Taiwan rightfully belongs to China, and would therefore surely see any American efforts to push back against its claims on Taiwan as similar to British efforts to consolidate Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom. China sees part of its territory is being exposed to American political interference.
Most Taiwanese, I imagine, would like to remain independent of China. And most people, perhaps a small majority, in Northern Ireland wish to remain British.

Matt B
Matt B
2 years ago

In NI people can vote on their future – ‘UK or Ireland?’. China and Taiwan do not have such an accord – although Taiwan could so vote. In an odd sleight of mind, however, a non-credible and perhaps credulous number of Americans seem to believe that they are not so much American as ‘Irish’, perhaps in self-exoneration of any annoying colonising history stateside, but also in a way that sees NI as no longer a part of the sovereign UK. Neither are true. As for the ‘War on Terror’ … it raised eyebrows in NI after so much eager US funding for it (on a par with Libya).

Last edited 2 years ago by Matt B
Bogman Star
Bogman Star
2 years ago

A sobering article, thanks. Of course, hilariously, the West, far from uniting to counter China, is becoming more and more divided. There already are secession movements in Texas (Texit) and California (Calexit). Given how much the red and blue camps in the US hate each other, a split-up of the USA is no longer the silly idea it once was. Blinded by mutual hatred, the 2 main US political tribes are unable to see how they collectively are weakening America. In Europe, the European integration project has stalled, thanks largely to the British. There’s a reason why Putin loved Brexit; though, naturally, the Brexiters are so delighted with Brexit that they couldn’t care less. The West is too stupid to unite against the Chinese.

Steve Walker
Steve Walker
2 years ago
Reply to  Bogman Star

Did Putin love Brexit or are you merely repeating the talking points of the remainer establishment? If anything Britain has actually taken a harder line against Russia since leaving the EU.

Thomas Bartlett
Thomas Bartlett
2 years ago
Reply to  Steve Walker

Hasn’t it been shown that Russia supported the Brexit cause before the referendum, whether by funding or by that and active dissemination of disinformation? Surely Putin loved Brexit; who could doubt that? It was a major “Rue, Britannia” moment.

Andrew F
Andrew F
1 year ago
Reply to  Bogman Star

People of Europe don’t want EU integration project.
It is project supported by tiny minorities of European Commission and establishments in EU countries.
Every time people of Europe had a chance to vote on this “project” they voted against.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago

The loss of Taiwan, a liberal democratic state with a vibrant culture and civil society, would be an absolute tragedy for its people and indeed the world. The very first thing that would happen would be the economic and physical destruction of its elites, the setting up of Uyghur-style concentration camps etc. This would not be a happy and peaceful reunion.
However, in retrospect, a disastrous error was made in recognising the ‘People’s Republic’ and de-recognising Taiwan (the Republic of China) in the 1970s, for what was probably the unnecessary reason of weakening the Soviet Union. Nothing by the way can demonstrate more clearly the fact pointed out by the (now out of fashion) neo-conservatives, that authoritarian regimes can and do reform and liberalise, while Leninist ones are both vastly more repressive and bloody, and incapable of it. China has politically undertaken no political reform of any meaningful kind since 1949 – it remains the Leninist dictatorship it always was. (By the way, Marxist-Leninism is not a notable traditional system of Chinese political or intellectual philosophy!).
In any case, China can now always make a convincing-enough case to the majority of nations and peoples of the world who have no desire to become embroiled in the conflict (nor particular love for the United States) that China is simply redeeming its national territory, which it would argue it has a legal right to so so.

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrew Fisher
Dick Illyes
Dick Illyes
2 years ago

What if Taiwan adopted the Switzerland model with modifications. Create neighborhood armories where local residents could go to pick up a weapon and ammunition, and go to practice. If an invasion occurred a large part of the public would arm themselves and it would be open season on Chinese soldiers.. The existence of such a situation would be a deterrent. The standard weapon could be an easy concealable pistol.

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

Another Crimea?
Another crime?
Hey Taiwan, see ya!
Another time!

Tony Buck
Tony Buck
2 years ago

We should have gone to war over Putin’s seizure of the Crimea ?

How insane.

Last edited 2 years ago by Tony Buck
William Hickey
William Hickey
2 years ago

Intimations of Adrianople.

Terry Davies
Terry Davies
2 years ago

I was just enjoying an early G n T in the late afternoon sun, here in Cyprus, and then I go and read this article….. fascinating, but ultimately a tad depressing. Ah, well….pour me another!

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
1 year ago

First, fire US General Milley – he’s political, he’s woke and there’s a good chance he committed treason calling China to warn them about President Trump. This man must go. Milley proved he can not follow the chain of command. And why do you think the military brass just deleted all of their traffic during this period? General Lloyd Austin, another wokester, is in on the grift.

Last edited 1 year ago by Cathy Carron
Jon Hawksley
Jon Hawksley
2 years ago

I am puzzled by the approach taken in this article. Just suppose that Taiwan asked to be reunited politically with China, would the US object? Would the US suffer? If both answers are no then what is the self-interest that the US is pursuing in opposing re-unification? Look at Crimea, where the West has opposed an annexation that can be argued is a re-unification supported by the population of Crimea? It has created an antagonism that has contributed to a gas shortage in Europe and gained nothing. If the motive is the principle “to support democracy” then that should be debated. Worldwide democracy is a pretty messy business where at best up to half the population of a democratic country has gained a warm feeling from being able to vote for their government whilst being governed by not particularly competent politicians they neither respect nor like.

Andrew F
Andrew F
1 year ago
Reply to  Jon Hawksley

Crimea voted 54% for independence in Ukrainian referendum of 1991.
So your claim that Crimea is Russian is a blatant lie.
There are a lot of Russian settlers in Crimea after Stalin expelled most Tatars in the 1940s.
They can all piss off to Mother Russia.
It should be big enough for all the looters, rapists and murderers…

Iris C
Iris C
2 years ago

I am horrified at the thought that America will involve itself in yet another internal civil war which, in fact, would be the case if it supported the present Taiwan government militarily. At the last Taiwan election the party which supports re-joining China had a good percentage of the vote, thus internally there is a debate on this question.
I put my faith in our government not getting involved in such an enterprise and hope that my faith is not misplaced