November 9, 2022

Current US policy is setting Washington up for a major crisis with its allies, especially in Europe. This is odd because everyone seems to be getting on. But here’s the rub: what happens if China attacks Taiwan and a major war breaks out in Asia? The bill will soon arrive — for Europe in particular.

This is an acute problem because, as is now quite clear, the United States is struggling to keep up with the military advances China is making to prepare for a conflict in the Western Pacific — the most plausible locus of such a war. Indeed, many of the most respected voices on US defence matters openly question whether the United States would prevail in a conflict with China centred on Taiwan. And while the Biden Administration’s rhetoric has been in many respects good and there are some promising initiatives underway, Washington does not appear to be taking the kind of dramatic steps needed to match China’s ongoing military buildup, which US defence officials term “unprecedented”.

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At the same time, as the Biden Administration made clear in its 2022 National Defense Strategy, the United States does not have the capacity to fight both such an exceptionally stressing war with China and another significant conflict, such as in Europe against Russia or the Middle East against Iran, on even roughly concurrent timelines. This military scarcity confronting the United States is felt not so much in overall number of soldiers or total expenditures, but rather in the critical platforms, weapons, and enablers that are the key sources of advantage in modern warfare — heavy bombers, attack submarines, sea and airlift, logistics, and precision munitions. It is not clear America has enough systems just to win a war against China alone. Moreover, redressing this gap will be difficult, expensive, and take time. Just witness the challenges the US defence industry is facing in restocking the weapons donated to Ukraine.

In the meantime, there is a growing chorus of credible warnings that China might seek to move against Taiwan and precipitate a major conflict with the United States, possibly in the coming years. These warnings are not merely coming just from the military and conservative members of Congress (although they are). Rather, senior Biden Administration political appointees, such as Tony Blinken, Jake Sullivan, and Bill Burns, have issued warnings over the previous months that together seem to indicate an assessment that is something like the following: Beijing is resolute about solving the Taiwan issue in its favour; it has moved up its timeline doing so; it regards the most reliable way to do that as through the employment of overwhelming force; and an invasion of Taiwan in the coming years is a distinct threat.

There is an active debate about just why Beijing might seek to move sooner rather than later. Some point to Beijing’s potential assessment that the 2020s might be its most propitious opportunity in terms of its relative military advantage over the United States, Japan, and Taiwan. Others point to Xi Jinping’s own personal calculus; Xi has explicitly linked the resolution of the Taiwan issue to his central project of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, and generally gives the distinct impression of being in deathly earnest about the issue. Finally, some argue that China faces profound looming macroeconomic and demographic challenges, and thus must move before it is hobbled. To be clear, we do not know whether China will move against Taiwan in the coming years; it is quite possible that Xi does not know yet himself. But together these factors have resulted in a very distinct increase in the level of concern that Beijing might do so. And given that China appears to assume that the United States will come to Taiwan’s defence, such an assault would very likely embroil America — whether we like it or not.

How such a war would unfold cannot be known in advance. It is possible that China’s forces would prove as underwhelming as Russia’s, as many in America and Europe suggest. But there are compelling reasons to fear China’s armed forces would be far more effective in pursuit of their goal. China’s economy and population are an order of magnitude larger than Russia’s, while China dwarfs Taiwan in population by almost two orders of magnitude. China, while separated from Taiwan by the Strait, is far closer to Taiwan than the United States or its allies are, and Taiwan lacks land borders with US partners. Moreover, even as the Chinese have reportedly been improving their ability to operate jointly, the simple advantages of quantity and proximity may allow even a poorly performing PLA to overwhelm Taiwan, whose military appears woefully ill-prepared for a defence against China. As a result, it is simply a matter of prudence to anticipate that such a war would be at best a very stressing and consuming challenge for the United States, and that America could very well struggle — or even fail.

In light of this, how would America react to the outbreak of a war with China? Now, if the United States could handily defeat China as it could for many decades, there would be little problem. But this is now very much in doubt. And this is where the issue becomes very pointed for allies, including in Europe.

First and foremost, such a conflict would almost certainly suck away high-value US forces everywhere else in the world, including in Europe and the Middle East, and might do so very abruptly. US platforms, munition stocks, and key personnel would be depleted, relocated, or withheld for the priority fight. If the United States were locked in a desperate and uncertain fight over the world’s most important economic area (Asia) against its only peer rival (China), how could it sensibly keep forces locked up elsewhere rather than dedicate them to the main struggle? Iran, North Korea and even Russia pale in comparison to China’s power — so the United States would, rationally speaking, need to ensure it won the “biggest battle in the decisive theater”, as Churchill put it.

This would create vulnerabilities in other theatres — to Russia in Europe, Iran in the Middle East, and North Korea on the Peninsula. And such vulnerabilities could be lasting, whether because US systems had been depleted or because the United States needed to keep those forces in Asia, either in the context of a protracted war or to hold the line following the end of a conflict with China that had bloodied the American military. As a result of simple necessity, US allies in Europe and the Middle East would have to handle the threats posed by Russia and Iran much more on their own as the United States was consumed with taking on China.

Has Washington frankly and clearly prepared its allies in Europe for this reality? It certainly does not seem like it. In fact, US allies in Nato seem like they are betting on America maintaining its current high level of engagement indefinitely. This is a deeply imprudent approach — on both sides.

Second, the United States — especially if it does not adequately prepare its forces and posture in the Pacific for a fight with China — is likely to rely heavily on economic warfare against China in such a conflict. If the US military and its allies could handily defeat a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, the role of economic sanctions would be secondary since the main focus of American defence strategy in such a conflict would have been achieved. But if the conflict is more evenly matched — let alone if China seizes Taiwan and otherwise gains the advantage over US forces in the Western Pacific — then the United States will need to generate enough coercive leverage over Beijing to prevail. Since in these circumstances America would not be able to rely on its military to generate enough such leverage, it would have to turn to non-military sources, of which the most salient is economic power.

Clearly the United States could not generate anywhere near enough such economic leverage over Beijing to even hope to shift its calculus without also having a lot of other important countries join its economic warfare effort. The natural candidates would include the important economies, and especially Washington’s traditional allies such as Japan, South Korea, Australia — and Europe. Europe’s market power is a vital ingredient to make this strategy even remotely plausible. Without it, such an economic warfare campaign would obviously be feckless.

This is not merely speculation. Washington’s behaviour indicates its revealed strategy is likely something like this. The Administration is not significantly increasing defence spending, nor is it sharply shifting US forces’ focus to the Pacific. In contrast, Washington has actually increased its forces in Europe. At the same time, the Administration has given off the distinct impression that it regards economic tools as a vital part of its strategy to deal with China, as evidenced by its recent move on semiconductors. Indeed, one might be forgiven for observing that the Administration appears to think that economic sanctions, international pressure, and diplomacy are the more sophisticated, “nuanced” approach to dealing with China, rather than a passe focus on hard military power.

At the same time, the Administration talks about allies — a lot. This seems nice and reassuring at first glance. But, put in this context, it takes on another complexion. The Administration is saying allies are America’s “centre of gravity”, its source of strength, the elixir of Washington’s strategy. What does this mean? Well, for this to make sense as a strategy, it must mean that these allies will step up and actually do more in confronting what the Administration itself is saying is the priority challenge: China — especially in the context of a desperate battle in the Pacific.

Washington’s actions on Ukraine — its leadership of the Nato response, its disproportionate degree of funding, its increase of forces on the continent — take on a different complexion in this context as well. It begins to look like a down payment. Washington has been there for Europe. Now it will expect Europe to be there for America if the balloon goes up in Asia. And it will be a big ask. Because our forces in Asia are not adequately prepared, our economic sanctions will have to do a lot more — and that will require heavy involvement by Europe in them.

Now, are Washington’s key allies ready to join such an effort? In Asia, probably yes, especially Japan and Australia. They are directly and fundamentally affected by how a war in Asia turns out.

But in Europe? I think scepticism is in order. Perhaps there is no more fundamental signal than the Chancellor of Europe’s largest economy explicitly saying last week that Germany would not decouple from China, and then his taking a trip with multiple CEOs of Germany’s largest companies to China. And that’s not even mentioning the sale of a big portion of Hamburg’s port to China. But, to be fair to Germany, most European countries seem to give little if any evidence of a greater willingness to decouple their economies from China, let alone join a massive economic warfare effort against it.

This has only become more apparent with the war in Ukraine. The bien pensant line is that the Ukraine war shows that aggression must be resisted. But the much more likely outcome is that the intense economic pain that Europe will feel as a result of the war will make it less, not more, likely to join an economic warfare campaign against China, which is such a significant part of European trade and investment. How likely are European capitals whose economies are taking body blows as a result of the war to dramatically intensify that pain over something happening halfway around the world? Not very, it must be said — and certainly not to the degree needed to make a difference in Beijing’s calculations about a war it would indubitably consider absolutely central to its interests.

Where is all this going to leave us in the transatlantic relationship if war breaks out in Asia? Nowhere good. Americans will feel they have been betrayed by ungrateful and perfidious Europeans. Europeans will feel put upon with ridiculous demands by Washington when they are already bearing the brunt of the pain of decoupling from Russia.

Even worse, such economic warfare is unlikely to work even if countries do join it. The reality is that China has enormous economic capacity and thus could weather much of the effects of such a campaign. Moreover, Xi is focused on strengthening China’s resilience to precisely such an effort through initiatives such as Dual Circulation. At the same time, Beijing could reduce the efficacy of such an effort by exploiting sympathetic or profiteering third parties, ranging from Russia through the Middle East and even, to be frank, parts of Europe. The reality is that the prices of intercourse with the Chinese economy will be far too attractive for many nations to ignore. Further, as famously nationalist China is likely to be highly motivated over such a conflict, especially over Taiwan, it is likely to be willing to put up with quite a lot of pain. It is worth bearing in mind that economic warfare has essentially never worked as the primary route to victory in major wars in the past.

This is where things are heading, and it is not good. It will not result in success in Asia, and it will create fierce tensions — if not crisis — in the transatlantic relationship. There is, though, a better path. It is one that is keyed to where Americans’ and Europeans’ respective interests are most directly implicated and what would most effectively deal with the potential for Chinese or Russian aggression, and thus where each side of the Atlantic should realistically best focus. This is more of a “division of labour” model, rather than what we are implicitly pursuing today — which is more akin to a Three Musketeers approach: all for one and one for all. This sounds inspirational. But it is not realistic.

Instead, America should laser-focus its military on Asia, reducing its level of forces and expenditures in Europe. This will allow America to hopefully deter and, if necessary, defeat a Chinese attack on Taiwan and other US allies in the region, using military force to defeat Chinese aggression rather than substantially relying on economic warfare. Meanwhile, Europe should focus on taking the lead on Ukraine and, more broadly, assuming the primary role in its own conventional defence. In this model, the United States can continue to provide more focused military contributions and support to Nato, but only consistent with a genuine prioritisation of the first island chain necessary to ensure prevailing there against Chinese attack.

In this approach, economic warfare would play a distinctly secondary role in dealing with an attack on Taiwan. This would impose far less political pressure on the transatlantic relationship. Indeed, in such a model the United States and Europe could continue trading with China. They would only need to decouple to the degree needed to avoid being brought to their knees by Beijing — for instance, in areas such as semiconductors, medicine, and PPE. Although they might well decide to decouple more for other valid reasons, it would not be strictly necessary from a strategic point of view.

This strategy correlates better both with what works and countries’ real interests in a Taiwan defence. We cannot expect Europe to do things for Asia that it will not do, and we must together adapt accordingly. There is a way to do so, but it requires Europe taking much more leadership and responsibility for its own security. Our current path risks not only defeat in the primary theater but a terrible crisis in the transatlantic relationship. Greater realism will help us avoid both awful outcomes.