On November 4th, the American Security Project held a virtual, on-the-record discussion with Elbridge Colby, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Force Development and author of the newly released book The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Competition. The discussion focused primarily on how America should address the rise of China, the defining feature of geopolitics in the 21st century.
Watch the full recording here:
The conversation began with Colby sharing his experience as the lead official developing the 2018 National Defense Strategy. Colby stressed that his book was directly informed by this experience working in the Pentagon and his own realization that the United States needs a comprehensive and coherent explanation of “what to do and why” when addressing the rise of China. Furthermore, Colby highlighted the urgency of the issue and the challenges associated with the China increasing aggression and ambition.
The discussion then turned to the broad themes of The Strategy of Denial. Colby began by emphasizing that it is of vital importance that the United States “deny China the ability to dominate Asia.” But the United States could not deny China’s regional hegemonic ambitions alone and needed to form an “anti-hegemonic coalition” to address the challenge. Colby said China would employ a “focused and sequential strategy” in an attempt to disrupt and dismantle the coalition.
Colby then directly addressed Taiwan—what makes the threat of Chinese invasion and current aggression so urgent, and why Taiwan is a key strategic interest for the United States. While an invasion of Taiwan does not pose an existential threat to the United States, Colby argued that there are significant strategic interests directly related to Taiwan and that the United States must commit to the effective defense of the island. Colby addressed the misalignment of interests and resolve between the United States and China over Taiwan and matters related to America’s differentiated credibility.
Questions from the audience ranged from the utility of Europe as a member of an “anti-hegemonic coalition” and recent moves from Europe policymakers to strengthen relations with Taiwan to other targets for Chinese aggression in the Western Pacific. China’s growing nuclear arsenal, the newly discovered missile silos in Western China, and shifts in Chinese nuclear doctrine were also raised. In addressing the question of a whole-of-government approach to China and the need for a comprehensive strategy, Colby endorsed the principle but argued that the first priority should be to have an effective and realizable defense and military strategy. Finally, the security and stability of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) raised, Colby responded that the CCP is not at imminent risk of collapse and responsible statecraft necessitates building a strategy around current conditions and resources.