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Focus on China

Elbridge Colby Summer 2023

Elbridge A. Colby is cofounder and principal of The Marathon Initiative. He served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development from 2017 through 2018, during which he led the development of the 2018 National Defense Strategy. He has served in the Department of Defense, Department of State, and in the Intelligence Community working on a range of strategic forces, Weapons of Mass Destruction, and intelligence reform matters. He was interviewed recently by Freddie Sayers, Editor in Chief of UnHerd, setting a sharply different focus for American foreign – and especially defense – strategy. Below is an edited transcript.

Freddie Sayers: You’re neither a full isolationist nor a full maximalist—what’s your vision for American strategy?

Elbridge Colby: We’ve had a maximalist foreign policy that has proved disastrous. Americans are really tired of the “forever wars.” If you watch Fox News over the course of the day, the ad that leaves the most impression, though maybe not the most common, is the one for wounded warriors, people who were horribly wounded during Iraq or Afghanistan, or were killed in 9/11, or their widows. That is the mindset of a lot of Republican voters. I think there’s a real distrust and discontent among them about the foreign policy establishment. So, let’s take their cue and be unashamed in asking: “What’s in Americans’ interests?”

Elbridge Coby, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, Strategy and Force Development, Department of Defense, poses for his official portrait in the Army portrait studio at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, June 22, 2017. (U.S. Army photo by Monica King/Released)

China is clearly by far the most significant challenge to the concrete interests of regular Americans. It’s far more formidable economically than anyone else, including Russia, but now also militarily.

The way I look at Ukraine is not in a vacuum or separate from China, but precisely through the lens of China, and recognizing that we are neglecting the scale of the challenge posed by China. Through the defense strategy that I worked on, and other efforts, we have become more attuned to China. But we have not gone far or fast enough. Remember: it’s not a self-referential exercise. If you’re an American car company in the 1970s and you’re changing to adapt to Toyota, but you don’t do enough or do it fast enough, you’re going to go out of business—or IBM vis-à-vis Microsoft.

In that context, I would say, yes, we are focusing way too much on Ukraine. I’m not in favor of just simply cutting the Ukrainians off. I think what Russia did and is doing is evil. That’s not the primary issue. But if our foreign policy is about Americans’ concrete interests, then we’re doing too much. We’ve already spent over $100 billion. We’ve sent equipment, which is not easily replaceable, which is relevant to the potential fight over Taiwan, and certainly the implications as it reverberates through our defense industrial base are very relevant. This sounds arcane, but it’s not. For want of a shoe, the kingdom can be lost. Why are we taking risks on the most significant challenge to the US position in the world and our interests in the world in 150 years? We were a much larger economy than the Soviet Union. We alone were larger than the three Axis Powers, let alone with the British Empire and the Soviet Union. This is a fundamentally different scale of a challenge. That’s the right way to look at this.

FS: Practically, if you were Senior Advisor to the President, what would you tell him to do?

Colby: I would say, “I don’t want to talk about Ukraine right now. We’re going to talk about Taiwan and China and Asia first, and once we fix that problem to a satisfactory degree, we’ll spend time and political capital and resources on Ukraine.”

But I’m not in favor of just abandoning Europe. Instead, we should put a lot more pressure and encouragement on Europe to step up and take the primary role in Ukraine.

Europe Must Step Up

Why is the United States providing the vast majority of military and financial support—certainly in the military context, but also in the civilian area? That makes no sense. Europe is a vastly larger economic area than Russia. It has enormous latent military advantages vis-à-vis Russia. A lot of people have been celebrating US policy saying “American leadership is back”—I actually think this is bad. This is a failure, because if anything, it’s suffocated any effort by Europeans to stand up and say, “We’re going to take leading responsibility.”

Americans need to focus on China. We’re not just going to cut the Ukrainians off, but we have to get the Europeans to do what we’ve been trying to get the Europeans to do since Dwight Eisenhower.

It’s the assessment of the US intelligence community that Xi Jinping has ordered the Chinese military to be ready for a successful attack on Taiwan by 2027. It’s not a prediction, but that’s about as much warning as you can expect in the tough world of international politics. That’s four years away—in defense planning terms, that’s yesterday. We actually have very limited things that we can still do to address the threat.

The Germans deconstructed their military, not as a result of World War II, but as a result of “the end of history and the peace dividend.” They had a very large and impressive military when the Federal Republic was seeking to defend itself against the Soviets and the Eastern Bloc. This has been a matter of policy, particularly under former Chancellor [Angela] Merkel—whose legacy will be ashes in her mouth. But the question is: will Germany do it? They’re not stepping up. Their military budget is going to be way below [the NATO target of] two percent of GDP [gross domestic product] again this year. The country that deserves applause, in this respect, is Poland, which is committed to almost five percent.

FS: What about the UK?

Colby: I give it a lot of credit for its ambition. Under Boris Johnson, if I recall correctly, it committed to three percent, but I think that figure has been knocked down over time. It’s great that Britain is more engaged on the continent, precisely because we are going to have to shift to Asia, but the UK has very limited ability to project serious military power to Asia. So, if we’re looking at it from the enlightened, self-interested point of view (invented in the United Kingdom, after all), then we can’t get China and Asia wrong.

If China takes over Asia in a hegemonic situation, which I think is its goal, our interests are going to suffer far more because Asia is a much, much larger economic area than Europe. China is a much larger and more formidable power than Russia. So, the question is, who’s going to bear the cost?

If Europe presents a future administration with “we just can’t do it, it’s going to take us too much time,” then the president should say, “I’m sorry, you have to bear the consequence of that decision and inability. If you want to change that, we will help you, but we, the American people, are not going to allow China to take over Asia because you won’t take the steps needed to be able to defend yourselves.

“But also, the Russians are having real trouble. They’re not ten feet tall; this is not the Red Army of 1945. The notion that they’re just going to roll over the Ukrainians—you don’t have to accept that, Europe. You’re a huge economic area.” The problem is that Europe is not stepping up.

Duluth, Dubuque, or Denver

Chinese Nuclear-Powered Ballistic Missile Submarine. (Photo: Chinese State media)

FS: Where does NATO stand in this new world?

Colby: During the Cold War, the relative balance of expenditures on defense between America and Europe was closer to 50 percent. But not now. And this is where that establishment and Europe’s interests do, unfortunately, align, because the establishment in Washington loves to be the global leader—the Madeleine Albrights, George W. Bushes. “We stand taller; we’re the indispensable nation.” That’s great for that Washington establishment, but that is not what serves the people who are watching the wounded warriors. Why are the American people spending 3.5 percent of their GDP [on defense] while Europeans are spending a mere fraction of that? It’s really insane when you think about it, that the Americans in Duluth, or Dubuque, or Denver are spending 3.5 percent while the Germans—who have more responsibility to provide for collective defense than anybody by orders of magnitude—spend 1.5 percent. People say: “Germans don’t feel threatened.” Do you think Americans do? The only way to make this sustainable is to have a more balanced approach.

FS: What makes you so sure that China is planning some attack on Taiwan?

Colby: I don’t think it’s much of a debate anymore. The leader of the most unified Chinese government since Mao Zedong has explicitly given instructions to the party-army to be ready to attack Taiwan by 2027. And the Chinese pretty much assume that the Americans would come to Taiwan’s defense. That would mean war.

Look at the military they’re building: it is obviously designed to take on, not just Taiwan, but the United States, Japan. They’re clearly developing a global military that looks like the American military: aircraft carriers, space satellites, nuclear-powered submarines. Their basing architecture: Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Cambodia, Pakistan, Equatorial Guinea, which is on the Atlantic coast of Africa. I have no idea what Xi Jinping is going to decide to do. But if it looks like a duck, you know, maybe it’s a duck.

FS: Do you think it would be an attack rather than just a blockade?

Colby: One of the lessons of Ukraine is: don’t screw around. If you’re going to do something, do it right. If you were going to send two missiles, send six. If you were going to capture and try to turn someone, kill him. I think the Chinese are clearly developing the capability to do just that. Yes—it’s difficult to mount and sustain an amphibious and air invasion across the Strait, 100 miles. But it’s not impossible. We’ve been able to do it over the last 75 years. With the exception of the Persian Gulf War, we haven’t, but everybody knew that we could drop Marines pretty much where we wanted in large parts of the world, and that nobody could do anything about it.

But that’s one thing we have in our favor: the difficulties of such an operation. To go back historically: the Wehrmacht was much more powerful than the remaining British Army after Dunkirk, but the Germans couldn’t find a way to get across the Channel and sustain it. That’s the model to think about. But the reason I think they’re not going to do a blockade—which I think they could, it’s not impossible, and that could succeed—is that it would leave a lot to chance. It leaves a lot in the hands of the Taiwanese; it leaves a lot in the hands of the Americans. It cedes the initiative, it cedes the element of surprise, and I just don’t think the Chinese are likely to do that.

China as a Cautious State?

FS: But China is actually quite a cautious state.

Colby: I don’t know how the Chinese have gotten this reputation. [The Communists] won the Civil War through the most brutal means possible. Then they seized Tibet through invasion. They invaded Hainan Island as part of the conclusion of the Civil War, and they were planning on invading Formosa [Taiwan] before they directly intervened in the Korean War with huge amounts of troops and fought the Americans and the British to a standstill. They also directly attacked Vietnam in 1979—their ambitions were to go a lot further.

Why would they do it now? I think they actually feel that they need to. Xi Jinping is saying that the United States is trying to strangle China. You see what he’s doing with Vladimir Putin and Russia—they regard us as being in an almost existential struggle, which is very dangerous. The reason they would use military force is to secure their place as the world’s top economy, and a large guaranteed geo-economic sphere, because they can see what’s happening with things like AUKUS and so forth. There’s a lot of balancing behavior to check China’s overweening ambitions, and if they want to get out from under that, they have a strong incentive to use military force, and they’re preparing to do so.

My preferred policy—which is, of course, designed to deter and avoid a war, rather than get into it—is  for the United States to be prepared to act decisively and expeditiously to defeat a Chinese invasion, which would involve anti-ship, anti-air, attacking Chinese ground forces that land on the islands. It almost certainly would involve selective attacks on the Chinese mainland that would be constrained to try to help manage escalation, which would be an uncertain endeavor. The best thing in this situation is to be as prepared as humanly possible, and not to get close to the marginal edge of a conventional fight—yet that’s what we’re not doing right now. I think the problem is that if we half-bake it, we could get a situation in which the Chinese [invade], and we offer an unsatisfactory or unavailing response, which means we’re at war with China, but we’ve lost. That’s the worst outcome, and that’s actually going to be worse for Europe, because in that situation, there’s going to be a giant sucking sound of every US resource going to the primary theatre: Asia.

American Defense Investment

FS: That means greater investment in military hardware and deterrence around the South China Sea?

Colby: I’m in the “speak softly and carry a big stick” department: focus more on military hardware and readiness, and less on symbolic provocative actions. I think we are peacocking right now, and probably with the strength of a peacock.

I want us to really focus on sharpening that stick, making it a bigger stick, if you will, and doing less in the way of publicity. All these people [American officials] are on the island and making all these statements about Taiwan—”the CCP is evil” and all this stuff. Sure. I sympathize with Taiwan’s freedom. But we are in a super dangerous situation and should focus on hitting the gym. In Europe—I’m not picking on Ukraine—we’re not anywhere near as disciplined as we want. There are difficulties in resuscitating the defense-industrial base. But that’s the world we have to live in. By the way, the American people are not showing a lot of interest in dramatic increases in defense spending. This is not 1980.

FS: Isn’t that a problem? The American people may not be with you on Taiwan.

Colby: That’s exactly the problem and that’s one of the reasons I’m so worried about Ukraine. We should be husbanding the voters’ resolve. We should be very careful with their money. I think we can do a Taiwan defense. We’re already spending almost a trillion dollars on the defense budget. But then, if we’re going to do that, we can’t think we can fight a proxy war with Russia indefinitely. I’m acutely conscious of whether the American people will support a defense of Taiwan. And the Taiwanese are not helping the cause by spending less per capita on defense than the American people do, which is insane. We are really on a knife’s edge.

FS: You don’t buy the argument that weakness on Ukraine would signal weakness on Taiwan?

Colby: It’s such a tendentious argument. There’s a group now, particularly more on the Left, of people who are Ukraine hawks, who are starting to call for détente with China. I actually appreciate that, because at least we’re seeing a choice. You find this particularly among hawks, who say, “We’re going to do Ukraine, and it’s going to show China and then we’re going to pivot.” It’s a “we’re going to win the lottery” sort of strategy.

Obviously, China is looking to some extent, but China’s main calculation is going to be the balance of military forces vis-à-vis Taiwan, and how resolute the American government and the American people are vis-à-vis this specific conflict.

FS: Is there a chance you could make conflict more likely by anticipating it?

Colby: It’s a very serious worry. We are now in a situation, because of our neglect of Taiwan and our Asian defenses more broadly, where the Chinese not only clearly want to subordinate Taiwan but are increasingly in the position where they may be able to do so in the face of our resistance. We are not going to catalyze something that they did not already want. They’ve been working, since the Third Taiwan Straits Crisis [in 1995-1996], assiduously and carefully and ruthlessly to develop a military to do this. By neglecting our defenses there, we’ve now brought it into the realm of the possible. So now we’re in the situation, frankly, that Britain faced in the late Thirties, where you’re understrength in the primary theatre. Your choices are: to be weak and essentially ensure failure—you might avoid the war, but at the cost of all your important interests. Or you can arm—but then you might precipitate, at more of an operational and tactical level, a Chinese response to get out from under this.

This is a problem I take very seriously.