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The story is familiar: two great powers lurching toward blows more and more with each passing day, but neither will yield an inch. Geopolitics, national interests, and escalatory rhetoric bring both to an inflection point too dangerous to ignore, but too distant for some to foresee until it is too late.
In 2021, that place is Taiwan. The two powers are the United States and China. In Elbridge Colby’s treatise, The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in An Age of Great Power Conflict, he gives the reader a vital roadmap to begin thinking about how the U.S. can prevent a catastrophic war with China without surrendering the new century to Beijing.
“The unipolar moment is over,” Colby tells us in his introduction. “Americans now need to reconcile their international aspirations and commitments with their ability and willingness to follow through on them.” Indeed, it is from that premise that Colby constructs a sound vision for the future of American defense policy. That vision begins with the idea of “denial defense,” to deny a Chinese victory by properly organizing American resources to confront this threat.
America is overextended, Colby says. Blurred by wars in the Middle East and diplomatic resets with autocracies are a result of decades of strategic confusion which have led us down a road where Washington’s most fundamental defense commitments do not match its policy and the country’s willingness to live up to them. By trying to have it all at once, American national defense is stretched thin with a China-sized hole in the Indo-Pacific. A rising power is clearly intent on filling that hole, and American dominance in the region is no longer guaranteed.
Colby’s analysis comes from the realist tradition of statecraft, but it is an iteration of that tradition that even the staunchest of idealists might agree with. China is a regime complicit in the most egregious tramping of human freedoms and openly casts aspersions on the future of American global leadership. The lynchpin of Chinese national rejuvenation—and how Xi Jinping sees his own legacy—is probably contingent upon Chinese control of Taiwan in the coming decades.
To begin considering how America can coerce China into more responsible behavior both internally (a subject Colby does not discuss) and abroad will require refocusing the vast majority of U.S. military strength towards China. The bedrock of any foreign policy with robust support for human freedom requires hard power to make its rhetoric credible. Any coherent and effective internationalist foreign policy, then, would require implementation of at least some of Colby’s suggestions as it comes to denying China’s regional ambitions. Such suggestions—namely forging a coalition of partners committed to Taiwan’s defense, better matching defense dollars to objectives in the Indo-Pacific—all fall under Colby’s larger umbrella of denial defense. Deterring a Taiwanese invasion fits the conditions of Colby’s proposed strategy by making Xi’s primary geopolitical goal unattainable.
Achieving a Denial Defense
If Colby’s suggestions are taken to their logical end, it is clear Washington needs to move much faster on creating a denial defense. Washington’s most senior military officers are forcefully speaking out about America’s preparedness to assist Taiwan in its self-defense with a tenor of urgency seen little in recent decades. A casual reader may brush aside such warnings as bravado and bluster, but a closer look at some of the most serious areas of American military competition with Beijing paints an alarming picture.
American unpreparedness extends to a warship fleet neglected by political leadership since the end of Secretary of the Navy John Lehman’s term in 1987. The ranks are rife with cultural issues, and limited defense spending stymies the most serious efforts at regaining the ability to project seapower across the globe, or in the case of Guam, to defend our own territory. As former Navy captain Jerry Hendrix puts it in National Review, the fleet sits on the “eve of destruction.” A Space Force maligned by domestic opponents will require herculean efforts to keep ahead of China’s growing anti-satellite capabilities—almost sure to be used in a Taiwanese invasion scenario. And as some deny that the U.S. Strategic Command needs upgrades in deterring Chinese nuclear strikes, commercial satellite images reveal Beijing is ramping up its nuclear capabilities at a stunning speed. Those who reject that America is in a 21st-century arms race may soon be mugged by reality. In this late hour, Colby’s suggestions should be taken not just as a long-term framework for competing with China but as marching orders for the soonest days ahead.
Colby also does well to discuss China’s best strategy for taking Taiwan. Through gray zone tactics, communications interference, and disinformation operations, China could feasibly expose rifts in the newly-forming coalition in the Indo-Pacific known as the “Quad,” which is comprised of the United States, Japan, Australia, and India. All four countries are committed to stopping China’s military rise, but exhibit varying levels of willingness to specifically defend Taiwan.
Japan, for example, has moved at a breakneck pace to build up its own national defenses in preparation for a Taiwanese invasion. However, India has lagged behind in signaling support for the country relative to other Quad partners as it focuses more closely on its primary interest of stopping Chinese advances on its own borders in the west. South Korea—which is outside of the Quad partnership—could also prove a potentially crucial ally given its geographic proximity to the region, well-trained military, and highly developed economy. As such, Colby emphasizes the need to keep non-Quad partners such as South Korea and the Philippines within a defense perimeter America can credibly defend.
For elements of the Quad and beyond to fail in a Taiwanese invasion scenario would signal to the region—and potentially the world—a porous American line of defense in the western Pacific, while putting the Philippines and perhaps even U.S.-held Guam in the sights of Beijing.
Beyond a Limited War Scenario
China’s success in achieving these goals would mark American decline, even tailspin. Weakness is provocative: other countries historically recognize when a great power loses command of a vital area, it opens the door to challenges around the world.
The scenario of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s 2008 invasion of Georgia is an example of a fallen American quasi-ally to a revisionist power. The result is that the United States’ credibility as a guarantee of global security is questioned. As the Wall Street Journal’s Walter Russell Mead says, revisionist countries such as Russia and China imagine a world where America could be denied its interests, and even humiliated, as in the case when Russia seized parts of Georgia.
In the wreckage of that attack and the absence of any serious pushback from the West, Vladimir Putin marched into Crimea some six years later. One can see a similar attack on the global democratic system in China’s crackdown on Hong Kong in 2020. It is difficult to imagine a world where Xi does not test the West again, such as invading Taiwan.
China and Russia also take cues from each other. Colby discusses a simultaneity scenario where Russia and China attack their near-borders in quick succession. Though obvious historical and geopolitical forces make any degree of significant cooperation between Beijing and Moscow nearly impossible, coordination is not beyond the pale. It is difficult to envision the two countries working side-by-side, but their general anti-Americanism ensures that neither would stand in the way of the other against American core interests. In fact, they may use an attack from the other as a distraction to pursue other agendas.
America’s force structure is currently designed at best to fight two small wars at the same time, but both such possibilities risk engulfing Europe and the Pacific into larger great power conflicts. This scenario must be avoided at all costs, Colby says, and can only be done through increased burden-sharing in Europe and Asia alike, which Colby calls a shift from trying to retain American regional primacy in the face of mounting challenges to such a role to a “cornerstone balancer” role. The United States, Europe, and Asian allies must coordinate their efforts in stopping China’s rise.
The Question of Resolve
Colby addresses a final and perhaps most important question in his study by asking a simple question: how much can the United States tolerate? Indeed, the problem of resolve is a difficult one to quantify in American international politics. At different points in history for different reasons, the American people have demonstrated everything from indifference to intense passion regarding attacks on allies and partners. As long as America’s commitment to Taiwan’s defense remains ambiguous, it is impossible to know how Washington would react.
Polling data show robust support for protecting Taiwan among the American people, but sentiments remain mixed and could be affected by unknown contingencies. As Afghanistan has collapsed to the Taliban, a crisis of confidence as it comes to the use of American military force akin to the Vietnam syndrome of the late 1970s could arise. Domestic political and economic events could fixate Americans on the ill-conceived narrative of “nation-building at home.” Careful cultivation and management of American public sentiments toward Taiwan and against China must then be a national security priority.
Putting a military defense of Taiwan in context also matters. After mounting wars of counterterror in the Middle East for two decades, a syndrome of what H.R. McMaster terms “retrenchment.” Colby therefore devotes sensitive attention to the question of what America’s appetite to assist Taiwan would be. Resolve has what Colby describes as a thumotic component—beyond pure rationality and instead touching larger human themes of revenge, honor, grief, and others. Contingencies discussed above would challenge American thumos in ways difficult to quantify and predict, but important to anticipate.
There is also always a chance that a limited war over the island extends into a more protracted conflict—a possibility which would likely come with significant economic costs to the citizenry and a loss of human life. It would then take extremely strong political leadership to keep Americans engaged in the fight. As such, Colby’s denial defense may prove the lowest common denominator between accomplishing Washington’s goals in the region and appeasing the critical question of American resolve. This tradition is arguably well rooted in American political history, as President Theodore Roosevelt’s martial attitude both won public confidence and actually stopped extended wars with foreign challengers. The energetic president assembled the largest naval fleet America had yet seen, and used it to great effect in stopping European interventions in Latin America, as well as a relatively quick conclusion to American missions in Cuba and the Philippines.
Perhaps counterintuitively, Colby effectively argues that a denial defense would actually increase American and allied resolve. A regional coalition with well-placed fortifications would invite a first strike from China that would be considered cruel, ambitious, and unreliable by the United States and its allies because China would have broken its previous commitments to restraint. This “binding strategy,” as Colby calls it, could alter the Chinese threat perceptions of American citizens and its vital allies like Japan, Australia, and others to make them more committed to a robust defense of Taiwan Given recent statements from senior allied officials such as the Japanese Defense Minister, it may be the case that the binding strategy is already working.
“Peace, then does not come from some unfocused readiness to be unpeaceful,” Colby concludes, “but only from a willingness to imagine and consider what a war would actually be like.” In this study and Colby’s other works—the author also played a key role in crafting the 2018 National Defense Strategy—the spirit of this sentiment consistently shines through. “The Strategy of Denial” is an impressive addition to the growing collection of books offering clear, relevant strategies of how America could hopefully prevent (but ultimately) win a conflict with Beijing. Former Admiral Phil Davidson told lawmakers this past March that China could move on Taiwan in the next four to six years. Given such a warning, Colby and others could not write more—and well—fast enough.