On Washington’s China Fetish

31 January 2023, 1339 EST

What follows is my general philosophy on China issues, by way of answering the hardest of hard defense framing questions regarding China. After my most recent piece in Foreign Affairs, I got a note from a semi-prominent friend in Washington’s foreign policy community basically praising it but also posing some tough questions about China policy. In my view they’re the wrong questions. But we’ve known each other a long time, and my response, I think, might be useful for others to consider. So I’ve anonymized bits but otherwise include the entire note below. 

Hey [anonymized],

[some anonymized stuff]

I know that generally speaking we have very different projects going these days, so was pleasantly surprised by this generous note. I can’t tell you how glad I am to hear both that you too can see the discourse getting disturbingly slanted and that you find my Foreign Affairs arguments largely on target. My ego thanks you :).

I agree too with your general point—vibrant debate seems like a missing check on shitty foreign policy decisions, and the inability for substantive debate to even occur ensures we keep drawing bad lots (not sure debate solves things, but its absence creates hella problems).

It’s probably clear enough by now that I think competition is the wrong—or at least a conceptually muddled and self-harming—way to deal with China, so I suppose that doesn’t need belaboring. I certainly get that the drive to one-up, counter, check, and now contain the Big Bad responds to some valid concerns.

But I guess one of the problems I see is that I think only some of the concerns are valid while most are inflated or unfounded.

Even where valid concerns exist, I have a hard time seeing how the policy toolkit that gets deployed in the name of competition actually addresses them. Washington has a China-fetish problem, and if my personal experience is any indicator, it owes partly to the fact that China (and now Ukraine) allows deflection from having to face incongruities and contradictions in the DC worldview.

Not that China and Ukraine are issues unworthy of attention and response; only that they facilitate deflection. Perhaps too meta for an email but I increasingly see liberal internationalism as an ideology that externalizes—rather than confronts—our problems as Americans, which has much to do with why I’m so invested in conjuring up alternative policy vistas.

On your question about China’s military build-up, you’re not wrong to see it as kind of orthogonal to the Foreign Affairs piece. And I get that for the Beltway, handling the military questions is the Sinatra test (or maybe a hoop test, actually), if you will, for an alternative foreign policy paradigm—if your policy agenda has a sellable theory for how to account for and respond to PLA (People’s Liberation Army) modernization, then it’s unquestionably the better alternative to the status quo.

That’s a high bar, of course. To engage on your terrain directly, I’ll try to respond to each of your questions explicitly.

How do you think the U.S. should respond to the shifting military balance of power in the Taiwan Strait?

I believe this is an imprecise way to view the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait. The correlation of forces shifted unfavorably back when we were still in the Pentagon and we’ve been living with that ever since. Like, when was the last time we could claim to assert air superiority around Taiwan?

The PLA’s naval boom is a real thing, and to that extent you can say things are shifting, but its significance is marginal compared to the integrated air defenses (IADs) and deep-strike/long-range standoff problems that predate naval expansion.

I don’t see how we can establish sea control or sea denial while bracketing off both nuclear escalation and air superiority, and air superiority is something we gave up when we decided the scenario should be inside the ring range of China’s IADs (and Taiwan contingencies will always be inside Chinese IAD range).

All of that is a detailed way of saying that the most dramatic shift in the balance of power in specifically the Taiwan Strait happened some time ago.

The reason that matters is because we’ve been living with an unfavorable correlation of forces in that specific place and it’s been ok because the calculation of the balance is a separate analytical question from the meaning of the balance at any given point. It’s distinct from China’s revisionism or willingness to use force, is only an input into (not a determinant of) questions of deterrence, and how stabilizing or destabilizing it is depends entirely on how we respond to it.

Responding with a qualitative arms race achieves nothing.

I imagine you know all this, and I suppose you could say I’m still skirting the question, “So what is to be done about the shifted/shifting balance of power?” My answer to that is that we must show a degree of both creativity and restraint in military force structure and regional force posture that we’ve been unwilling to even consider.

How does that cash out? Many ways, the most obvious being to shelve the trillion-dollar nuclear modernization project, gaming out a “forward balancing” strategy, or embracing buckpassing to regional allies, including Taiwan, while drawing up more limited-aims contingency scenarios that don’t require striking the Chinese mainland. We’re already proliferating conventional weapons to allies—no reason to pay the steep price of US primacy while doing that.

And to be clear, what I’m describing is just the military level—to make even these alternatives work requires a larger project of statecraft aimed at changing the relational context of Sino-US rivalry, which was the thrust of my post-primacy Foreign Affairs take.

I don’t actually believe that you can take the narrow analytical question of the Taiwan Strait balance apart from the larger ecology of great-power relations and regional order—these things affect each other in major ways.

More broadly, any answer to “What is to be done?” in response to your question must be based on a theory of why the PLA is modernizing. Most/all prescriptions in DC lack a theory of PLA modernization, which makes them inherently unpersuasive and dangerous.

Like, intellectually people know the Wikipedia realities about China’s bureaucratic production of doctrine and forces, but there’s nothing in that or the US force structure response to PLA modernization that resolves the fundamental problems that follow from the already-shifted balance of power in the Taiwan Strait.

And look, the PLA’s gonna do what PLA’s gonna do—I’m not under any illusion that if we disembowel ourselves militarily that they will follow suit.

But we have a large margin of advantage outside of Taiwan, and it seems rather obvious that they’re indexing their modernization goals against our ever-modernizing military capabilities from our position of ongoing global advantage.

I mean, does anyone think PLA modernization has nothing to do with its primary competitor’s absurdist levels of military capabilities and defense spending? Acknowledging that some of what they do responds to what we do is crucial (and part of what I’m trying to get at in Pacific Power Paradox).

It means that we have to spend more effort weighing the tradeoffs between war optimization and war avoidance. The prevailing discourse is almost entirely the former without recognizing how it undermines the latter.

Finally, while this is a very reasonable question, it’s worth reiterating that we retain a favorable balance of power almost everywhere in the world except the Taiwan Strait (we can quibble about the East and South China Seas but they’re lesser included cases).

So we enjoy a kind of unchallengeable military dominance relative to other powers basically everywhere except this one place—and that’s the one place we obsess about because it logically stands between us and the claim to unfettered global military dominance. We have to learn to live with not dominating, which is asking a lot given the culture we come from. I firmly believe that dominance is, in the final analysis, never sustainable and always counterproductive.

Should the U.S. withdraw and simply cede Taiwan to China, understanding that China will subsume Taiwan under its rule and it is likely to go the direction of Hong Kong over time?

The left disagrees about this. I’m of the view that we should not be passive if China tries to take over Taiwan so long as Taiwan’s people resist Chinese encroachment.  Never fully relent to an oppressor. But two things.

One, we have to hold an anti-oppression standard consistently, not just in Taiwan, which means we have some soul-searching to do when it comes to everything from Guam’s self-determination to Palestine to siding with neofascists abroad to how Black communities get policed and starved of capital in America. This shit is connected.

More than that, invoking any kind of principle in defense of Taiwan that’s not extended beyond Taiwan gives the lie to what we’re doing. Living by principles means not being hypocritical in how you operationalize them.

Two, circling back to Taiwan specifically, how to resist, where to push back, and how hard to push back if China tried to do the Hong Kong re-colonization move to Taiwan depends on context.

Right now, Wang Huning is coming up with an alternative theory for a post-“One Country, Two Systems” world, because China now recognizes that the Hong Kong model has been discredited. I don’t believe we can really think through what to do with defense policy on China apart from knowing how China’s new Taiwan policy will shake out.

But as a general commitment, unless we’re absolute monsters, we must take the path of least-harm for Taiwan, so if what we do leads to nuclear war, well, that would violate the least-harm principle since that would be pretty bad for Taiwan. And resistance need not always (or necessarily ever) take the form of conventional military operations or a five-phase military campaign.

Is it your view that China is unlikely to take any military aggression against Taiwan (if not an outright invasion, then perhaps increased exercises, missile demonstrations, airspace incursions, and maybe even a de facto blockade)?

Basically yes, but with caveats. What they do depends on what we do—international relations is relational, even if we insist on analyzing it as if it were not.

My view is that under a previous status quo (say, circa 2017), China was unlikely to take any military aggression against Taiwan so long as Taiwan didn’t formally declare independence. Under current rivalry conditions, which are increasingly bleak, it seems clear enough to me that China is actively deterred from invading Taiwan militarily, though I think our policies are actively incentivizing China toward more of a coercive signaling posture.

A blockade would be at the more extreme end of possible Chinese actions, but as you know from previous convos about US distant blockade options, that’s a hard posture for any great power to sustain and the juice needs to be worth the squeeze.

I think the view of people like M. Taylor Fravel need to be taken seriously here—China is deterred from overt aggression under the status quo, but if we do things that lead them to conclude that war is inevitable, there’s nothing we can do to dissuade or deter them.

That means the situation across the Strait is basically a security dilemma. And if that’s true, well, what’s the way out of a security dilemma? Lots of folks smarter than us have weighed in here.

The answer then becomes restraint. Carrots over sticks. Reassurances. A whole package of policies and signals meant to convey not a willingness to nuke the world but rather our conditionally benign intentions. Including showing that we prioritize war prevention over war preparation. But the thing is, do we have benign intentions?

Hard to say, depends on who’s steering policy…

What do you think the consequences would be for stability in the region if Beijing successfully subsumed Taiwan by military force? Or do you think that’s not a realistic scenario?

I don’t think that’s a realistic scenario. And I don’t think we would ever have to stop agitating in support of Taiwan’s self-determination, even if China were to successfully occupy the place.

But if we make those giant assumptions anyway, this is where I think a lot of the geopoliticians are showing their asses. “If Taiwan falls, then Japan falls” is the most unreasonable, unfalsifiable assertion you could ever make prior to Taiwan “falling,” and with the highest stakes. It has traction because its simplicity flatters those looking for solutions to problems that don’t require looking at what we do, or how what we do affects what they do.

It’s the same bullshit formulation as domino theory, or as the claim of “swing states” and “pivot points” on the map. I tend to see those as seductive grifter claims that ignore the most important aspects of international relations. But YMMV.

Asia is full of states that will organically resist (and some are currently resisting!) anything resembling Chinese hegemonic ambitions. An Asia in which China “has” Taiwan (which, again, is a premise I protest) will not be more fractious than the Asia we’re making now in real-time.

I have an academic article (open access) that just came out trying to address this. It’s not anchored in defense policy, but you might find it of interest, or at least it will give you a better a sense of where I’m coming from.

I don’t know what you think about any of this—I know I’ve gone on for a long time—but these are not simple questions. And they were worthy of a serious though-through response.  [some anonymized stuff]



This is cross-posted at Van’s newsletter.