August 12, 2022 - 1:00pm

Does the United States actually want to defend Taiwan from a Chinese invasion? As speculative questions go, this one’s looking a lot less speculative after Nancy Pelosi’s trip to the island state. As the eminent American strategist Elbridge Colby (whose book on the necessity of defending Taiwan to preserve American imperial hegemony was recently reviewed in UnHerd) observes, “A war with China over Taiwan has gone from what many regarded as a remote scenario to a fearfully plausible one.”

In his latest essay for Foreign Affairs, Colby observes that America’s strong rhetoric on defending Taiwan has so far not been matched by any meaningful action. After all:

“Given its public statements and strategies, it would make sense for Washington to be behaving as though the United States might well be on the verge of major war with a nuclear-armed superpower rival”, but such activity is notable by its absence.

The scale of the challenge is clear. China is, without doubt, the most powerful adversary America has ever faced, dwarfing the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and imperial Japan in industrial capacity, resources, manpower and military might. As Colby notes:

The People’s Republic is in the midst of a historic military buildup, one that includes the dramatic expansion of its nuclear forces, rapid advances in critical military technologies that in key respects outpace U.S. innovation, and the construction of the world’s largest navy.
- Elbridge Colby, Foreign Affairs

As he observes, “the U.S. military advantage vis-a-vis China has eroded significantly”, as “Beijing’s defense outlays are now at least a third of the U.S. defense budget, with some respected analysts arguing that the real figure is much closer to parity. Moreover, China has the advantages of proximity, technological catchup, lower personnel costs, and focused attention on Taiwan and the Western Pacific, reducing the United States’ advantage of at least nominally higher defense spending.” 

Yet while China amasses its arsenal at a breakneck rate (it’s worth reading this new RAND corporation report on the likely contours of a great power conflict between the two superpowers), the US has chosen not to increase its production of the specialised munitions necessary for high-intensity warfare, nor its construction of new warships to match China’s buildup, nor to winnow down its draining and largely wasteful commitments in Europe and the Middle East. As Colby points out:

The department continues to procure key munitions at insufficient levels for a conflict over Taiwan, even as the war in Ukraine has made clear that deep inventories of vital munitions are essential”, while “even the most optimistic option in the navy’s latest shipbuilding plan would be unable to meet the operational requirements for defeating a Chinese attack against Taiwan before the 2040s”— long after the war will likely be fought and its outcome decided.
- Elbridge Colby, Foreign Affairs

So what’s going on? It is of course eminently possible that America’s political and defence leadership is completely inept, and has rhetorically committed itself to fighting a colossal war its policy choices have almost predetermined it will lose. But another interpretation is surely possible: perhaps America’s revealed preferences show that, when it comes down to it, the US simply will not bear the risk of fighting the greatest war it will have ever faced for the sake of hegemony in the Western Pacific, especially when its own internal politics are so turbulent. 

If we look at these revealed preferences — the reinforcement of Europe and the Middle East, and the neglect of the Pacific theatre — a suggestive alternative interpretation reveals itself. Perhaps the Biden administration, for all its rhetoric about defending Taiwan and facing down China, has quietly chosen the path of consolidating its core imperial possessions in Europe and the Middle East, more easily defended against weaker rivals, and ceding its decades-long role of global hegemon. Unless the US suddenly begins a total, wartime-level programme of rearmament, it appears the multipolar age has already quietly dawned.

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