USS Ronald Reagan, South China Sea
A dawn of a new age in US-China relations. Photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from © U.S. Navy/ZUMA Press Wire Service/ZUMAPRESS.com, DARPA and President of the Russia / Wikimedia (CC BY 4.0).

China’s launch this week of an advanced hypersonic missile, capable of evading US air defense systems, as well as those of its Asian neighbors, opens another front in our ongoing conflict with China.

My guest on this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, Elbridge Colby, is co‑founder and principal of The Marathon Initiative. He served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development from 2017 through 2018, and led the development of the 2018 National Defense Strategy.

In his recent book, The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict, Colby addresses our relationship with China in brutally frank terms. 

Some of the questions he sets out to answer: 

    • Do we need a grand strategy for China, similar to the Cold War policy of “containing” the former Soviet Union?
    • To counter China’s military strength, do we need to remove our troops from Europe and the Middle East, since we are no longer realistically capable of operating in three theaters?
    • What should we do if China moves on Taiwan?
    • What role would our Western allies play if we confronted China? 
    • In a US/China conflict, would other Asian nations side with the US or make their own deal with China?
    • Has US credibility in Asia been irreparably harmed by our Middle East performance?
    • If China is politically dominant in Asia, does that mean they would also dominate the world economy?
    • What might a war with China look like?

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Full Text Transcript:

(As a service to our readers, we provide transcripts with our podcasts. We try to ensure that these transcripts do not include errors. However, due to a constraint of resources, we are not always able to proofread them as closely as we would like and hope that you will excuse any errors that slipped through.)

Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast? I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. Suffice it to say that we have not reached the end of history, the end of conflict, or even the end of war. The end of the cold war was but the beginning of a new chapter in US global policy. A chapter that realigned our relationship with Russia, the Middle East, and today with China. It began an era of globalization in which economics in the market, as well as military and defence strategy, reshaped the world.

A world that is a wash and money in commerce, a place where the nasty human habit of fighting the next war with the lessons and tools of the old one will not and should not work. So as the US looks at China, it must first decide whether it’s an enemy or just our biggest competitor on the global stage. As our concerns about China and Taiwan mount, as China’s influence in the Asian region grows, as the economic ties to China, by some of our largest corporations also grows, we must ask how that relationship should play out. What’s best for US interests, global interests, corporate interests, and what happens if none of these interests are the same?

This is the world that my guest Elbridge Colby examines in his clarifying new book, The Strategy of Denial. Elbridge Colby is a co-founder and principal of the marathon Institute. He served as deputy assistant secretary of defence for strategy and forced development from 2017 through 2018, during which he led the development of the 2018 National Defence Strategy. It is my pleasure to welcome Elbridge Colby here to the WhoWhatWhy podcast to talk about The Strategy of Denial: American Defence in an Age of Great Power Conflict. Elbridge, thanks so much for joining us.

Elbridge Colby: Great to be here. Thanks for having me.

Jeff Schechtman: First of all, should we be thinking about China today as an enemy or as a competitor?

Elbridge Colby: Well, I think that depends. I think it’s a bit of both actually. I prefer the term rival. I think there are going to be areas of cooperation, but certainly, when we’re thinking about it in the last analysis. I think there are elements in which it will be an enemy, certainly from the military planning point of view. And, precisely in treating it in those ways — as an enemy — we’ll be more likely to keep it as a competitor by deterring war, which would make it a full-scale enemy.

Jeff Schechtman: Talk about that. Break that down a little bit in terms of how looking at it more as an enemy can make it more of a competitor.

Elbridge Colby: Sure. Well, I think the old saw, the old truism is “If you want peace prepare for war,”and I think people kind of, maybe nod their heads at that, but don’t internalize it. And I think the point here is China’s an enormously powerful country, it’s increasingly ambitious and assertive — in some sense, that’s human nature as an individual, let alone a country becomes more powerful. Its ambitions tend to expand and that’s clearly happened with China and continuing to happen. And so, it’s looking out of the world and it’s seeing what’s feasible.

If it sees an easy road to regional domination and a globally preeminent position, it’s more likely to pursue it. If it sees an invincible counter force that it faces, it’ll be more likely to stay within its bounds, if you will. And so in order to keep it to the latter course, the one where it respects other countries’ rights and prerogatives, we have to be prepared to fight it. And I think that clarity is what I tried to, as you kindly said  — that detailed assessment of how China did pursue — take those ambitions and use military force to pursue them, how we could defeat that effort. We need to think that through very clearly and carefully.

And, if China sees that it’s more likely to see, rationally, that that’s not going to work for it, and it’s more likely to pursue an alternative approach. And that’s what we want. We want it to be a competitor. I think a lot of people are saying, “Oh, China’s going to be a political and economic and technological competitor, but not a military competitor,” but that’s actually confusing what we want to be the result with what will necessarily happen. China is clearly investing an enormous amount in its military, specifically to project power well beyond its shores. And it’s shown the willingness to use its power.

It’s waging economic warfare, if you will, coercion against Australia right now. And it’s used military force against India last year, and it’s specifically reserved the right to use military force against Taiwan. So, I think the best way to deal with a country like this is to show it that violence and aggression is not going to pay.

Jeff Schechtman: And, to what extent do we need to think about as you talk about a grand strategy for dealing with China?

Elbridge Colby: I think that actually is important. There’s a kind of cottage industry of people who say that the grand strategy is not important or not feasible. And I think that’s wrong. It’s hard. It’s hard to develop and it’s even harder to implement effectively, but we’ve done this before. Say, in the Cold War we more or less had a strategy, the grand strategy of containment. I don’t think we had a very clear grand strategy after the end of the Cold War because we were pursuing far too ambitious a transformational agenda in the world that was not closely connected to Americans’ real interests.

But we could afford to do that because we were so much more powerful than any other country that our surfeit, our superabundance of power buffered us from the consequences of our over ambition. But we don’t live in that world anymore. We now live in a world of great powers. And by far the two most significant are the United States itself and China. And so we don’t have that superabundance of power to spend on any potential threat or interest we might care to pursue. We have to actually make choices.

And in this kind of condition of what economists call scarcity, it’s better to make decisions based on some rational framework that’s connected to reality and to our interests. Same in a business environment. If you’re a near monopoly business, maybe you can make bad decisions without too much consequence, but if you’re looking at the market, you’ve got to make sure your investments are in the right area. And that you focus on the main threats to your market share and so forth. And it’s similar here.

And so, that’s what I’m trying to do is basically provide a framework, and that framework basically says that the ultimate interest of the American people is our freedom, our security, and our prosperity. And the primary threat to that out there is another state dominating one of the major market areas of the world. And by far the most serious and consequential potential for that is China, which is roughly a fifth of global GDP dominating Asia, which is about half of global GDP. And that’s a very real prospect in every other challenge in the international system pales in comparison to it.

Jeff Schechtman: To what extent is China’s dominance in Asia, even hegemonic dominance, a threat to US interests?

Elbridge Colby: This is a great question. And one that I think is ill-understood. I think there’s an aborning — consensus might be too strong, but near consensus that China is a very serious threat and that we need to counteract it, but I think it’s pretty thin, especially given how costly and risky confronting China will be, unfortunately. So we really need to understand what we’re about here.

I think the threat is that if China dominates half or more of global GDP, it will set the future of the international economic map. So the world will essentially cluster economically around China, and that will, of course, lead to a serious diminution of American prosperity. I mean, the world-beating companies, the best universities in the world they will move to China. And that’s not just a matter of happenstance, that’s exactly what the Chinese are pursuing deliberately.

So our prosperity will suffer and so will our freedoms. And I mean, here again, this is not speculative. If you have a situation which you control roughly 50 or greater percent of global GDP you will have that economic leverage to impose your will on everybody else, and certainly, to constrain their freedoms. The Chinese, for instance, their demands on Australia right now, when they don’t have a dominant position over Australia, are that Australia change its internal laws to suppress anti-Chinese speech.

I don’t mean in a kind of ethnic way. I mean like anti-PRC speech within Australia, a grave challenge to free speech in the Australian context. That’s just a taste of the future. And I think we’re so accustomed to the largest companies, Wall Street being the center of global finance, the dollar being the reserve currency, Silicon Valley being the center of technology. That will not be the case if China dominates the future, and it’s clearly seeking to supplant the United States in exactly those ways. And in a way, this is actually a very long-standing American goal.

It’s why we fought the Pacific War and World War II. In a sense, it’s why we fought the Cold War, and the Second World War was to prevent Germany and then the Soviet Union from dominating Europe, which was then the world’s largest market area. So this is something that American — it even goes back into the 19th century, and the black ships and so forth, opening Japan. We need to make sure that we are able to trade and operate freely in the world’s key markets. And this is what China threatens us with, and it will have very, very immediate and concrete ramifications, again, not only for our prosperity but for our freedoms, ultimately.

Jeff Schechtman: Don’t we currently have though the nuclear option with respect to China, with regards to dollar flow, part of the swift system, all of the things that we could cut off from China in a moment that could literally paralyze their country?

Elbridge Colby: Well, it would paralyze us too. I actually think in an economic war between the United States and China, I think we very well might lose. Who is more dependent on whom? A, I’m not sure. A lot of our goods that we purchase are made in China, down to face masks and other PPE stuff, a lot of the stuff we buy on Amazon, but even more up the value chain now. And also, who is more resolute and resilient in the context of a mutual blockade situation? That might be a metaphorical blockade, but I think it might be China. I don’t know.

If we’re fighting over Taiwan or the Philippines or something like that, who’s going to care more? Because those mutual economic blockades will come down to who’s firmer on the issues. I also think China’s made enormous progress. They’re not as vulnerable to us as they were 20 years ago, 10 years ago. And value chains and financial chains would likely adapt. The role of the dollar, the swift system, presumably China and Russia and others over time are going to look for alternatives. There’s already evidence of that. That might be difficult for them, but in the context of an economic war, they would probably go the extra mile. So I don’t think — I think we’re more in a situation of mutual assured destruction, economically. I’m not sure either of us would — who would win, but I don’t think it’s a trump card for us, for sure.

Jeff Schechtman: How much do we really understand about what’s going on in China? And I say it in the context of the Cold War experience, where so many decisions that we made, we now know with the benefit of hindsight really were made without a really clear understanding of what was happening in the former Soviet Union.

Elbridge Colby: Well, I think we know a lot more about contemporary China than we knew about the USSR. We knew next to nothing about the USSR, certainly, in the depths of the Cold War in the ’40s, ’50s and so forth. I think we know a pretty good amount about the Chinese market and the facts on the ground. You can see it reported. Obviously, there are fewer reporters than there used to be. That might be changing. I’m skeptical how much we know about decision-making in Zhongnanhai and we’re in the headquarters of the PRC government.

So, I don’t know. I think we have a sense, but I think this is very, at the end of the day, the Chinese Communist Party, which is the leadership structure of the state, it’s a party state. We might not take that Marxist-Leninist aspect seriously, but I think Xi Jinping does. And they’re obsessed with secrecy, certainly. All communist parties are obsessed with secrecy, but certainly the Chinese Communist Party, and deception and so forth.

In my book, I actually try to be somewhat agnostic on interpretations of Chinese decision-making because I think we’re likely to not have a great handle, and I tend actually to be quite skeptical of people who speak with great confidence about how China is going to behave. I don’t, I don’t know. And I think people who pretend to have certainty are probably exhibiting way more confidence than is justified.

So we need to build a strategy, though, that is resilient to a range of possible future leadership decision-making styles or patterns. And we were able to do that in the Cold War. I think you’re right. I saw an article, I think it was in The New York Times, that offhandedly said that the CIA was the best intelligence agency in the world. And my sense is the KGB would probably have the upper hand. I mean, intelligence struggled during the Cold War, but at the end of the day, we were able to develop a strategy that didn’t rely on perfectly understanding how things happened in Moscow, or how decisions were being made. And I think we’re going to need to do the same thing vis-à-vis China.

Jeff Schechtman: And how do we do that in the context of this idea of what you call a defence perimeter?

Elbridge Colby: I think the key here is, if our goal is to avoid China dominating Asia and then imposing its will on us essentially, we can’t do it alone. We’re not strong enough and it’s too far away. Resolve tends to attenuate as you go farther away. So we’re going to have to work with other countries. Other countries that are strong enough and that are also resolute enough to resist China’s domination of a region. And of course, naturally, most countries in Asia don’t want to be dominated by anybody, whether it’s China or someone else.

And these are countries like Japan, India, Australia, Vietnam, Taiwan, et cetera, South Korea. We need to work together with those countries to have a coalition that is strong enough that it can stand up and resist China’s domineering behavior and demands. The problem is that China is aware of that. And so China has a strategy, probably, which is to break that coalition apart, to collapse it, if you will, short-circuit it. And so China’s incentive is to avoid precipitating a major conflict with all of those countries together.

For instance, like Hitler did in 1941, 1942, where he ended up fighting the rest of the world, eventually you’re going to lose. Rather, China’s strategy is more to be focused and pick it apart by making an example of some of the weaker members that are tied to that coalition, and then basically cause a run on the bank, is the metaphor I think of. If you’re in Japan and you’re saying, “I don’t want to be dominated by China, but I also don’t want to be subject to China’s ire. I don’t want to be left alone before China,” you’re really going to be looking at American credibility. How reliable are the Americans that they’re going to stick around here and help us in extremis? And that’s what the defence perimeter is about. The defence perimeter is a physical representation of our commitment to defend states in Asia.

And the key here is, we need to have enough states that are strong and wealthy enough to outmatch China and its confederates, but also states that we can reasonably defend. We don’t want to get in a war in Asia, and we definitely don’t want to get in a costly war in Asia. And to be simplistic about it, there’s a reason people say, “If you want to get in the land war in Asia, you need to get your head examined.” The American military, the American people are more likely to do better and to be more resolute in wars that involve aerospace and maritime, high-technology stuff, not putting our people into the meat grinder in trenches and stuff, if we can possibly avoid it.

So our defence perimeter, it’s not a coincidence that our defence perimeter basically runs along what’s called the first island chain. It’s all islands, with the exception of South Korea, which is a peninsula. And that’s what I think we should try to hold if possible, and then work with countries like India that actually want to pull their own weight and don’t want an alliance commitment. And together we can stand up to China, but it’s critical to defend that defence perimeter.

Because if Japan sees us back off in the context of a Taiwan scenario, or let alone the Philippines sees us, they’re going to wonder, “Am I going to just be left exposed? The Americans flap their gums, but at the end of the day, they’re not reliable.” And we need to really guard against that phenomenon because that, I think, would cause a run on the bank, and then we’d lose.

Jeff Schechtman: Given American actions over the past several years, certainly culminating in the recent withdrawal from Afghanistan, given that and given our strategic ambiguity with respect to Taiwan, why would they think anything else?

Elbridge Colby: I actually think the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan was the right one because where our credibility matters is in Asia. It doesn’t matter in the Middle East. In fact, withdrawing — I think we’re basically going to have to largely withdraw our military from the Middle East and substantially from Europe as well, because that’s the only way to resource and to substantiate that commitment, that credibility in Asia. People who are saying we’re going to continue to have a three-theatre military and operate around the world, they’re not reckoning with the reality of how strong China is. It’s as strong as we are, and we’re pretending like it’s not.

So I actually think the decision to withdraw actually strengthens our credibility. I call it in the book differentiated credibility, a more focused form. I mean I used it. Credibility matters. If you want to get a mortgage, you got to get a credit report, but if you cheat at cards or golf, it doesn’t mean that the bank isn’t going to give you a — I mean it might not be honorable, but the bank may still give you a loan if you pay back your — that’s what they care about, they’re going to look at your credit report. So it’s a more focused form of credibility that we care about. But it makes all the more important that we stand by — that’s what they’re going to be looking at.

If you’re Japan or you’re the Philippines, you’re an archipelago in the western Pacific under the darkening shadow of Chinese military power, well you’re going to look at how we treat Taiwan, which is also an archipelago in the western Pacific under the darkening shadow of Chinese military power. I think the withdrawal from Afghanistan was catastrophically badly handled, and the American people deserved a lot better, and people need to be held accountable for that, but the basic decision was the right one and actually is only the beginning of what we need to do.

Taiwan, in particular — Taiwan is not a treaty ally, but people are deluding themselves if they don’t think our credibility is attached to it, whether we like it or not. I tend to think of it as two thirds of an alliance. We have a long history of public formal commitments; the Taiwan Relations Act, the Six Assurances, as well as a pattern of behavior that the people who matter in this context, which are security decision-makers in Asia, they all think that Taiwan is the canary in the coal mine. So the fact that it’s not an ally is only part of the story.

My view is that the decision to defend Taiwan is not cut and dry, it’s not 100/0, it’s more like 70/30. But if Taiwan were to fall to China, it would be very damaging to our position and in fact, we would have to do even more dramatic things. So the best course of action is to be able to defend Taiwan alongside its own efforts, but to do so in a way that correlates the costs and risks of the effort with our interests in it. And that means really focusing, all the more need to focus on it in a way that I call denial defence.

Jeff Schechtman: How much of our interest with respect to Taiwan is really on the economic side though? If Taiwan semi-didn’t exist, would we even care at this point?

Elbridge Colby: I think so. I think the semiconductor thing is important, but the importance of Taiwan is one that connection to our credibility. Also the island itself is significant militarily. It’s at the center of what’s called that first island chain, which is Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, basically. It’s been the core of our military position since the Second World War. If China were to subordinate Taiwan, it would have basically the ability to project military power into the Central Pacific.

We would be thinking again, Pacific warlike scenarios and the defence of Japan, South Korean and Philippines would become a lot harder. I think semiconductors, supply chains would, with difficulty, adapt, but I don’t think the semiconductor issue is central to the Taiwan scenario. But obviously it’s people who are working or — all of us wanting to buy a car or a refrigerator or whatever. The key point here is that it’s not about the semiconductors, the ultimate decision, but it will have a big impact on the semiconductor supply chain, whatever happens.

Jeff Schechtman: Is there a mismatch now between the kind of strategy you’re talking about and our actual power at the moment?

Elbridge Colby: Well, I wouldn’t say, I think my strategy is matched to our actual power. I would say the strategy that we are in practice pursuing right now is mismatched to our power. Now, I worked a lot on the 2018 National Defence Strategy, so the formal strategy adopted in the last administration was very consistent with what I’m arguing. The reality though was different. That’s why I made the point about implementation. There was a lot of resistance and foot dragging and so forth and people not fully buying in or internalizing it.

Hence our heavy presence in the Middle East and our continued heavy presence in Europe. I think the reality is that, again, by purchasing power parity metrics, by how much you can buy as an individual, China’s already a larger economy than we are. That tends to be what matters in the military context, because China’s not buying weapons systems from us, it’s sourcing them internally or maybe from the Russian. What matters is how far that Yuan goes, and that Yuan goes a lot farther than our dollar, especially given labor costs and all this kind of thing.

Actually, we’re essentially matched with China. They spend less on defence, but they’re increasing year on year. If you think about that purchasing power parity it’s probably something closer to even. And then, yet we’re acting as if we’ve got a multi-theatre thing. And the current administration, I think they’re right to get out of Afghanistan, although they’ve handled it very badly, but they still have presence in other parts of the Gulf, for instance — and in Europe. Now, I think they may be trying to move that, but at this point— 

I actually think we passed the point where we could do this transition gracefully. We basically blew it over the last 15 years or so, and now we are going to have to do things that seem extreme if we’re going to get ahead of this problem. Because I think that there’s a possibility of a war happening in this decade. It’s a very serious possibility. I couldn’t put a number on it. I think that number is going to vary over time, but the chief determinant of that probability is going to be our efforts to build up our defence and Taiwan and Japan’s efforts.

Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about the influence of multinationals in all of this. The Apples and the Nikes and the Starbucks of the world that have such strong presence in China at the moment.

Elbridge Colby: Well, I think in matters of war and peace. It’s going to be pretty limited. Those are ultimately, they’re obviously headquartered in the United States, so they’re going to be subject to US law and I think if people are dying, those companies they’re going to have to adapt. I think where the influence of the multinationals is particularly relevant is, is to get back to your economic question. For instance, the White House coordinator for Asia, Kurt Campbell, a very serious expert, and done a lot of good over the years, but one thing he said that I disagreed with was he said, if Taiwan trying to invade Taiwan, they’d blow up their international economic position, I just think that’s wrong.

And the reason why is that those companies that you just mentioned as well as the big Wall Street investors, and so forth, are going to call up the White House and say, “We need an economic relationship with China. We’ve got huge investments here. Now, if people are fighting and dying.” American soldiers are fighting and dying, that’s going to be one thing, but if we’re just in an economic sanctions, counter sanctions approach, I don’t think that’s going to work and that’s one of the reasons is the influence of those multinational corporations. Especially because also third parties, the Europeans are not going to want to go along with something like that either.

Jeff Schechtman: I guess the other part of the question is the influence of those corporations in the American political establishment and how it shapes policy and strategy.

Elbridge Colby: Right, and I think actually the point I would make is that one of the things — people have different views, but let’s say you have problems with the social media companies, whether from the right or the left, in the contemporary context. Everybody in the American debate is now presuming something very important, which is that American voters have the power to change that future. That depending on your perspective, you could elect a constellation in one way or the other that would change regulation, social media companies — and that would matter.

If China dominates the Asian market, that won’t matter, because those companies will either fade in importance, relative to Chinese companies, or they’ll be acquired by Chinese companies or Chinese subsidiaries or what have you. And then the future will not be determined in Washington or Sacramento or Austin, or where have you. It’s going to be determined in Beijing or wherever they make those decisions in China. And I think that’s a really important point that people don’t register that we’re so accustomed to being masters of our own state, and that’s an issue right now.

Jeff Schechtman: And finally talk a little bit about this idea of this defensive anti-hegemonic coalition, and whether or not these other Asian nations that you talk about can be counted on to want to be part of that coalition as opposed to cutting their own deals with China.

Elbridge Colby: Well, that’s the dynamic that we face. I don’t think they can be counted on, I think countries like Japan and India and Australia are likely to be strong and stand up for their autonomy, although who knows. And I think those decisions are going to be based on the cost benefit that they perceive. And so that’s why our role is so important. It’s not that we’re doing a favor for Japan, it’s that our interests are aligned.

Neither of us wants to be dominated by China, but if the Japanese feel that at the end of the day, let alone the South Koreans or the Philippines or the Vietnam, if those countries feel that they’re — if they stand up, they’re only going to suffer, they’re going to be very likely to cut a deal. That’s just rational. And so it’s critical now that we step forward, and we demonstrate that we’re going to stick there and be with them and that we are going to be prepared to take a confrontational approach with China.

Because what these countries really fear is that we will at the end of the day do something like what’s called the G2, which is basically make a deal with China and not be prepared to stand up when the chips are down. Because the thing for us is we can say all we want, we can flap our gums, but at the end of the day, if push comes to shove and it turns out we’re bluffing, the ones left holding the bag will be the countries that live there.

We can always come home in America and it’ll be a lot worse, but we’ll survive as an independent entity. That’s not necessarily true for countries in the region. Their cost benefit is really important, and this is one of the reasons to really focus on the region, right now.

Jeff Schechtman: Elbridge Colby. The book is The Strategy of Denial: American Defence in an Age of Great Power Conflict. Elbridge, I thank you so much for spending time with us.

Elbridge Colby: Thanks very much. It was a pleasure.

Jeff Schechtman: Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast, I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it, by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.


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