How to Think Strategically about China and Russia
(Francis P. Sempa, March 23, 2023)
Transcript available below
About the speaker
Francis P. Sempa is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century; America’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics, and War; and Somewhere in France, Somewhere in Germany: A Combat Soldier’s Journey through the Second World War. He is a contributor to Population Decline and the Remaking of Great Power Politics and The Conduct of American Foreign Policy Debated. He has also written introductions to four books on U.S. foreign policy.
His articles and book reviews on historical and foreign policy topics have appeared in Orbis, the University Bookman, Joint Force Quarterly, The Diplomat, American Diplomacy, the Asian Review of Books, Strategic Review, National Review, Presidential Studies Quarterly, Human Rights Review, the Claremont Review of Books, the Washington Times, the South China Morning Post, the International Social Science Review, Caixin Online, Real Clear History, and The American Spectator.
He is an Assistant United States Attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University, and a former contributing editor to American Diplomacy.
Robert R. Reilly:
Hello and welcome to the Westminster Institute. I am Robert Reilly, its director. Today we are delighted to welcome Francis Sempa to the Westminster Institute to speak on how to think strategically about China and Russia, a subject he is most qualified to address. For instance, he is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century; America’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics, and War; and Somewhere in France, Somewhere in Germany: A Combat Soldier’s Journey through the Second World War.
He has written lengthy introductions to two of Alfred Thayer Mahan’s classic books on geopolitics and grand strategy and has written on historical and foreign policy topics for many publications, including The Diplomat, Joint Force Quarterly, the Asian Review of Books, The American Spectator, The Claremont Review of Books, and other publications.
He is an Attorney [for the Middle District of Pennsylvania], an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University, and a former contributing editor to American Diplomacy. Mr. Sempa also writes a monthly column for Real Clear Defense, including his latest, America Sleepwalks into War with Russia. Thank you for joining us to discuss this intriguing topic of: “How to Think Strategically About China and Russia.” Welcome.
Thank you very much. Thank you for having me. It is a pleasure, and I consider it a privilege to talk to you and your audience about such an important topic as what is happening in the world with China and Russia. In my view in order to think strategically about our challenges that we face in both of these areas you need to set the geopolitical setting, you need to explain what the geopolitical setting is of our relationships with both of these great powers, and that setting is the centrality of the Eurasian land mass. Classical geopolitical thinkers have always pointed to the centrality of the Eurasian land mass, particularly because it contains most of the world’s people and most of the world’s resources.
And you know, when we were in grade school and even in high school, we were taught that Europe was a separate continent, and Asia was a separate continent, but that is not really accurate. Eurasia is the great continent. All of the great geopolitical thinkers have called it that, the great continent. Zbigniew Brzezinski called it the mega continent. And throughout our history, the United States’ national security has depended on the balance of power on that Eurasian land mass, and all of the threats to our security from abroad have emanated from powers on the Eurasian continent, and that remains the case today.
I have always thought that American statesmen, presidents, and foreign policy advisors should read and re-read the geopolitical works of Halford Mackinder, the great British geopolitical thinker, Alfred Thayer Mahan, who you mentioned, and Nicholas Speakman, two Americans and one British writers. Even though they wrote many, many years ago, their thinking about foreign policy, their approach to foreign policy issues, remains relevant today. And all three of those writers were focused on the centrality of the Eurasian land mass when it came to the security in one instance of Britain, and in the other instance of the United States.
That being the case, we are confronted today by challenges in the Western Pacific from China, and I think lesser challenges from Russia in Eastern Europe. And one of the things that not only Mackinder, Mahan, and Speakman pointed out but other writers such as Walter Lippman and George Kennan, for example, is they made clear that not every portion of Eurasia is equally important to the United States, not every conflict that erupts in Eurasia is something that the United States needs to get involved in.
What that means is we have limited power. There are limits to American power. There are limits to every country’s power, and one of the things that I have always thought about is Walter Lippmann’s analysis and his book that he wrote in the midst of World War II U.S. Foreign Policy: Shield of the Republic. And what Lippman said was that in order to have an effective foreign policy you have to put into balance or bring into balance a nation’s commitments and its resources, and when you do not have that balance, when there is a gap between a nation’s commitments and its resources, you are inviting foreign policy disaster, you are inviting foreign policy catastrophe.
I do not think it is a new idea, but one of the ideas that a lot of foreign policy observers are talking about today is this whole notion of strategic sequencing, the idea that you cannot deal with every problem in the world at the same time. You cannot deal with them simultaneously. You have got to prioritize. You have got to engage in what they call strategic sequencing.
And when you think about it, just think about World War II and the lead up to World War II. Our plan even before the war started was based on strategic sequencing, and that war plan was Europe first because we, our strategists, our government leaders, believed that the greater threat to the United States was from Europe, in this case Hitler’s Germany, then Japan in the Far East, and so our resources gradually went to Europe. Of course, first we fought in North Africa, then in Sicily, then in Italy, but Europe first was the overall strategy.
We felt that we had to defeat Hitler first. We had to defeat the Nazis and the Axis powers in Europe first, then we could finally deal with Japan (even as we conducted the island campaigns in the Pacific). So we are facing a situation today where we have an administration in power that I do not think is engaging in strategic sequencing when it comes to our challenge in the Western Pacific and, as I said, I believe our lesser challenge in Eastern Europe.
We are pouring resources into the Russia-Ukraine war when the greater threat is in the Western Pacific. You mentioned the article that I wrote. Arguably, we are, as I said, sleepwalking into a possible wider European war in Eastern Europe based on not only our policies but based on our rhetoric. And I have always believed that what is going on in Eastern Europe and Ukraine is simply not as vital to American national security interests as the threat posed by China in the Far East and in the Western Pacific.
China is a much greater power than Russia, economically, militarily. The only area where Russia exceeds China’s power, at least for now, is in nuclear weapons. Other than that, on every metric of power China is stronger. It is the greater threat. And perhaps the greatest threat to American security is the strategic partnership that is emerging between China and Russia. I believe that strategic partnership was formed in part because of American policy mistakes, and I am thinking here in particular of NATO expansion, and I have written about this.
After we won the Cold War in early in the early 1990s, instead of becoming a normal country again, as Gene Kirkpatrick said we should, out of a fit of hubris, with a reduced threat, we expanded NATO. We pushed NATO’s borders further and further to the east, after, by the way, telling the Russian leadership at that time that we were not going to do that. And we have since 1999 relentlessly expanded NATO. I believe it is any 15, 16 new countries in NATO even though the threat had receded.
And I contend that, and I am not the only one that contends this, that we effectively pushed Russia into the arms of China, closer to China, instead of recognizing as, for example, Richard Nixon did, that that triangular diplomacy with these two great powers makes a lot more sense, that Nixon’s policy was that the United States should have closer or better relations with each of those powers than they have with each other. That is probably not realistic anymore, but we should recognize that the adversarial, extreme adversarial relationship we have with Russia, is in part our fault.
Now let me say that does not mean that Vladimir Putin is a good guy. It is a nasty regime. It is an evil regime. Vladimir Putin, however, is acting in the way people who were in charge of Russian national interests have acted for a long time throughout Russian history. And people who understood Russian history at the time, and I am thinking particularly of George Cannon and also Jack Matlock, who was our ambassador to the Soviet Union and then Russia at the end of the Cold War.
They both spoke out at the time. Kennan in particular wrote a piece in The New York Times in 1997 where he said NATO expansion would be the most tragic mistake of the post-Cold War world, and I think we are we are seeing that today. I think Kennan has been proven correct, and so when I look at the situation in a geopolitical sense, when I look at the situation from a limitation of American power sense, I hearken back to two of our presidents, both of whom were military leaders at one time, who led the country during wartime, and then as president presided over eight years of peace.
And I am speaking of George Washington, at the very founding of our country, and Dwight Eisenhower throughout the 1950s. And what I would like our statesmen to do is to emulate the policies of George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower. And when I talk about policies, I am talking about their fundamental approach to the world, not only their policies but their words. I think that both of those presidents issued farewell addresses to the country. Both of those farewell addresses contain insights, wisdom, that our current government leaders would do well to acquaint themselves with.
And in Washington’s case it was warning against permanent alliances, saying that we should only have temporary alliances for extreme emergencies or extraordinary emergencies, which is why during his administration we declared neutrality between the wars between France and Great Britain, even though France had been our staunch ally during the Revolutionary War, and we won our independence because of France being our ally.
And as I am sure you know, there was great sentiment in this country, including from Washington’s own Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, that we should side with France against our previous enemy and colonizer, Great Britain. But Washington, advised by Alexander Hamilton, said no, we do not need to get involved in a conflict that does not affect our national interests. So Washington in his farewell address, based on his experience as president, warned against conducting foreign policy on the basis of sentiment, conducting foreign policy on the basis of sympathy or emotion.
Instead, he said we need to look to our concrete national interests. And during his time, the concrete national interest was to be neutral in these European conflicts so the United States could gain in power, get a strong military, and as he said, we could decide when we go to war, when our interests and when justice advised us to do so. Washington, also, and it is part of the farewell address that does not get a lot of play when people talk about it, he warned about what he called an overgrown military establishment and the influence that an overgrown military establishment could have on the foreign policy of our country.
And in some ways, he was anticipating what Dwight Eisenhower said 150-160 years later in in Eisenhower’s Farewell Address when Eisenhower warned us about the influence of what he called the military-industrial complex. The ‘military-industrial complex’ – and he said, ‘a scientific technological elite’ that he believed had too much influence in what he called the councils of government. And so I think Washington anticipated what Eisenhower warned about in 1961.
And those two war leaders, those two presidents, I believe both exhibited what Robert Kaplan, one of our contemporary geopolitical theorists, in his newest book what he called a tragic mind, a tragic sensibility. And Kaplan believes that that tragic sensibility in part derived from Washington and Eisenhower’s experience in war and the idea that things go wrong when you get into war. The best plans of warriors go astray, you know, the whole Clausewitzian notion of friction, that you can plan for all the successes in wartime, and yet when you meet the enemy, those plans often go awry, and it can lead to disaster, and can lead to tragedy.
And I think Washington and Eisenhower both understood that. I am not sure that the people in the current administration understand that. I am quite sure that there were people in the Bush administration, George W. Bush administration, that did not understand that and that is why they got us involved in two really endless wars. When I think strategically about China and Russia, I think China is the greater threat. I think we are dangerously getting into a conflict in Eastern Europe that does not affect our vital national interests, and we are lacking at the helm of our government leaders who think like Washington and think like Eisenhower when they approach foreign policy issues.
Robert R. Reilly:
Francis, right off the top you mentioned ends and means and if the relationship between those two things is askew, so will your policy be askew, you will not be able [to do what you want to do], you will do things recklessly, and you will not achieve those ends. I mean, how do you assess ends and means today in respect to American foreign policy?
I think we are out of balance. That gap that Walter Lippman talked about; we have not balanced our commitments with our resources, our ends and means. And I think part of the reason is that we are pouring all of this money, all of this military equipment which we are taking from places like South Korea and taking from other areas where we have concrete national interests and providing it to Ukraine.
And we are doing it, I believe, because we are basing our policy on sentiment instead of geopolitical interests. We sympathize with the Ukrainian people. We sympathize with the fact that they are a victim of Russian aggression, but it was John Quincy Adams that as Secretary of state said look, we are not in the business of going abroad in search of monsters to destroy. We are the champion of freedom and independence for all but the guarantor and vindicator only of our own.
We have forgotten that wise counsel, and we have also forgotten the necessity of keeping into balance our commitments and resources. And in my view, you know, everyone says, well, you know, China wants to distance itself from Russia. They want to somehow work out a peace agreement in Eastern Europe. I think China is quite happy to have the United States be pouring its aid and its resources into Eastern Europe and not into the Western Pacific.
Robert R. Reilly:
Francis, it most probably was one of your articles which I recently read – it might have been from somewhere else – in which it was said that China is and will be using Russia against us, the way we used China against the Soviet Union.
That is a very good point. They are almost doing a reverse Nixon on us, and that is something that we never should have allowed to happen. And I think, again, a lot of it had to do with the hubris at the end of the Cold War, you know. This was supposedly, according to Charles Krauthammer, going to be our unipolar moment, that we were the sole hegemon on the planet.
Well, in one sense Krauthammer was right. It was a very small moment. It was a short moment in time. And what we did was instead of looking ahead and seeing that, okay, the Soviet Union has been defeated, we won that Cold War, we continued to believe that we could bring China into this, quote, ‘liberal world order,’ that we oversaw.
We believed – and I think we honestly believed that China was somehow becoming a market-oriented country and that they do not believe in Marxism anymore, they do not believe in Maoism and Leninism anymore. And that was a great strategic error. So what ended up happening is that we ended up – our financial institutions, Wall Street, ended up fueling China’s rise.
And at the same time that we fueled China’s rise, when you combine that with our expansion of NATO, we were fueling the next peer competitor at the same time we were pushing the defeated adversary in the Cold War into the arms of that new peer competitor. And now we have the two largest countries, most powerful military countries on the Eurasian land mass in a strategic partnership that is reminiscent of the Sino-Soviet bloc of the early 1950s.
Robert R. Reilly:
Well, Francis, let me just say that there are a number of distinguished retired generals in the United States, and people on both sides of the political aisle in Congress, who define our interest in supporting Ukraine by saying it is in the United States’ interest to degrade Russia militarily and that is why we should keep supporting Ukraine in the way in which we are. What do you think of that remark?
If you look at Russia’s military power, put aside their nuclear weapons for the moment, this notion that somehow Russia is in the same position or similar to the position that the Soviet Union was during the height of the Cold War, the idea that we were concerned that Russian tanks would be sweeping across northwest Europe to the English Channel, that notion today is a fantasy. We are looking at a power now in Russia that can barely hold on to the eastern provinces of Ukraine, that is having a difficult time subduing a third-rate power in Ukraine, so I do not know that we need to degrade Russia’s military.
The European powers of NATO when you combine their economic technological and military might have enough, again with our with our extended deterrent, to deter Russia from invading any NATO country, from committing any more aggression on the European continent that involves NATO members, so I just simply disagree, respectfully disagree, with this notion that Russia poses by itself a great threat or a threat to any vital national security interest of the United States.
I know I have read the same things you have, and I have heard people, including four military people, say that if they revive what I call the lessons of Munich, that if we do not stop Putin in Ukraine, Poland is going to be next, or the Baltic countries are going to be next. I do not [agree]. This is a military that can barely hold on to the eastern provinces of Ukraine. I do not believe that they seriously want to, or even if they wanted to, [that] they have the capability of doing what Hitler did by expanding further and further into Central and Western Europe.
Robert R. Reilly:
Well, one thing that has been enormously helpful in terms of degrading Russian military power is its own corruption, as was found out when Putin attempted a Russian version of the blitzkrieg a year ago February. They found out that no one had been doing maintenance on the vehicles, that the tires had degraded to the point that they went flat or blew up.
And whereas a great deal of the investment the Putin has made in modernizing the Russian military has been in its strategic weapons, which of course are a huge threat to the United States, and in hypersonic missiles, which the United States still does not yet possess, the conventional military forces have been seriously degraded by the kind of corruption that has long existed there.
On the other hand, it has been very interesting. You mentioned NATO military power. I wonder [about] the pledges that NATO countries have made, for instance, to supply Ukraine with 321 tanks. [They] are not coming anywhere near that number for the simple reason that when they have gone into their inventories, they found that some of those tanks they have had in storage will not start, they have not been maintained, that they will have to be rehabbed in a process that will take many months, that their military equipment is not ready to go. So, support in that respect, or the absence of support in that respect, even in light of what NATO countries have promised, shows that to a very large degree, NATO membership has meant for many European countries simply an excuse to disarm.
As you know, Germany has disarmed in a very serious way. Even now, I am not sure its military expenditures meet 1.5 percent of its GDP. Great Britain has disarmed. There is a recent story, I do not know how true it is, that there is a proposal to be ready to mobilize 300,000 NATO troops to NATO’s borders with Russia, beginning with a deployment of a 100,000 that could be met within 10 days, and then the larger numbers over a longer period of days. I do not think they could pull [that off]. I am skeptical that they could pull that off. That is a very complicated procedure.
And when Russia did invade Ukraine, one asked oneself the question, why is it that the United States felt it necessary to fly over 14,000 U.S military [personnel] to Europe when those nations have a combined GDP larger than the United States, as large a population, and they should be confident in their own military, but they are not. And the reason being, as I just said, that their membership in NATO has been an excuse for them to disarm.
So not only have we seen how degraded the Russian military is, but this has also in a way exposed a certain hollowness in NATO. You mentioned how short we are running on ammunition to supply Ukraine, and you correctly stated we are taking from our inventories in Israel, South Korea, and elsewhere 155-millimeter artillery rounds to supply the many howitzers we have given to Ukraine.
We do not have the industrial base to replace those anytime soon. The estimates I have seen on resupplying our ourselves with Stinger missiles in the numbers which we have supplied to Ukraine is a matter of years, once again because the supply lines do not exist in our industrial base to build those very quickly. Any reaction, Francis, to those remarks?
I agree with you wholeheartedly. And you know, your comments about NATO, I mean, that is an old story that has been going on as long as the alliance has been in existence. I can recall in the late 60s and early 70s when, I think it was Senator Mike Mansfield, would always put a resolution in saying that unless the Europeans start contributing more to their own defense, we should pull out of NATO. There were people after the Cold War that suggested, you know what, NATO served its purpose in helping us win the Cold War, but that the reason for NATO’s existence no longer exists because the Soviet Union fell apart, it collapsed, and the countries of Western Europe are more than capable on their own, if they will have the will to devote the resources to it, to defend themselves.
Obviously, the points you made show very, very clearly that the countries of Western Europe do not have the will to do that. They would much rather spend their money on their social welfare programs and so forth rather than build up their own military. And this was something, by the way, that President Trump made a big deal about when he came into office. And of course, he was criticized for it. He was criticized. [They said], oh, he is hurting our alliances by telling the NATO powers that they should contribute more to the alliance’s defense, but I think Trump was right.
And it is interesting to see the European powers, who are obviously closer geographically to Russia than we are, did not have the willpower, or they did not see the necessity of building up their own defenses, but the reaction in Asia to what is going on with the threat from China is somewhat different. Japan has indicated they are going to significantly increase their defense budget. South Korea is talking about increasing its defense budget, so it is interesting to see how the Asian powers are reacting to China’s aggressiveness much differently than the European powers are reacting to Russian aggression.
And I think it is some evidence of the fact that China poses a greater threat than Russia poses a threat. And you know, it is no coincidence that the European leaders, the German Chancellor and the French president, have been the ones pushing for some sort of negotiations and a peace settlement in Ukraine as the most viable and the best outcome of that. Meanwhile, you know, the Biden Administration, unfortunately, has not joined that effort.
And now they want to prosecute Putin as a war criminal. They talk about regime change in Russia, and that to me is the kind of rhetoric that could very easily get us into a war that we should not be involved in.
Robert R. Reilly:
Well, is the Ukraine war enough of a wake-up call to the European NATO members that they are going to take their own militaries seriously for the first time in a long time?
I would hope so. And I think, for example, the Polish government did not even need a wake-up call. They have always had that fear of Russia, and they have been pretty good when it comes to their contribution to NATO, but whether the Germans, and the French, and the British are going to [take their own militaries seriously], I do not have a whole lot of confidence, based upon the past. And you know, it is another issue with NATO.
I wonder how many of the American people realize that we are now the head of an alliance that says, of course, an attack upon one is an attack upon all, and that it is part of our treaty obligation to, for example, come to the defense of North Macedonia if North Macedonia is attacked by someone, or Albania, or Slovenia. My guess is the American people do not realize the commitments that we have made. And to think that the defense and the independence of North Macedonia is somehow in the vital interest of the United States is ludicrous.
Robert R. Reilly:
What do you think of the looming membership of Finland and Sweden, which would make them the 32nd and 33rd members of NATO?
I recall writing an article where I attached a map, and I tried to say once in a while we need to look at this from the Russian perspective, and that is what Russia has seen happen from 1999 to the present is almost an encirclement on the European border where NATO is pretty much, except for Belarus and Ukraine, pushed up to their border throughout the entirety [of] Europe, their European border.
To think that Russia was going to react in any other way but being opposed to that, and actually doing something about it, was a great misreading of Russian history. And here is an example I would give. I was not a great fan of President Obama’s foreign policy, but he made a comment when Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, which I thought was very much George Washington-Dwight Eisenhower like, when he said look, it is obvious, all you have to do is look at a map. Ukraine is more important to Russia than it is to the United States.
And I thought President Obama acted very prudently by saying, effectively, look, sanctions are enough. We do not have to do anything more than sanctions there, because he understood [the situation]. At least in that instance he had the insight to be able to look at what was going on from Russia’s perspective.
That is one of the things, by the way, that I mentioned earlier. Halford Mackinder always said that his ideal of a statesman was Bismarck [of] Prussia and then Germany’s Chancellor because he said Bismarck had the ability to look at issues from other nations’ perspectives. That does not mean you have to agree with that perspective. It does not mean that that is the right perspective, but if you do not have the ability as a statesman to perceive things from other nations’ perspectives, you are not going to be an effective statesman.
Robert R. Reilly:
Well, as you know, Francis, the rhetoric continues again, principally from President Biden, but it is echoed in Congress on both sides of the aisle, that as far as Ukraine is concerned, it is whatever it takes. In other words, it appears to be a promise of unlimited American support, whatever it takes. It is unclear that we have whatever it takes.
But as you pointed out, or certainly implied, for Putin this conflict affects Russia’s vital national strategic interest in a way in which it does not affect ours, and he is not going to give up. I do not think he thinks he can afford to give up, and that if he does give up, his name is mud in Russian history and he believes Russia strategically weakened, particularly if, as a result of a loss, Ukraine enters NATO.
Anyone could look at a map there and see, well, then the distance from a NATO border to Moscow is cut in half. So much for defense in depth for Russia. So to me that means that the danger of escalation here is really great, and the further we may wish to take this up – though President Biden has so far indicated that we will not give American fighter aircrafts to Ukraine, [the greater the risk].
You will notice that Governor Ron DeSantis made a speech recently in which he expressed reservations about supplying that kind of equipment to Ukraine, and he was lambasted for having said so, the political climate here is still very much ‘whatever it takes.’ And in that kind of atmosphere and, as you have pointed out with that kind of rhetoric, how does this end?
It may not end very well. I am not saying it keeps me up at night, but it is something that when I think about it, it concerns me greatly because at the same time we are getting deeper, we are having deeper involvement in Ukraine, and I hope we do not start sending fighter jets, but the more we escalate, the more we come close to whatever. And we do not know what Putin’s red line, if you will, is, what would be casus belli where he would launch a war against NATO because of that. But the deeper we get involved, the greater the chance that this becomes a wider European war and perhaps a world war.
And this is happening at the same time that China is ramping up tensions in the western Pacific. And we may be faced with [what is] to me the worst-case scenario, that we may be faced with a two-front war where we are involved militarily in Eastern Europe and we are involved militarily in the South China Sea, in the Western Pacific. To me that is the worst possible outcome of what is going on, and that would be reminiscent of the second world war, only now both sides have nuclear weapons.
Robert R. Reilly:
Well, there is another matter that is reminiscent of World War II that is not a comparison to our favor. I recently came across the following statistics which are quite extraordinary when this country had the largest industrial base in the world. So here are the figures between the summer of 1940 and the summer of 1945 in terms of the war materials the United States produced: 141 aircraft carriers, eight battleships, 807 Destroyer escorts, [and] 203 submarines.
I believe today we are straining to build two nuclear attack submarines a year.[We also built] 88,410 tanks, 25,700 artillery pieces and self-propelled guns, 2.4 million trucks, 2.6 million machine guns, 41 million rounds of ammo, 170 aircraft per day by the end of the war for a total of 324,750 aircraft during the course of the war. I do not mean to bludgeon our audience with statistics, but I think those are worth reciting if only to point out that we are incapable of even a twentieth of that, a far smaller proportion.
And one reason is, as you pointed out, we had hoped that, through the World Trade Organization in 2001 and so forth, free trade would turn China into a free, liberal democracy, which of course it has not. And now we have hollowed-out industries, reduced industrial capabilities to rearm, and they have those capabilities. They have the shipyards. They have produced now the largest navy in the world. They are building two more aircraft carriers.[We do not know] how well they can operate these, and they do not have much experience in war or combined arms, but the figures are very daunting, and their high-tech military equipment is very impressive. Since they stole the plans of our stealth planes and other equipment, they did not have to sink the capital costs to make these, so they are much cheaper to make and therefore they can make a heck of a lot more of them than we have [made].
You rightly pointed out that their growing strength and their bullying have produced not submission, as they had hoped, but resistance. And you see from Australia, from Japan, from South Korea, Vietnam, even the Philippines, a willingness to do more to strengthen alliances with the United States.
Now, the breakthrough in Japan seems to be the most striking of all of them because of its pacific constitution and a major ramp up in defense spending of the construction of more ships and high-tech weapons. However, when you look at the timeline that it will take Japan to do that, when you look at the timeline for the construction of these new nuclear attack submarines for Australia [under the AUKUS] agreement with the United States and Great Britain to build these, in those cases we are talking about decades. In Japan’s case, we are talking close to a decade.
Now, China, as the burgeoning non-status quo power in the region, may have an incentive [to act]. When it sees it is facing serious political opposition with the will to increase the military resources which could be deployed against it, it might wonder whether it ought to wait 10 years to achieve its strategic goals or move while it still has such a military advantage. What do you think of that scenario?
I think that is a perfectly valid scenario. Again, looking back in history, it is not dissimilar to Germany in World War I, looking at demographics. At that point, Russia was still a backward country, but it was growing in industrial might. And there are a lot of historians, scholars, who think that Germany made its move, if you will, during the first world war because it saw a window of opportunity to expand that was closing.
And China may very well take that same approach. Only time will tell, but that is a danger here. The danger could be magnified because at least at this point China’s aim in the South China Sea, its immediate aim, is to make Taiwan into Hong Kong, what Hong Kong has become. I think if they could do it peacefully, the way they have done it to Hong Kong, they would do so, and I do not think China is reckless.
I think they play a long game. You know, they are very much in the tradition of Sun Tzu, that the acme of skill is to defeat an enemy without fighting them, and I think that would be their preferred method. But I think Xi Jinping has made it quite clear that one way or another, during his time as the leader of China, he wants Taiwan to be “reunified with the mainland,” and that is what could play into this, this closing window of opportunity, that China may lash out to take Taiwan.
And we have had Admirals over in the Pacific worry that, hey, they have said by 2025, 2026 they expect conflict in the South China Sea. Novels are obviously books that are written to sell books that are of interest, but there are two recent novels about a war in the South China Sea which expands into a broader war. One is, I believe, 2034, which was written by a retired Admiral and a former Special Forces writer. And the other was Ghost Fleet.
Both of [them] dealt with a future war in the South China Sea. And by the way, each of those novels talked about a war that we would be fighting against both China and Russia, and in each of those books, particularly in 2034, the war goes nuclear. And the 2034 novel is a book that if you read it, it will frighten you because Shanghai gets blown away and San Diego gets blown away. And unfortunately, those are not out of the question if we get into a broader war and if we cannot take the necessary steps that we need to take to deter China.
Robert R. Reilly:
Yeah. Francis, I mean, I worked for President Ronald Reagan, and the military buildup, which the United States undertook, started toward the end of the Carter Administration but ramped up in a major way under President Reagan. It was probably the reason we did not have to fight a hot war, because we had a convincing military deterrent, a restored military.
Now, it strikes me as problematic today that as the rhetoric is heating up about China, President Biden has recently submitted his defense budget, and whereas there is a generous increase in personnel salaries within the military, it is a good thing to retain good talent, overall, it is a decline if you factor in inflation. It seems at the very point when the United States should be undertaking a major military buildup, its military decline continues, which seems to put us in a very dangerous position.
Again, I agree with that wholeheartedly, and there is no doubt in my mind either that the Reagan administration’s military buildup was the most important element of his overall strategy to undermine the Soviet Union. It is clear that that the Reagan defense buildup helped produce a leader like Gorbachev, who did not want to surrender the Soviet Union, do not get me wrong, but he understood that the Soviet Union did not have the economic wherewithal to keep up with the United States when the United States did that military buildup.
The message we are sending today is almost the exact opposite, as you mentioned. You know, we have talked now for a decade about a pivot to Asia, a pivot to the Asia Pacific, and that has been for the most part rhetorical. There was some movement toward that toward the end of the Trump Administration, but that is where it stopped. What we need is a really strong pivot to Asia, and that pivot to Asia means that we should once again be the leading naval power in the world. We are going to have to be able to be in a situation where our naval power is stronger than China’s in that region, which is not the case right now.
And, you know, this administration is also a big one for arms control, nuclear arms control. We need to modernize and build up our strategic nuclear forces. To me that again was one of the crucial parts of the Reagan buildup. Obviously, you do recall in the late 1970s when there was what strategists called this window of vulnerability where we were concerned that the Soviet Union could launch a first strike and take out our land-based missiles in a first strike. In any event, Reagan closed that window of vulnerability.
Right now, we are dealing with Russia, which has, I believe, more deployed nuclear weapons than the United States does now, and China, which has fewer but is growing. And I am sure you are familiar with the recent revelation that China has built more missiles. They now have more missile silos, even though they have not filled them all, than the United States does, and they are not a party to any arms control treaty.
And I think it might have been in the late 1990s or early 2000s when there was a Chinese General that speculated, saying that he did not believe the United States would trade Los Angeles for Beijing or Shanghai. In other words, we do not believe that the United States [would risk a nuclear exchange, so] your nuclear deterrent is not something that is going to deter us.
And that leads to a second question, which is about Taiwan and about what our position should be with Taiwan. Should it continue to be one of strategic ambiguity where we admit that there is one China, and Taiwan is not an independent country, or should we end this strategic ambiguity and make it clear to China that we will come to the defense of Taiwan if it is attacked?
President Biden has said that on more than one occasion, and each time he said it, other administration officials have had to walk it back. I think personally, and I have seen other strategists and scholars also say, it is time to end that strategic ambiguity, it is time to declare openly [that the U.S. would defend Taiwan if China attacks], but we also need the resources to back it up, that we will come to Taiwan’s defense if China attacks.
Robert R. Reilly:
Well, currently, it is my understanding we do not have those resources, so it might be imprudent to make such a commitment now, as I thought it was imprudent when Nancy Pelosi went over to Taiwan, which incited the Chinese to no end and to some aggressive military posturing around Taiwan. To increase the tension over a conflict precisely when we are not prepared for that conflict seemed to be very imprudent. I am glad the Speaker, who had been talking about going to Taiwan, has now decided not to do that.
We need to speak softly and carry a big stick as one of our greater presidents said.
Robert R. Reilly:
Yes, and now we are speaking loudly with a smaller stick, which is, as you have pointed out, quite dangerous. Now, on the issue of Taiwan, China, as you pointed out, is not reckless. And it is very clear, I think, from their behavior and what they say that they would prefer to achieve their ends through economic and military dominance, without a war, by making it clear to any prospective enemies that they would lose, so it would be futile.
Or as a Chinese General or a Foreign Ministry person said to a gathering of Southeast Asian nations when they were complaining about China’s behavior, you are small countries, and we are a big country. Or if something happens, they could basically starve Taiwan. There are any number of different kinds of things they could do short of an amphibious invasion, which across a hundred miles-strait would be an extremely tricky thing.
Regardless, if China obtains Taiwan either peacefully or through war, that changes the strategic situation in Asia in a major way. The sea lanes that abut Taiwan are strategic sea lanes for the entire world. It would give China a stranglehold over them.
We have already seen, through these atolls on which they have built landing strips and military installations in the South China Sea, how they go about things and what it puts them in a position to do.
Japan knows this very clearly. There was just a news report that on islands south of the Senkaku chain many miles south of Okinawa, they have sent troops and some military equipment. That is a sign of their seriousness. I think Japan understands that if China gets Taiwan, their strategic situation has eroded in a profound way. And I think that is why they are close to saying that if China invades Taiwan, it is a casus belli for Japan.
Yeah, I think that is right, but I will say this. As you said, if China achieves its goal of taking over Taiwan, peacefully or militarily, and obviously that would be either by defeating the United States or doing it because the United States did not come to the aid of Taiwan, those other Asian powers will read the tea leaves and say we have got to make the best deal with China that we can. And that is very dangerous. And to me that is the beginning of China replacing the United States as the leading power in the world.
Robert R. Reilly:
That will be the replacement, not the beginning but more or less the end. As we get toward the end of our program here, Francis, I have been disturbed for some time now by the very uncomfortable feeling that we are in a pre-war situation.
Yeah, I share that, unfortunately. People talk about [whether] it is 1936 [or] 1937 [or] whatever. I think a lot of people use that analogy to talk about what is going on in Eastern Europe. I think it is much more applicable to what is happening in the western Pacific and that we may very well be in that situation. And like the 1930s, the United States, as you well know, was unprepared.
In fact, I just finished reading a book about the Roosevelt administration. At least part of the book covered the lead up to the second world war, and it was a country that was very much unprepared for that war, a country that was looking domestically for everything. And we had a leader, Franklin Roosevelt at the time, who I think understood the nature of the threat but was unwilling to get out ahead in front of the American people, was unwilling to be like Winston Churchill, if you will, to undertake political risks to get the country ready when it needed to be ready.
I have written somewhat critically about Franklin Roosevelt’s foreign policy leading up to the Second World War. I think we are very much in a similar situation where I do not believe we are prepared to do what would be necessary to defeat China in the South China Sea. And you know, publicly there have been different war games that have been engaged in, and it seems like except for the one by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, all the other war games have us losing. And that to me is scary.
Robert R. Reilly:
It also strikes me, Francis, then as now, the United States seems to prefer, and thinks that it can achieve its objectives, through economic warfare. Clearly, we are at economic war with Russia, and Russia certainly understands that. And now, with the kinds of military equipment we are giving Ukraine, it is more an American war with Ukrainian troops.
And of course, we had economic warfare against Japan, which again some scholars think, you know, there were elements in the Japanese government that wanted instead of moving south, instead of attacking the United States and British and Dutch possessions, they wanted to fight the Soviet Union and go north. And the more we tightened our economic sanctions on Japan, the more it led to the faction in the Japanese government and the military that said no, we need to go south, we need to go west, and so economic sanctions can have unintended consequences.
Robert R. Reilly:
Well, I think that is my understanding of the situation, that when Roosevelt put on the steel and oil embargo on Japan, I believe they received something like 80 percent of their oil from the United States, [and] a comparable percentage of steel. Roosevelt was trying to achieve through economic means something that would require kinetic means.
And I think the Japanese at the time calculated, well, you know, what do we do in the face of this? We have an inventory, maybe a year’s worth of oil and steel, and then we degrade very quickly, so we either have to give in to the demands of the United States, which means our dream of Asian empire or a Greater Co-Prosperity sphere are gone, or we have to move, and it is better to move sooner rather than later. And thus, [we have the Pearl Harbor attack of] December of ’41.
And as you point out, we were unprepared, though, it seems that that action by Japan was entirely predictable. I mean, what did we think it was going to do? I am hardly defending Japan, and I think one way or another, the war would have probably taken place, but when you put your opponent in a position where his most likely response will be to attack you, why are you not ready for that?
And are we doing that with Russia? Are we getting in a situation where we are putting them in a position where [they feel they have to attack us?] Are we going to insist, for example, that not only do they leave the eastern provinces of Ukraine, but they leave Crimea, as well, as some people in this administration are saying. I mean, that is non-negotiable for Russia. They are not going to leave Crimea, and if we insist that it is either that or war, we are kind of doing the same thing we did to Japan in the 1930s.
Robert R. Reilly:
Well, so far, aside from saying whatever it takes, those terms will be set by whatever is acceptable to Ukraine, not to us. It is very worrisome. It is a very tricky situation. Well, Francis, thank you for these remarks. Would you like to give any concluding reflections?
Just very briefly, and the concluding reflections are to once again urge our statesman to emulate George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower. I think these were two leaders, that the experience that they had in leading their countries in war, the experience they had as the top civilian leader of the country, that that experience in war shaped their peacetime presidencies, and it shaped it for the better.
And too often in history, we historians and observers rank the war presidents as the greatest presidents when I think they should take a step back. Maybe it is the peace presidents, the presidents that kept us out of war while still keeping us safe, like George Washington, like Dwight Eisenhower, like Ronald Reagan, that should be the people that are ranked the highest.
Robert R. Reilly:
Thank you, Francis. I thank Francis Sempa for joining us today to speak about how to think strategically about China and Russia. I invite our audience to go to the Westminster website and to our YouTube channel to see our other offerings. We have done many other programs on the Russia-Ukraine war, on China, Taiwan, Japan, and other strategic issues in those parts of the world, as well as the Middle East. Thank you for joining us today. I am Robert Reilly.