Elbridge Colby discusses the evolving role of Canada in the Indo-Pacific region amidst increasing great power competition between China and the U.S. and the potential for conflict in the Taiwan Strait. Colby emphasizes the need for Canada to increase its defense spending and focus on collective defense. He suggests that Canada could either choose to focus on Europe, as it did during the Cold War or become more Indo-Pacific-focused like Australia. Colby also discusses the Ukraine War and America’s defence posture in the Indo-Pacific. He believes that the United States is not adequately prepared at present to defeat a Chinese invasion of Taiwan and that it is focusing far too much on Ukraine at the expense of a greater focus on Asia, which he sees as a decisive theatre.
How do you see Canada’s role in the Indo-Pacific evolving in the context of increasing great power competition between China and the US, and the potential for conflict in the Taiwan Strait? What would the U.S. like to see more of from Canada as an ally?
I’ve been thinking about this over the last year. Of course, it is up to Canadians to decide. But we’re all in this together and I think it’s reasonable for Americans to comment. The beginning of the journey is vastly increasing defence spending and being much more serious about collective defence. With all due respect, I think that’s an area where Canada has disappointed over the last decades—especially if Canada is going to project itself as a “moral force”. I mean, that’s Canada’s self-conception. It’s not Switzerland. It’s not like Andorra or the Grand Duchy of Liechtenstein. It’s a G7 member. Canada’s not Poland, sitting right next to a huge, aggressive, historically rapacious power in Russia. Canada is extraordinarily secure. Of all countries, it should be doing more for collective defence.
Canada has an incredibly august history, candidly, more august than the American record in the two World Wars. We all contributed, but Canada was there, full-time, both times. I think the most important thing is being willing to put the resources behind it, like anybody that wants to be a good citizen of the collective free world.
Unquestionably, the homeland and the whole North American continent will be under threat from China. Not just from nuclear war or cyber scenarios. Spy balloons, hypersonics, naval capacity, and long-range aviation mean that they will be able to strike selectively at things in North America. That would be rationally correlated, potentially, to a limited war strategy. There are military, but also potentially, logistics, food supply, and communications targets. Canada could provide an attractive cheap shot for China that could actually reverberate into the United States without actually being an attack on the United States itself.
Working with the United States on intelligent, defensive, and resilience capabilities to deal with that, particularly from China, is important. I would say Canada probably faces a choice. I think what doesn’t make a lot of sense is just frittering away resources on capabilities that don’t make a real material contribution anywhere. You can potentially see Canada spreading it all around, and not really adding too much anywhere. Candidly, with all due respect to the United Kingdom, that’s a risk that they run a little bit, for instance, with having a full-scope military, but not having the economic basis to generate fundamentally material capabilities in any one area.
My sense is that Canada should probably pick a few areas where it can really contribute. Now, historically, Canada’s orientation has been towards Europe. Europe’s going to need a lot of help, because the Americans in my view, are inexorably going to focus less on Europe. That would be one option. Going back to what Canada did during the Cold War, having forces stationed on the European continent in whatever configuration makes sense. I think there could be another argument that Canada is such an inherently Indo-Pacific or Pacific nation, with such direct interest that it should play more of a role there, but then I would think—Okay, how are you going to fit in?
I think the Australians would be the model here. They’re not perfect, but the Australians have really reshaped their military for a collective defence role to some extent along the First Island Chain, but also looking at other responsibilities and requirements where they might naturally fit in. I think if Canada moved in that lane, that would be very helpful to everybody and reduce the risk of war. Could it be nuclear-powered submarines that are able to operate? AUKUS? The problem there is when you get to the nitty-gritty of, what can our industrial base handle? We have to live in the realm of reality. If Canada is thinking, where do we pack the most punch relative to the serious threats that we collectively face? That would be enormously welcome.
Is the United States focusing too much on Ukraine at the expense of a greater focus on Asia? Does the U.S. have the capacity to take on both China and Russia at once?
I think that the answer is no, not because the United States isn’t focusing more on China—it is, but because the United States is not focusing enough on China, relative to the scale of the challenge and the pace at which it’s accelerating. I’m obviously part of a community that’s attuned to defence and Security realities. My view—and it seems a little bit old-fashioned, but I think it’s accurate—is that the core of international politics is the military balance. I’m a realist, so essentially lethal force. If you don’t get that, right, everything else is essentially secondary, if not irrelevant.
The U.S. defence perimeter has been along the First Island Chain since the end of the Second World War and that basically includes Taiwan. We are not nearly as prepared as we could be and should be to defeat a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, which is, I think, the most dangerous course of action for Beijing to take from our point of view. We’re not adequately prepared. We are spent. We are focusing far too much on Ukraine—yes. We are expending money, munitions, as well as the attention and bandwidth of the defence industrial base on a conflict that, while tragic, and while Ukrainian defence is a righteous cause, is also in a secondary theatre against a far less dangerous and consequential adversary.
Russia is 1/10 the economic scale of China. If anything, the Russians have shown themselves to be less of a threat than we had supposed. They are malevolent—that’s not the issue. They are far less consequential. Just because a conflict with Taiwan hasn’t happened yet, doesn’t mean it’s not more consequential. If it does happen, it would be. It’s like saying, “I have serious muscle pain right now and I also have acute heart disease. I haven’t had a heart attack yet. But if I do have a heart attack, it’ll kill me.” This has got to be our priority.
Can we assume that China will continue its upward trajectory of military aggression? Is China willing to risk what would almost certainly be a devastating war by taking Taiwan?
A realist analysis of China over the last generation, and into the future, would suggest that, as China becomes more powerful and wealthier, it will increasingly dedicate resources to its military, its ambitions will expand, and it will become more prone to use military force to pursue them. Look at the trajectory of the United States over the last 200 – 250 years. We can see now that the Chinese are essentially blowing through all of the traditional evidence of their restraint—their nuclear buildup, great power diplomacy, overseas basing etc. We’ve seen no end in sight to their military buildup. Indeed, they continue to increase defence spending by greater than the rate of economic growth, even in arguably a tougher economic situation.
I think that will continue. The best piece of evidence for that is the fact that the Chinese are developing a military for distant power projection. It’s not a military merely for Taiwan. It will be projecting power throughout the world. I don’t think that’s an exaggeration at all. They’re looking at bases on the Atlantic coast of Africa, they appear to be collaborating with the Argentines and Brazilians, and the Arctic too—obviously a special concern to Canada.
In that context, would China be willing to take on the United States? Well, it’s going to depend on how they assess how well an attack on Taiwan goes, and probably as part of that, a much larger attack on U.S. forces, not only in the western Pacific but in North America, at least selectively, including potentially in Canada. That’s a dynamic assessment. If they think it could go relatively well, they’ll be much more likely to do it. I mean, the United States would never have done something as crazy as invading Iraq in 1985 when we had to deal with the Soviet Union. In 2003, when there were very few checks on our policy and when the Iraqi military was manifestly weak, we were not deterred. Continuing to neglect the problem makes conflict more likely.
The U.S. military remains enormously capable—probably the best military in the world, although that’s an abstract assessment that has to be applied to a particular scenario, of course. There’s the risk of nuclear war, but I don’t know what American statesperson would initiate a large-scale nuclear war over things that are happening in the western Pacific, especially in the absence of it turning into a much larger conflict.
I don’t think it’s very credible for the United States to say, “Well, if you attack Taiwan, we’re going to use nuclear weapons against you,” certainly in ways that would affect Chinese decision-making. The important point to bear in mind is that Taiwan is not merely an irredentist claim for China, it’s also a necessary step to achieve its geopolitical goals. It needs to break out of the First Island Chain and needs to break apart what I call the anti-hegemonic coalition, which acts as a railing against Beijing.
You are a proponent of the United States prioritizing a denial strategy to manage great power competition with China and Russia. How would you respond to those who fear or worry that prioritizing denial strategies could lead to reactive foreign policy and an escalation of tensions?
We’ve neglected the problem for so long, we’re now in a situation in which there’s no easy way out. If we don’t pursue denial, we essentially guarantee vulnerability. Then we’ll simply be at the sufferance of the Chinese. If they initiated action, we’d either be defeated, or we just couldn’t even fight because it would be so obvious that we would lose. The question is, do we pursue a denial barrier? In a sense that could plausibly work and convince the Chinese they’ve failed. We’re now essentially within the window where the Chinese might decide that they could succeed. That is inherently going to be somewhat provocative—more than provocative, it may induce the thing that we want to avoid.
Unfortunately, I don’t think we have any choice. The alternative of allowing ourselves to be run over is not a good one. My view, which is more or less the opposite of what the United States is doing right now, is that we should speak softly and carry a big stick. We should work, hit the gym, and stop the peacocking if you will. Stop the rah-rah stuff. Every elected official from the city council meeting with Taiwanese officials simply draws in more attention and is more provocative than we need to be because our goal is to maintain the status quo. There’s a kind of provocation element to it.
The more we tie our credibility and reputation to Taiwan, the more valuable it is for China to attack. There was a leading American senator who compared Taiwan to West Berlin—okay, well, West Berlin was dangerous. The Soviets understood that it was a symbol of the resolve and cohesion of NATO and the strength of the American commitment. My view is we should be pumping the brakes on the symbolic stuff and focus on real lethality and resilience.
An assertion of yours that you present in your book is that anti-hegemonic resolve will likely strengthen as China increases its belligerence. How can such resolve be sustained amongst a diverse set of states over a long period of time? Is it possible that a more confrontational U.S. foreign policy risks undermining its alliances and partnerships?
Countries don’t want to be subordinated to China. The reason why this anti-hegemonic coalition is forming is not because of the brilliance of American statecraft, but because of the increasing aggressiveness, boisterousness, and domineering quality of China. India is a classic example. Indians don’t have an affectionate, nostalgic, or romantic view towards the United States. Rather, we’re bound together by shared interests. Even Japan—it’s not so much a love affair, but rather, a marriage of convenience. They’re all very, very concerned about China and see how strong it is. They recognise that only the United States is strong enough to lead this anti-hegemonic coalition.
My view is that we don’t need a positive shared agenda—actually, we need a negative agenda, which is to say negative rights in a sense. We’ll work with whoever it is, within reason, if they want to stand up to China. I hate communism, but Vietnam is a good example; or India. There are a lot of people who complain about Indian behaviour at home—well, we’ve got bigger fish to fry here. My experience in Asia is that there tends to be a more ecumenical or pragmatic approach in the geopolitical context.
I think the anti-hegemonic coalition is doing well. The problem is that the Chinese can see that and have the means to react and get ahead of it. That’s one of the reasons I’m concerned about an attack on Taiwan. A way to put a stake in the heart of that anti-hegemonic coalition is by showing that the Americans are weak and can’t be trusted. Taiwan is China’s best opportunity to do that.
The U.S. seems to have ceded Africa, the Americas and is ceding the Middle East. What is next? What lower national interests or defence priorities are you prepared to sacrifice to keep or deny China’s mastery of the globe?
Well, look—it’s Asia, Asia, Asia. It’s the central theatre. It’s where China is. If China gains control of Asia, it’ll have control of over half the global economy. Everybody else will fall in line, they’ll have no choice. If China has control of half the global economy, it’ll have to be able to support a military that will be dominant over the rest of the globe. If China is confined to Asia, within the First Island Chain, it cannot project dominant military power outside.
I think Churchill had a famous line about the Graf Spee—the battle cruiser which was forced into port at Montevideo, Uruguay and subsequently scuttled—it’s like a cut flower, beautiful, but fated to die. At some point, any forces cut behind the military containment line can’t be supported, they can’t be supplied. The Chinese can’t get over the Himalayas easily. There are huge difficulties moving through Central Asia and through the Arctic. If they’re trying to get to the main thoroughfares of global life, through the Indian Ocean and Middle East, they have to go through the First Island Chain or potentially Southeast Asia. If they can’t do that, if the fight is in the First Island Chain, all those other theatres are secondary theatres.
During the First World War, German forces in Southeast Africa caused some trouble for British forces, but it was a manageable problem. On the other hand, if the Chinese can get out from the First Island chain, then everything is at issue—then we’re in a much worse position. The key is to hold the line at that or as close as possible to the First Island Chain. From a military point of view, that requires deprioritizing everywhere else, including Latin America. When we’re thinking about allocating our attention, our political and diplomatic capital, our resources, our military effort, we’ve really got to laser focus on the main problem—the decisive theatre.
I think the situation is so serious and urgent that we must be candid and frank with each other, and very practical and realistic. Unfortunately, that doesn’t necessarily happen in the U.S. conversation, but I have a feeling that it’s even worse in Canada. It seems to be improving. I saw the news reporting on an open letter by the CDAI about the need for Canada to do more.
Look, for the first time, since the emergence of the United States as the world’s largest economy 150 years ago, there’s a genuine, peer superpower. If the United States is worried, you should be terrified. We are 20 to 25% of global GDP, and we’re worried. If we can all think about how to practically deal with this problem so that we can avoid a war, while defending our interests, reasonably construed, I think that would be very productive for everybody.