Elbridge Colby Strategizes About Defending Taiwan

CLAY: We are joined now by Elbridge Colby. He’s the co-founder and principal of The Marathon Initiative, and formerly he was a U.S. assistant deputy secretary of defense for strategy and force deployment. He’s the author of The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict, which just came out last month. Elbridge, we appreciate you joining us. We want to talk about this situation with China right now and I’m gonna ask you the big-picture question right now as we confront a major issue in Taiwan. If China decides to invade Taiwan, what should the United States do? What do you think the United States would do?

COLBY: First off, it’s great to be on, guys. Many thanks for the invitation. Thrilled to be here. I think to get to it, the answer is, “Yes, we should defend them. It’s in our interests. It’s not open and shut.” But the key here is to have our military focused on it and to be ready, and we’re not there right now. But Taiwan is critical for our position in Asia. And, look, Asia is the world’s most important market, and China is the other world superpower.

If China dominates Asia, trust me, they will be using their power to change our lives at home. What would we do? I’m not sure what the Biden administration would do. They’ve talked a pretty big game, so that’s one signal. But at the end of the day, who knows, right? But I do think that the pressure on the Biden administration would be compelling, would probably be almost irresistible. But the issue is if China can wrap Taiwan up in a couple of days or weeks, it may be too late. So we need to be ready and prepared with the idea ultimately of deterring this, of avoiding — God forbid — a major war.

BUCK: Bridge, it’s Buck. I want to know why you think China has been making such aggressive noises about Taiwan recently and what is it about this moment in time? Certainly the Biden administration plays a role in all this, but are there other factors too? How close are we? I know there’s the DEFCON scale for nuclear war, right? If we had a DEFCON scale for Taiwan, where would you put us in terms of Chinese aggression and the possibility of the Chinese Communist Party deciding that it’s go time?

COLBY: Well, thanks, Buck. It’s great to talk to you again. I think the DEFCON level should be high. I’m not talking necessarily tomorrow, although it might be. But I think the next couple of years. But if we’re gonna be able to change things then, we gotta start moving dramatically right now. And the key is, what are they doing? I don’t exactly know. I actually do think that their best option, at the end of the day, is go big. Go big or go home.

Because they’re never gonna convince the people on Taiwan to live under the rule of the suppressors of Hong Kong, right? They’re not going to be able to kind of hoodwink or magic trick them out of their freedom. So what they’re gonna do, if they’re really serious about it — which I think they are — is they’re gonna go big and they’re gonna take it, and they’re gonna dare us to try to reverse the trend.

And given the military balance in the theater, we might not have a good option. I could see us backing down — I think it is possible, us and our allies — God forbid. What are the indicators? Look, they’ve got the will, right? Xi Jinping hasn’t been shy about it. The Chinese have always said that they want to take Taiwan. Also, it’s a great way to humiliate us, right? MacArthur called Taiwan the unsinkable aircraft carrier.

It’s right there in the middle of our strategic position. If China could take Taiwan, it would have a massive blow to our credibility. And I’m not somebody who thinks that everything we do around the world is always connected, that we can’t get out of any commitments to the contrary. But look, if you’re Japan or the Philippines or Vietnam, you’re gonna be looking at Taiwan, right?

BUCK: Yeah. Bridge, why should Americans, honestly, care all that much to the point of possibly even militarily defending this island? Let’s be honest. It’s very far away and not a lot of Americans spend much time thinking about it.

COLBY: That is the right question. It’s a question we need to answer. It’s in fact, the question that was hanging over my book. The issue is: This is about Asia. This is about who dominates Asia and whether China dominates Asia. We’re not looking to dominate Asia. We’re looking to stop them from doing it. Because think of the reality. If China’s in a position where everybody in Asia, 50% or more of global GDP, all of the world-beating companies, all the regulations are set there — they are going to be able to do to us what they’re doing to the Australians or what they do to their own people.

The example I think of, Buck, is we all have concerns about the social media companies. But the premise of our debate in this country is that we will be able to change it if we get the right political coalition. But if the Chinese dominate Asia, we won’t have that ability. We’ll have to go to Beijing, and we won’t have much of a chance.

Taiwan is critical to have that overall issue resolves because the people in Japan… I don’t really… I care about the American people and their interests, and I don’t want to fight a major war. But at the end of the day, I don’t want Americans to have to live bending the knee to the regulators or the Communist Party in China.

CLAY: We’re talking to Bridge Colby, cofounder and principal The Marathon Initiative. All right. So, Buck asked a good question about why we should care about Taiwan. Here’s a bigger question too: In the result of Joe Biden being in office. How much does our weakness in Afghanistan, in your mind, factor into how China makes a determination upon Taiwan? In other words, is the way in which we departed Afghanistan is the low approval rating of Joe Biden for foreign fathers…? Does that factor into the calculus for China as they determine what to do with Taiwan?

COLBY: I think the answer is yes. I supported the withdrawal from Afghanistan. I think it was the right decision. President Trump was going in that direction. Look. We need to focus on Asia. That’s the big problem, and we need to get rid of other commitments like Afghanistan. We need to reduce in Europe and elsewhere. But how you do it is critical, and it was clear that we could have done better here.

We all pay more than 3% of our income to the national security state. Buck, you worked in the CIA. We deserve better than that, and I think what could happen is the Chinese could have said, “These guys can’t tie their shoes straight, and at the end of the day, they’re not gonna be ready to stand up.” I think one of the things that the Trump administration did right was in trying in some ways to reduce in the Middle East, there was also a face shot to Iran.

Which said, “Don’t think that we can be toyed with. Don’t think that we can be pushed around. Yes, we’re pulling back ’cause we got bigger problems, but we are prepared to go harsh,” and I think that’s probably the question. I think that’s one thing that people really underestimate. A lot of people just assume the Chinese won’t do that. But, what about the Chinese communist leadership, especially Xi Jinping, gives people the confidence that he’s not gonna pull the trigger if he thinks it’s gonna be advantageous for him?

BUCK: We’re speaking to Bridge Colby, who’s the cofounder and principal of The Marathon Initiative. He’s the author of The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict. What is the…? To the degree you can know this… I know you worked in the Trump administration at the Pentagon, Bridge, but what is the Biden vision — and I mean his foreign policy team around him. What is the vision of how we should be dealing with China, and how does it differ from the Trump team?

COLBY: Yeah. I think there was an article in the New York Times with a good reflection of the Biden administration thinking by David Sanger that I think they are actually, I think, or at least important segments of the administration; they are trying to focus on China. But their view is that it’s almost like it’s kind of weird almost. It’s like they talk about we’re gonna compete hard on the playing field about technology or economics or military signaling or the military buildup.

But then we’re gonna keep that in check and we’re gonna cooperate on climate and so forth. At the same time, the Biden team is like, “Well, we’re gonna get together with our European allies and we’re gonna stand up in the U.N. Security Council and the G7 and NATO and what have you.” I think the fundamental problem here is that it underestimates the importance of real hard power that the Chinese have been investing in and is gonna be increasingly attractive to them.

So what I’m worried about, urgently, is that the Biden team is focusing on this economic condition — quote-unquote, “competing international institutions” like the U.N. — but at the end of the day, Mao Zedong had one thing right: “Power comes out of the barrel of a gun.” If the China can force Asia to kind of hew their line and toe their line, then it doesn’t matter what happens in the WTO or the U.N. or the WHO, right?

So this is what I’m concerned about, and it was different in the Trump administration. The Trump administration understood correctly — I’m generalizing, but — that we needed to go through a really confrontational period to reset, right? For 20 years we’d had a screwed-up policy of engagement that was naive. John Mearsheimer has an excellent piece on this in the current issue of Foreign Affairs. I’d recommend it to your audience.

We had the screwed-up policy. Nobody trusted to us take a firm line against China, and the Chinese didn’t believe we would take a firm and enduring line against China. What the Trump administration President Trump himself did is stood strong; poked the Chinese in the eye. But I think the long-term goal there was, yes, to build up his possession of strength with our allies, with our military forces, et cetera.

But ultimately, yeah, the president was right: Be able to cut a deal now what that deal looked like down the line it wouldn’t mean cutting our allies loose or something like that. But it would mean like we’re not gonna try to turn them in, you know, it’s not the American people’s responsibility to turn the China into democracy. We might wish for that but that’s not our job here. That’s not what this is really about. This is making sure that China is not dominant our future because it dominates the world’s largest markets.

CLAY: What does an invasion of Taiwan look like, and how rapidly would it transpire? How long would we have…? I know we’ve got troops in Asia. How long would we have to react? How quickly would Taiwan fall? In your mind, what is the process under which a Chinese invasion would look like, and what would the time frame be more American response?

COLBY: Well, I think it’s a lot more urgent and short than people appreciate, and part of that is because there’s a presumption that China will kind of test or work its way up through what’s often called “the gray zone” by trying to kind of con Taiwan into giving up. But I think the Chinese recognize that’s not gonna work. Nobody in their right now mind on Taiwan wants to turn in to Hong Kong, right?

Let alone Shenzhen or Shanghai. So if China knows that and knows Taiwan’s never gonna come over their incentive actually is to just go big and resolved it quickly in what’s often called a fait accompli, right? Move as quickly as possible before the Americans have a chance to mobilize our military forces, go through our political process, et cetera. Just wrap it up and create a much more difficult position.

Fundamentally, it’s unusually easier to defend an island than to retake it, right? So if we have to retake Taiwan that’s terrible, terrible. Whereas defending Taiwan, that’s something we can do much more feasibly. China knows that, so I think part of what they’re doing, Buck — to get back to your question — is I think they’re trying to desensitize us.

If you look at examples of surprise in the modern world, well, they’re often not because something came out of really nowhere but because we kind of like discounted it. So if you look at the 1973 war, Arabs very carefully dulled American and Israeli intelligence to understand what the Arabs were about to do and that ultimately worked quite effectively for ’em.

The Israelis came out on top, fortunately, but it worked in terms of surprise. I think that’s what they maybe try to do. So we could wake up one morning and it could be a matter of a couple of days. So what I’m really trying to do by pounding the drum is get us ahead of the problem so the Chinese understand that if they try, it’s not gonna work like that they’re gonna fail — and if they fail it’s catastrophic for them so we have that going for us.

BUCK: The book is The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict. It came out just last month. The author is Elbridge Colby. Bridge, my friend. Good to have you on.

COLBY: Great to be with you guys. Thanks a lot.

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