Are We Heading Towards World War III?
(David Goldman, December 4, 2023)
Transcript available below
Robert R. Reilly:
Hello and welcome to the Westminster Institute. I am Robert Reilly, its director. Today I am very pleased to welcome back to the Westminster Institute two of the best thinkers we have about foreign policy and geostrategy, the first of whom is David Goldman.
He is an American economist, music critic, and author best known for his series of online essays in the Asia Times for many years under the pseudonym of Spengler. He is the Wax Family Fellow at the Middle East Forum, a Senior Fellow at the London Center for Policy Research, and a member of the Board of Advisors of Sino-Israel Government Network and Academic Leadership (SIGNAL).
According to the Claremont Review of Books, the “Spengler” columns in the Asia Times have attracted readership in the millions. His analyses of global events have become highly regarded. Former C.I.A. National Intelligence Council Vice Chairman Herbert E. Meyer said, “Ask anyone in the intelligence business to name the world’s most brilliant intelligence service, and we will all give the same answer: Spengler. David P. Goldman’s ‘Spengler’ columns provide more insight than the CIA, MI6, and the Mossad combined.”
David regularly appears as a guest on CNBC’s Larry Kudlow program, and he is the author of You Will Be Assimilated: China’s Plan to Sino-form the World, How Civilizations Die: (And Why Islam Is Dying Too), and It’s Not the End of the World, It’s Just the End of You: The Great Extinction of the Nations.
And our second guest is Andrew Latham, who is a Professor of International Relations at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. He specializes in the politics of international conflict and security. He teaches courses on international security, Chinese foreign policy, war and peace in the Middle East, Regional Security in the Indo-Pacific Region, and the World Wars, all fields of study pertinent to our topic today.
Andrew was formerly the Nonproliferation, Arms Control, and Disarmament Fellow at the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, and he has been a lecturer at the Canadian Armed Forces School of Aerospace Studies. Professor Latham regularly writes and speaks to the media and community groups about war, disarmament, and strategic affairs, with a special focus on issues related to arms control and weapons of mass destruction (i.e., North Korea), great power rivalries, for instance, the U.S. vs. China and the U.S. vs. Russia, conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the transformation of war, cyber security, space, hybrid warfare, and U.S. defense policy. His recent books include Medieval Sovereignty and Theorizing Medieval Geopolitics: War and the World Order in the Age of the Crusades.
Well, gentlemen, thank you for being with me today. I will just lob in the major question which we have chosen as the topic: are we headed towards World War III?
Bob, thank you for the kind introduction and the honor of speaking at the Westminster Institute. We are slightly less likely to get into World War III after the San Francisco Summit between Xi Jinping and President Biden than we were before, and the extent to which both sides are cognizant of the risks of World War III is emphasized by the key issue that the United States pressed at the summit. The most important single thing that the United States wanted from China was to reopen the military hotline between the Pentagon and the Chinese Ministry of Defense.
That may seem like a small thing, but it is not. In 1983, the Russian American hotline saved the world from nuclear war. This has been exhaustively reported now out of archives that have been released since then, but the Russians in 1983 interpreted our annual Able Archer exercise in [November 1983] as a cover for a first strike against the Soviet Union. There are many reasons why that exercise was designed to be too realistic and could be misinterpreted.
The story has become famous of the Russian Colonel who saw blips coming across the radar, which looked like nuclear missiles, and simply decided not to report it because he wanted more confirmation. If he had followed procedure, none of us would be alive today, but the hotline saved the day.
Now, China cut off the hotline as a way of indicating how tough it wanted to be in dealing with the United States, which it had also demonstrated by buzzing American aircraft on nearly 200 occasions in the last couple of years, of having Chinese naval vessels cut off American naval vessels on the high seas, and doing other things which might lead to what we euphemistically call the kinetic incident, in other words an exchange of fire or a collision.
And the Pentagon is sufficiently worried about an accident happening which might lead to war that getting the hotline back into operation was a top priority party for the United States, and I think reasonably so. We have a situation in which both the United States and China entertain the suspicion that the other side wants to destroy them.
Now, there certainly are people in the United States, for example, former Secretary of State Pompeo, who has said outright that he would like to depose the Communist Party, he would like to have a change of regime in China. And of course, the existing regime views that as an existential threat. The Chinese also view the prospect of the independence of Taiwan as an existential threat to the regime for reasons we can discuss more.
And of course, there is a significant body of opinion in the United States, one hears it on Fox News every day, that the Chinese have a plan to destroy us and that they are subverting us through fentanyl, TikTok, terrorists allegedly infiltrated through the border, [and] other means which mean the end of the United States as we know it, so if both sides entertain that suspicion and have the means to destroy each other, and each side plays, if you will, edge games in seeing how far they can get away with provocations on the other side, then the risk of war is significant.
So again, we are a little bit safer than we were before the San Francisco Summit, but the mere fact that the hotline was a critical issue shows how dangerous the situation that we are living in really is.
I would generally agree with that. I would make a couple of points around, using that as a springboard. There is no doubt in my mind that reestablishing military to military communications, that hotline, is significant in terms of avoiding a war based on misperception, and miscommunication, and misunderstanding.
I view the current moment initiated by that APEC Summit as, to use a slightly different historical analogy than from what David just referenced, as a détente, as a relaxation of tensions because both parties recognized that they were getting a little too close to the brink and dialing down those tensions. And I think this bares underscoring.
The structural conflict between China and the United States remains. It is no longer on a scale of 1 to 10, ramped up to a seven or eight. Now it might be down to a five or six, but the fact of the matter is that these two countries have not unmanageable but mutually incompatible, ultimately, interests. The United States has a vested interest in upholding, policing, and sustaining the world order that it created in 1945 and globalized and turbocharged in 1991.
For a long time [the Chinese] were willing to play on that particular playing field, and China got very wealthy and converted that wealth into enormous soft power, sharp power, hard power. But now I think China is looking to minimally establish itself as a co-governor or co-administrator of that world order, and maximally, and I cannot psychoanalyze Xi Jinping, but I can listen to what he is saying, China wants to move to center stage. This is no longer peaceful rise. It is no longer before that hide and bide. Now it is moving to center stage, and what exactly that means, either partly displacing or wholly displacing the United States, the U.S. is going to resist that.
One of the things I have talked to my students about over the last 10 or 12 years is hegemonic war, that when you get an existing hegemon that is either plateauing, has plateaued, or is in decline, and you get a rising power, when those two lines intersect, again, Graham Allison talked about this in terms of the Thucydides trap, there are only a few options that are available. Either the prevailing hegemon tries to swat down the rising power, or the rising power tries to push aside the existing hegemon.
What Allison found in that particular study was that in 12 out of 16 cases of hegemonic change, there was a war. There was not just a little war, Vietnam, Afghanistan, but a systemic war, a world war. You can think about this in terms of the Seven Years War, or the French Revolution, or the two world wars, something on that scale. And I think the question for us on the table is: are we in a world now where it is one of those four exceptions, or are we in a world now where the rising power is challenging the existing hegemonic or dominant power? And if history is any guide, 75% of the time that results in systemic war.
Robert R. Reilly:
Well, David emphasized the risk of miscalculation leading to a major conflict. We certainly have World War I as an example of egregious miscalculation.
Yes, I would like to go to Andrew’s point and speak to it from my standpoint as an economist. In the case of Allison’s Thucydides trap, of course referring to the Peloponnesian War, both Athens and Sparta had the ability to destroy each other. Sparta was a militarized society that depended on the slave labor of adjacent territories to maintain its army and its culture. It was at continuous risk of a slave rebellion, and Athens, if it chose to, could have destroyed Sparta by organizing a slave rebellion. In fact, Epaminondas of Thebes did exactly that a couple of generations later and effectively ruined Sparta for all time.
Athens depended not only on its slaves but on the Delian League, from which it imported 50% of its food. It exacted an enormous amount of tribute from its empire, and the risk to Athens was always that Sparta would support rebels within the Delian League and destroy the Athenian empire, so it was a highly imbalanced situation where both sides could ruin each other and [it was] really begging for a war. Athens lost 40% of its manpower, actually probably more according to some estimates. [It was] one of the bloodiest wars, one of the most debilitating of all time, and that kind of thing happens when there is an existential risk to a society.
Now fast forward thousands of years to the United States and China.
Everything starts with China’s demographics.
A dozen years ago, Andrew Marshall, the head of the Office of Net Assessment, put a task force together to consider the strategic implications of China’s demographics, and the answer we gave him was that the Belt and Road Initiative was China’s response to its inevitable demographic shrinkage and possibly even decline. Of course, you cannot predict these things absolutely.
If you do not have enough young people in your country, if your population is shrinking, you can either bring in immigrants as Germany does, but China really cannot do that, or you export your technology and capital and harness the energy of young people in other countries to your economic machine. That is what Japan does, but China has enormous needs.
So China’s turn towards the Global South, and not just the Global South, its attempt to carve an economic sphere for itself, is the great economic development, in my view, of this decade and maybe coming decades. China now exports more to the Global South than it does to all developed markets. Only a few years ago, it exported twice as much in developed markets. It exports more to the Muslim world alone than to the United States, and a great deal of that involves building infrastructure, digital and physical infrastructure which locks these countries into China’s economic machine, not simply through so-called debt trap diplomacy, although that is part of it in some cases, but much more importantly by introducing Chinese technology, particularly broadband communications, which makes its partner economies dependent on the Chinese economic machine.
So China is establishing a world presence, a different pole, and as some Chinese analysts say, this is just what Mao Zedong did during the civil war. We are surrounding the metropole from the countryside, and we are going to be the dominant economic power. And at the same time, China is devoting enormous energy towards what it calls the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the application of artificial intelligence and high-speed communications to manufacturing. And I am sad to report that China is well ahead of us in many applications.
So from our standpoint we are looking at a China that will be militarily and industrially more powerful than us. Remember, as you and I both remember, the Cold War was touch and go for a while. A lot of people thought Russia had the edge in the 1970s. China is several times larger than the Soviet Union, and the Communist Party of China is a much more efficient manager than the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, so it is a formidable opponent.
And the risk is that we, like Athens and Sparta, may decide to try to stop China from advancing in the way that it set out for itself, which China considers an existential need for its survival because of its demographic profile, and that may lead us into a confrontation somewhere. I think it is possible to avoid it, but the risk is inherently great, so that is my economist take on Andrew’s discussion of superpower rivalry.
Can I just react to a little bit of that? Because that that was fascinating and I am not an economist, and I do not play one on TV and all of that, but a couple of thoughts that popped immediately, one of which is Thucydides famously said when he was explaining the cause of the Peloponnesian War, it was the fear that the rise of Athens inspired in Sparta that was ultimately the cause of that war, honor, fear, and interest as well, but that particular moment when we had this hegemonic shift.
And I do not want to sort of belabor that point, because I have got a couple of other historical points I want to make, the first of which is I taught a course on the origins of the First World War, on the course and causes and consequences of the First World War for a long time, right around the centenary, and one of the arguments that is made about the causes of the First World War is that Germany in 1912 and 1913 looked at Russia, which was industrializing (we did not need Lenin and the boys to make that happen, it was already happening), and thought that if it did not enter a war with Russia via a war with France in 1914, which it knew the German general staff studies had indicated it had like a 50/50 chance of winning, but if it waited 10 years, it had a zero chance of winning.
So when we think about plateauing countries in terms of their economic and military development, it is not like the plateauing or peaking results in peace. Sometimes it inspires a gamble. Fast forward now to today. We talk about a demographic cliff in our industry. There are a fewer eighteen-year-olds, etc. But China is looking at its population, [which] is projected no matter what it does to be half of what it is today at the end of the century. There is a middle-income trap. There is a debt problem that they have.
They cannot actually grow their way. One might argue they cannot actually grow their way out of the crisis, that is demographic and economic and now geopolitical, because a lot of countries are actually pushing back against China, so one might draw an analogy in 2027 or 2028 between a China which is peaking, pardon the pun, plateauing, and in Germany in 1912, 1913, 1914. That might be an even more apt historical analogy than the Peloponnesian War.
The third point I would make just very, very quickly is that I think we in the U.S. make a mistake if we import our Cold War mentality. And an important part of that is the strategy of containment. If we import that at this moment, and apply it in these very different circumstances, which is not, David, what you were saying, [then we are seeking to recreate a strategic victory that came with incredible risk].
But I am making a point about a lot of the blob, the foreign policy establishment, is reflexively now looking at the lessons of the Cold War, Hal Brands, and Charles Adel, and people like that, and arguing that we should apply the lessons of the Cold War because we won the Cold War, didn’t we? No, we all barely survived. Again, David, this is your point, we all barely survived the Cold War, but bringing the logic of containment is likely to provoke China rather than actually bring about [a sustained peace and maintenance of American hegemony].
As George Kennan famously wrote in The Long Telegram, containment was about not just hemming in the enemy, it was about bringing down the regime, and if we are to bring all of that baggage from the Cold War, as Neil Ferguson says this is Cold War II, I think we are more likely to trigger a war than prevent a war.
I think your points are extremely well taken, Andrew. Again, speaking as an economist, the issue of China’s demographics is under what time frame will this act as a major constraint? I think there is a strong analogy to South Korea, which in 1997 was part of the Asian financial crisis and many famous economists, including Paul Krugman, declared that the era of the Asian tigers was dead. In fact, it was only beginning. During the succeeding 15 years, South Korea quintupled its industrial production even though it had a twenty percent decline in its industrial labor force, and it did so because they went from a peasant population to a highly educated population, so they were able to introduce industries that no one thought Koreans could master, for example, semiconductors or flat screen displays, and of course, automobiles.
When Deng Xiaoping in 1979 began the reforms which started China’s great period of growth, [China] had a tertiary education rate of three percent. It was one of the least educated countries in the world. Its tertiary education rate today is now 63%, about the same level as Germany. China now graduates about 1.2 million engineers and computer scientists per year, which is more than the whole rest of the world combined. So even though China’s labor force is graying, the quality of its labor force has risen so fast that I think they have got 25 or 30 years of prospective growth ahead of them before they run into serious demographic constraints, and that is a strategic horizon of more than 25 years. Well, that makes the crystal ball real fuzzy, so yeah, those analysts, the Peter Zeihan types who proclaimed that China is about to implode, I think are engaged in a narcissistic self-delusion.
Robert R. Reilly:
If I can just suggest one way of thinking about this subject matter, you have status quo powers, such as the United States today, which finds itself as the guarantor of world peace, and you have anti-status quo powers. Obviously, at the beginning of World War I, Germany was an anti-status quo power, and very clearly in World War II it was. That was also the case in Asia where Japan was very much an anti-status quo power. How helpful is it to think about it in these terms?
Now, sometimes the anti-status quo position is animated by an ideology, such as was the case in Nazi Germany, such as was the case in the Soviet Union with the many proxy wars it sponsored. That way it becomes easier to identify the sources of instability, such as North Korea, such as Iran, Russia, and China, and you call that an Axis, or come up with other names that you might wish to assign it. Is that a helpful perspective? I mean, it is just a very basic observation.
If I can just [interject], because we have been talking about this in class this very morning, in fact, the idea of a hegemon that is committed to a world order, the rules-based international order, which until five minutes ago was called the liberal International order, but we do not call it that anymore, the United States and its closest friends, allies, and partners that want to uphold that system; again, the United States built it in 1945, the Soviets contested it, the Soviets went away, it got globalized, China bought into it, now it might be someplace different. The notion of revisionism, which Hitler’s Germany was guilty of, and the Kaiser’s Germany, and Japan, of course, on the eve of the Second World War was also a revisionist power, they wanted to revise this, the international order, the rules, norms, and institutions that govern the way different societies interact with each other.
Russia is revisionist, but Russia cannot even defeat Ukraine. If I were living in Ukraine, I would be worried about [Russia], but I do not and I am not [worried]. They are not the Soviet Union. They have got fingers in various pies, in Syria and a little bit in Africa, but they are not going to upend and overturn the existing rules based international order. Iran is interested in dominating the Persian Gulf region, which would be about dominating a regional rules-based international order, and we have seen some balancing that has taken place there that has been kind of upended by this Hamas Israel war, but we saw the Abraham Accords, we saw Israel and Saudi Arabia engaged in a kind of rapprochement dance, and that was about balance of power politics.
The big question is China, and the big question is to what extent is China interested in upending and overturning a rules-based international order that it benefited from and continues to benefit from, or to what extent is it merely trying to maximize its power within that rules-based international order? I do not have a definitive answer, but I think it might be a little bit of both. China does not want to be a rule taker anymore, it wants to be a rule maker, and a lot of privileges and power come along with being able to make rules, and define norms, and construct institutions. But I do not think it really wants to overturn the entire rules-based international order that it has benefited from so much. I just think it wants more influence and power within that system.
Now, the question then becomes how does the U.S. respond? If the U.S. goes all Cold War on this, then we have got a problem. Now, I do not want to be naive here. I am not a naive person. If the US engages in prudent and careful balancing, if China gets a bit too big for its boots on this particular issue, then just push back a little bit, but that is very different from containment. President Xi Jinping is forever banging on about how the U.S. is trying to encircle and contain China, and I think that is where mis-analogizing and looking to the Cold War as the model for how we deal with China today is actually a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.
We are not going to bring down the People’s Republic of China. I told my students this morning, if 35 years ago, you went to whatever the equivalent of Walmart was and you looked on all the shelves, nothing would say made in the USSR, maybe vodka if you were in a liquor store. You cannot go to Walmart today and find anything but stuff that is made [in China], and not just the low-tech stuff, right, this is David’s point, the high value-added stuff [is there] as well. We are in such a structurally different world that mis-analogizing and bringing that Cold War stuff to bare just misunderstands what Beijing is, to use a language I do not really like to use, but what Beijing is up to, which I do not think is trying to take over the world.
Andrew, I think your point is right, that it depends on what situation we are looking at. In the South China Sea, China has been aggressive and expansionist. It has asserted territorial rights over territory whose historical relationship to China is dubious at best, and it has a few thousand CBs, or construction battalions, expanding little islands into little military bases. The Chinese view the South China Sea as the Mare Nostrum, as their private lake, and they have been quite aggressive with the Philippines, with Vietnam, and others in asserting those privileges in a way that we found disruptive, particularly because some of those countries, like the Philippines, are allies of ours.
In the Middle East, where China has no historical relationship, China is very much a conservative power for a very simple reason. China in 2022 imported 53% of its oil from the Persian Gulf and the last thing China would like to see is a war that disrupts oil supplies flowing out of the Persian Gulf. Whatever the Communist Party does, the Mandate of Heaven starts and stops with the prosperity of the Chinese people, and if China were to engage in a foreign adventure which led to widespread economic hardships, say through a disruption of energy supplies, that would be very deleterious to the political health of the Communist Party and its current leadership.
So it is my understanding that the Chinese, for example, in the current Gaza crisis have told the Iranians to stay out of it. They do not want a wider war. Israel, of course, if Iran were to get involved, could retaliate by destroying Iran’s capacity to export oil. There are two major oil terminals. It would take an afternoon’s bombing by Israel to shut that down, and China would be a big loser, so China is very much a conservative power when it comes to its energy supplies.
For years it was a free rider on American dominance of the region. Ten years ago, the Chinese will tell you, they were perfectly happy to be the number two power, let the United States put the boots on the ground and put the vessels in blue water, and take care of these problems, and guarantee our energy. We are getting a free ride, and we love it. Now they will say look, the Americans have lost their appetite for intervention in the Middle East, they fled from Afghanistan, they made a mess in Iraq and Syria and Libya, so we need to have some kind of presence. We are not quite sure what we are supposed to do, but we will be doing more there.
I do not see China as a rogue power with respect to Iran, though of course it has the option to do so. China certainly made Pakistan a nuclear power. It did so in order to pin India down, and it did that successfully. If China decided to really make trouble for the West, it could assist the Iranian nuclear program. There is no indication that they have chosen that rogue path yet, and I hope they will not because it would be very difficult to control the situation.
The Chinese, unlike the Russians, are incurious about how we barbarians govern ourselves. Their view is we have a meritocracy. The 93 million member Communist Party of China is the world’s biggest and most efficient HR department. We promote talented people, we judge people by scores and standardized exams, and then by performance in office. It is the best system in the world. You barbarians allow your voters to vote for stupid people. It is a terrible system, so you know, what would we want to do with that?
And whether we are Democrats or authoritarians, they really do not care because they think we are so inferior to them nothing we come up with would really work and it would be pointless to try to teach us to use the Chinese system because we do not have the cultural superiority to do that.
You know, [I have] a couple of points in response to that, which I generally agree with. When I was talking about China as not being a revisionist power, I was talking about global norms and rules and institutions. China clearly wants to revise the border with India, for example. It wants to assert the nine-dash line over and against the Philippines and Indonesia and all of the South China Sea players. It wants to increasingly revise the very profitable fiction of one China, two systems with respect to Taiwan.
As China has gotten stronger, it does what great powers do. It is flexing its muscle in its immediate sphere of influence, if we can call it that. Also, though, at the global level, I am not sure that it wants to upend and overturn that American built system. I think it wants to maximize its influence within that, and then that raises the question of how the U.S. should respond, and my view there is that we can be hubristic.
I used to teach, and still do in fact teach, a little bit of Greek tragedy. We can be hubristic and think that we are ever so righteous and ever so capable that we can overreach in terms of trying to contain and control China in the South China Sea, elsewhere, or we can be prudent. I just wrote a piece about prudent balancing. You do not have to check China everywhere. You do not have to blunt everything that China does.
We are going to have to accommodate ourselves to the fact that China is not going away, not for 70 years, 30 years, 100 years, whatever. It is not going away. It is not the Soviet Union. It is not vulnerable in that way, and we simply have to come to grips with the fact we, the United States, that China is a player, a powerful player, and we have got to figure out how we are to play the game with China in ways that keep us short of a Cuban Missile Crisis/Able Archer.
If you know anything about those two events, we came this close to nuclear Armageddon on both of those. It was one Soviet submarine officer who refused to launch a nuclear tipped torpedo at the American Fleet, even though he was told to do so, and then the Able Archer story David just shared with us a little bit earlier. That is where containment gets us as a grand strategy, as opposed to prudent balancing, which is we will deal with China. If they get a bit too big for their boots, we will push back a little bit here and there.
Based on my studies I just do not see China as really wanting to Sino form the entire planet. Oh, and the other thing I would say very, very quickly is you would be surprised how many of my Chinese international students who are very bright, they come out of very good high schools, A., do not want to go back, and, B., I probably should not even say this, are unbelievably critical of the culture and the regime in China.
So yeah, I get that there is a cultural predisposition to think that China is the center of the universe and the apex of culture, but there are a whole bunch of dissidents. I guess we could put it that way too, that I encounter every day in my teaching, and I am not sure what to make of that. I do not think it is actually a criticism or a push back, David, but I just I do not know how to fit that into the picture, quite.
Well, I have argued on many occasions that we should do our best to pick off China’s best and brightest, their most creative innovators, and get them here working for us. To some extent we have already done that. Nvidia might be our best chip design company, and of course, Jensen Wong is Taiwanese, ethnically Chinese. And it may be like the joke that Churchill’s military aide told about why we won World War II, because our German scientists were better than their German scientists. So perhaps our Chinese engineers will be better than their Chinese engineers.
I agree about prudence. I am very much opposed to the way containment is presented, so I am very much in your camp on that. The Taiwan issue deserves special mention as an existential issue for China. There are issues that, you know, you can take or leave as a great power. They are things that you may want, and if you do not get them, it is not the end of the world.
Why is Taiwan such a potential trigger?
From China’s standpoint it is important for us to remember that China is not a nation state, it is an empire with six major language groups and 200 dialects. China’s method of expansion is the opposite of the United States where we have a melting pot. Immigrants come here, they learn the culture, at least they used to be taught an American perspective on politics and the world. Their children typically do not learn the old country language and we assimilate people, or at least we used to assimilate people when we believed in ourselves.
The Chinese do not assimilate in the same way. You learn to write the characters, but you speak whatever dialect you want, you worship whatever God you want, you maintain your own festivals, your own culture. China has the remnants of hundreds of tribes and clans and nations, preserved as it were in amber in the Chinese imperial system, but they are not dead.
The recurring tragedy of Chinese history has been a breakup of the empire with different nationalities within the Empire fighting each other, often with a help of foreign intervention, so the emperor in Beijing, whoever he might be, whether he calls himself communist or Confucian, lives in terror of a renegade province setting a precedent for other renegade provinces. It is not simply the matter of honor, the 24 million ethnic Chinese sitting in Taiwan whom Xi Jinping wants to unite with the motherland.
The Chinese Communist Party, with some justification, views attempts to push Taiwan towards sovereignty as the beginning of an effort to destabilize and break up China on the model that has plagued China so many times in the past, and that in my belief, in my view, is why China will go to war over Taiwan.
As a footnote, at San Francisco, what Xi Jinping demanded from the Biden administration and got was an unambiguous statement that the United States opposes Taiwanese independence. That was given by Kirby, the White House Press spokesman, in return for reestablishing the hotline.
I agree with that. I would layer on top of that that I think that ever since the Nationalist period, let alone the communist period, the imagined China as a nation state has always been the maximum extent of the Chinese Empire, which as we know has contracted and expanded and broken up, but it is imagined in ways that necessarily include Taiwan, which only became part of any Chinese Empire in the 1640s and was conquered and colonized. Talk about settler colonialism.
But in the imagination of both the nationalists, and then the communist regime inherited these ideas, this is where China naturally begins and ends, in the same way that Maine is part of the United States, that is just the way the U.S. is, Taiwan is part of this. And when you think that part of the legitimating ideology of the post-Mao regimes, Deng Xiaoping, and Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao, and all that gang, has been nationalism, you can see how the legitimacy of the regime is tied into pursuing these nationalist ends, of recovering all of the historical Chinese territory.
Now, as everybody knows, the Taiwan issue for most of that post-Cold War era was simply put on the back burner. There was a lot of cross strait trade, everybody was making money, [and] everybody was happy. China was plugging into the World Trade Organization. They never gave up the claim, but it was put on the back burner, and now it is on the front burner again since Xi Jinping has come to power, because of the sort of intensification of, I think, this nationalist ideology, that this is simply part of China.
And they are looking at it, and they are seeing the Taiwanese population, increasingly as the old guys die, they do not think of themselves as Chinese. Their identity is Taiwanese, and to the extent that that gets translated into an independence movement, you can see that the useful fiction of One China, two systems is increasingly hard to maintain.
Now, do not get me wrong, I am not on Beijing’s side on this. I think the Taiwanese people can decide for themselves, but then to actually, David, as you just pointed out, actually get the U.S. to do something which they have not done before, which is concede, which is to weigh in and say Taiwan should never declare independence, that has kind of been implicit, but it has never been fully explicitly articulated. That was a big concession that they made.
It was indeed, and I think there is a concrete reason for it. The only other thing I would add to the long-term view that you mentioned, Andrew, is that Taiwan has, next to South Korea, the lowest birth rate of any industrial country in the world, so over the course of the century its working age population will drop by about 75% at current rates, so that situation will kind of fix itself. Well, that will be the end of Taiwan as an important entity. And if we simply weigh it out, the problem will go away.
One key element of this picture, and one of the reasons that the asymmetry in our military position with regard to China is a risk, is that China has spent massive amounts of effort developing a formidable coastal defense. Reading the last two Pentagon assessments of the Chinese military, I think there is a consensus now in the U.S. military that China, with its thousands of surface-to-ship missiles and highly improved satellite guidance systems, can basically destroy anything on the surface of the sea within a thousand miles or more of its coastline.
My old friend, Elbridge Colby, writes scenarios about how to stop a D-Day style invasion, presuming that China would send World War II style landing crafts the 70 miles across the Taiwan strait to invade. I think that is the wrong way to look at it. What China would do in the event of war is exactly what it demonstrated to us when Nancy Pelosi went there last year. They basically blockaded the island for 48 hours. Taiwan produces none of its own energy, and its storage tanks can hold 11 days’ worth of natural gas, so the place would shut down in a blockade.
China also has close to a thousand fourth and fifth generation aircraft. How good they are we do not know because they have never fought anything real, but you have to assume they are not entirely worthless. It has got about 50 diesel electric submarines and very good electronic warfare capability, so I believe that the assessment of the U.S. military is that given the current state of the U.S. Navy and air and sea lift capability, we do not want to get into a scrap with China right now. We are simply not prepared for it, and that strongly motivated the United States to ask the Chinese to reinstate the hotline and also motivated the Biden administration to make what, as you point out, is an extraordinary concession.
It was prefigured by Governor Gavin Newsom of California going to Beijing on October 25th and making exactly the same statement. He said I oppose Taiwanese independence. [That was a] remarkable thing for a U.S. governor to do. Why does he care? What does California think about Taiwanese independence? But he did so, I believe he did that as a gesture to Xi Jinping prior to the San Francisco Summit in preparation for it. It was followed up exactly as you said, by an extraordinary gesture, and that gesture, I think, as I said, is motivated by a really big change in the military balance between America’s forward deployment in the western Pacific and China’s coastal defense.
Yeah, I think you are absolutely right, that military balance piece is crucial, and it manifests in all kinds of ways. China now has more hulls, naval vessels than the United States. They are not as good, but there is more of them, and as a brown water navy, it is very capable. They have anti-ship ballistic missiles. They have got hypersonics that really cannot be shot down at this point. they lead the U.S. in that hypersonic missile technology. I was just reading this morning about how there is an underwater network sensor that obviates the American submarine advantage. The American submarines used to be invisible. You were talking about how surface combatants. They used to be invisible. That is not the case anymore.
So when we look at that military balance, it is shifting in ways that do not favor the United States. Now, China has no power projection capabilities. It does not have 11 carrier strike groups deployed across the whole planet, but in its backyard, with respect to Taiwan and the South China Sea, there is no way in which [the U.S. could easily overcome a Chinese blockade of Taiwan]. Any American administration would be loathed to engage.
But imagine what would happen if Beijing got serious about blockading Taiwan, not in a fit of anger and pique because Nancy Pelosi took a delegation there, but as a serious way of changing the status quo. What would the U.S. do? Would it try to run the blockade? Would it try to break the blockade? Would it escort ships? And you can imagine the scope for accidents to happen, right, as the Chinese Maritime militia, the PLA, Navy, etc. are performing this crusade. What happens if the U.S. tries to run it?
Yeah, I think what the Chinese would do in that case is to sink an oil tanker or a natural gas carrier. All they have to do is shoot one, let alone sink it, and the insurance companies would make it impossible for anyone else to do that. And then our probable response would be to blockade oil going to China from the Persian Gulf going through the Strait of Malacca, which you could easily do, the Chinese have no blue water capability, and then we would have an immediate global economic crash. There would be no energy going to the Pacific.
China, in terms of BTUs, produces 80% of its energy mainly through coal, some through nuclear, and they have a substantial amount of oil, so they would have a 20% decline in energy consumption immediately. Japan and Taiwan and South Korea would have a virtually 100% decline, and the overall effect would be to crash the world economy and ruin us all, so it would be a standoff.
China under an authoritarian regime could hold out against a blockade. People would eat rice and pancakes. They would not eat a lot of pork and chicken, but they can produce enough calories and enough BTUs to hold out, whereas our allies in Asia cannot, so as you spin this scenario, it just would be a catastrophic mess that would hurt everybody, so I think everyone would think twice before doing it. And as people spun out their scenarios, I think the Biden Administration and the Pentagon decided that the better part of valor was to give China the assurance against Taiwanese independence.
Yeah, a variation on mutually assured destruction from the Cold War, not nuclear but economic.
Robert R. Reilly:
If I could just mention one item regarding Taiwan, it is its geostrategic significance. It certainly was significant enough to Japan that they occupied it for 50 years and the Nationalist government got Taiwan just in time to flee there when the Communists won the civil war. And as you both know, communist China has never exercised power over Taiwan.
Now, it has not lost that significance to Japan, which is extremely worried if China breaks through that first island chain, that they would have a very hard time protecting their eastern flank, and I think recently Japan sent some military forces to one of the Senkaku Islands to demonstrate their claim to sovereignty over them and maybe to indicate to China that Japan would fight if China made aggressive moves to occupy those islands.
Now, you mentioned that China keeps thinking that the United States is trying to contain it. It is not hard to imagine why they would think that way, because we do not want them to break out of that first island chain, which of course makes the defense of the Philippines a huge problem, and whereas President Biden made that concessionary remark against any Taiwanese independence, he also made very clear within days that the United States would stand by its defense commitments to the Philippines.
And it seems to me, Andrew, that the chance of something very bad happening from the aggressive way in which the Chinese have been behaving in the South China Sea is fairly large, as they continue to insist now that they are exercising sovereignty and send ships and planes to challenge what they consider foreign powers impinging on their sovereign territory. That is very hard for me to see how that is not going to lead to a conflict at some point, though certainly they probably know everything David has just pointed out. It would be a disaster for them. It would be a global disaster.
If I could just quickly mention Russia, which appropriately enough David said, is an economy the size of Italy’s, though it is very well suited to producing war material, so the worry is not so much Russia by itself but some cooperation between these powers, particularly between Russia and China. For many, many years you know that the United States had a policy of fighting two wars at once and prevailing in both of them. That policy is nowhere on the horizon now, and the greatest challenge to the United States would be a two-front war. How would we possibly win that?
And then my last point is it is not simply a matter of counting the ships or the hypersonic missiles, it is the character of the people who would be using them, as Hitler misjudged, as the Japanese themselves misjudged the character of the American people, as Hitler said because of silly beauty pageants and other ephemera that he really did not worry about going to war with us. Japan calculated a little differently, particularly in light of the issues David mentions in respect to China, President Roosevelt put an oil and steel embargo on Japan, which it needed. I forget – they had maybe a year’s supply of oil and then everything would go dark.
I understand that these powers, first of all, want to assert regional hegemony, but are their mutual interests strong enough to create a two-front challenge for the United States, for which it is not prepared, for which it does not even have the weapons to prevail, and which it may no longer have the willpower to pursue. At least the Chinese have made that judgment that we do not [have the will].
Well, I would say two things quickly in response, one of which is the U.S. cannot even sustain Ukraine and Israel at the moment, and those are two half wars rather than full wars, from an American perspective. And then the other thing I would say is that when you get great powers competing in various regions, there is going to be friction, and one element of that friction, often, if the stakes are high enough, is the game of chicken, and the game of chicken is a very dangerous game to play when we are talking about not cars but we are talking about warships and aircraft and whatnot.
I think if there is going to be a third world war, it is likely to start that way, it is likely to resemble the First World War rather than the Second World War. I mean, who thought that a Serbian nationalist killing an Austrian Archduke was going to spiral out of control the way it did? And I see some scope for that. What I do not see is the kind of deliberate, military attempt to overturn, really, a global order, that Hitler was engaged in. I do not see that in the offing. I see escalation spiraling out of control, accidents, and that is why I think reestablishing the military-to-military communication was really an important development, because it does not eliminate that possibility, but it certainly dials it down substantially. You can actually try the hotline. You can try to talk it through.
And the last point, the final point I would make very, very quickly, is I just do not think, despite their protestations after the Olympics and before the invasion of Ukraine, that this was an undying friendship, and they were totally committed, and their friendship knew no limits, Russia and China. I do not see it playing out quite that way. I think China has been very measured and guarded with respect to its support for Russia in its war. I do not think this is a friendship that knows no limits or bounds, however they characterized it.
As in the case of Gaza, China was not particularly happy about the Ukraine war. Ukraine was the first country that signed up for the Belt and Road initiative. China was the biggest foreign investor in Ukraine. China’s imperial model is everybody pays tribute to the emperor, takes orders, and tries to make money for their family, and keeps their mouth shut. They have an inherent antipathy to nationalism, so they were not at all pleased about the Ukraine war.
I think they sympathized to some extent with the Russian position, and they certainly exploited it to become Russia’s biggest trading partner. You cannot buy a European car in Moscow. You can only buy Chinese cars. China’s official exports to Russia have tripled. This has been a bonanza for them. But I agree with Andrew, they were not thrilled about it and they certainly were not the provocateurs in the Ukraine war.
Going back to Andrew’s point about the causes of World War I, I think that is a key contrast with the current situation. Ultimately, if China’s main economic expansion is going to be what I call the Sino forming of the Global South, using their expertise in infrastructure, and lifting people out of absolute poverty, and repeating that experiment in lots of developing countries, that is not necessarily bad for us. We do not have a deep strategic interest in Indonesia or even in Brazil, despite the Monroe Doctrine, and if that is where China is going to concentrate its efforts, that ultimately is not harmful for us. We do not have that kind of existential tension with China that, say, Germany and Russia had with each other, or even Germany and England in 1914.
However, I think that the imbalance that has developed between China and the United States militarily is inherently destabilizing. It could lead towards Chinese arrogance and aggressiveness and adventurism. I am very much a believer in balance of power, so what I would like to see the United States do is to look at China’s breakout into major high-tech military power status and respond by doing better.
We should be able to shoot down hypersonic missiles. You cannot do that with an anti-missile missile. You can only do it with something that travels very fast, like directed energy.
I am an old Reagan hawk. I would like to see the Strategic Defense Initiative revived with an emphasis on directed energy weapons. I think that having a highly directed effort from DARPA is something that is good for everybody. It is also good for the economy, and if the United States and China both concentrate on weapons that defend their respective homelands, that is less likely to be destabilizing than forward deployments, and American recovery of its technological edge would be a stabilizing force in the world and a safeguard against Chinese adventurism, so I am for going back to the Harold Brown and Cap Weinberger kind of DARPA-led high-tech driver for defense, and I think that should be our most important response.
Robert R. Reilly:
Can I ask a question about the danger of the proxy wars expanding? Now, the Ukraine Russia conflict is, of course, a proxy war for the United States, but we are conducting economic warfare against Russia, and President Biden somewhat impudently has used the phrase ‘whatever it takes,’ meaning that the support from the United States is limitless. And since you mentioned World War I, some people assign some of the principal blame to the Kaiser for telling the Austrian Chancellor something similar, ‘whatever it takes,’ instead of telling the Austrians they had to behave prudently in their demands upon Serbia. They did not, therefore the Russians got upset, etc.
Now, Dimitri Medvedyev, the former President of Russia under Putin, continues to make alarming statements about how this conflict is going to get bigger, with the likely use of Russian nuclear weapons. Putin has given many such warnings, and yet the United States, which seemed to be prudent in the character of the weapons it was supplying to Ukraine, concedes it sends Abrams tanks, it sends modern jets and so forth. Are you worried about a point at which this is going to break out into something bigger?
Well, Michael Rubin, at American Enterprise Institute, wrote a piece a few months ago saying that we should give tactical nuclear weapons to Ukraine, as a deterrent to Russia using tactical nuclear weapons. Whatever he is drinking, I would like to order a case. Asia Times chief military writer, an old friend of ours, Stephen Bryen, thinks that the foreign policy blob, in order to avoid a humiliating defeat or stalemate in Ukraine, will get American forces involved, perhaps starting with a no-fly zone in western Ukraine, and ultimately involving American ground forces.
Were that to be the case, then we would be at serious risk. On the other hand, people like Richard Haas, just writing a few days ago in Foreign Affairs, called for a redefinition of victory (in other words, the old Vietnam joke, declare victory and go home), which I think is much more rational, and I hope rationality will prevail. And in a certain sense we are in a 1916 situation where all the European leaders knew they could not win the war but decided to keep going because they could not admit that they had already made so many sacrifices for no purpose.
There is no reason for the Ukraine war to necessarily lead to a nuclear war. The term paranoid Russian is a pleonasm. The Russians are always paranoid, but it is also true that the old Zbigniew Brzezinski vision of breaking up Russia, not just regime change, of ejecting Putin, which Biden himself called for, but actually breaking up Russia is thought of as a desirable state of events by any number of people in Washington, so even paranoids have real enemies.
So I think it is our job to find ways to entice people who think that breaking up Russia is a good war goal into an appropriate place at a lunatic asylum, and for the Russians to do the same thing with their loonies, the Alexander Dugan, Russian Nazi, romantic expansionists, and hopefully the sane sides will prevail, and this stupid and pointless war will come to an end as soon as possible.
I could not agree more. First of all, I would say the prospect of Putin using nuclear weapons is now close to zero. I was worried about this at the beginning because I could see, initially, if the Ukrainians were way more successful than they were, and they really were defeating in detail the Russian army, and maybe crossing the border, then I could see Putin dropping a nuke, a tactical nuke, in some wheat field as a signal that he is just crazy enough to do this, and then who knows what the reaction would be, but we are way past that now.
This is 1916, not 1914. We have got trench warfare, literally. We have got trench warfare that looks more like 1916 than any of the revolution in military affairs and all the newfangled war stuff. The problem is in 1916 and today, the leaders of the respective combatants cannot find a way to end this. Zelenskyy, who now is being pilloried in the Western press, and indeed to some extent in the Ukrainian press, as some kind of fanatic who does not get that this war has ground to a halt and is still talking about ultimate triumph and victory.
It is not going to happen. These lines are where this is going to end up, so I am not worried about the third world war being triggered by the war in Ukraine. I am not worried about that. I am not worried about it being triggered by the war in Gaza, at all. To the extent that I do worry about it, I worry about it with respect to China and Taiwan, not China and India in the Himalayas but the China Taiwan [issue], not even the South China Sea, but really the China Taiwan piece is what keeps me up a little bit at night. But I worried a lot about nuclear weapons at the beginning of the Russian Ukraine war and how that might escalate, but I think that moment is just past.
Yes, well, in the case of the Pentagon and Taiwan, I am reminded of Clint Eastwood’s tagline for the Dirty Harry movies, applied to our defense secretary, you are a good man, and a good man knows his limitations.
Right, I thought you would say make my day.
Well, they are not doing make my day. They are doing know thy limitations now. So as we started out by talking about how the San Francisco summit did ratchet down by a notch the danger of nuclear war, but it is still something that ought to at least keep somebody up at night.
Robert R. Reilly:
Let me close with a quick question. If there should be such a misfortune as World War III, how would it be fought? David, you just mentioned nuclear weapons, but there is AI, there is disinformation, there is cyber war.
You know, I have never sat in an in a command center during a nuclear exercise, but I know a lot of people who were involved personally in the Able Archer exercise and interviewed them. The problem you have with nuclear weapons is that the Herman Kahn escalation ladder is not something that people sit around and spend weeks thinking about.
If someone is going to use nuclear weapons against you, and you do not use yours right away, you will never get a chance to, so the danger is a situation like the Mexican standoff at the end of Reservoir Dogs, where everyone has a gun pointed at everyone else, and they all go off at the same time. So once you get into a nuclear escalation, standing down is extremely difficult.
This was another salutary development at this summit. If you throw the decision-making into the hands of an AI technology, then it becomes even scarier. And one of the things that they agreed was, and I do not know how it will unfold, but there would be some kind of arms control equivalent with respect to AI in that strategic context.
Yes, that is right. In game theory, where all the logit probability solutions that you get from any AI generator will give you a Nash equilibrium, which means everyone dies.
Yes, and so that is not where we want to be. I am a bit of an optimist at the end of the day. I am a student of history. I know what human beings are capable of on the downside, but I also know what we are capable of on the upside, and sometimes people make world historical consequential decisions that are correct, even if they are counter to the orders they are receiving, or counter the conventional wisdom or the logic, prevailing logic of the moment, they do the right thing. I do not think AI can be depended upon to do the right thing.
Robert R. Reilly:
Well, gentlemen, I am afraid we are out of time, and I would like to thank our guests, David Goldman and Andrew Latham, for joining me to discuss: “Are We Heading Towards World War III?’ I want to invite our audience to go to the Westminster Institute website where you will see a variety of other topics addressed by such experts as David Goldman and Andrew Latham, on Russia, Ukraine, Japan, the Indo Pacific, etc., and other subjects like what are the real causes of inflation. I want to thank everyone for joining me today for the illuminating remarks by our two guests. I am Robert Reilly.