Elbridge A. Colby is cofounder and principal of The Marathon Initiative and a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Force Development for the Defense Department, where he served as the lead official in the development and rollout of the 2018 National Defense Strategy. He recently spoke with City Journal associate editor Daniel Kennelly about his new book, The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict.
Managing China’s rise is a major focus of your book, yet it doesn’t appear in the title or subtitle. Why?
Because the fundamental point of the book isn’t China; it’s about what America’s strategy should be, and denial of an adversary’s ability to dominate a critical region is at the core of that. It could be another country that is just as powerful and well situated as China, but it happens to be China right now. It isn’t because of anything particular about China as such, but rather its size and strength.
What shape would an “anti-hegemonic coalition” against China take? Is this a new NATO or something more informal?
Something more informal. I actually think the benefits of an Asian NATO are exaggerated. Creating that would take a tremendous amount of political capital that could be better invested in other things, like strengthening partners’ militaries. Really all we need is something that in effect works together. It doesn’t need to have a name. It’s more of a concept. Something like the Quad—the diplomatic arrangement among the United States, Japan, Australia, and India that’s been around for a while but has accelerated over the last couple of years—is likely to be a facet of it. But again, it’s really just countries that are acting in some meaningful ways together to block China from dominating the region. So the anti-hegemonic coalition is more of a framework for thinking about what we want to do rather than something we want to spend a lot of attention and time trying to formalize. We want to spend time and effort on strength and action, not the formalities. The U.S. relationship with China during the latter part of the Cold War, for instance, was never highly formalized, but China was an important partner in what was essentially an anti-hegemonic coalition against the Soviet Union. That’s kind of the model we’re thinking about.
You’re skeptical of focusing our efforts on the ideological dimensions of the conflict, but is there a role ideology can play in motivating U.S. support for, say, defending Taiwan?
Democracy and human rights have a role to play—but a secondary or even tertiary role. What’s central ideologically for Americans is our own freedom, which is of course one of our core goals. But in terms of understanding the nature of this rivalry with China, we shouldn’t overestimate the ideological element.
That said, human rights and ideological issues can play an important role. We can see what kind of government China is—that it doesn’t respect people’s freedoms or human rights and is certainly not democratic. That tells us something about what a world dominated by the People’s Republic of China would look like. It also elicits our sympathy, across the political spectrum, that the people of Taiwan (speaking Chinese, mind you!) have a vigorous democracy, unlike 50 years ago, when it was run by a military dictatorship. Those are all important things, and the fact that China also treats its ethnic minorities very poorly is something that could catalyze opposition.
So ideology is relevant, but it’s not what the thing is fundamentally about. And this point is especially relevant because President Biden had this Summit for Democracy this past week. But framing things as a struggle between democracy and authoritarianism misapprehends why this is in Americans’ interests. It’s not about making sure everywhere is democratic. It’s about ensuring our own security, freedom, and prosperity—and working with whoever shares out interest in preventing China from threatening theirs, whatever their politics. And this crusading spirit alienates a lot of countries we need to work with. Having the Netherlands on our side but alienating Vietnam, Thailand, or India is not very smart.
What is the timetable for a denial strategy with respect to Taiwan? Are there difficulties in sustaining it over the long-term?
The timetable is both immediate and long-term. I analogize it to heart disease. If you have an acute case, you have a short-term problem; you need a stent in your arteries to get the blockage out. But you also have a long-term problem: you need to change your diet, work out more, and so on. Right now, people are taking for granted that we’re going to be in a long-term competition, but to get into that long-term competition we first have to get through the near-term one.
Does U.S. political polarization complicate America’s ability to be a credible linchpin for an anti-hegemonic coalition?
It’s a factor, but people tend to exaggerate it. We are acting, and doing so across very different administrations. I’d say the major point of continuity across the Trump and Biden administrations is the focus on China, the desire to form and lead an anti-hegemonic coalition effectively and to focus our military on China above all. So objectively that assessment is not true, in the sense that the United States is doing this—though I think it could be doing it better. It also doesn’t make a ton of sense. After all, the criticism of this administration from Republicans isn’t that we should be burying our heads in the sand; it’s that they’re not taking on China enough.
What military capabilities do we need to carry out the denial strategy outlined in the book? Are we ahead or behind the curve?
We’re behind the curve, because the Chinese have been working on preparing to take us on for a long time and we’ve essentially neglected it. We’re now more focused than we were, so that’s good. But what we need to do is straightforward: aerospace, maritime, high-technology forces, and select ground forces that can sink or destroy Chinese invading fleets, air armadas, and army and marine corps elements that would project power out from the Chinese mainland into the western Pacific, including Taiwan. So that means missiles, aircraft, manned and unmanned submarines, ships, satellites, drones for reconnaissance and for strike, command and control networks that are robust and resilient, enough munitions—these are the kinds of things we need. We can’t let the Chinese create a new reality on the ground and then force a fait accompli on us.
What can you tell us about your next project?
I did an article for the American Compass that sketched out my thinking. With this book, I hope to have offered a useful framework for thinking about our defense strategy—what we need to do, how we need to change. But there are two questions that I feel I didn’t answer fully that are of critical importance. Why is it really worth taking on China for Americans, given how dangerous and powerful it is? And: What is our goal? I’ve gone after these questions a bit in this book and in journal and magazine essays, but for my next book I’d like to give the American people very clear, concrete answers to those two questions. Especially the question about what’s in it for us. I think the answer is mostly about geo-economics and the dangers of China dominating the world’s largest market area and having the economic, political, and ultimately military power to shape our national life in ways that we would definitely not want.
I differ here from many of the people focused mainly on the ideological reasons. I detest Communism, but our goal is not to fix China or to change its government or dismember the country. Our goal is a stable balance of power where they have to respect our interests so that they can’t control the future of our economy or prosperity. Then what we want is actually a kind of détente once we are strong enough such that China must respect our interests and those of our partners in the anti-hegemonic coalition.
Photo by Ford Williams/U.S. Navy via Getty Images