Top American conservatives including AT’s David Goldman recently debated the risks of preparing for war with China
Whether the United States should prepare for war with China – and thereby make war almost inevitable – was the matter of a verbal brawl at one of the largest gatherings of American conservatives, the National Conservatism Conference in Orlando, Florida, from October 31 to November 2.
The same debate is ongoing in American opinion journals, where the war party is represented by the neo-conservatives of the American Enterprise Institute – Hal Brands, Dan Blumenthal, Gary Schmitt and Michael Mazza – and former National Security Adviser John Bolton.
I was a participant in the debate. It would have been unseemly to have a polite exchange in a hotel ballroom a few miles from Disney World about the desirability of killing millions of people in a nuclear exchange. So I wasn’t polite.
Although the arguments on both sides are well known, the Orlando debate merited publication of a lengthy edited transcript, for two reasons. First, the exchange between former Trump adviser and war-hawk Michael Pillsbury on one side, and former Trump National Security Council official Michael Anton and this writer on the other, set the issues in poignant relief.
Second, the audience of conservative activists, the opinion and organizational leaders of the Republican Party, repudiated the war party by a margin of about three to one, by my informal poll of the audience.
The American right doesn’t want war with China. That doesn’t mean war won’t come. Christopher Clark’s magisterial account of the outbreak of World War I, The Sleepwalkers, recounts the intellectual corruption and grandiose irresponsibility of the statesmen who stumbled into World War I.
It’s an old story: If one side mobilizes, the other has to mobilize or be defenseless; if one side believes the other is likely to mobilize, it must do so first. Clark proved – contrary to the usual Anglophile account – that it was the Russian mobilization, urged by the French, that started the war.
By the same token, if the United States attempts to force the issue of Taiwan’s independence, China will pre-empt this by seizing the island. If the United States takes military measures – stationing troops on the island, mining the Taiwan Straits – China will have to consider pre-emptive action.
It’s August 1914 all over again, played as farce rather than tragedy. The European powers had existential interests to defend; the United States has nothing to lose but the perception that it can project its power anywhere in the world, including China’s coasts.
The American military wasted US$6 trillion and thousands of lives in misguided nation-building campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, while China built up a massive high-tech defense in and around its coasts.
This weakened America’s strategic position decisively. The blunderers who vitiated America’s defense will risk war simply to save their reputations. The war hawks have shown scant interest in rising to China’s technological ambition, which presents a real challenge to America’s leading position in the world.
But they will roll the dice on war over issues that do not bear directly on American security. Compared to them, the sleepwalkers of 1914 were exemplars of enlightened statesmanship.
There follows my edit of the transcript of the conference session on China. I have included all the points of substance, leaving out the ancillary discussion in the interest of space. Video of the event will be available at the conference website.
Pillsbury: The Hundred-Year Marathon [Pillsbury’s best-selling book] was translated by the Chinese military. No royalties, but they had a little ceremony for me. They make fun of Biden. They say Biden is plagiarizing, it’s the Trump administration policy.
Trump loves to say, if Hillary Clinton had won the election, China would be surpassing us now. But it’s not going to happen on my watch. If you’re close watchers of Joe Biden’s TV interviews, four months ago, he said the exact same words.
China wants to surpass us, but it’s not going to happen on my watch. The Chinese reaction to that is to laugh. Because they don’t expect it to come that soon. But when they do surpass us, I think the level of arrogance they showed today is going to be something that we wish for.
When they do believe that they’re superior to us in a number of ways. We will wish that it was 1947 when the Soviet Cold War began, and we did was, we created the CIA by legislation. We created the Defense Department. We created the National Security Council.
There’s not a single new institution in our government to deal with China. I think there should be.
Goldman: We will spend these next few days complaining about how terrible things are. I hear very little discussion of what we need to do about it. My argument is very simple. We’ve done it before. We did it during the Reagan administration. We did it during the Kennedy administration, we did it under Franklin Roosevelt.
We need to rebuild the American economy and we can only do that with a visionary strategy that galvanizes the imagination of Americans like the Kennedy moon-shot, the Reagan SDI. The numbers show that the Trump policy towards China was a catastrophic failure. We’re importing now more than 30% more from China than we did in January 2018, when Trump imposed tariffs.
And as for technology suppression? China’s built 70% of the world’s 5G networks and is proceeding to build the applications on top of that, which constitute the Fourth Industrial Revolution. We can do better than China. We’re better equipped to innovate than China.
But we’re not because we’re crushed by a technocratic elite which has sucked the marrow out of the United States economy and generated enormous wealth doing things that, for the most part, harm us. Nothing short of an intervention by the federal government, namely an industrial policy, will turn that around.
That’s not a classically liberal view of things. Industrial policies are dangerous. They lead to rent-seeking behavior, corruption and too much state power. But that’s what you do in a war, and we’ve got the economic equivalent of a war going on.
The thing that worries me the most is the knuckleheads who spent $6 trillion on forever wars and gutted our military by frittering away our resources. If we’d spent a 10th of that on high-tech weaponry, we wouldn’t be worrying about China’s hypervelocity missiles or anything else like that.
They will steer us into a confrontation with China that will lead to a war that nobody can win. John Bolton is the most dangerous lunatic roaming the streets of the United States right now. If you try to force the independence of Taiwan, any Chinese government that wants to rule China will use military action, Communist or not.
The Chinese Communist Party is Communist the same way the mafia is Catholic. They take it very seriously. But it has very little practical importance for running a Chinese empire. You have to suppress rebel provinces. The only thing we can do with Taiwan is to maintain strategic ambiguity, raise the price of the Chinese taking it by force, which we have no means to stop at this point short of a nuclear war.
We should dissuade them from doing it, maintain Taiwanese democracy and walk the fine line. Bolton would call the question, and that gets a lot of people killed. If you don’t believe me, read Admiral Stavridis’ marvelous thriller 2034. Spoiler alert: We blow up a bunch of their cities. They blow up a bunch of our cities and we’re back to square one.
Now let me talk about the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which is what’s really critical here. Wars are not won by stealing data, they are not won by spies, they are won by logistics in depth and the willingness to prevail. The first industrial revolution began when James Watt sold his first commercial steam engine in 1776.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution began when China responded to the Covid-19 pandemic by using artificial intelligence applied to massive data sets to predict potential outbreaks. They are now proceeding to roll out the technologies associated with this. This is the real science fiction stuff we’re talking about – 5G permitting groups of industrial robots to communicate on the shop floor and program themselves.
Smart logistics allow individual objects to be tracked from mine to factory to warehouse to ship back to warehouse to truck loaded onto autonomous vehicles and controlled all the way. It allows AI servers to optimize urban traffic and match every passenger and package to a conveyance.
It allows sensors at the base of soybean plants to communicate with drones that deliver fertilizer and pesticides and direct autonomous tractors to harvest them. We’re talking about an explosion of productivity like that of the first and second industrial revolutions.
The main thing the Chinese stole from us was the great idea of the Reagan Revolution that you can have dual-use technologies, which both give you button guns and butter. They foster civilian productivity. They pay for themselves 10 times over, just like the Apollo program did, just like the Strategic Defense Initiative did.
Every single invention of the digital age. No exceptions started with the DARPA project. They were all funded by the Department of Defense.
The Chinese have stolen the American approach. They want to be Reagan in the Cold War against the sclerotic Soviet Union. Now, they’re not as good at it as we are. My argument is we have nothing to learn; we only need to remember. We know all these things because we’ve done every single one of them.
We only have to dust off the old ideas and get the band back together, and what I put to you is that the conservative movement needs a part of a positive program, a set of solutions to galvanize the American people, capture their imagination, as Kennedy did when he pointed to the Moon, as Reagan did when he promised to defend the homeland against enemy ballistic missiles.
We need a positive view. We need a can-do approach, and we need to found it on the proven track record of the United States of America in pioneering the future for the world.
Tear gas is fired in a pitched battle between protesters and riot police at the Chinese University of Hong Kong on November 12, 2019. Photo: AFP
Anton: I’m just going to go through a couple of historical points to put this in context. In 1842, the Chinese ceded Hong Kong island to the British in perpetuity – in perpetuity. The Chinese regime at the time of Imperial China greatly resented it. And that resentment carried over through Republican China to Communist China, National, etc.
Why is this important? This is something that was a thorn in the side of the succession of China as a civilization, not of one regime, not of the communist regime of China for 150 years. It bothered them very greatly. They look forward to the day when they could get it back. They were patient and they got it back.
Without conflict, without much of a struggle, with just some gnashing of teeth and hair, pulling and sighing and crying by the British, but they got it back. A couple of quotes. “To win without fighting is best.” Some of you may remember recognize this. The second one is: “To destroy the enemy is not the acme of skill; to capture what you want from the enemy, whether that’s a city, a fortress, a ship, an army, that is the acme of skill.”
Those are both from Sun Tzu, a Chinese classic written about 200 BC. This very well encapsulates the Chinese strategy, I would say, with regard to Hong Kong and with regard to Taiwan.
Taiwan is a similar thorn in the psyche of China. This would be the case, no matter what the regime in Beijing were. It could be, you know, the neocons’ fantasy of a liberal democratic China, and they would still really care about getting Taiwan back. It’s central to the regime’s conception of its territorial national integrity…
One very firm demand of the Chinese government on the international community is Taiwan can never be a full member of an international organization for which statehood is a member and as a requirement, and they make it very plain that they’ll go to war over that. They’re very, very clear about this.
An Article five guarantee in the NATO charter, for instance, that is a treaty requirement that the United States has got to go to a nuclear war in defense of a place. [Our agreement with Taiwan] is a commitment of sorts. The full extent of it and what it legally obligates us to do is a bit ambiguous compared to an actual mutual defense treaty signed by both sides.
This comes up a lot, especially lately, because we are told constantly that crisis is brewing in the Taiwan Straits. China’s been patient. Patience may be running out. Maybe they’ll try to do something soon.
What we’ve seen now is a pretty dramatic shift toward I still have a bipartisan consensus on China, but now it’s a bipartisan consensus to sort of beat up on them rhetorically not to take any actual action as far as I can see, except some of the things we talked about. But what, where that rhetoric leads is, you know, we’re obligated to do something about Taiwan and it would be a stain on the national honor and so on and so forth. And so if something happens, we’ve got to get into a fight.
China’s preference is still to take Taiwan without fighting for it. Time is on their side. Some are saying, some people who claim to know, are saying, Oh no, no, they’re getting impatient and they’re going to … they’re going to do something shortly. I just have no basis to evaluate that.
But based on historical precedent, I think the Chinese would certainly like to do exactly what they did with regard to Hong Kong, tipped the balance of strategic power, economic power, political power so much against the possibility of continued Taiwanese independence that public opinion in Taiwan comes to accept the notion that we just have to make the best deal we can make. And then you win without fighting.
You know, a nation of 24 million can only have so big a military and especially against a nation of 1.4 billion … China’s been building up [its military] for decades. The Taiwan-American combination has not caught up either in terms of sheer numbers and certainly not in terms of technology.
So that’s a way of winning without fighting if you have two or three decades to build up so much force on one side that the other side just looks at it and goes, “I can’t win that fight,” then the fight doesn’t happen unless the other side is delusional or crazy brave.
And the last point I will raise, I just want you to think about this. I’ll tell you the last time a United States aircraft carrier was sunk. It was the battle of Midway, the USS Yorktown, June of 1942. Actually, we did lose an aircraft carrier last year, not a fleet carrier, a smaller carrier, you know why? Because it burned in San Diego Harbor and the navy couldn’t figure out how to put out the fire.
And they had to scrap the ship, the USS Bonhomme Richard. Look it up. The navy crashed four ships in 2017. Read the official reports from the Department of the Navy and the Congressional investigations on those crashes. They were marvels of esoteric writing to try to dodge the cause of what happened, while somehow revealing it between the lines.
If you’re Taiwan and you’re counting on the United States to defend you, what conclusion did you draw from Afghanistan this summer? Did you get the conclusion that here is a great power that knows what it’s doing, that keeps its promises, and that can execute the things that it wants to do?
Plausibly, if not certainly, the Chinese have had an ability to sink a fleet carrier for the last decade. And ask yourself how the nation would take it. Right now, there seems to be a massive amount of group think. We’re only allowed to think about this one way. Nobody is allowed to bring up any of the counterfactuals or any, you know, any other outlying considerations.
And when policy is made on that basis, horrible blunders and catastrophes result. So before the United States commits itself to some policy or before we, whoever we broadly understood as being in this room are right of center conservatives, intellectuals, nationalists want the best for our country, who want the best for our military, who want to maintain our alliance structure with credibility.
But before we commit ourselves to a policy, are we in this room? Take a stand in favor of X or against Y and make recommendations that other people may read and listen to. We should be at least thinking about all of these considerations and, in my view, the conversation as it has. I don’t mean this conversation. I mean, the broad conversation on Taiwan has taken insufficient account of the things that I mentioned and others.
Military helicopters carrying large Taiwan flags do flyby rehearsals on October 5 ahead of National Day celebrations amid escalating tensions between Taipei and Beijing. Photo: AFP / Ceng Shou Yi / NurPhoto
Goldman: The most important fact about any country is its people. Taiwan, according to the CIA World Factbook, has the lowest birth rate of any political entity in the world … China does have a demographic crisis, but Japan, South Korea and especially Taiwan are much worse.
So if you simply. Kick the can down the road, maintain strategic ambiguity. What the Chinese will get if they eventually get Taiwan is a bunch of old people. It’s simply, in my view, not worth having a nuclear war over.
The ideal situation is to maintain the status quo as long as possible. Anything else means a war, and the possible loss of American cities. I ultimately don’t care about China. I care about the United States of America. I’m a nationalist and I want what’s best for us.
We can’t abandon Taiwan because it makes us look weak and we lose important economic advantages and leverage against China. We can’t force the issue and start a war. The Chinese have hundreds of anti-ship missiles.
Michael Pillsbury and I have something in common. He for many years, and I briefly, worked for a great man at the Pentagon, Andrew Marshall, head of the Office of Net Assessment. Andy told me in 2013 that the Chinese missiles could sink an American carrier.
Anton: I think the core answer, it is the best outcome is the status quo for as long as possible because any attempt to change the status quo will be worse than the status quo. There are only two alternatives to the status quo.
One is Taiwanese independence. Well, Taiwanese independence will start a war. Taiwan becoming part of China would be net bad for us. Obviously, if it becomes a part of China through military action, that’s worse than if they just make a deal.
So for as long as the status quo can be maintained, that’s, unfortunately, the best possible scenario. And I just say unfortunately, because it’s an inherently unstable scenario, and it’s also by its very definition, it’s not permanent. The status quo isn’t going to last forever, so let’s stretch it out for as long as we can, and that’s unfortunately about the best we can do.
Pillsbury: President Trump once asked me, How did we used to defend Taiwan? He saw me as the in-house historian who knew all this ancient stuff. Nobody else in the room knew. So I finally spoke up.
We used to have atom bombs there. We used to have them attached to jet fighters ready to go to hit the mainland with the Chinese made sure that Kissinger took them out in ’74. We used to have a treaty with a garrison and 30,000 troops and a war planning unit underground in Taipei. Now it’s an art center and a Mongolian barbecue restaurant …
So what do the paranoid group in charge today say when they hear someone like Michael Anton say, oh, we can’t get it in a war, you know, they think that this is American deception. Of course, the Americans are going to get into a war, which is why they’ve been increasing the deployments and we are moving closer to nuclear war with China.
It’s not just me saying this, quite a few other people inside the government. The head of our strategic command in charge of all our nuclear forces, he’s given two interviews. He says the Chinese are engaging in a strategic breakout of their nuclear weapons, including ICBMs, which they are doubling or tripling.
This is the four-star admiral who commands our nuclear forces. Quite a few other people are talking this way – very different from Michael Anton. They’re more like Churchill. Bill Buckley, the long tradition of Americans like Barry Goldwater … So I’m going to have to go home to Washington.
So yes, I went to the conservatism conference. A bunch of the people there on the panel said surrender Taiwan. We don’t want to go to war with China. That’s appeasement. Michael and I should clarify his remarks in my humble opinion.
Anton: If they can sink an aircraft carrier and if the only way to stop an invasion of Taiwan is to deploy the forward-deployed aircraft carrier and Yokosuka and maybe send one or two others out there, which as far as I know, is the only way for the United States to effectively defend the island if the Chinese decide to invade it and they sink one of these 12 to 14 billion dollar behemoths with 6,500 men on board.
What’s the US response going to be at that point?
Pillsbury: Well, we could turn to you and say, I surrender.
Anton: What would you do if you were either the secretary of defense, the president, the head of a Pacific Command and sitting there in Pearl Harbor?
Pillsbury: I’ve been working on this for 30 years. More recently, the US has gotten a much more detailed picture of what it could do. Exactly which targets inside China could be struck. What would happen the first morning?
More and more work is being done on both sides about how a war would happen and both the Chinese and American military have come to a conclusion. It would be a long war. Okay, maybe two or three years – I haven’t read.
There’s a brand new book by the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Pentagon under Trump [Elbridge Colby’s The Strategy of Denial, featured in a June 2021 Asia Times webinar]. There’s a whole chapter on how to recapture Taiwan after it’s been partially taken by the Chinese military.
This is the state of the art thinking. There’s a new piece of legislation, the Taiwan Defense Act … They say, please, Pentagon, give us a plan for how to avoid a fait accompli taking place on Taiwan. The Pentagon is drafting their response.
We’re moving closer to a war. It doesn’t help for you to tell conservatives, oh, if we lose an aircraft carrier, what are we going to do then? What would Winston Churchill say?
Goldman: What, Winston Churchill? Just before the fall of Singapore in 1942, according to Andrew Roberts, Winston Churchill said in the event of war “the Japanese would fold up like the Italians because there were the wops of the Far East.”
Winston Churchill, when it came to Asia, was an absolute idiot, and we bailed him out. He was as stupid as Nicholas II who lost the Russian fleet at Tsushima [in 1905]. Bridge Colby has been a dear friend for 20 years who is now hallucinating about what the United States might do to take Taiwan back. This is crazy.
Anton: Following the logic of what you said – because I haven’t read whatever STRATCOM put out – I have read certain analyses: not even analysis. There’s speculations that the Chinese are increasing the size of the nuclear arsenal in this underground network of tunnels that we can’t follow and so on.
The official estimate that we have some confidence in is that the Chinese nuclear arsenal is at least 300 warheads, right? None of which have to be air-dropped anymore. That means all [delivered by] ICBM. And if you read their doctrine, unlike ours, they formally take a doctrine of minimal deterrence.
That is to say, they have no kind of nuclear warfighting doctrine at all. They just have city killers. And if they feel that the territorial integrity of China or the survival of the state is at stake, they’re willing to use those 300 missiles or some portion of them on American cities.
In fact, once as I’m sure you remember in the far-off year of 1996 on one of the more tense moments in the Taiwan Strait, a Chinese general was quoted as saying, “I don’t think the Americans will do anything at the end of the day. They won’t want to trade Los Angeles for Taipei.”
Their nuclear arsenal is now triple what it was. And they’re going on a more offensive posture with nuclear weapons and this thing ends up going to nuclear war. How that fits into the seeming recommendation you just gave, I have to admit, being somewhat dim, I don’t see because it would seem to make the danger greater.
And I also would ask: What do you think the American people’s response to losing a fleet carrier would be? My own estimate is it would be the greatest psychological shock we’ve had in a generation, arguably greater than 9/11.
Unquestionably, getting one single city nuked would be the greatest psychological shock the American nation has ever had in its history. So how do we deal with something like that, given that Taiwan is orders of magnitude more important to China, and they’re willing to do that over this, as they have said, than it is to us?
Well, I’m going to be the dove here and say that it’s possible to avoid a nuclear war, whether it be over Taiwan or any other place. I’d kind of prefer to do that. If that makes me an outlier, I’m at least I’m in good company with that other famous nuclear dove named Ronald Reagan.
United States detonating an atomic bomb at Bikini Atoll in Micronesia for the first underwater test of the device in 1946. Photo: World History Archive
Goldman: [to the audience] Who volunteers to be in the first city that gets nuked? Any takers?
Pillsbury: One wonderful book shocked the hell out of me. It came out of the Hoover Institution 1962. It’s called Wall Street and Hitler. It’s by a professor who went through the Nuremberg war trials after the war.
I didn’t know Henry Ford’s photo was in Hitler’s office. I didn’t know the Nazis gave prizes to different American businessmen. I didn’t know that the Nazis knew they lacked synthetic oil production and that they got the technology from America.
It’s a long book and it goes to in great detail what Wall Street was willing to do even as late as 1938-1939. We had a huge debate about getting involved in Europe … A big group in our country in ’38, ’39 wanted to surrender to Hitler – for lack of a better word surrender.
Anton: What are they trying to do? I mean, the Soviet Union had to be contained because the Soviet Union was very explicitly an expansionist power. We know the Chinese would like to expand and take Taiwan.
I’m not aware of the Chinese wanting to expand and take other people’s territory. They want to exert dominance in East Asia and in the western Pacific, and some of that dominance they will exert in ways that will be deleterious to American interests.
That’s irrespective of our ability to be able to prevent and stop that. But I think there are certain things we could probably be doing better that could push back against some of those influences. But it’s not as if unless, you know, Michael Pillsbury could tell me differently.
Like the Chinese after Taiwan, they’re going to invade South Korea and they’re going to invade Japan, and then they’re going to invade Vietnam. I don’t know. I don’t get the sense of that from them, nor in the sources that I read. Granted, I can’t read Mandarin. They don’t say that they want to do that.
Pillsbury: Specifically, specifically on Japan and in India … the Chinese think this is part of the key. They hope the Americans don’t do it. The Japanese stick to 1% of their GDP on defense, which is very, very low. Maybe that will double to 2% over the coming years.
That’s an alarm sign to the Chinese. The Indians want to. They’re fiercely independent. The British poured poison in their ears as they left that the Americans are going to be a new colonial power.
You know, we don’t have a treaty with them. So we’ve got a long way with the Indians. We have quite a few military exercises … So slowly, we’re improving our military cooperation with India, other countries in the region.
Trump picked up the idea of the Quad as a magic word. Japanese say they invented it. Biden attacked Trump. You don’t, you know, you’re not seeking help from our allies. I think it was not true. But the Quad, even under Biden, is starting to increase its consultations, mainly about China. So things are moving in the direction of your question.