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Not bluffing: the U.S., China and the threat of war over Taiwan

Originally published: Counterfire on May 14 2023 by Chris Bambery (more by Counterfire)  | (Posted May 19, 2023)

At the end of January this year, a U.S. Air Force General. Mike Minihan, head of the 50,000 member Air Mobility Command, made headlines when he predicted war with China in 2025. According to the New York Post, the General told his officers to drill service members, ‘with the full understanding that unrepentant lethality matters most.’

Taiwan’s Foreign Minister, Joseph Wu, agreed with Minihan on the likelihood of war but sees it coming two years later, in 2027. In a British radio interview in April he said he is preparing for the possibility of a conflict with China ‘We are taking the Chinese military threat very seriously … I think 2027 is the year that we need to be serious about.’

Is this serious, and if so, how on earth did we get into this terrifying situation?

U.S. perceptions of a threat from China

Let me introduce you to Elbridge A. Colby. Mr. Colby believes that the United States can fight and win a war with China if the latter chooses to invade Taiwan, which it regards as part of its own real estate. Elbridge A. Colby was a senior Defence Department official in the Trump administration and a member of the very influential private think tank, The Council on Foreign Relations, which is crucial in outlining America’s imperial strategy.

His grandfather was William E. Colby, who was ‘deputy ambassador for pacification’ in South Vietnam during the war there. That meant he was in charge of a programme to take out the civilian support network for the National Liberation Front. Later he became head of the CIA under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.

His father, Jonathan E. Colby, directs a key private-equity company, was a member of the National Security Council and served in the Nixon administration on the National Security Council under the direction of Henry Kissinger. In 2021, Eldridge published Strategy of Denial: American Defence in an Age of Great Power Conflict, dedicated to his father. His assessment of the risk China poses to U.S. hegemony is very clear:

If a state such as China could establish hegemony over a key region such as Asia, it would have substantial incentives to use its power to disfavor and exclude the United States from reasonably free trade and access to these wealthy regions in ways that would undermine America’s core purposes, shift the balance of power against the United States, and ultimately open the country to direct coercion in ways that would compromise Americans’ freedom, prosperity, and even physical security. This is because if China could establish hegemony over Asia, it could then set up a commercial and trading bloc anchored in the world’s largest market that would privilege its own and subordinates’ economies while disfavoring America’s … The steady erosion of America’s economic power would ultimately weaken the nation’s social vitality and stability.[i]

Chinese dominance of Asia would be a body blow for the USA:

An arrangement that burdened America’s ability to trade with Asia, which is the world’s largest market and includes many of the world’s most advanced economies, would depress the relative wealth of the United States. This in turn would weaken American power and consequently its ability to influence events … By undermining Americans’ prosperity and expectations of future growth, China would make American society worse off and more susceptible to internal disputes over a stagnant economic pie.[ii]

His solution is the creation of an American ‘defence perimeter’, involving Japan and South Korea in the north, Taiwan in the centre and, in the south, the Philippines. This is not all, however. Believing the Chinese would not decide to respond with nuclear weapons, Elbridge believes that an effective response to a Chinese attack on Taiwan should involve a massive military onslaught:

… destroying more and more Chinese military and industrial targets. Since China could always move military forces from one zone to another, produce arms in new or different factories, or launch air or missile strikes at U.S. allies from various locations across its vast territory, all of China could become the target of a thoroughgoing denial campaign. True denial of China’s ability to reconstitute its capacity to attack Taiwan or another U.S. ally in the coalition could therefore turn into an effort to destroy a much broader fraction—if not the entirety—of the Chinese military and industrial base. … The natural end point of a pure denial approach could well, then, be the full scale defeat of the Chinese military and state.[iii]

To repeat, Colby believes China will choose to accept this without recourse to using its nuclear weapons. Well, maybe, but what of North Korea, who must see the writing on the wall in such a situation?

Just because he served in the Trump administration he should not be written off as a neo-con maverick. He is a Washington insider, tied into the defence establishment, from a family which is part of the ruling class. Some have tried to argue that the American and Chinese economies are complementary—China sells its goods in the U.S. while Apple and others rely on manufacturing in China—and that therefore war between the two great powers is unlikely. For these people, Trump’s hostility to China was an aberration, a policy that would not be pursued by Biden, his Democratic successor.

Biden-Trump policy continuity

On March 24, 2021, Thomas Christensen, a professor of international affairs at Columbia University and former deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs under George W. Bush, published an article titled, ‘There Will Not Be a New Cold War,’ in the prestigious journal Foreign Affairs.

Christensen accepted that Donald Trump had initiated a cold war with China by imposing tariffs on certain Chinese goods, but argued that under President Biden, the White House would recognise China’s ‘vital position in the global value chain’ and that tensions would ease. For Christensen, China was not an aggressive power in ideological or geopolitical terms, but was simply interested in economic competition.[iv] This is an argument that echoes those of Norman Angell and Karl Kautsky, both theorists who believed that war had become irrational from a capitalist point of view in a more and more interdependent capitalist system. Both of course were proved wrong by the outbreak of World War I.

Christensen really shouldn’t have been so naïve. In the build-up to the election Biden wrote a piece in Foreign Affairs arguing:

The United States does need to get tough with China. If China has its way, it will keep robbing the United States and American companies of their technology and intellectual property. It will also keep using subsidies to give its state-owned enterprises an unfair advantage—and a leg up on dominating the technologies and industries of the future. The most effective way to meet that challenge is to build a united front of U.S. allies and partners to confront China’s abusive behaviors.[v]

A key report for the Council for Foreign Relations on grand strategy toward China published early in Biden’s presidency reinforced this position. It recognised that China aims to be the greatest power in the modern world. As a result, China ‘has bolstered its national power in ways that deeply threaten U.S. national interests in the long term.’ There was a window of opportunity, the report argues, for the United States to head off this development, but it involves decisive military action:

The United States should substantially strengthen its military power projection into Asia, shifting resources from the European and Middle Eastern theaters to improve the capability of U.S. military forces to effectively bring its power to bear within the first and second island chains despite any Chinese opposition.[vi]

The danger of not acting is underlined by the fact that China has moved to significantly to expand its military might. China’s military has made rapid headway toward its goal of becoming a world-class fighting force on par with United States by 2050. It is true that its troops have no real combat experience — the last war China fought was a brief but bloody conflict with Vietnam in 1979 — but the official defence budget has grown from $114.3 billion in 2014 to $230 billion in 2022.

Sure enough, just days before Christensen’s article appeared, the Biden administration made it clear not only would it be continuing Trump’s cold war with China but would ramp it up. On 12 March, Biden had met with the heads of state of Japan, India, and Australia, representing the new Quad, a military-strategic alliance led by the United States. The joint statement issued from the meeting was clearly antagonistic towards China. On the same day the U.S. Federal Communications Commission placed five Chinese companies including Huawei, on a blacklist. Four days later, Biden renewed Trump’s sanctions on 24 Chinese government officials.

A New Cold War

All this took place in the build-up to the first high-level meeting between the two governments, in Anchorage Alaska on 18 March 2021. At the meeting, U.S. secretary of state Antony Blinken and national security advisor Jake Sullivan met China’s director of the Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs Yang Jiechi, and Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi. As might have been expected, this was not a happy encounter. As John Bellamy Foster explained in Monthly Review, Blinken began the meeting by warning China that its actions were threatening the rules-based order and that ‘The United States was ready not only to be competitive, and in some areas “collaborative”, with China, but also to be strongly “adversarial” where necessary.’

According to Foster, Sullivan then relayed the fact that the leaders of the Quad shared security concerns about China in the Indo-Pacific, and believed that China was engaging in ‘economic and military coercion’ and ‘assaults on basic values’. He said that while the U.S. would welcome ‘stiff competition’ with China, it was also preparing for full-scale conflict.[vii]

As Foster points out, all this was consistent with a sharp ratcheting up in tensions with China in Biden’s first hundred days in office:

From January to April 2021, U.S. military activity along China’s borders increased sharply, with incursions of U.S. military ships in Chinese-claimed territorial waters rising by 20 percent and U.S. military aircraft incursions in Chinese air space growing by 40 percent. In March, Germany deployed a warship in the South China Sea aimed at China, with Washington welcoming “Germany’s support for a rules-based international order in the Indo-Pacific.” In April, the United States sent an additional carrier strike group to bolster its forces in the South China Sea. Meanwhile, Britain is sending its Queen Elizabeth II carrier strike group into the South China Sea in a tilt to the Indo-Pacific. The United States currently has four hundred military bases and some 375,000 command personnel (military and civilian) in the Indo-Pacific encircling China, including more than eighty thousand troops stationed in Japan and South Korea.[viii]

Biden’s policy has had the effect of accelerating the arms race. China’s military spending will grow at its fastest pace in four years in 2023 and take up a larger share of the economy, underscoring Beijing’s reweighting towards security over development. According to the Financial Times, Chinese defence expenditure will increase by 7.2% in 2023, well ahead of the 5.7% increase in general public expenditure. The widening gap between China’s military and economic development reverses a more than two-decade trend under which the expansion of defence capabilities took a back seat to economic growth. As the FT argues: ‘It comes as the Communist party leadership frets over strained relations with the U.S., a lack of progress in bringing Taiwan under its control peacefully, and a host of international conflicts Beijing regards as threatening to its interests.’

If you were following the Angell/Kautsky school of thought, war between China and Taiwan would not be on the agenda. Taiwan’s economy is closely linked with China. Over 40% of Taiwanese exports go to China which sends back 20% of its imports. Taiwanese corporations, including Foxconn, which makes Apple products, invest heavily in China, with Foxconn employing over 300,000 workers in China. But Taiwan, claimed by Beijing as an integral part of China, is the key political fault line in the competition with the West. It has an informal but close political alliance with the U.S. and the U.S. will not abandon it without a fight. To go back to our friend Eldridge A Colby:

Excluding Taiwan or the Philippines from the American defence perimeter would open a major gap in the first island chain and enable China to project military power into the broader Pacific and Southeast Asia.

The history of the wars of the last two decades, not to speak of the those of the twentieth century, should have taught us that while war is economics by other means, imperial rivalry overrides all sorts of particular economic relations. We need to take General Mike Miniham seriously, and start organising now against the threat of catastrophe.


[i] Elbridge A. Colby, Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict, (Yale University Press 2021), p.10.

[ii] Ibid. pp.12-13.

[iii] Ibid. p.186

[iv] Thomas J. Christensen, There Will Not Be a New Cold War, Foreign Affairs, March 24, 2021:


[v] Joseph R. Biden, Jr., ‘Why America Must Lead Again’, Foreign Affairs, March/April 2020:


[vi] Laurence H. Shoup, ‘The Council on Foreign Relations, the Biden Team, and Key Policy Outcomes’, Monthly Review, May 2021, Volume 73, Number 1: https://monthlyreview.org/2021/05/01/the-council-on-foreign-relations-the-biden-team-and-key-policy-outcomes/.

[vii] John Bellamy Foster, ‘The New Cold War on China’, Monthly Review, July-August 2021,Volume 73, Number 3: https://monthlyreview.org/2021/07/01/the-new-cold-war-on-china/.

[viii] Ibid.

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