The United States, the United Kingdom and Australia have entered a trilateral security pact, forming a clear alliance against China. The most urgent purpose of this alliance is to delay as much as possible the death knell of U.S. and Chinese military powers crossing swords in the Asia-Pacific region. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley, admitted that he had twice told the Chinese that former President Donald Trump had no intention of attacking China, a clear indication of the United States’ strong reluctance to go to war with China.
“Peril,” the new book by Watergate veteran journalist Bob Woodward,* reveals that Milley testified before the Senate that it was his job to prevent a war between the nuclear powers, and that the White House chief of staff, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and the defense secretary were all well aware of this. In a previous book, Woodward revealed that Trump aides had repeatedly stolen documents from his desk to prevent Trump putting the country in danger.
But Milley’s heads-up to the Chinese may actually constitute collusion with the enemy, action which thus infringed upon the president’s authority as commander in chief and provided strategic adversaries with important military intelligence. The Constitution does not give officials the right to determine the president’s mental state on their own, and Trump has said that Milley never told him about this. So, did Pompeo and others make act on their own? This is much closer to being a coup than stealing presidential documents.
The two phone calls came four days before the presidential election and two days after the Capitol insurrection. At the time, it was rumored that Trump might recklessly start a small-scale war with China. With the election on the line, Trump was almost maniacal; it appeared he might do anything. It is understandable that Milley and others wished to prevent the country from catastrophe, but in the eyes of the law, their actions are not necessarily defensible. Moreover, even if Pompeo and the others knew that Trump was only pulling a publicity stunt to draw attention, they had no way of knowing whether he would actually act in a burst of madness, although he had the authority to do so.
Nevertheless, all this demonstrates how reluctant the United States is about going to war with China. From Trump’s redeployment of medium-range missiles to the Asia-Pacific to Biden’s participation in AUKUS, each action is a step by the U.S. to increase its military deterrence in the Asia-Pacific. This is not so much about preparing for war with China as it is about avoiding war with China. The U.S. is intensifying military intimidation and resistance with the intention of making it more difficult and costly for China to use force in the Taiwan Strait, in the hope that China will give up on going down that path.
There are two major factors that determine whether a war succeeds. One is the hard power of weapons and technology, and the other is the willpower to fight. China’s military power continues to grow. At some point we will approach the crossroads of death, where China can afford to engage the United States. Moreover, while U.S. military power is certainly stronger than China’s, the question is whether it has the willpower to persevere in the long run. If China decides to use force in the Taiwan Strait, it will do so with a resolve to battle to the death. On the other hand, the U.S. may not be prepared to fight for Taiwan in the long run. It may be able to save Taiwan for a while, but there’s no guarantee that it will be able to protect Taiwan for a lifetime.
Those counting on the U.S. as a “big brother” who will always be there for Taiwan should look back and see whether the United States has fought a war with a country similar to itself since World War II. The answer is no. The U.S. picks on small countries with much less ability to fight such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Panama. In terms of great powers, the U.S. and the Soviet Union have fought fiercely, but ultimately avoided war in the face of a nuclear standoff. It has been an unspoken international rule since World War II for major powers to refrain from engaging their troops. Did the U.S. or the European Union send troops to stop the Russian annexation of Crimea? AUKUS has been criticized as an alliance of Anglophone English-speaking nations led by the U.S., but in reality, it consists of allies that the U.S. painstakingly gathered. The formation of AUKUS is a further step by the U.S. in the power struggle with China, as it hopes to deter China without military force, but the reality may be different.
There is no reason for people to risk their lives for others unless individual vital interests are also at stake; the costs and benefits must be pragmatically weighed. If the U.S. gets involved in a war in the Taiwan Strait, the cost would be extremely high from the outset and the damage would be unimaginable if the conflict is prolonged. Consequently, the global landscape will undoubtedly change. The U.S. has a record of strong starts and sloppy finishes. How long will it be able to hold out? What happens if it can no longer do so? The U.S. can retreat to its own territory, but where can Taiwan go?
*Editor’s note: “Peril” was written by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa.