Capstones: An Old Playbook, a New Cold War
What’s true in physics is true in geopolitics: Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Thus, Deng Xiaoping counseled the PRC to “disguise its ambition and hide its claws.” Xi Jinping ignored that advice. Much of the world is now awakened to the PRC’s ambitions and keenly aware of its claws. America and its partners are coming to the stark realization that a renewed commitment to deterrence is the only way to ensure the 21st century isn’t made in the PRC.
An anti-PRC coalition seemed unlikely just a few years ago. Today, it seems inevitable. The preventable pandemic and post-pandemic callousness, the oppression of Christians and brutalization of Muslims, the East and South China Sea bullying, the illegal island-building campaign, the military buildup, the absorption of Hong Kong and intimidation of Taiwan, the Himalayan border attacks, the relentless cybersiege, the predatory trade practices, the racist “wolf-warrior diplomacy”—Beijing’s own behavior has laid the groundwork for this coalition.
Given that we are in the “foothills” of Cold War 2.0, it should come as no surprise that this nascent coalition is turning to the Cold War playbook—and to many of the Cold War players—to deter Xi.
Washington has shifted its national-defense focus from counterinsurgency and counterterror in the Middle East to deterrence in the Indo-Pacific. As just one example: The Navy ordered 850 anti-ship missiles for 2021—up from the 88 it requested between 2016 and 2020. As to broader examples, the Trump administration launched a Pacific Deterrence Initiative (PDI) to boost defense spending focused on the Indo-Pacific, increased the number and tempo of freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) challenging PRC claims, and proposed reactivating the First Fleet to augment the Seventh Fleet. The Biden administration has created a Pentagon task force to “meet the China challenge.” President Joe Biden wants to move 60 percent of U.S. seapower to the Indo-Pacific to counter Beijing. FONOPs continue apace, and the Pentagon is considering moving ahead with the First Fleet proposal.
For about a decade, Japan has increased defense spending annually. Japan is upconverting its helicopter carriers into full-fledged aircraft carriers armed with F-35Bs; has stood up island-defense units; and has constructed East China Sea military bases. Moreover, Japan is literally lending a helping hand to the U.S. military—conducting 39 asset-protection missions for U.S. warships and warplanes in 2019 and 2020—and recently vowed to “closely cooperate” with the Pentagon in the event of a PRC attack on Taiwan.
Australia is increasing defense spending by 40 percent this decade. The Aussies are fielding new anti-ship missile systems, anti-submarine systems, cyber-defenses and squadrons of F-35s; doubling their submarine fleet; and hosting U.S. Marines, F-22s and B-52s for extended rotations.
Britain is conducting FONOPs in the South China Sea, sending its newest aircraft carrier to the Pacific and recently eliminated PRC-backed Huawei from Britain’s 5G buildout. France is conducting FONOPs in the South China Sea, sending warships through the Taiwan Strait, deploying attack submarines and leading multinational exercises in the region, and dispatching the Charles de Gaulle carrier group throughout the region. Germany vows to “expand security and defense cooperation” in the Indo-Pacific. And NATO recently released a report calling on the alliance to devote “political resources and action to the security challenges posed by China,” which the document labels “a full-spectrum systemic rival.”
Then there are old players with new roles.
The Trump administration launched a “strategic partnership” with Vietnam and provided Hanoi “capabilities…to protect its sovereignty,” including coastguard cutters. In 2018, Vietnam welcomed a U.S. aircraft carrier (the first such visit since 1975). Another visited in 2020.
India increased defense spending by 49 percent the past decade. Prime Minister Narendra Modi calls for “growing defense and security cooperation” with Washington “to protect our strategic interests.” In 2019, U.S. Marines deployed to India. In 2020, the Nimitz carrier strike group rendezvoused with Indian warships, and the two powers signed a satellite-intelligence agreement. Already in 2021, the U.S. defense secretary and a B-1 bomber have visited India (the first U.S. bomber deployment to India since 1945). Plus, the U.S. is rushing humanitarian assistance and USAID-CDC teams to India to respond to the 2021 COVID surge.
India, the U.S., Australia and Japan comprise the Quad—once an informal diplomatic dialogue that’s edging toward a security partnership. The Quad democracies are conducting large-scale naval maneuvers, while deepening cooperation on intelligence-sharing and supply-chain resilience. In March, they held their first summit involving all four heads of government. Calling for a region that is “free, open, inclusive, healthy, anchored by democratic values and unconstrained by coercion,” the target of their joint statement was obvious.
If this is Cold War 2.0, Taiwan will be this generation’s West Berlin: a tiny island of freedom under constant threat from a communist behemoth. Now, as during Cold War 1.0, it’s imperative that the Free World defend this patch of free government. Now, as during Cold War 1.0, showing a willingness to repel an attack will go a long way toward preventing such an attack.
Xi has made clear that democratic Taiwan “must and will be” absorbed by the communist Mainland. He’s underscoring his words with bomber flights, naval exercises and interference in Taiwan’s elections. Adm. Philip Davidson, former commander of Indo-Pacific Command, warns that Beijing could move against Taiwan “within the next six years.”
Civilian policymakers are coming to realize it’s time to shift from the “strategic ambiguity” of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) to a policy of deterrence and clarity. The signals are growing louder and sharper by the day.
The Obama administration approved arms packages for Taiwan totaling more than $12 billion. And in 2015, after a PRC bomber menaced Taiwan, U.S. F-18s landed on the island (the first such landing in 30 years), citing what the Pentagon called “a mechanical issue.” In truth, Washington was sending a message: Taiwan is not alone.
Similarly, after PRC warships conducted drills near Taiwan in 2018, the Trump administration authorized a Navy vessel to refuel in Taiwan. Another Navy vessel visited in 2019. In addition, President Donald Trump dispatched a cabinet official to Taiwan (the highest-level government contact since 1979), spoke with Taiwan’s president by phone, increased Taiwan Strait FONOPs, and approved some $18.3 billion in defensive weapons for Taiwan.
Calling Taiwan “a critical economic and security partner,” Biden invited Taiwan’s top diplomat to the inauguration. Biden has stood up a joint U.S.-Taiwan Coast Guard Working Group. Secretary of State Antony Blinken warns that an attack on Taiwan would be “a grievous mistake.” The Pentagon expresses “rock solid” support for Taiwan.
Looking ahead, Biden should build on his predecessors’ commitment to Taiwan by providing tools tailored to defending the island—anti-ship, anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems to deter invasion; non-digital communications to prepare for cyber-siege; rapid-deploy mines to blunt an amphibious attack; vertical-takeoff F-35Bs to overcome PRC attacks on airfields. “Such aid is not an act of war, even if a dictator should unilaterally proclaim it so to be,” President Franklin Roosevelt observed, recognizing that deterring aggression does not constitute aggression.
Finally, the U.S. likely will need to clarify its commitment to Taiwan. Toward that end, the Taiwan Invasion Prevention Act (TIPA) has been introduced in Congress. The TIPA would replace the lawyerly vagueness of the TRA with clarity—authorizing the use of force “to secure and protect Taiwan against…direct armed attack” by the PRC. There’s risk in this, to be sure. But the history leading up to World War I shows there’s greater risk in leaving defense guarantees opaque. And the history leading up to World War II shows that making necessary investments to deter war and defend free nations is far less costly—in blood and treasure—than waging war and trying to claw back conquered lands.
Yes, Taiwan is remote. Yes, it’s in the crosshairs of a military juggernaut. Yes, that juggernaut has conventional military advantages. But each of these factors held in West Berlin—and yet the Free World held onto West Berlin. President John Kennedy called it “a defended island of freedom.” It remained free only because it was defended.
That brings us back to deterrence. For deterrence to work, a couple factors must hold.
First, the adversary must be rational. As Churchill observed, “The deterrent does not cover the case of lunatics.” The good news is that the PRC, like the USSR, is not ruled by some death-wish dictator or by mass-murderers masquerading as holy men. Unlike the former, Xi wants to reap the rewards of his spadework. What Churchill said of the Soviets is true for Xi and his henchmen: “I do not believe that Soviet Russia desires war. What they desire is the fruits of war and the indefinite expansion of their power and doctrines.” Unlike the latter, Xi and his lieutenants recognize they have everything to lose—and don’t view martyrdom as a doorway to heaven. As good atheist-communists, they surely believe this material world is all that matters.
Second, the consequences of military confrontation must be credible and convincing, which is to say the adversary must have something to fear. Recall that deterrence comes from the Latin dēterreō: “to frighten off.” The Free World’s deterrent was credible for much of Cold War 1.0—but not the early phases, when Moscow greenlighted the invasion of South Korea. Worryingly, we may be facing a similar situation today.
Recently, near the end of his tenure commanding U.S. Army-Pacific, Gen. Robert Brown reported that his PRC counterparts “don’t fear us anymore.” This is regrettable but understandable. Consider that America’s Navy, which plays the lead role in deterrence in the Western Pacific, deploys just 298 ships—and those are dispersed around the world, while China’s 350 warships are concentrated in its neighborhood. At the height of the Reagan rebuild, by comparison, America’s Navy boasted 594 ships. Today’s Navy may be more ambidextrous than yesterday’s, but deterrence is usually about presence. And today’s Navy lacks the ships to be present all the places it’s needed. “For us to meet what combatant commanders request,” according to former CNO Adm. Jonathan Greenert, “we need a Navy of 450 ships.”
The bad news is that growing the fleet and building up more deterrent assets—the Pentagon is requesting $27 billion in additional PDI funding—will be difficult amidst soaring COVID-related spending. Indeed, Biden plans to flatline the defense budget.
The good news is that America’s security partners are stronger than they were at the outset of Cold War 1.0. Japan is an exponent of democracy and exporter of security. Australia is building up and standing up to Beijing. NATO isn’t a wobbly experiment, but a closely-knitted political-military alliance of the world’s freest, richest, most technologically advanced nations—and increasingly interested and involved in the Pacific. India is no longer an inward-looking giant resentful of colonial powers and resistant to international cooperation, but a global player ready for the responsibilities of leadership.
We have all the ingredients here for a security partnership capable of deterring China. Such a partnership need not be an Indo-Pacific version of NATO—and probably couldn’t be, given how diverse and different the Indo-Pacific community is from the transatlantic community. What’s emerging is a kind of interlocking fence comprised of mutual-defense alliances (U.S., Japan, Korea, Philippines, Australia, Thailand, NATO), strategic partnerships (the Quad), and situational coalitions (U.S., Vietnam, India, Taiwan).
The purpose of this partnership is not to wage war but deter it. And the premise is that another cold war is preferable to another world war—or the piecemeal dismantlement of a civilization founded on individual liberty. As Reinhold Niebuhr observed during Cold War 1.0, “We take, and must continue to take, morally hazardous actions to preserve our civilization.” He understood that the imperfect tools we employ to protect the civilization we’ve inherited—tying our security to that of faraway lands, making common cause with dubious partners, building arsenals we pray are never used—are the only way civilization can survive.
Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he leads the Center for America’s Purpose. An early version of this essay appeared in Providence.