Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 24 May 2024

 America must face reality and prioritise China over Europe


The writer served as Pentagon lead for the 2018 National Defense Strategy Elbridge Colby · 24 May 2024


It is increasingly common to hear from Americans that we must focus more on China and Asia and less on Europe. Unsurprisingly, this perspective is not always welcomed. Commentators often charge that such counsel is rooted in “isolationism”, “weakness” or the personal agendas of given leaders.

It is not. It is rooted in deep structural realities. The fact is that the US will have to prioritise China and Asia over Europe in the coming years, regardless of who is in charge — the primacy of Asia and the rise of a superpower China compel it.

Many opponents of a refocus towards Asia like to wrap themselves in the legacy of the cold war. But while the logic of cold war strategy — namely to prevent any potentially hostile power from dominating the most important industrialised region of the world — used to lead America to Europe, today it indicates America must concentrate on Asia.

Moreover, the most important American rival is itself in Asia: China. While the Chinese economy is smaller than America’s in dollar-denominated terms, it is comparable, if not larger, in more geopolitically relevant purchasing power parity terms. China’s military has grown at a breathtaking pace while the country is competing at the forefront of key military and dual-use technologies.

No one knows what Beijing will decide, but China seems to be doing almost everything consistent with preparing for a war with America. It is attempting to sanction-proof its economy and is conditioning its population to be ready for stormy weather ahead.

Any responsible administration must therefore prepare for the possibility of a war with China. US policy should seek to deter conflict with the manifest ability to deny China a successful invasion of Taiwan. Unfortunately that ability is not something that can be assumed. Indeed, credible sources indicate America is on track to lose such a war.

Many will concede this but say America should still be able to provide the bulk of the defence for its allies in both Asia and Europe. But this is simply not realistic. It is a fact that the US does not have a military large enough or appropriately designed to fight two major wars, especially should fighting break out simultaneously with China and Russia. And there is very significant overlap between the needs for a fight over Taiwan and one in Europe, not enough resources to go around, and an urgent demand for the US to make up lost ground in Asia.

Unfortunately, these deficits cannot be remedied quickly or easily. So what is the right strategic response?

Despite stirring rhetoric from leaders in Congress and the press, a foreign policy of US primacy is simply not possible. We do not have the military for it, and even if the budget were available, we could not field one in sufficient time. Meanwhile, there is growing concern about the size of America’s deficits, and many are warning about increasing our already high debt load. So primacy is not a serious option.

Nor, though, is isolationism. Pulling back to our own shores and allowing the chips to fall where they may would almost certainly lead to a Chinese-dominated Asia, with grave consequences for the American economy. Our interests in Europe and the Middle East would fare no better.

The answer lies between those two extremes, in strategic prioritisation: grappling with the reality of scarcity and the need for hard choices, focusing resources and willpower where America’s most important interests are endangered — Asia.

But this does not mean abandoning Europe. Rather, it involves inducing our European allies to take primary responsibility for their own defence. In 1988, West Germany alone boasted an army of 12 active and three ready reserve divisions. If we are serious about following the cold war example, then European rearmament is the way.

The best way forward is to face reality, recognise Europe must take the lead for its own defence and transition together as part of a reformed but more sustainable Nato. Unfortunately, this will involve vulnerabilities — the US must withhold forces from Europe that may be needed for Asia, even in the event of Russia attacking first. This is because if the US ties down or loses key forces for a defence of Taiwan in a less significant European fight, it is asking for China to attack. But this does not mean abandoning Europe; it means working together on a plan to manage these vulnerabilities as best we can.

Is this a perfect solution? No. But we are not in a world of perfect solutions. Those who pretend that we are may be the most dangerous of all. Better to face reality and implement strategies for it. That’s the only responsible course.

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