The world is a dangerous place, but not particularly for America, which is allied with most of the known world. With large oceans east and west and pacific neighbors north and south the US is safe from invasion. Missiles may threaten but would trigger ruinous retaliation. Terrorism remains a worry but can do only limited harm and most often is a response to US intervention elsewhere.
Nevertheless, Washington policymakers claim that the People’s Republic of China poses an increasing danger. Randall G. Schriver, a Trump Pentagon official now with the Project 2049 Institute, declared simply: "China is the organizing principle for the Department of Defense." Earlier this year Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin sent a directive to his department complaining of a "say-do-gap" in making the PRC the Pentagon’s priority.
Indeed, there isn’t much the US otherwise must defend against. Russia is a great power with a potent military but has restrained ambitions. Moscow desires to secure its borders, garner international respect, and protect essential interests. Nowhere do the US and Russia face an existential clash, certainly not in Ukraine or Syria, which matter little to America. In truth, today’s frictions mostly reflect Washington’s belief that it has the right to intervene up to, and even beyond, the borders of every other nation on earth, including Russia.
Although the US would fear any great power dominating Eurasia, that possibility is faint indeed. Europe is more than able to fend off Russia. Europe and Russia are well beyond Beijing’s control. The Afghan imbroglio showed South-Central Asia to be a multi-party Great Game for others to play, certainly not worth war for America.
The conglomeration of Israel and Sunni states in the Middle East can balance against Iran, without causing Washington to turn the US military into a royal bodyguard. Africa suffers from terrorism but is a minor military concern for America. China and Russia have economic interests in Latin America, but US military dominance there is almost complete. A Cuban Missile Crisis rerun is beyond unlikely.
No doubt, US policymakers will still assert a variety of "interests" in all these regions, but few will be significant enough to require America’s military to address. Washington’s most serious geographic interest is Asia.
The US defends South Korea more out of habit than need. Seoul spends less than three percent of GDP on the military and could do much more, possessing more than 50 times the economic strength and twice the population of its northern antagonist. Only now, more than 75 years after the end of World War II, is Tokyo preparing to devote more than one percent of GDP to its defense. Long ago Japan could have created an effective deterrent force against Beijing, rather than relied on Washington to go to war on Tokyo’s behalf. Other US allies and friends, such as the Philippines, also do little, preferring to rely on Uncle Sam.
Only the People’s Republic of China looks like a serious threat to America. Yet the PRC has manifold and substantial weaknesses. And just as Beijing hopes to deter US military activity in the region through anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities, so can China’s neighbors similarly deter Chinese aggression. In particular, as North Korea has steadily expanded its nuclear capabilities, other nations have begun discussing doing the same, which would constrain Beijing.
Most important, the PRC does not pose a compelling military threat to America. Observed columnist Fareed Zakaria: "What [Defense Secretary Lloyd] Austin calls America’s ‘edge’ over China is more like a chasm. The United States has about 20 times the number of nuclear warheads as China. It has twice the tonnage of warships at sea, including 11 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers compared with China’s two carriers (which are much less advanced). Washington has more than 2,000 modern fighter jets compared with Beijing’s roughly 600, according to national security analyst Sebastien Roblin. And the United States deploys this power using a vast network of some 800 overseas bases. China has three. China spends around $250 billion on its military, a third as much as the United States. Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution notes that, ‘if China were in NATO, we would berate it for inadequate burden-sharing, since its military outlays fall well below NATO’s 2 percent minimum’."
The tyranny of distance, which limits US intervention in East Asia, even more so afflicts China. America’s nuclear arsenal effectively precludes any Chinese attack on the US homeland now or in the future. That is, there will be no first strike against the America with nuclear weapons. Nor will a carrier task force conquer Hawaii and occupy the West Coast. The Middle East, Africa, and South America will not become part of the revived Chinese empire. If war comes, it will be in the Asia-Pacific, China against allied and friendly regimes, not the US.
That is, war with the PRC does not, and in the future almost certainly will not, pose an existential threat to Americans – their liberties, territory, prosperity, politics, culture, and "way of life." Rather, any struggle will be over Washington’s relative influence in an important region far from home. No doubt, if bombs start falling other issues would likely come into play – such as US control over Guam and the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands. However, this fight would be nothing like wars of annihilation which other nations suffered through, such as Hitler’s Germany versus Stalin’s Soviet Union and Imperial Japan versus the Republic of China. Or even regime ending conflicts, as in World War I, in which the Austro-Hungarian, German, Ottoman, and Russian Empires imploded.
Indeed, though Beijing has grown more aggressive in recent years, it has shown no interest in conquering other nations. China contests some territories held by Japan, Philippines, and Vietnam, not these nations’ independence. China cracked down on Hong Kong because the latter was Chinese, temporarily taken by Great Britain in two "Opium Wars."
Today only Taiwan remains at risk, because it was indisputably part of China until 1895, when Tokyo defeated Imperial China and seized the island. Taiwan returned to the Republic of China in 1945 and became the new home of that government in 1949 when the Chinese Communist Party triumphed on the mainland. In effect, making China the organizing principle of the DOD budget means making defense of Taiwan the organizing principle of the DOD budget.
However, that makes no sense for America. Taipei has all the attributes of statehood and the Taiwanese people deserve to choose their own future. But the same could have been said about the Confederacy. And Biafra, which attempted to secede from Nigeria. A succession of different peoples won independence from the collapsing Yugoslav state. Why shouldn’t Washington back secession by the Basques and Catalans from Spain?
After bitter wars new countries were born out of Pakistan, Sudan, and Ethiopia. The Kurdish people similarly want a geographic homeland that would incorporate territory from Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria, making a Kurdish nation so difficult to create in practice. The Eurocrats who run the European Union are upset that Bosnian Serbs want their own state, but why? Even more bizarre, the European Union, after backing Kosovo’s independence from Serbia, opposes allowing ethnic Serbs in Kosovo to join Serbia. When it comes to independence movements, practical considerations almost always transcend principle. Americans should sympathize with Taiwan, but that does not mean they should go to war for Taiwan.
Moreover, a conflict with China would not be a repeat of Afghanistan or Iraq. It would be Vietnam or Korea, or perhaps much worse. If the PRC sank a US aircraft carrier 6000 sailors could die in one battle. Missile attacks on bases throughout the region would multiply casualties. In the worst case, if escalation led to the use of nuclear weapons the human and material costs could be enormous. And for what?
Taiwan is not a security interest for the US, certainly not one important enough to warrant war with a nuclear-armed power. The island is as close to China as Cuba is to America, which makes Taiwan a vital interest to the PRC, not the US. Denying Beijing access to the island would be advantageous in a war between America and China but that does not make it a US casus belli justifying war. Flip the map around: how would Americans react if the PRC announced that it would defend Cuba from the US and ensure that the island remained independent – and available to aid Washington’s enemies?
Taiwan also is a cause célèbre for nationalist Chinese, who speak of the Century of Humiliation. Western nations grabbed territory (Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan) and concessions (Shanghai, Tianjin, Dalian, and more) from the much-diminished Chinese Empire. Then China "stood up" in the communist revolution, declared Mao Zedong. The PRC’s brutal treatment of Tibet and Xinjiang today reflects similar sentiments, fear of separatism and secession, especially fomented from abroad. Taiwan is the final lost territory of note (compared to the various barren and unpopulated rocks, reefs, and such at issue throughout Asia-Pacific waters). Chinese, and not just communist Chinese, want Taiwan back under China.
The fact that Taiwan matters much more to China than to America means the former will spend and risk far more in battle. In the US Civil War the equivalent of eight million Americans died; Washington even threatened war against Great Britain if it intervened in the intra-American struggle. If the US initially thwarted a Chinese attempt to subjugate the island, that would likely be the beginning, not the end: in defeat Beijing would begin preparing for the next round, just as World War I inexorably led to World War II.
And to win, the US would have to ally more, build more, and spend more. War game results give Washington little reason for optimism. Projecting power costs far more than deterring power projection. America faces the tyranny of distance, the need to deploy forces some 7600 miles from home, in contrast to China, which can use bases on the mainland 100 or so miles away.
The US hopes to use allies’ bases, but that would turn those countries into permanent enemies of the PRC and targets of the People’s Liberation Army. South Korea not only has extensive economic ties with China but also hopes that Beijing will help restrain North Korean adventurism. Some Japanese policymakers advocate backing the US in a conflict, but pacifist sentiment remains strong. As for the Philippines, a couple decades ago the defense minister allowed that his country had "a navy that can’t go out to sea and an air force that cannot fly." Little has changed since then.
Moreover, if the PRC used mainland bases, the US would have little choice but to strike them. That would cause Beijing, in turn, to escalate, with potentially catastrophic consequences. For instance, In 2005 Gen. Zhu Chenghu warned: "If the Americans draw their missiles and position-guided ammunition on to the target zone on China’s territory, I think we will have to respond with nuclear weapons." The PRC recently announced plans to greatly enhance its nuclear forces, which would make China’s use of nukes in defense of its homeland more plausible.
Finally, Washington would have to spend even more on the military. China can concentrate on Asia while the US dissipates its efforts around the world. Two years ago acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan advocated that the Pentagon focus on "China, China, China," but the Obama and Trump administrations failed to act on the priorities they supposedly set.
President Joe Biden withdrew US troops from Afghanistan in part to shift resources to Asia but remains deeply enmeshed in Europe and the Middle East. Observed Tara Copp of Defense One: "the 2022 budget request shows that despite withdrawal in Afghanistan, war operations in the Middle East will continue to demand resources that might have flowed to Indo-Pacific Command." War between Russia and Ukraine likely would draw more US resources to Europe. Moreover, lawmakers are predictably resisting Pentagon efforts to cut or end production of less useful weapons. If Washington will not shift resources to Asia, then it must increase expenditures for the latter.
Gen. John Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently warned that at the current rate the PRC "will surpass Russia and the United States" in overall military strength "if we don’t do something to change it." Especially since the PRC is concentrating on deterring US intervention. The latest Pentagon assessment of Chinese military power observed: "The PLA has fielded, and is further developing, capabilities to provide options for the PRC to attempt to dissuade, deter, or, if ordered, defeat third-party intervention during a large-scale, theater campaign such as a Taiwan contingency." The Pentagon is working on countermeasures, such as longer-range weapons and hypersonic missiles, but they won’t come cheap.
President Joe Biden reportedly has backed a plan to expand bases in Australia and Guam. A sharp debate is occurring over whether to increase personnel and materiel deployments in the region. The Air Force Secretary wants to "scare China." The Pentagon is pushing a formal "Pacific Deterrence Initiative":
The Department is prioritizing China as the number one pacing challenge and has included the Pacific Deterrence Initiative (PDI) to emphasize elements within the FY 2022 President’s Budget request that bolster deterrence and maintain our competitive advantage. The FY 2022 PDI features a $5.1 billion subset of the Department’s FY 2022 budget request, not a separate fund, in targeted investments for the Indo-Pacific region, which will be used to develop and procure defense capabilities in support of joint force lethality, especially in providing survivable strike and stand-off capability in a denied environment. The PDI also highlights investments to improve allied and partner capabilities, and to develop innovative concepts to counter threats through advanced technologies. Note that in total, the Department is investing over $66 billion in the Indo-Pacific region for FY 2022, including what is highlighted in the PDI. As this year represents the first-ever PDI presentation, the Department expects modifications to the PDI display in future budgets as it works with the Congress to make refinements.
How much are Americans expected to spend year in and year out to in effect defend Taiwan rather than America? Total military outlays for 2021 are $754 billion. Given the dearth of other, truly defensive, tasks to be done, a disproportionate share of those expenditures could be allocated to China and ultimately to Taiwan. Protecting just one island is probably the toughest defensive task which Washington has undertaken.
The added expenditures must go on forever, yet Washington has no surplus for such defense follies. The annual deficit was $1 trillion a year before COVID-19. Although the red ink peaked at about $3 trillion each for 2020 and 2021, the pandemic will ultimately add as much a $16 trillion overall to the national debt. Over the coming decade the deficit will still average $1.2 trillion annually, yielding a publicly held debt of $36 trillion, soon to break the post-World War II record of 106 percent of GDP. By mid-century, figures the Congressional Budget Office, the national debt will be above 200 percent of GDP.
The Pentagon’s budget is increasingly about China. Which means military spending is increasingly about Taiwan. Yet, observed MIT’s Barry Posen: "The U.S. commitment to Taiwan is simultaneously the most perilous and least strategically necessary commitment that the United States has today." The Taiwanese deserve to live free. However, America should not fight China to make them free.
War is always serious. War with a major, nuclear-armed power is extremely serious. The US should not contemplate going to war with China except as a last resort over truly vital interests. No such circumstance involving the PRC, and especially its threats against Taiwan, exists today. America cannot be the world’s 911 number.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World.