Looking for Responsible Realism on China

It is hard to ignore how dangerously oblivious to certain realities China hawks like Colby are.

Ross Douthat sums up the thesis of Elbridge Colby’s book, Strategy of Denial:

Only China threatens American interests in a profound way, through a consolidation of economic power in Asia that imperils our prosperity and a military defeat that could shatter our alliance system. Therefore American policy should be organized to deny Beijing regional hegemony and deter any military adventurism — first and foremost through a stronger commitment to defending the island of Taiwan.

Douthat describes this as a “realist’s book,” and in some respects that may be true, but it is hard to ignore how dangerously oblivious to certain realities China hawks like Colby are. As I have mentioned before, he and other advocates of a “stronger commitment” to Taiwan tend to ignore the danger of nuclear escalation that comes with such a commitment. They don’t seem to take seriously how much more important Taiwan is to China than it is to us. They consistently misjudge how the Chinese government perceives U.S. actions in the region, and they don’t appreciate how the policies they support are encouraging China to increase its nuclear arsenal.

The strange story about Gen. Milley’s efforts in the fall of 2020 and again in early 2021 to defuse tensions and reassure China that the U.S. was not going to attack them is relevant here. Last year, the Chinese government was apparently fearful of a possible American attack in the months leading up to the 2020 election, and evidently they were concerned that Trump might also try something during the transition. This shows us how easily Washington’s attempts to send “messages” through displays of military strength can be misinterpreted and create a crisis where none would have existed otherwise. Ethan Paul reviews the evidence and concludes:

Regardless, what this series of events does demonstrate in dramatic and frightening fashion is how easily signals between Washington and Beijing were and can be misinterpreted, and how this could bring us to the brink of conflict at any time. Not only should these revelations spark concerns about the deficiencies in current crisis management and military-to-military dialogue mechanisms — the two militaries spoke for the first time during the Biden presidency only weeks ago— but it should also lead to a rigorous debate about the path the United States and China are currently headed down, and a reconsideration of whether this serves any reasonable definition of American interest.

Competition over military advantage in the Asia-Pacific is only likely to heat up further in the years and decades to come, and misperceptions and crises will prove all but unavoidable, and can even be sparked by an Air Force patch. The United States did not just end a 20-year quagmire in Afghanistan only to blindly stumble into a far more dangerous, and unwinnable, conflict with a nuclear-armed China.

Given the enormous costs that conflict with China would entail, it seems reckless to be goading Beijing over an issue that it considers to be of vital importance. A “stronger commitment” to Taiwan is much more likely to trigger the “adventurism” it is supposed to deter, and that would end up being a disaster for both Taiwan and the U.S. Any strategy based on denying these realities seems certain to produce failures that are at least as costly as the defeats of the last twenty years. A more responsible realism would recognize that courting conflict with an increasingly powerful China is not in the interests of the United States or our allies.