In the most recent issue of American Affairs, Walter Hudson argues against “the pull of the Cold War analogy.”1 Cold War analogies for 21st century Sino-American relations are natural yet insufficient. A friend of mine recently complained to me about the thoughtlessness of these analogies. “It is not difficult to rail against lazy Cold War thinking,” I responded. “What is difficult is fleshing out a more illuminating analogy to fill the gap.” Hudson faces this challenge squarely. He argues that the mirror we seek will be found in the eclipse of the British Empire by the United States.
Walter Hudson, “Analogy and Strategy: U.S.-China Competition through an Edwardian Lens,” American Affairs Journal V, no. 3 (August 20, 2021), 117.
The similarities between that moment and our own are many and intriguing. There are declining hegemons overtaken by upsurging revisionist powers. There are national rivalries fought out not with bullets and battles, but business deals and tech breakthroughs. Both feature a self-consciously liberal economic behemoth whose free trade-based economic order is undermined by a protectionist colossus. Both see cutthroat mercantile maneuvers; both witness controversies surrounding commercial secrets and IP theft.
It is an intriguing comparison, but I find myself a tad underwhelmed by Hudson’s presentation. Hudson takes as given elements of British grand strategy that would be more usefully framed as questions. Though the United States advanced at the United Kingdom’s expense, the two powers never came to blows, nor even engaged in a serious military arms race. Hudson finds similarities between this history and Sino-U.S. relations over the last two decades, but in his rush to compare the United States of 1910 to the People’s Republic of 2020, he does not stop to ponder a more interesting comparison: the rising United States and rising Wilhelmine Germany. The UK did engage in intense military competition, and eventually open warfare, with the German Empire. Why British statesman viewed one rising power as a threat and the other with resignation might be useful for understanding the likely shape of American policy today.
Historical analogies are easy to nitpick, and there’s something unhelpful about exposing an analogy to a fusillade of fastidious objections. Analogy crafting demands we distinguish the essential from the incidental. For Hudson, the essence of Sino-American rivalry is the race for technological breakthroughs that might supercharge future economic growth. I anchor my thinking on two other aspects of the competition, each of which shapes the tenor of the entire relationship.
- The severe—perhaps existential—ideological threat the United States and its preferred world order pose to the stability of China’s communist regime.
- The inherently military nature of the Taiwan question.
I have written many times before about the ideological stakes of U.S.-China competition, so will not write at too great of length about it here.2 The upshot is that between 1989 and 1991 the Communist Party of China realized that liberal ideals, both as a guide to American statecraft and as principles embedded in the post-Cold War order, pose a severe threat to the stability of Party rule and stand as an intractable obstacle to the realization of the Party’s quest for “national rejuvenation.” The Chinese recognized Americans as the ideological zealots that we are; they saw then (and still see now) what we call “universal values” as a dagger pointed at the heart of their socio-political system.
For key references see, Matthew Johnson, “Safeguarding Socialism: The Origins, Evolution and Expansion of China’s Total Security Paradigm” (Prague: Sinopsis, November 6, 2020) and “Securitizing Culture in Post-Deng China: An Evolving National Strategic Paradigm, 1994–2014,” Propaganda in the World and Local Conflicts 4, no. 1 (2017): 62–80; Dan Tobin, “”How Xi Jinping’s ‘New Era’ Should Have Ended U.S. Debate on Beijing’s Ambitions, ” Hearing on ‘A “China Model?” Beijing’s Promotion of Alternative Global Norms and Standards,’” § U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (2020); Nadège Rolland, China’s Vision for a New World Order, NBR Special Report (The National Bureau of Asian Research: Seattle, 2020); Rush Doshi, The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021), entire, but for this framing see especially pp. 47-65; John Garver, China’s Quest: The History of the Foreign Relations of the People’s Republic of China (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), pp. 463-578; Samantha Hoffman, Programming China: The Communist Party’s Autonomic Approach to Managing State Security (2017), section II.
This realization was a central orienting point for much of their foreign and domestic policy in the three decades that followed. They searched for one tool after another to blunt the sheen of these ideas; ever they sought to dampen, dismantle, or subvert the institutions and norms that embodied them. Where they could turn the international tide against the logic of liberal internationalism without incurring injurious cost to themselves, they did so. Beijing’s perception of American institutions and intentions—a perception which I acknowledge as largely accurate, if somewhat stereotyped—is the first and most important source of the enmity between the two nations. It makes compromise between the two powers less tractable, and conflict between them more consequential where and when it occurs.
Recognizing this is not a defense of the Cold War analogy. If from the American perspective the stakes are larger than what we faced in our rivalry with Edwardian England, they are still far less existential than the Cold War fight. There is nothing inherently militaristic in China’s visions of a less liberal world order. China’s leaders are quite explicit about the economic nature of their quest to reshape the globe. We live in what the Chinese communists call a “period of strategic opportunity;” in such a period, economic and political forces that Xi Jinping likes to dub “great trends of history” ensure that the political returns on military operations are quite low. Military adventurism is associated with America’s failed campaigns to remake the Middle East; the Chinese are not keen on copying the American experience. Instead they plan to “take center stage in the world” through a “path of peaceful development.” With global economic interdependence centered on China (and the option to use United Front tactics to grease the wheels on tough cases), there is no need for the Communist Party of China to resort to arms—or arms races—to bring about their desired world order.3
For more on this see Tanner Greer, “The Theory of History That Guides Xi Jinping,” Palladium (8 July 2020).
Or such would be the case, save for the question of Taiwan.
The path of economic integration and political manipulation has been tried in Taiwan. It has failed. Two elections in a row the Taiwanese have elected the anti-Beijing candidate. Every passing year pulls the population of Taiwan further away from the political settlement Beijing most desires. The Taiwanese simply will not freely give themselves over to mainland domination. The Party must find some other way to force the issue.
Military coercion is the only solution with hope of success. This might mean an actual armed invasion of the island of Taiwan, but not necessarily—a military buildup of significant scale might be enough to browbeat the Taiwanese into accepting tyranny. The task is made more difficult by the American commitment to Taiwan’s security. The 1997 Taiwan Straits Crisis was a misadventure China’s communist leaders do not wish to repeat. The massive, two-decade long military modernization campaign that has reshaped the PLA, with its focus on retooling the PLA Navy, Air Force, and Rocket Force from the ground up, is best understood in this context. One unhappy day, they believe, the Taiwan question will be settled. On that day the Americans must be deterred from intervening, or defeated in their attempt. When that occurs the Chinese people will thank the foresight of leaders who understood Sino-American rivalry through the prism of a marathon modernization program.
Were it not for Taiwan, Hudson’s supposition that the PLA’s modernization is mostly about national glory and commerce protection (as was the U.S. Navy’s expansion under Teddy Roosevelt) would hold some water. Were it not for Taiwan, I would feel far more confident in our ability to sustain long term technological and economic rivalry with the Chinese sans dangerous disruptions in the security domain. But there is a Taiwan, so the problem persists.
Taiwan’s ambiguous position muddies all analogy. Taiwanese democracy propels the communists towards military solutions. Chinese enmity towards the American led-order, combined with America’s historical commitment to Taiwan’s defense, propels Washington to respond. Taiwan is the link between the geopolitical rivalry of today and the military brinkmanship of tomorrow. Historical analogies that do not put the Taiwan question at the center of their analysis will cloud more than they clarify.
This is the strength of a new essay by Keith Payne.
We live in a season where every analyst hopes to sell his wares by branding it with China; Payne’s essay is far and away the most thoughtful thing I have seen written by a generalist with no special expertise in Chinese military affairs. Payne is an expert in Cold War strategic thinking. In his most recent piece, he explains the Cold War provenance of the assumptions built into our concept of “strategic ambiguity” and why these assumptions no longer apply today. 4
Keith B. Payne, “The Taiwan Question: How to Think About Deterrence Now,” Information Series (Washington DC: National Institute For Public Policy, November 16, 2021),
“It is no surprise that the founders of U.S. deterrence theory,” Payne writes, were “from that generation of thinkers and policy makers active immediately after the Second World War—when the United States was at the height of its power relative to the rest of the world.” Cold War deterrence was grounded in uncertainty. No American leader could commit their country to mutually assured destruction—but they could arrange things in such a way that if war broke out, the situation might possibly get out of control and lead to a broader escalation. This is the original strategic rational of “ambiguity,” an idea made for an era when “the U.S. power advantages at the time suited the narrative that the United States could endure uncertainty with greater determination than any other state.”5
But when the power differential is more ambiguous, strategic ambiguity has less deterrent power. We hope that “the Chinese fear of the possibility of a very strong U.S. reaction will render the U.S. deterrent sufficiently credible to be effective” rather than fear “the alternative possibility that China will instead be reassured by ambiguity regarding the U.S. response and thereby conclude that the risk of moving against Taiwan would be acceptable,” but have not stopped to ask why the old Cold War deterrence posture worked the way it did.6 The lesson of the Cold War, Payne argues, is that
If the state seeking to deter… is not manifestly dominant in its deterrent power position relative to its opponent, there is no reason whatsoever to believe that it will be any less driven to caution by uncertainty than will be the opponent. A presumed greater U.S. willingness to engage in a competition of threats in the context of uncertainty can logically only come from some perceived advantage over the opponent. This advantage may be in will, risk tolerance, manifest determination, and/or military options—but there must be an advantage that allows the United States to be more resolute in an uncertain context than is the opponent… The weaker opponent must fear the dominant power’s potential reaction, and that fear may reasonably be expected to produce caution and deterrent effect. In the absence of some level of dominance, however, that expectation has no reasonable basis.7
Do we have sufficient dominance for an ambiguous commitment to mean much to the Chinese? Payne is pessimistic:
Unlike the U.S. extended deterrent to allies during the Cold War that included the threat of nuclear escalation in the event of Soviet attack, the United States does not have any apparent nuclear umbrella commitment to Taiwan and no bloody history of national sacrifice for Taiwan. And, while the Cold War extended deterrent was accompanied by the U.S. deployment of large numbers of “trip wire forces” and thousands of forward-deployed nuclear weapons to buttress its credibility, the United States appears to have no serious “trip wire” forces on Taiwan and eliminated virtually all of its forward-deployable, non-strategic nuclear weapons following the end of the Cold War. Even the venerable submarine-launched, nuclear-armed cruise missile (TLAM-N) was retired from service a decade ago.
In contrast, China may leave open the option of nuclear first use with regard to the Taiwan Question and has numerous and expanding nuclear and non-nuclear capabilities to support the forceful resolution of the Taiwan Question, if necessary. The United States now faces the possible reality of an opponent with both local conventional force advantages and a nuclear escalation threat in the event of a conflict over Taiwan. The United States must, correspondingly, deal with the caution that context must force on Washington—it has no readily-apparent deterrence advantage in this context, no deterrence dominance. The United States and NATO built their deterrence policy against the Soviet Union on the presumption that Soviet leaders would be compelled to caution by the West’s threat of nuclear escalation—however uncertain. Yet, now it is the United States that must face a possible Chinese nuclear escalation threat with no apparent advantages to mitigate its deterring effect other than the capability to engage in a nuclear escalation process that could be self-destructive
…The past circumstances that favored this U.S. approach to deterrence are not a U.S. birthright. The United States took extensive and expensive steps to help preserve its deterrence position during the Cold War even as it lost dominance. However, unlike in the Cold War, and in the absence of any comparable steps, the United States appears now to face a foe that is virtually compelled by the political context to challenge the U.S. position, by force if necessary. Indeed, in its pursuit of Taiwan, China likely cannot, and does not appear to share the caution generally practiced by the Soviet Union in its pursuit of expansionist goals—caution possible for the Soviet Union because it was not dedicated to an expansionist goal it deemed to be of existential importance. This fundamental difference in the political context degrades the value of the early U.S. Cold War deterrence experience that underlies most contemporary discussions of the subject.8
Payne concludes that the “essentially familiar [Cold War] narratives regarding deterrence” should be rejected as “as guidance for contemporary U.S. deterrence policy… in this case.”9 He is right. Payne’s paper should be shared widely. In about 10 pages he lays out the history of American deterrence and the scale of change needed to effectively implement it across the Straits. His conclusions should be sending alarm bells off all over Washington.
As a closing note: There is one irony in this discussion of faulty Cold War analogies. Communist media often accuse Americans of being wedded to “Cold War thinking.” Yet it is this same sort of thinking that keeps Washington complacent! Far from spurring conflict onward, Cold War metaphors have kept America from acting with the urgency the situation demands.