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.