What the US want is a sustainable, favorable balance of power, particularly in Asia, because that’s where half of global GDP and the future is. Countries that are important for the balance of power will find it difficult and dangerous to try to stay in the middle or form their own pole. It would be a grave mistake for Europe to try to pursue a neutralist position because then it will become a battlefield of competition. In the military sphere my view is that Europe’s role should mostly be to defend itself and handle its neighboring regions. Even if the Russians do something first, we have to be prepared in the Pacific in case the Chinese try something, so responsibly we’ll have to withhold in Europe. Even if the Russians strike first. However, in the technology and economic area – that’s where we should be trying to generate scale together. Jacek Płaza discusses the future of the transatlantic relations and the US-China tensions with the former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Force Development, Elbridge Colby.
China has been challenging USA dominance in the world and expanding its influence in the region of South-East Asia and wider in the Indo-Pacific region. This has been recognized by the US administration in the last decade, especially since Donald Trump took the office. What is China’s long term goal? What threat does China pose to the US interests and how will the USA try to prevent China’s moves?
China’s ambitions are becoming quite clear. My view is that China’s first step is a hegemonic position over Asia, both because it’s nearby, but also because it’s the world’s largest market. Then from that position they will be able to attain global preeminence, from which China will be able to essentially hold sway or influence the entire world, including, of course, Europe, but also the United States.
We’re all very accustomed to the United States being the superpower. But now we have a country – China – that has an economy of equivalent or even greater size by purchasing power parity and in, market exchange rate terms, that might surpass us even in this decade, given how things have gone over the last year or so. So I think that’s China’s goal.
I think within the debate on China my view may be actually relatively restrained. There are other people who have a much more fearful vision of what China wants, which is a much more direct control over large parts of the world and a much more ideological component. I’m not sure what role ideology will play in a Chinese-dominated world, but I’m sure that it will play some role.
What is the United States trying to do? The United States is trying to prevent that outcome primarily for our own interests, obviously. Beijing has already shown the willingness to intervene very directly in the domestic matters of other countries. So we’re just seeing a taste. China is not being mysterious about it. You can see that right now with Australia, you could see it recently with Taiwan and the pineapples issue. In the United States, we’ve seen pressure applied on places like the NBA and Disney.
This is happening when China thinks it’s weaker than the United States and is not in such a dominant position. So we can imagine what it will be like when it is in a dominant position. We can look at what China is like internally (no privacy laws, police state and so forth). That’s the vision of the future that we want to avoid.
The key for the United States is to block China’s ability to dominate Asia first. That’s why in my view Asia really does have to be our priority. It’s not that Europe isn’t important, but Europe is much smaller than Asia and the threat to Europe is much less direct than it is in Asia. China is located in Asia and its economic influence and military power is greater in Asia. So that’s where we Americans really have to concentrate. Only the United States can play this kind of critical balancing role in Asia that is so necessary because no country in Asia is anywhere remotely as powerful as China.
If China is left alone in Asia, it will have a very easy road for a divide and conquer strategy. It’s a similar dynamic for why we created NATO in the 1940s because without the United States there were fears that the Western European states would be too divided. So we need to play that cornerstone role in a coalition and we really need to concentrate on it.
The Biden administration has come in and been commendably clear on the China challenge. My concern with their approach is that it is not sufficiently focused on Asia and not downgrading our emphasis on other theatres, leaving a mismatch between their rhetoric on the one side and the resources and attention required on the other. They’ve said they’re not decreasing forces in Europe and they’re really emphasizing the transatlantic relationship. They’re not reducing forces in the Middle East, so we’re going to be everywhere.
Also it’s a very ideological approach. So they’re constantly talking about democracies, democracies, democracies. That’s great in Europe, where pretty much everybody is a democracy. But in Asia many of the countries that we will need to deal with are at best imperfect democracies and many of them, like Vietnam, are not democracies. Thailand, another important state in the region, and Singapore are not true democracies.
What do you think US should do? Will the US try to maintain the hegemony, will it accept the primacy role or has it already acknowledged that it will step out of the throne for China? In any of the scenarios are we going into unipolar, bipolar or multipolar world?
I think it’s a world that’s primarily bipolar with features of multipolarity. Samuel Huntington used to talk about uni-multipolarity, I think, but now I believe we’re in essentially a bipolar environment in which the two poles will be the United States and China. There are significant secondary actors: India, Japan, Russia, maybe Germany or the European Union, depending on where Europe goes. But essentially, the world will be clustered around the China problem.
From our perspective, I think unipolarity and American primacy over the globe is gone. We’re not getting it back and we don’t really need it anyway. What we want is a sustainable, favorable balance of power, particularly in Asia, because that’s where half of global GDP and the future is. That’s the real task for us.
I don’t think the United States needs hegemony or a liberal empire. We need a balance of power. And behind that, within that balance of power, states that are protected on our side will be able to chart their own course.
There is a misassessment about this by the Russians, I think – I’m sure of particular interest to Poles. I think the Russians exaggerate the amount of leeway or space they will have to operate in the future, because they think that it’s going to be a more multipolar world, whereas in reality they’re going to be pressed in between these two big poles. Russians are betting that they’ll be able to forge independent relationship with India, Japan and so forth. But India’s and Japan’s overwhelming first priority is going to be to deal with China, which is going to draw them closer to the United States. We already see that. So it leaves me some potential optimism for Russia over the medium to longer term, where they are going to feel increasingly constrained. Right now they’re increasing their exposure to Chinese pressure to being a very junior partner and bullied, in a sense, by the Chinese, which happened the other way during the Soviet period.
This is also, I think, a problem with President Macron’s or Borrell’s third pole idea. A plausible Europe is not going to be powerful enough to create a separate pole. They will become caught in the storm.
Is it going to be like in the Cold War, where every country needed to pick sides or will the new order create some space for balancing between the two poles, China and USA?
Not really. I think there will be increasing pressure to align with one or the other, especially for the countries in Asia. I don’t think it will be as stark as in the Cold War, because we will trade across blocs and there will be economic engagement.
In effect, the big powers in Asia are aligned essentially – Japan, India, Australia and also South Korea, which is going to be pushed to align because they’re on the front line in a sense. If you’re on the front line and you’re neutral, then you’re a battlefield.
From the broader point, countries that are important for the balance of power will find it difficult and dangerous to try to stay in the middle or form their own pole. And this is the main point with Europe. It would be a grave mistake for Europe to try to pursue a neutralist position because then it will become a battlefield of competition. Metaphorically, hopefully, but an arena, so both the United States (along with Japan and India and Australia and other countries, supportive of the free and open Indo-Pacific) and China will each try to compete. This is not just American chauvinism, but the two sides will try to exercise influence.
So I think there will be more alignment, but I don’t think it will be a stark as during the Cold War.
What do you think are China’s weaknesses and how will USA try to exploit them for own advantage?
My friend Dan Blumenthal, who I agree with on many things, but not everything, has a good book out right now on this, emphasizing that China does have weakness, which it unquestionably does. The old saw about China is that the standing committee of the Politburo wakes up every morning thinking about internal security, unrest and growing the economy, not external threats. I don’t know if that’s totally true, but there’s a lot of truth in it. If you look back at Chinese history, there were enormously damaging and destructive internal issues. Under the Communists you had the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, the civil war. If you go back to 19th century, you had the Boxer Rebellion at the turn of the century, before that you had the Taiping Rebellion, which I believe is actually the largest, most deadly war in human history after the Second World War, something truly awful. Ruling China, a country of 1.4 billion people that likes to project stability outwards, is very difficult. That’s one aspect.
More structurally, China has been growing at gangbusters for the last 30 or 40 years, but now it’s slowing both because of the middle income trap aspects, but also we are not just giving away the store like we were for two or three decades of unbalanced free trade deals and having our intellectual property stolen. The Comprehensive Agreement on Investments is very disappointing and I hope it doesn’t pass in Europe, but I think there’s going to be more pressure on the Chinese economy from the Americans and the Europeans.
There are, of course, major distortions within the Chinese economy, such as the huge debt load. Also demographics over the longer term are not favorable. I’m not somebody who thinks China is about to collapse. I think China will very likely continue to grow at least a reasonable rate and will be an exceptionally formidable challenge. The growth there is really genuine, having traveled a little bit in China and it was just incredible. It’s the most phenomenal economic development story in terms of scale probably in human history. But it’s not 10 feet tall. It’s probably like seven or eight feet tall, but it’s not the Soviet Union teetering on collapse with a basket case internal economy.
I think the biggest thing that goes back to balance of power is that China’s weakness is its strengthits assertiveness and what many people, particularly in the region, regard as its arrogance. There’s a famous story from about 10 years ago when during an ASEAN meeting in which a Chinese official said to I think a Malaysian “you’re a little country and we’re a big country. And you should do what you’re told.”
Some countries will go along with that. Vietnam however, as we Americans learned, is not inclined to do that. Japan and Taiwan don’t want to fall under the CCP. South Koreans have very strong national streak. India as well is extremely strong and independent-minded. That is what we really bet on.
That relates to an important point, which is where I disagree with the way the Biden administration is going, is I think our core, our most important partnerships and alliances are going to be based on shared interests and shared fears, not on having the same political system. It’s great and it helps a lot to have the same political system, I believe republican government is the best, but we’re going to have to align with countries that are most acutely affected by China and can do something about it. And this is where the tricky part with Europe is going to be and where I think Europe actually runs risks, too. I said earlier about the dangers of hedging, because the threat is less acute. There might be a tendency to step back and try to play both sides. I admit that there might be benefits to that, but there are also very real risks.
You’ve mentioned that ideology will play some role. The US brings to the world, at least rhetorically, democracy, the American way of life, human rights, liberalism etc. What does China has to offer to the world on ideological field that would be attractive to other countries and bring them to Chinese bloc?
I think money, wealth. That’s what motivates a lot of human behavior. A lot of future growth is going to be related to China. Right now the Chinese don’t seem to be trying to export a particular model. Xi Jinping mentions the China dream.
In sum it’s a combination of prosperity and noninterference. They will, however, interfere more and more.
A lot of it really has to do with economic development – and this is a potent message we need to reckon with. Look at the CAI. Does anybody talk about multilateralism and liberalism more than Chancellor Merkel and Foreign Minister Maas? Well, she said she needs to take care of the car industry in Germany. So Germans are pretty realistic, from what I could tell in the end.
My view is that ideology is probably more an outcome than a driver in this competition. Surely it plays a role in how states act in the international arena, but still it’s a secondary or even tertiary driver. Even if China became a democracy, it would still be a major problem for us because it would be so powerful. The incentives to channel economic benefits to itself would remain even if they would be attenuated.
Changing the regime in China seems to be out of the question nowadays. This ideological pressure on China with regards to human rights, democracy, liberalism and so on didn’t bring much success. On the other hand Chinese Communist Party perceives ideology as one of the biggest threats. You are supporting more realistic attitude to China. Do you think that this approach can better solve us problems with China and the challenges posed by them? Will leaving ideology on the side not be costly for the West?
It’s a good point. I don’t think we should leave ideology to the side. I don’t want to sound too instrumental, but I think it is a great asset for us. It is a great good that that draws people to us. But I think the ideological element has dominated our foreign policy discussion for the last generation. And we need to go back to the fundamentals. It is not one hundred percent power, zero percent ideology or the other way. My argument is it’s mostly about power and the balance of power, and then the ideology can shape that and affect behavior within it.
I think you’re right that the Chinese think things are ideological, especially the current leadership. They actually look at things through a fairly ideological lens. But even with that in mind I worry about us overdoing ideology. If we see it as a global contest between democracy and authoritarianism, which is what, for instance, Secretary of State Blinken has been saying, we actually could make it worse than it needs to be, unless that’s just purely rhetorical.
There could be a basis for detente with China when we have a sustainable balance of power and we feel like our interests are respected because of that. We can at least deal. We might not like it. We should support other people, the pursuit of freedom and so forth. But that’s what we need. And that is a clear limit and end goal. Whereas if you really believe the ideological point and you take it to its logical conclusion to turn China into a democracy no matter what, that turns it into an existential cage match.
Also, if you really think ideology is the driver, it tends to inhibit our ability to work with other countries, particularly in South and Southeast Asia, that are not democracies. What about Vietnam? What about Thailand? What about India? We should certainly encourage them to become republican governments, but those are countries we really need to work with. Further, ideology turns peripheral conflicts potentially into systemic tests. One of the reasons why we have got into Vietnam was that it was a test of the American system and whether we can modernize South Vietnam and compete with wars of national liberation, that’s what Kennedy and Johnson said. Was Indo-China critical to our core interests in the Cold War? I don’t think so. And the downside was that the American people almost gave up on the Cold War in the 1970s. We can’t afford that now.
China wants to build more demand on the on the domestic field, become more independent from South Korea, Taiwan, Japan in semiconductors sector, they develop new technologies. You played major role in preparing the strategy towards China a couple of years ago. What should be the aim for the US and EU cooperation?
I can understand why China is doing what is doing, which is reducing its exposure to outside pressure, cutoff, clearly from the US. There’re limits to what will China be able to do probably, but that is a natural reaction. This area is critical because it’s where Europe’s interests will be most affected directly by China – the economic and technology sphere. Europe will have to generate scale with the US and countries like India, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, to balance Chinese economic power, which is going to be enormous. It has already got 1.4 billion people. If it gets half of GDP per capita of the US, then it’s going to be twice the size of the US GDP, which is going to be comparable to US and EU GDP combined.
I know that some people like to call the EU the regulatory superpower which is a funny concept. You can regulate what you want but if they have commanding edge in global economy, then companies are going to go there and if China is not happy, then forget about your ability to regulate – they’ll follow the Chinese line.
I saw the EU and US dropped the mutual tariffs on the Airbus issue, which is great. But I think it’s actually good that we have some friction, because we need to solve these issues. It’s clear that we need to align, particularly in the economic sphere.
In the military sphere my view is that Europe’s role should mostly be to defend itself and handle its neighboring regions. However, in the technology and economic area – that’s where we should be trying to generate scale. The problem is that both sides, traditionally in Europe but also in the US there’s a lot of skepticism about trade agreements right now. Frankly, I think that there’s a lot of warrant to that after the last 30 years. But I think we have to go there. Otherwise we’re only selling to 330 and 450 million people respectively as opposed to 1.5 billion. Not to mention that China is also going to sell to a lot to SE Asian markets, probably Middle Eastern, African, Latin American markets. We have to be able to match that.
My view is not that the US or EU needs to decouple from China in every respect. But we need to reduce our exposure to China’s coercive leverage. For instance China is trying with pineapples to force Taiwan to fall in line. Pineapples are not high-tech, but if Taiwan is completely impoverished without its pineapple export, then it is prey to China’s coercion; therefore it needs to diversify its pineapples export destination. That is what the free world side can do together. Europeans can buy some pineapples, everyone should buy Australian wine, although I personally prefer French (laugh), etc. There’re a few sectors like that and there’s a lot of discussion in the US about it, including in the Congress. At the same time, we need to make concerted public-private, state-led, industrial policy approach on stuff like AI, quantum computing etc.
The next theater of war is likely to be Taiwan, strategically important place. How exactly should US prevent the conflict and respond to aggressive force used by China? Will US soldiers be dying for Taiwan?
If US soldiers are not going to be dying for Taiwan, then it raises a question about every other ally in the world. Taiwan is not a formal treaty ally, but our commitment to Taiwan is more formalized than it was to Kuwait in 1990 or to Saudi Arabia. More to the point, there’s a widespread perception in Asia that our credibility is on the line. If US soldiers would not be dying for Taiwan, they would be risking their lives for American interests in Asia. This has actually been fairly consistent over the history of the republic, which is basically that we want to trade openly with the region. It’s essentially why we fought in WWII in the Pacific. The underlying strategic cause was we didn’t want this enormous, growing market to be dominated by a single power, let alone a hostile one.
What we need in the Pacific is an effective conventional defense of our allies and Taiwan. That’s what Admiral Davidson, the commander of INDOPACOM, was talking about this week and what I spent a long of time on. This is developing an effective conventional forward defense along the first island chain, which is Japan, Taiwan, Philippines, against China. If we can do that, then we essentially manage the problem because the Chinese will have difficulty and will not be able to project power meaningfully into and through the Western Pacific ocean. Otherwise, they have go over land, which is obviously a big problem.
I think Taiwan is absolutely the most important thing for the American military to focus on – and pretty much everything else should be on the backburner, other than nuclear deterrence and keeping up a focused counterterrorism posture. But we’re not where we need to be, like Admiral Davidson said. If China takes over Taiwan, either through employment of military force or through being so dominant that Taiwan essentially surrenders without a fight, then what happens? First of all, people see that American credibility in the region is weak. I’m not obsessed with credibility but if you’re in Asia and you’re wondering whether it’s safe to take on China – this is what President Duterte is talking about all the time – it’s not crazy to question whether the Americans will have a stomach for it – that’s totally rational.
Secondly, the island of Taiwan is very centrally placed. It’s different than West Berlin. West Berlin was a military absurdity, no one would ever have kept it from military perspective; it was purely political, it had to do with politics and symbolism. Taiwan is actually militarily important. If China takes control of Taiwan, it vastly eases and enables their military access throughout the Western and Central Pacific.
And they vastly outgun us now with forces in theater, which is what Admiral Davidson is saying. Sure, we can bring forces from homeland or Europe, for instance, but they might not be the right forces or they might not be there in time to deny the fait accompli. So I’m very worried about it and I think the administration is off on the wrong foot. Or rather they are on the right foot on saying that Taiwan preeminence is rock solid, but we should not be cutting our defense spending and we should not be avoiding hard choices. We should be laser-focused on Asia and reducing everywhere else. Basically my view where we should be is: If you are in the American military and you are not working on the Western Pacific, chances are you should probably be looking for another job.
That doesn’t mean we abandon NATO. We will retain our NATO commandment, but Europe is vastly richer than Russia. This is probably not what Polish people think. Russia is very dangerous, but there’s no way that Russia is going to dominate the continent of Europe, whereas China very well could dominate Asia. The best thing that Europeans can do is to provide more efficient conventional defense. Poland is already doing that and I applaud Poland. The Finns and the Swedes are doing pretty well, Britain seem to be doing pretty well now.
The big problem is of course your large neighbor to the west, which could readily, essentially solve this problem and have a conventional defense a fraction of what they had in 1988, when there were 15 German divisions. Now they have one. People say “well, Germans don’t feel threatened”. Ok. But do you think people in Indiana feel threatened? By that logic should we Americans just go home? It doesn’t make any sense. This is our joint hour of need in a global sense.
You’ve mentioned that the US should decrease presence basically all over the world other than Indo-Pacific. Should Poland be worried about US move to SE Asia? When you say that you should decrease presence in Europe, does it also apply to non-military presence as well?
The US and Poland have a really close and kind of special relationship in a lot of ways and I think we need to work this through together. I want to say a few things. First of all – of course you shouldn’t completely trust the US! It’s international politics, not a marriage. I don’t think President Biden is being accurate in his almost lyrical way of talking about the transatlantic relationship. I don’t question his sincerity, but I do question its accuracy about how Americans would regard it.
Look, alliances should serve a country’s interests. I do not think we are helping by conveying a level of assurance that is far greater than realistic. I do not want to give you the wrong impression. I think that the US should stand by its commitment to Poland and others but stand by its commitments means different things, right? The US has more commitments than it can plausibly resource on its own. When George W. Bush was the president and we were expanding NATO everywhere, that was a different world. Nobody could touch us. That’s not the world that we’re living in.
Now we live in a world in which we have greater commitments than we have resources. And we’re actually cutting our defense budget from what is sounds like. If you have a company and you have too many commitments and you just resource them all, you go bankrupt. Then you won’t help anybody. So if we lose the big thing that only we can do in Asia, it doesn’t help anybody, because they’ll come for Poland in some way or another eventually too.
And, you know, people aren’t stupid. They understand that’s it’s different world, China’s here, it’s a much bigger place. The Americans said a lot of stuff about Afghanistan and Iraq. We can’t follow all of them, but that doesn’t mean we’re not trustworthy. We may not be 100% trustworthy, but who is? More than a point, if you give up on your less important liabilities, that actually makes you more likely to fulfill the ones that remain. So to me getting out of Syria would suggest that we are more credible on issues in Asia and Europe. Because the fact that we are staying in Syria, and the Middle East in general to the degree that we are, suggests that we don’t understand the scope of the problem and that is scary.
The other thing is, just because we are not 100% trustworthy doesn’t mean you have a better choice than us. If you don’t trust the US, are you going to trust France? And that has nothing to do with the integrity of the French state. That has to do with power and resolve. The US has a vastly larger and more sophisticated military, it has a very large nuclear arsenal. France doesn’t have either of those things. If you think the Americans are not totally trustworthy when it comes to fulfilling pledges, the Germans don’t even have military capabilities to help defend Poland at this point. This is the thing about third pole idea – in theory it might work. But there’s actually not real option there.
Can you specify how we should not be worried that our defense umbrella from the US would be step by step moved out and we would be left only with Germany which doesn’t have any military power and with France which has some abilities, but has different priorities (more in North Africa than in Eastern Europe)?
Again, it’s not a 0% or 100% if the US is totally trustworthy or not trustworthy. Just to be clear, the US should back its guarantee to Poland. However, and this is the point that I make to Taiwanese as well, if the demands of doing that for NATO are too great, it will cause a crisis and we’ll have to make a choice. And our priority is, other than own security, Asia, then Europe, then the Persian Gulf. Poland is doing its part, which should affect what the US thinks and this is being able to have a conventional defense or at least doing as much as possible conventionally to reduce the burden on the US. And in the economic sphere collaborating with USA vis a vis China. Again, not selling your interests to the US in terms of trade, but basically saying “how we can work with you guys?”.
That is what basically all the European countries are going to face. Do we try to do a sort of neutralist thing, where we try to hide or equivocate between the two? But then the question for Americans will become: What is our interest in having an immense liability in Europe from the security point of view, when the Europeans are actually not helping us on our priority challenge? In that case it will increasingly become more prudent to work with individual countries and coalitions of European countries that are more aligned with us. Then the Chinese will exercise their influence and then Europe become an arena of competition, rather than more securely aligned with the United States.
The alternative is Europe generates scale with America, takes more responsibility for its defense, the US contribution becomes mostly about nuclear forces, space, cyber, really high-end stuff and maybe relatively small contribution on the ground, but basically Europeans doing the bulk of the conventional defense. The tricky thing is that even if the Russians do something first, we have to be prepared in the Pacific in case the Chinese try something, so responsibly we’ll have to withhold in Europe. Even if the Russians strike first.
I don’t think we’re helping ourselves by ignoring this problem. The reassurance right now is actually dangerous if it leads people to think that there will be a degree of security but actually there won’t be. Again, I’m not saying that we’re just going to abandon Europe, but we need to grapple with reality and prepare accordingly precisely to avoid this crisis. Countries in Scandinavia are starting to understand this. This is what we’ll have to wrestle with in the Transatlantic relationship.
Polish version is available here.
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