During Providence‘s Christianity and National Security Conference, Elbridge Colby discussed US-China relations.
Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure and an honor to be here. I know there’s been a very rich discussion already. What I thought I might do is just offer some preliminary remarks, particularly coming off of my book that Mark kindly mentioned (The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict), and then maybe we could have discussion – but also touching of course on the theological and moral aspects. In particular, my basic argument, if you want a shorter summary I have a piece in the Wall Street Journal today that kind of gives the sort of real bottom-line, up-front version, but basically that China must be the priority for our nation’s foreign policy, and particularly its defense and strategic approach. It’s the first time that the United States will actually face another superpower in the international system. I mean, I guess you could say this. Obviously the Soviet Union was to some degree, but this is the first time we will face an economy in the international system that is as large as we are since 150 years ago, which was before we really entered the international arena in most respects, so this is a very novel situation. We’ve come some distance over the last years, but I still don’t think that the country has fully internalized how serious this is, because I think what China is pursuing is, at a minimum, a regionally hegemonic position over Asia, which is going to be about half or more of global GDP, and from that position a dominant place in the world and particularly the ability to shape and in a sense dominate our lives here. Certainly our economic fortunes and futures, the economic future of the world, will be determined in China, and ultimately our liberties, as we can see how intimately connected day by day. I mean you look at this – the social media companies, for instance, how intimately connected economic regulation and affairs are with our freedoms.
So I think this is the future that we want to avoid, and the way to do so is not just to say nice things about it or say tough things about China, but we have to summon and sustain a coalition of states, primarily in Asia, that are sufficiently strong to block China’s attempt to dominate the region. Now this sounds good; in some ways this is happening through things like the quad of the United States, India, Japan, Australia, the Aukus agreement, etc. But unfortunately, China has a natural response to this. And I imagine – I don’t know for sure, but I imagine – this is what the Chinese are thinking. is that they can pry this coalition apart through the focused application of pressure and ultimately force. Because I, contrary to the Biden administration, at least its public line, I do think at the end of the day the military dimension of this competition is central. In fact, the only way to make it not central is by focusing on it. And I worry that they’re missing this critical point, but we in a sense, to prevent China from breaking apart this this cohering coalition, we have to be able to defend other countries in this anti-hegemonic coalition. I think of it against China’s best strategy, and this requires a military strategy. In particular, I think we can see because actually the Chinese are already attempting to use economic coercion against countries that are part of this coalition and they’re failing. So Australia is now being subjected to intense Chinese economic pressure, and Australia is actually very dependent on China as an export market. And actually, the Australians are standing strong. The Chinese have issued 14 demands. The Australians have publicly rejected and actually, if anything, they’ve drawn even closer to the United States than they already were. So I think China thereby seeing the good news, China seeing the limits of economic coercion.
The problem is, you know, unless China just gives up on its ambitions, then it has other options and particularly the military option. And this is the argument of my book, and if we neglect addressing China’s military option, China will in a sense have a rational sort of avenue to attain its goals of regional predominance by using the military instrument, particularly in a kind of sort of focused and sequential way, especially through basically seizing or occupying the critical territory of members of our coalition, particularly ones to which we’re tied by a security commitment, which includes Taiwan, and then presenting the United States with a situation that’s simply too difficult to reverse. This is unfortunately a very good strategy, and the Chinese have been working on it to resource it for about the last 25 years while we’ve been distracted, without much to show for it. And so right now actually the military balance is not good. Serving general officers of the United States military are indicating that when they do war games or assessments, that we regularly lose the fight. Doesn’t mean that it’s hopeless, but it means we’re not doing well. And the Taiwan defense minister the other day said that the Chinese may already have the ability to occupy Taiwan. And by the middle of the decade they will be able to do so pretty easily, so that’s pretty sobering. And I think the critical point here is Taiwan is more sort of the canary in the coal mine, because if China could pull it off against Taiwan, it wouldn’t stop there. China has irredentist claims against Taiwan as a putative lost province, but actually Taiwan is important also geopolitically because the key for China is to break apart America’s credibility as a security partner in Asia. And if it can do that by humiliating us over Taiwan, it could then repeat the operation, say against the Philippines, which the United States ally. And I don’t think China would have to rampage across Asia before it would essentially cause a run on the bank and people would say the United States is not reliable, and I’m going to cut a deal because otherwise I’m going to be subjected to the ire of Beijing without any benefit. There was a cutting remark that Lee Kuan Yew once made about Thailand. He said that Thailand bends before the wind blows. The Thais worked with the Japanese before World War II and they worked with the British when they were ascendant. I don’t mean any disrespect to Thailand. Lee Kuan Yew said it but it actually applies to many countries in Asia which would say “Well, if I know the wind is going to blow that way, why stand in the way of it? Let’s get along.” So this is what we have to deal with.
And again I reiterate that this will matter to us at home, because if China is able to attain a dominant position over this area, we are no longer going to be the center of the world economic development, regulation, the currency. Obviously the dollar as the reserve currency is going to go away. The most dynamic companies, educational institutions – and I don’t know what people’s politics are in here; for my own politics I have a lot of issues with many of these institutions and companies and so forth – but the premise to resolving them is that if the kind of political coalition that, say, I would want is elected here in Washington, that we can change it. But that’s not going to be the case if Beijing is dominant. And if you’re in a different part of the political spectrum than I am that’s also the case. So I think all Americans, whatever our views, we should want to be able to chart our future for ourselves. This is the kind of the strategy that I try to lay out in my book.
I think implicitly I’ve written about it elsewhere, although I don’t do it explicitly in the book, but it’s predicated on a kind of just war approach, a sort of moral approach to international politics, international security. You know, it’s pretty obvious from what I’m saying, but I don’t think pacifism is a responsible or morally defensible position at the end of the day, certainly not as a state. As an individual one might one might take a position where you’re willing to offer that kind of sacrifice, but I don’t think you can compel other people to follow along with you against their will and have that be a moral position. Critical to this point of course is that any war that we engage in be fundamentally defensive in nature, not aggressive and aggrandizing, and that the way we wage the war bears some relation to the interests at stake. That’s obviously one of the traditional criteria of just war. So I think this approach is, and in fact my alarm and my urgency is, in part designed to ensure that we are in this position, because if we neglect the problem we will be faced with a choice between accepting a Chinese-dominant Asia or waging a much, much larger and costlier war that’s not going to be as consistent with just war theory. That’s sort of the moral approach I take to the issue, but with that maybe I’ll throw it open to questions.
Q: China has a very large diaspora community in southeast Asia. I think in Indonesia some parts are 10 percent Mandarin. How should we engage with China and its near abroads, especially when they might view an attack on Chinese communities in southeast Asia as an attack on itself? Sometimes the Chinese communities there have been disparagingly called “the Jews of southeast Asia,” not in a good term by these people. So how do we navigate that when China sees a massive community of, they would view, their own citizens in these countries?
Colby: Actually it’s a very fraught issue. I mean, the most terrifying instance is the massacres of ethnic Chinese in Indonesia in the mid to late 1960s. That’s in living memory and there’s a lot of Malay at the time as well, there were difficulties elsewhere. So it’s a very fraught problem and actually it’s one of the ones that, I think, where thinking ahead about the problem is important in order to avoid awful outcomes that could ariseif things escalate in ways we can’t anticipate. The first thing is that most of the ethnic Chinese in these countries are citizens of those countries. So their first duty is not to the People’s Republic. Now I would say that our position has got to be one that’s on the ground and working with governments in the region that have a better sense and are accountable to those people, either directly as a democracy or in some other form of government that they operate in southeast Asia since there aren’t many kind of pure democracies. But I think the United States should be very clear that we are against any kind of ethnic violence or discrimination against uh Chinese populations, and in a sense they should be brought into this overall effort. I think you know the point I always like to make is if somebody thinks that what I’m saying is anti-Chinese, well you know the people on Taiwan speak Mandarin in the original form, and many of them – not all of them – regard themselves as ethnic Chinese. But they’re as Chinese as diaspora populations abroad, right? I mean their Taiwanese identity is still a kind of a derivative of of China in some sense. That’s a whole issue, but there’s at least some connection there. That’s an important issue that I think people should be carefully watching to ensure that bad things don’t happen.
Q: I was wondering, should we engage with non-traditional partners such as Russia in order to combat China?
Colby: Great question. Yes. Ideally we would have Russia at a minimum have more distance from China. And ideally Russia would be a partner in checking Chinese ambitions. Two problems, one is we have very serious beef with the Russians in Europe. Now Asia is more important than Europe, but we also do have important interests there and we have to weigh them. Secondly, the russians themselves – it’s not clear how we bring them along. I think that what’s going to change Russian behavior is a perception of the threat from China. So I think we want to remove the hindrances to Russia judging that China is a greater threat than the United States. So my general view, in line with – my partner and good friend Wess Mitchell had a very important piece in the last issue of National Interest about this – I think we should kind of hold the line but not press further against the Russians in Europe, and then seek to kind of bring Russia in the Asian sphere to check Chinese ambition. And that’s probably what we can do at this point, but I think it’s a critical angle.
Q: First of all, thank you. I actually had the privilege of living in Taiwan for a year. I think part of the problem is that the Taiwanese don’t want it as much as the Americans do in defending their nation. And also the defense forces is almost like a boy’s summer camp, only for like four months. So my question to you is it’s really a matter of when the Chinese will take over. I think everyone can agree that they are a threat, but people can’t agree on if it’s an immediate threat, which I do see as it being an immediate threat, or a long term threat, and when they’re going to take over, when we can come to an agreement on that they are a threat, and what we can do to spread that message especially to American policymakers. And what are some practical things for a defense that Taiwan can adopt right now? Do you think sending U.S troops into the country would help at all?
Colby: Excellent question, and I think your skepticism – I’m not an expert on Taiwan but there is a fair amount of, I would say, scorn for the Taiwan military in American defense circles. The situation is so severe that I told a couple of Taiwanese the other day that I think they’re at a point where people who would not be treated well by the communists may need to start considering extrication, like a Hong Kong situation. So they seem to think that it’s not going to happen or the Americans are going to bail them out, but as I point out to the Taiwanese, there’s a value about this, let’s say, for the Americans, to help defend Taiwan, right? If the cost is below that we’ll do it, but if the cost gets up here we’re going to have to cut them off because it’s not going to make sense and we’re going to undermine our whole position in the region or we’re going to suffer more than the equity is worth. So in this piece today I said it’s very clear. The number one thing that needs to happen is Taiwan needs to improve its own defenses. And the fate of the people on Taiwan is primarily in their own hands. So I don’t know. We’re moving too slowly, yes, and we should focus more, but by far the most significant laggard is Taiwan. Japan is also a problem, but Japan is behind Taiwan and is much stronger and has a closer relationship with the United States. At the end of the day we pretty much know, the Americans have been telling the Taiwanese for the last 10 years, 12 years, what to buy, and people sometimes people say “Well the Americans shouldn’t tell them.” No, we’re going to come defend them. We have the largest military establishment in the world. This is what they need to do. They will be fried if they go by themselves. So they need to work with us and the key – they need to do two things. They need to increase their ability to resist an invasion, so sink ships and shoot down aircraft and kill, capture, wound, or eject soldiers that land on the island, whether they’re marines or paratroopers or what have you. That’s one, and then two, they need to stockpile resources on the island – fuel, medicine, munitions, food, etc., right? I don’t know why Taiwan isn’t spending ten percent of its GDP on defense. People say “Oh, it’s politically hard.” Well it’s gonna be pretty politically hard to be like Hong Kong. I don’t mean to be rude, but this is what we’re gonna do. And President Biden pretty clearly showed with the Afghanistan decision – I think it was the right decision to get out of Afghanistan – but he pretty much showed that we were willing to cut people off if we don’t think it’s worth it. And we’re going to say a lot of things, but at the end of the day if it’s too costly – and they say they love their freedom. President Tsai wrote a very moving article on Foreign Affairs and I think she gets. There was a big article in the Wall Street Journal earlier this week about how bad of shape Taiwan’s in and their military and your point about four months. And I can only tell you; I’m just trying to be honest. I think it’s like you have a friend who has cancer and is deciding whether or not to get chemotherapy, or just to let it go and hope for the best. And I think I’m trying to tell Taiwan to get treated like they need to. They need to really get serious; otherwise they will end up like Hong Kong and we won’t defend them because it will be crazy to do so.
Q: My question is why do the Europeans not see the China threat? Why don’t they treat China with the same urgency as we do? And how can we get them to come around to our view? Or maybe it’s your view that our European allies are not that important in this upcoming conflict.
Colby: Good question, this is a big one. So I think that we will never get the Europeans to see it as clearly as or see it exactly the same way as we do because the European states are smaller, their perspectives are more limited, and China’s much more distant. We’re a superpower so we have interests all over the place, good or ill but, and we are a Pacific power. We’ve been a Pacific power since the 19th century, right? So none of the European countries – I mean the French like to talk about it – but they’re not really Pacific states. They’re concentrating in Europe and their interests are more North Africa, the Near East, obviously Central Asia to some extent. So they’re not going to see, and also their economies are generally more anemic than ours, so they’re focused on just resuscitating after the pandemic. So my view with the Europeans is we should actually not ask them so much about China, like sending ships to the South China Sea or whatever. No, what Europe can do is take care of its own neighborhood, because we’re not going to have a military that’s large enough to do both theaters. So we’re basically going to have to reduce substantially in Europe and then have the Germans in particular step up. Other countries like France, the United Kingdom are already doing things, Poland, so they can build on that and then have European focus on China be more about economic scale. That’s the biggest thing and where I do think the Europeans are worried about the Chinese more. There’s still a lot of the Germans selling into the Chinese market and so forth, but I do think there’s increasing concern about predatory Chinese economic behavior. And so that’s where we can have transatlantic economic arrangements to generate economic scale and power to match the Chinese, who are going to be 1.4 billion people with per capita income of 20,000 a year or something more over time. So that’s we primarily want the Europeans to do.
Q: My question is with Taiwan and also the South China Sea. Really when China takes Taiwan, can we expect a sort of domino effect to occur in the South China Sea?
Colby: Well I don’t think it’s a done deal yet. I think Taiwan is still salvageable, but we need to relay all hands on deck. But if the Chinese were to take over Taiwan, which is definitely possible, then the domino effect is so caught up with Vietnam obviously, but – and there is a lot of truth to the critique – but what was true about the domino idea is, look at the fate of other countries. And my view is that if you’re in Iceland you’re not going to be that worried about the fact that Taiwan got taken over, but if you’re in the Philippines and you look at Taiwan which is right next door, you can see Taiwan apparently – I was talking to somebody who served in the Philippines – apparently from the northern end of Luzon you can see Taiwan on a clear day. You’re gonna think “Why am I so different? Do the Americans have a special place in their heart about the Philippines? Not really. I mean some people know that we’re allies, but most Americans don’t, and you’re going to think “Well maybe I should cut a deal.” Let alone what you’re going to think in Hanoi or Bangkok or Jakarta. So that’s going to be a real problem. The irony, I think, often is that the people who are dovish on Taiwan fail to appreciate that if we give up Taiwan, we’re actually going to have to do more dramatic things to compensate for it, because people are going to say “You gave up Taiwan; why are you going to treat me differently? You’re telling me you’re going to treat me differently but the Biden administration said that we have a rock-solid commitment to Taiwan.” But then in the scenario you’re talking about, we failed to do that, so why should I believe you? That’s going to be the world that we’re going to have to deal with.
Q: To what extent does the idea that we can cooperate on some issues with China and compete on others – does that just make it more difficult all around? Is that even really a dichotomy that’s possible?
Colby: Well I keep mentioning this op-ed, but I wrote this op-ed in part because, usually my op-eds come from when I get really angry about something, but there was an article in the New York Times last week where some unnamed senior administration officials said we’re gonna compete vigorously. I think Jen Psaki said we’re going to compete vigorously and joust in the South China Sea. You know, it sounded like they’re going to put on their boxing stuff, like a 19th century comic, but then we’re going to cooperate on climate and blah blah blah and all the things that the administration says are the most important. And it’s like well, did the Chinese sign on to that? It doesn’t even make sense to me because climate policy is about future growth. So it’s like the most geopolitical thing you could actually think of, right? I’ve heard credible arguments about how you can think competitively in the climate space. Andrew Erickson has an important article on this, for instance, but I don’t think this idea makes sense as a strategy. It makes sense as a preferred outcome. I want to get to a place where we limit the competition but we are also able to cooperate, but that’s a wish; that’s not a strategy. I think to get there we’re going to have to confront them and stand strong so the Chinese then understand what the cost-benefit is for them.
Q: I guess the question I would have is how do we instill some sort of national pride in the country? What it seems to me is almost like countries always seem to react if either they think they have the cushion of the U.S. behind them or they’re worried that the U.S. will remove them. How do we make countries want to do things for their own country’s sake?
Colby: This is a great question; it’s actually something I’m thinking about a lot right now. I think the primary driver of why countries will do more for their own defense is a perception of threats. So that’s both a direct threat from the potential enemy as well as how much they expect from the Americans. So I think for Taiwan for a long time there was actually a relatively low sense of threat because the Chinese couldn’t get across the strait, and the pretty high sense of the Americans, those are related coming in. Meanwhile Korea, also very high threat perception. If you live in Seoul you’re within range of North Korean artillery along the 38th parallel or behind it. So that’s a different situation. If what I’m saying is true, that countries mostly react to threat, how do you push them? Because we don’t have an unlimited amount of time, I think there are a couple of things. Well first of all, we should be tough on them and candid. We shouldn’t be over the top because that actually gives them an escape hatch, but I think we should be very clear and tough and be willing to use sanctions. I mean that sort of metaphorically but also potentially sanctions themselves if it’s that important to us. And the other thing is that there is a threat of abandonment. There’s also a couple different layers before that. So one of the things in the Cold War was we wanted the West Germans to pull more weight. And we said the West Germans, we’re going to defend you from a Soviet attack, but we can do it a couple different ways. We can try to have a conventional defense at the inner German border, but that’s only if you build up. Otherwise we’re going to drop tactical nuclear weapons on the Soviet forces that are invading West Germany. And the West Germans were like “We don’t want that.” And actually, the West Germans did have a really large conventional army in the 1980s. And I would say similar to Taiwan, I think it’s very likely the United States would defend Taiwan, but how Taiwan defends itself is going to matter. Is it going to be a fight over Taiwan the island, like over Taipei or Kaohsiung or these areas, or is it going to be mostly out to sea? That’s something that Taiwan has actually got a lot of control over. If Taiwan doesn’t want to itself become the primary battlefield, well, it can do something about it. Our only options are not zero or 100. At the end of the day these alliance relationships are not like love affairs. They’re more like deep business partnerships and if they stop making sense for one side, you’re not going to continue with them.