Written by Stewart J. Melanson PhD exclusively for SouthFront
Part 3: The United States Military-Industrial Complex
Executive Summary of Parts 1 and 2
The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 left the US as the sole remaining superpower and so began the era of US global hegemony. In the absence of a major adversary, there was no longer any urgency in:
…cultivating allies and neutrals who, if neglected, might defect to the other side… Multilateral consultation diminished steadily during the administrations of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton… because the practice seemed less necessary than it had during the Cold War. LINK
Without the counterbalancing role of the Soviet Union, unrestrained US foreign policy became not only more unilateral, but also increasingly outside the norms of international law; such as the NATO bombing campaign in the Balkans under Clinton and Bush’s invasion of Iraq – neither had UN sanction and were illegal. However, Bush took things much further. On Oct. 20, 2001, President Bush outlined in a public address to Congress, a nightmarish vision of world tyranny:
Every nation in every region now has a decision to make: Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists. [FULL TRANSCRIPT]
There will be no middle ground, no neutrality and no higher law than the hegemon, being exempted from the rules applied so vigorously to others. LINK The US constitution specified separation of powers across three branches; legislative, executive and judicial as a safeguard against tyranny, but Article II, Section 3 places authority over conduct of foreign relations firmly with the executive branch giving wide latitude to its head – the President. Thus, the Constitution was technically not violated when President Bush rolled out his tyrannical ‘us versus them’ foreign policy. LINK
But the lawlessness of Bush’s foreign policy has had far-reaching consequences. Over time, the intoxicating use of unchecked power corrupted the international system to the point of its destruction, and proved fatal to maintaining US global hegemony:
George W. Bush’s administration …intensified unilateralism [and] tactless diplomacy …. led to an unprecedented loss of support throughout the rest of the world for the United States … The view seemed to be emerging that there could be nothing worse than American hegemony if it was to be used in this way LINK
If there is nothing worse, then nations have little to lose by standing in opposition to the global tyrant – and mounting opposition would eventually bring an end to US hegemonic supremacy when in 2017 the US military announced return to great power rivalry. LINK (Page 1 Version 2.0) Despite the end of global hegemony, the US maintains superpower status and has engaged in superpower rivalry with China:
The American military contest with China … will define the twenty-first century. And China will be a more formidable adversary than Russia ever was… The United States and China will be locked in a contest for decades… LINK
Has the US stumbled its way into a New Cold War or was it by design? If by design, a prime suspect would be the US military establishment (MIC) which has the power to influence US policy. The stability of an international system under US hegemony would lead to public pressure to cut military spending and possibly general global disarmament. In contrast, the first Cold War was characterized by the need for large military expenditures over decades. From Eisenhower’s January 1961 farewell address:
… we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions… This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence-economic, political, even spiritual-is felt in every city, every state house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development… LINK
The need to contain Soviet expansion justified large military budgets to preserve a stable international system; war without war, a ‘Cold War’. Thus, my premise is that the US military intentionally destroyed its own hegemony in order to engage in a New Cold War superpower rivalry. Such a development is even desirable according to Kenneth Waltz, architect of the Realist branch of Defensive Realism:
With the relative decline of US, China and America can enter into bipolar relationship much like the US and the USSR during the Cold War… Waltz …posits bipolarity as the most stable of international configurations… balancing between the US and China brings the international distribution of power into an equilibrium and averts the risk of war. LINK
The first Cold War was a struggle between competing ideologies – democracy, open society and free markets versus communist authoritarianism, closed society and command economy. And the New Cold War is already shaping up to be much like the first Cold War, a war of ideologies. China fits the role well given the ideology of the ruling CCP has similarities to communist ideology of the Soviet Union. Russia has embraced a ‘third way’; Eurasianist ideology. LINK China is second to the US in military and economic power and identified as the primary threat to the US by Defence Secretary Mark Esper’s 2020 update of the 2018 NDS:
…the priority… is to focus the Department [of Defence] on China… to drive integrated action on China first, then Russia… A vital part of that action is the training and education of personnel across the U.S. Armed Forces. Our future leaders must understand how China thinks about war …and how they fight – the way our past leaders… were once required to understand Soviet systems and doctrine. LINK [pp 1-2]
To have a deeper understanding of the perspective of the US military establishment, we need to examine MIC self-interest and its basis of power to influence US policy.
The US military-industrial complex (MIC)
Internal power arrangements matter when trying to understand the policies and actions of nation states. The influence wielded by the U.S. military is derived from the MIC (military-Industrial Complex) which is the basis of power to influence US policy. Although the power of the MIC is substantial, there are limits to its influence over policy.
With the end of the Cold War, the US possessed a supreme military but the Soviet Union was no more and China was not yet a threat. In fact, no one was a threat. Having ‘won’ the Cold War, the public expected a ‘peace dividend’ (LINK) putting Congress under pressure to slash defence spending and in the end, the military budget shrank 15% – the reduction was to be larger but the MIC was able to convince Congress to soften the blow. LINK
Even with a 15% cut to military expenditures, the US Military outspent the next nine top ranking nations in military spending combined, a military dominance that continues to this day although China has very rapidly risen in the ranks to 2nd place – below are the 2019 top six countries by military spending (USD):
** China’s military spending is officially $178.6 billion, but Western analysts believe actual spending is 1.5 times higher.
The US is a global power with global commitments and so the US does not and cannot direct all of its military power to countering China. There is also the historical trajectory of China showing its steady rise to dominance in East Asia:
…East Asian spending has increased from $92.8 billion in 1990 to $363 billion in 2019. Much of this growth in expenditure has been driven by China. In 1990, China constituted 23.6 percent of total East Asian expenditure. As of 2019, this number stands at 70.5 percent… in the broader regional context, the Chinese military… constitutes 52.2 percent of the total cumulative spending across all of Asia (including those in the Middle East). LINK
Other nations that are deepening their military relationship with the US in confronting China are: Japan, South Korea, Australia and Taiwan – and are major buyers of US armaments as the region becomes increasingly militarized. LINK
The Global Arms Trade: US Domination
“The USA has further solidified its position as the world’s leading arms supplier,” says Dr Aude Fleurant, Director of the SIPRI Arms and Military Expenditure Programme. LINK
2020 is turning out to be a banner year for US arms exports as concerns grow among China’s neighbors of CCP intentions:
The US State Department cleared $83.5 billion in Foreign Military Sales (FMS) for the fiscal year 2020. This amount is the highest in a single year for the Trump administration and is an increase of $15 billion from the 2019 fiscal year… Japan was Washington’s top customer for 2020, with five cases worth an estimated $27.9 billion… a significant increase in Japan’s military spending LINK
The US from 2009-2018 increased its market share from 30% to 36%, likely now even higher given Trump’s strong support for expanding arms export markets including China’s neighbors (LINK) and now the primary arms supplier to India. LINK The top 6 arms exporters by market share for 2018 are:
- United States: 36%
- Russia: 21%
- France: 8%
- Germany: 4%
- China: 2%
- United Kingdom: 2%
China has been increasing its arms sales at a blistering pace, having recently overtaken the United Kingdom to take 5th place, and china is expected to further increase its share of the global arms trade. LINK
The Global Arms Trade: Geographic Market Diversification and Economies of Scale
US military manufacturers seek export growth to achieve greater economies of scale to drive down costs-per-unit and can address the issue of demand volatility due to reliance on the US as sole buyer. LINK
Growing US military sales to the far east could offset geographic risk due to most prior export growth having come primarily from the Middle East (LINK) which currently accounts for half of all arms exports. Low oil prices have forced OPEC nations to reduce expenditures that will likely end the spending spree on advanced military systems – Saudi Arabia has already cut military expenditures by 14% since 2018. LINK
Arms manufacturers can be expected to aggressively seek out new export markets not only for reducing unit costs and diversifying risk, but also to increase influence since increased exports means greater military related economic activity in congressional districts enhancing influence over lawmakers. However, there are issues that arise over what nations are recipients of US arms exports.
The Political Economy of Human Rights and the Global Arms Trade
One issue is exporting weapons to highly repressive regimes. Arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has been highly controversial given their track record on human rights and involvement in the war in Yemen – home to the world’s number one humanitarian crisis:
[US Senator] Menendez laid out a case for why the Riyadh’s activities of recent months are against America’s interests and values, and that the Trump administration has jeopardized “America’s moral leadership on the world stage” by favoring Riyadh. LINK
There is growing bi-partisan Congressional opposition to the Trump administration’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the UAE and bypassing Congress. In an August 2020 report by the State Department’s Inspector General it was found:
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo followed the law in declaring an “emergency” to push through an $8.1 billion weapons deal to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates… The IG’s office did not examine whether there was a true “emergency” – because the federal law at issue, the Arms Export Control Act, gives the secretary of state broad discretion in making that determination. LINK
And Pompeo countered an ‘idealistic’ Congress by accusing “lawmakers of “caterwauling” about Saudi Arabia’s human-rights record and ignoring the kingdom’s pivotal role in helping the U.S. counter Iran.” There is an interplay between Idealism that defines the boundaries of what is legitimate action and Realism that filters out what is not feasible or bears unacceptable risks.
Properly balanced, Idealism and Realism together bring clarity and purpose to both the formulation of policy and how it is put into practice. With respect to armaments exports to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Pompeo’s position is that failure to do so bears unacceptable risks to the security of the US and allies. However, a 2018 poll found 70% of Americans believe selling weapons to other countries makes the U.S. less safe, opposing sales to Saudi Arabia and Syria (LINK):
- In 2018, U.S. selling weapons to Saudi Arabia; 21% supported, 54% opposed, 25% unsure
- In 2016, U.S. and allies sending arms to anti-government groups in Syria; 25% supported, 67% opposed, 9% unsure
Another 2018 survey, conducted by YouGov and commissioned by the International Rescue Committee relief group, highlighted how unaware Americans nationwide were about the Yemen conflict:
58 per cent said they did not know the US sells arms and provides intelligence to the Saudi-led coalition and 64 per cent did not know about civilian casualties. LINK
Since 2018, the public has become more knowledgeable about the sales of arms and its role in the Yemen conflict that has prompted Congress to more aggressively challenge the Trump administration. For example, the US Senate made three attempts to override Trump’s presidential veto of three Congressional resolutions to block his administration from “bypassing Congress to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates”. LINK
The issue of arms sales has also been playing out on the world stage where the humanitarian crisis in Yemen has attracted media coverage of human rights abuses and alleged war crimes in Yemen – the United Nations has been vocal in its criticism of the belligerent parties in Yemen and weapon suppliers:
…the Human Rights Council … found “reasonable grounds to believe that the parties to the conflict have committed and continue to commit serious violations of international human rights and international humanitarian law. Some of which may amount to war crimes” …
We are particularly concerned with the fact that third States continue to supply arms to the parties to the conflict in Yemen… There are a few leading players … United States, France, the United Kingdom and this year we added Canada...” LINK
Although Pompeo argued bypassing Congress was in the best interests of US national security, the Trump administration has been focused on the economic benefits of arms exports, particularly in job creation. This plays to fulfilling Trump’s campaign promises and to the interests of lawmakers whose districts stand to benefit from increased hires by weapon manufacturers. The focus on economic considerations is unusual, representing:
…a fundamental change in American foreign policy under Mr. Trump that often elevates economic considerations over other ones. Where foreign arms sales in the past were mostly offered and withheld to achieve diplomatic goals, the Trump administration pursues them mainly for the profits [and jobs] they generate… with little regard for how the weapons are used. [note that the Obama administration was also very pro-arms exports]
In April 2018, Trump issued National Security Presidential Memorandum (NSPM-10), which updated the Conventional Arms Transfer (CAT) Policy, instructing that domestic economic concerns be given greater weight than had been the case in the past. The problem is the lack of guidance on how to weight the economic component against other criteria such as security risks.
CAT policy made arms sales decisions depend on US diplomatic relations with …the national security implications of …and the human rights performance of the purchasing country. [The policy does not] provide an explicit prioritization of these various concerns… [Trump] changed many parts of the process, attempting to streamline CAT and focus more upon the implications of third-party countries’ potential arms exports to the same purchasing country…
Perhaps the most significant change …is that it added “economic security” as a criterion to the arms transfer decision-making process… Combined with … streamlining reforms, the change may on balance make the United States, already the leading arms exporter in the world, even more competitive. LINK
The consideration of “third-party countries’ potential arms exports” makes sense given US refusal to sell armaments often results in a less scrupulous nation to step in and make the sale. The concern here is a ‘race to the bottom’ where anything goes. Economic benefits have been exaggerated by an order of magnitude – recent arms-deals with Saudi Arabia have been estimated to create up to 40,000 jobs in contrast to Trump’s multiple claims to the media of 450,000 to 600,000 jobs created. LINK
However, there is risk in drawing attention to new jobs to manufacture weapons used against women and children in far away lands – which may explain why Pompeo focused on national security to justify arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Still, in rewriting policy the Trump team have shown creativity:
The new policy also says that consideration should be given to minimizing civilian casualties. That could potentially justify sales of “smart” bombs, which are easier to direct to specific targets. LINK
I return to the question of balancing Realism and Idealism in policy formulation and actions. CAT policy in regard to the purchasing nation involves balancing concerns of national security, human rights, diplomatic relations and economic security in the decision process. Given none of the four are given any priority over the other, the decision is subjective with implication for US national security and for other nations, as is the case for Yemen. It is important then to understand who are making the decisions:
…American arms makers who sell to the Saudis say they are accountable to shareholders and are doing nothing wrong. And because weapon sales to foreign militaries must be approved by the State Department, the companies say they don’t make policy, only follow it. LINK
The problem with this argument is that the arms manufacturers have their former executives and lobbyists planted in important positions in the State Department, the Whitehouse and the Pentagon. And it goes both ways with high ranking government officials taking lucrative positions with the arms manufacturers. Thus, the arms manufacturers have influence over both policy formulation and the decision process. Given the vague priorities in CAT policy, those with ties to the arms makers are unlikely to prioritize human rights, and even national security – which is a concern that has been frequently raised in the combat-ready challenged F-35 Program.
The revolving door of personnel to and from the government and weapons makers is, when adding Congress, referred to as ‘The Iron Triangle’.
The Iron Triangle
Economies of scale to reduce per unit cost is a big issue in ramping up production of the expensive budget-buster F-35 Joint Strike Fighter:
The Joint Strike Fighter program [is] the most ambitious aircraft development effort in the Defense Department’s history. One company would oversee design and production of three different versions of an aircraft that could be operated by the United States Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps as well as America’s allies, who would help offset the development costs. The project would result in a technologically superior plane that would be manufactured in such large quantities that the jets would cost no more than the older planes it would replace. LINK
That one company is Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest defence contractor, and what looked good on paper became a nightmare. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program is the most expensive, and behind schedule, military program ever attempted by the Pentagon and exemplifies the problematic nature of the ‘Iron Triangle’ – discussed in William Hartung’s How the Military-Industrial Complex Ate America:
Just as Boeing benefited from its former Senior Vice President Patrick Shanahan’s stint as acting secretary of defense, so Raytheon is likely to cash in on the nomination of its former top lobbyist, Mike Esper, as his successor. Esper’s elevation comes shortly after another former Raytheon lobbyist, Charles Faulkner, left the State Department amid charges that he had improperly influenced decisions to sell Raytheon-produced guided bombs to Saudi Arabia …
Fifty years ago, Wisconsin Senator William Proxmire identified the problem …the movement of high-ranking military officers into jobs with defense contractors and the reverse movement of top executives in major defense contractors into high Pentagon jobs is solid evidence of the military-industrial complex in operation. It is a real threat to the public interest… LINK
Also, arms manufacturers buy the loyalty of politicians through generous campaign donations to those with a voting record favorable to arms manufacturers, enhancing their re-election chances. Further, the economic benefits of military contracts are spread across many Congressional districts, which along with donations creates a powerful MIC friendly voting block that can thwart legislation unfriendly to the MIC:
Why do President Trump and Congress continue to funnel money into these unnecessary Department of Defense projects? Because the companies benefiting from those contracts with the DoD surround legislators with lobbyists and channel money into the campaigns of supportive candidates through their PACs. LINK
Over time, rewarding supportive lawmakers to increase their re-election chances while punishing unsupportive lawmakers can preserve and strengthen the pro-MIC bloc, stacking the deck further in favour of arms manufacturers – i.e. the ‘unwarranted influence’ Eisenhower warned about. While this may be good for the MIC, it is not so good for US national interests.
The F-35 program has been praised as an effective weapons platform to meet future threats, however “the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) has determined [the F-35] may never be ready for combat”. LINK The problems with F-35 combat readiness is the focus of an article in the National Interest critical of the Pentagon’s intention to stick to the full production roll-out schedule:
The lack of standardization among vendors for the F-35’s various subsystems is one of the main drivers of problems with the Electronic Equipment Logbook feature. The outsourcing of subcontracts to about 1,500 vendors all over the country has helped buy the program widespread Congressional support, but compounds ALIS data errors, slows parts deliveries, and increases costs to the program…
the operational testers should complete the original stringent testing plan agreed to by the services, the F-35 program office, and DOT&E, without succumbing to powerful political pressure to sacrifice combat-realism for expediency. Only then will anyone know if the F-35 will actually work in combat. LINK
The F-35 program has been so problematic that Boeing has stepped up to provide an upgraded legacy fighter – the F-15EX, but this too has been problematic:
The F-15EX deal is not without controversy. In 2019, people inside the Pentagon raised questions about alleged statements by the then-Deputy Secretary of Defense and former Boeing executive Patrick Shanahan promoting the F-15EX deal to Air Force officials. The Defense Department’s inspector general investigated allegations that he “took actions to promote his former employer, Boeing, and disparage its competitors, allegedly in violation of his ethical obligations.” The inspector general ultimately cleared Shanahan of all wrongdoing but the incident underscored …the problems and potential conflicts that come with appointing a former defense industry executive to such an influential Pentagon post. LINK
Here is the problem:
“… it doesn’t matter whether weapons are used (or usable), as long as they are bought”. LINK
Can anything be done about this unfortunate state of affairs? Although the public has struggled to find their voice in the political sphere, Eisenhower believed it would be the people to reign in the MIC:
President Eisenhower’s proposed counterweight to the power of the military-industrial complex was to be “an alert and knowledgeable citizenry.” And there are signs that significant numbers of individuals and organizations are beginning to pay more attention to the machinations of the arms lobby. LINK
Counter-balancing Power of Public Opinion
In Democracies, public opinion matters which is why the obsession with polling and during Eisenhower’s administration the public reigned in a dangerous nuclear doctrine. Secretary of State Dulles worried about American public attitudes towards nuclear weapons, and in a National Security Council meeting (Feb. 11, 1953), Dulles said: “in the present state of world opinion, we could not use an A-bomb, we should make every effort now to dissipate this feeling”. LINK These discussions were classified at the time but willingness to use nuclear weapons was soon made known.
When the People’s Republic of China (PRC) started shelling the Nationalist Chinese occupied islands of Jinmen and Mazu in Aug. 1954 (first Taiwan Strait Crisis), and after months of bombardment, President Eisenhower held a news conference and told the American public “in the event of war in East Asia, he would authorize the use of tactical nuclear weapons against military targets ‘exactly as you would use a bullet’.” LINK
The American public had strongly supported Eisenhower’s hardline approach towards China, but after Eisenhower threatened use of tactical nuclear weapons, public support dropped dramatically to 10%. Oliva, Mara, Eisenhower and American Public Opinion on China, Palgrave Macmillan, 2018, see p.149, Fig. 5.1
Dulles got his answer – a resounding ‘NO’.
Researchers published a study Opinion: A Powerful Predictor of U.S. Defense Spending (October 1993) where for the years 1965 to 1989, a strong relationship was found between public opinion and changes in defence budget allocation:
Public opinion survey responses regarding the desirability of changes in defense spending can be compressed into a single variable, the public opinion balance, which, when accompanied by a control variable measuring the proportion of responses in the “residuum” (no opinion or keep the status quo), permits an accurate prediction of subsequent changes in the rate of change of defense outlays from the mid-1960s through the 1980s… One is not justified, however, in regarding public opinion as entirely autonomous or spontaneous. There occurs a ceaseless contest over the determination of public opinion… LINK
The period of study is during the Cold War when the MIC had an official enemy to point at to justify high military outlays. Despite this advantage and “a ceaseless contest over the determination of public opinion”, there were stretches of time when public opinion of the military soured followed by significant reductions in military expenditures – particularly as the Vietnam War dragged on – like the ‘War on Terror’ which resulted in major cuts to the military during Obama’s second term:
The problem appears not only in the difficulty of finding a winning strategy in the long war against acts of terrorism but having to face economic constraints that loom large in the public debate. In addition, the global financial crisis and recession have highlighted the trade-off between spending to protect against external threats and spending to provide jobs and income for citizens at home. LINK
Congressional Research Report, taken from report summary
MIC concern is when there is a push to rebalance expenditures to the detriment of military spending. Although the MIC has itself become a significant part of the US economy, lawmakers face a difficult task in selling big military budgets to the American public and efforts may fail, despite the potential negative economic effects on their congressional districts. For the US military establishment, the solution was to destroy US hegemony and instigate a New Cold War.
The sharp pivot from Russia to China bashing is to condition Americans to see China the same way Americans saw the Soviet Union during the first Cold War – a major military and ideological threat requiring the US to field military assets on a large scale to maintain credible conventional and nuclear deterrence. However, compared to the Soviet Union, China poses a greater economic threat to the US and so, “China will be a more formidable adversary than Russia ever was…”.
Finally facing a credible threat to US power, for the military establishment, “it will matter whether weapons are used (or usable) when they are bought”.
A New Cold War Requires a New More Efficient and More Capable US Military
Inefficiencies and corruption in military procurement and new system development programs can result in public scandals that lower support for the military as well as undermine military forces readiness and capabilities – for example, the F-35 program. There is also the danger of selling advanced weapon systems that underdeliver on performance and overdeliver on costs. Nations facing a real threat, such as China, will expect US weapon systems to be timely delivered and actually work; hence Trump’s streamlining of the CAT Policy and Esper’s prioritizing efficiency and accountability in the 2018 NDS.
If the intent is to enter into a New Cold War such that the “United States and China will be locked in a contest for decades”, then the MIC will want to avoid a hot war in the same way a hot war was averted during the decades long first Cold War – sometimes referred to as the ‘long peace’. During the ‘long peace’, large military budgets were needed to deter the Soviets until the Soviet collapse where US ‘victory’ proved a disaster for the MIC – without a big bad evil adversary, how were large military budgets going to be justified?
Similarly, the MIC wants a decades-long Cold War with China and not a hot war. This means it is unlikely the US military will initiate a Bush style ‘pre-emptive defence’ to halt China’s rise – it would also be very costly to do so at this late stage in China’s development. To prevent war with China is to prepare for war with China – i.e. maintain a credible deterrent, peace through strength. In a speech to the RAND Corporation, Mark Esper outlined:
…how the Pentagon was continuing to implement the National Defense Strategy to restructure its capabilities and readiness to deter a war against China – but fight and win if necessary. LINK
The US military will need to put those large military budgets to good use and take seriously Mark Esper’s commitment he made in the 2018 National Defence Strategy to “reform the Department [of Defence] for greater efficiency and accountability”. If China believes they could win a fight, there probably will be a fight if we are to believe statements (warnings) that have come out of china:
In 1994, when he was China’s leader, Deng Xiaoping, …said: “We must bide our time and hide our capabilities.” What could he have meant? Possibly this as stated by Gen. Chi Hoation, China’s minister of defense in 1999: “War with the United States is inevitable … the Chinese armed forces must control the initiative … we must make sure that we would win this modern high-tech war that the mighty bloc headed by the U.S. hegemonists may launch to interfere with our affairs.” LINK
But as I have said, it is unlikely the US will intentionally initiate war with China, if there is war, it will be a war that China initiates.
Concerns and Questions for the US to Consider Going Forward
In 2015, Xi Jinping asked senior officers of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to prepare an assessment on the likelihood of a successful invasion of Taiwan based on current PLA capabilities. The assessment concluded that the PLA was ill-prepared and an invasion of Taiwan would likely fail.
Xi acted on the assessment by commencing a massive purge of the senior ranks of the PLA. Initially, Western analysts viewed the purge favourably, on the assumption the PLA would be demoralized and weakened by the gutting of their senior ranks. However, consensus soon emerged that the purge will actually enhance PLA combat readiness and capabilities by restructuring into theatre commands and addressing technological innovations such as cyberwarfare and autonomous weapon systems. LINK
Xi’s purge was part of his plan to bring the PLA into the 21st century with the capability to invade Taiwan by 2020. Although the window to invade Taiwan in 2020 has closed, the threat of invasion will once again loom large over Taiwan come Spring 2021. Xi has made clear that Taiwan accept it “must and will be” reunited with China even if that means use of military force. However, Taiwan is unwilling to accept reunification terms offered by Beijing based on the Hong Kong model of “one country, two systems” formula LINK, especially so given Beijing’s draconian measures in breach of the agreement with Britain on the hand-over of Hong Kong.
The possibility of conflict between China and Taiwan is further increased as a consequence of Xi’s purge of the PLA following what was an honest assessment of PLA capabilities to invade Taiwan. Analysts are concerned that Xi is now unlikely to get honest advice on prospects of military confrontation with neighbors such as Taiwan and any expected US response. More likely is PLA generals will tell Xi what they think he wants to hear and this is dangerous.
It is unlikely the US military will retreat and instead will be “unwilling to budge from the coastal shelf of the Asian mainland.” It is in the interests of the MIC to maintain global scope in power projection since larger military expenditures are needed to fulfil global military commitments compared to regional commitments only – and a larger MIC wields more influence.
With the likelihood that the US will remain committed to containing China in a New Cold War, just as the Soviet Union was contained in the first Cold War, there is the question of what will be the respective spheres to be accepted and understood? Establishing mutually understood spheres that are to be respected was a crucial element of Kennan’s Policy of Containment that prevented superpower conflict. In the case of China, establishing mutually agreeable spheres will be much more problematic than was the case with the Soviet Union.
Taiwan present a very difficult choice for the US. The US is touting likeminded Democratic ideology as a natural bond in forming ‘Pacific NATO’ just as the shared ideology of members of Atlanticist NATO also provided a natural bond – and this was recognized early in 2012 under Obama:
NATO is a political-military organization based on democratic values and able to act on them—a fact that is very attractive to democracies in the Far East. For these politically like-minded nations, NATO offers a relationship that complements to their… links with the United States. LINK
Trump has often referred to Taiwan as a vibrant Democracy and his administration has initiated closer ties that include major arms sales of sophisticated weapon systems – and as expected, strongly condemned by Beijing. LINK
The Trump administration has been edging the US towards greater strategic competition with China since 2017. The Taiwan card has thus become more relevant to the US strategic elites once again — moves such as increasing the frequency and amount of US arms sales to Taiwan, increasing the number and diversity of Taiwan-related bills in Congress, and emphasising Taiwan’s strategic importance in US Asia-Pacific strategy have all proceeded at a pace rarely seen since 1979. LINK
Analysts believe that under a Trump or Biden administration, deepening ties with Taiwan are expected to continue although, establishing formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan is more likely with Trump should he win a second term – there is uncertainty though around allegations that Biden is compromised regarding China, will have to see how that plays out.
If the US does stand by Taiwan and continues to deepen ties, such a development presents a very serious risk of a future superpower conflict. This ends Part 3 and I encourage reader comments on the Taiwan dilemma.
Stewart J. Melanson PhD
Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Email: email@example.com
MORE ON THE TOPIC:
- A Return to Containment: Kennan and the Responsible Use of Power – Part 1
- A Return to Containment: Kennan and the Responsible Use of Power – Part 2