News flash! This past week I read a newspaper column by George F. Will that didn’t prompt me to say “What an ignoramus!’ In fact, not only did I learn something. I learned something so important that, in conjunction with some other recent developments, is causing me to rethink some long and deeply held ideas I’ve had about America’s grand security strategy in the East Asia-Pacific region.
Specifically, although Will’s own focus in the September 8 piece was who Joe Biden would pick as Secretary of Defense, the piece itself described some ominous changes in the U.S.-China military balance in Asia that call into question my main concerns about America’s approach to region, and especially what I’ve depicted as an increasingly dangerous reliance on nuclear weapons to deter Chinese aggression. Meanwhile, as I’ll detail in a forthcoming freelance article, two U.S. Asian allies – Taiwan and South Korea – whose value to the United States I’ve long insisted doesn’t remotely justify running such risks, are looking for now like critical assets.
To review, since the Cold War began, the United States has resolved to defend its East Asian allies in large part by using the threat of nuclear weapons use to persuade potential attackers to lay off. Presidents from both parties agreed that the conventional military forces needed to fight off China and North Korea (and early on, the Soviet Union) were far too expensive for America to field. Moreover, the Korean War convinced the nation that fighting land wars in Asia was folly.
Before China and North Korea developed nuclear weapons able to reach the U.S. homeland, or approached the verge (the case, it seems, with the latter), this globalist policy of extended deterrence made sense whatever the importance to America of Asian allies. For the United States could threaten to respond to any aggression by literally destroying the aggressors, and they couldn’t respond in kind.
As I noted, however, once China and North Korea became capable of striking the continental United States with nuclear warheads, or seemed close to that capability, this U.S. policy not only made no sense. It was utterly perverse. For nothing about the independence of South Korea and Taiwan, in particular, made them worth the incineration of a major American city – or two, or three. The security of much larger and wealthier Japan didn’t seem to warrant paying this fearsome price, either.
Greatly fueling my opposition to U.S. policy and my support for a switch to an America First-type policy of military disengagement from the region was the refusal of any of these countries to spend adequately on their own defense (which, in combination with U.S. conventional forces, could deter and indeed defeat adversaries without forcing Washington to invoke the nuclear threat), and their long records of carrying out protectionist trade policies that harmed the American economy.
As Will’s column indicated, though, the threat, much less the use, of nuclear weapons is becoming less central to American strategy. Excerpts he quotes from recent (separate) writings by a leading Republican and a leading Democratic defense authority both emphasize dealing with the Chinese threat to Taiwan in particular with conventional weapons. The nukes aren’t even mentioned. Especially interesting: The Democrat (Michele Flournoy) is his recommended choice to head a Biden Pentagon – and she’s amassed enough experience and is well regarded enough among military and national security types to be a front-runner. I also checked out the journal article of hers referenced by Will, and nuclear weapons don’t come up there, either.
Moreover, neither Flournoy nor her Republican counterpart (a former aide the late Senator John McCain) shies away from the obvious implication – accomplishing their aim will require a major U.S. buildup of conventional forces in East Asia (including the development of higher tech weapons). In fact, they enthusiastically support it.
Any direct conflict involving two major powers has the potential to escalate beyond the expectations of the belligerents. But certainly bigger and more capable American forces in East Asia would reduce the chances that war with China will go nuclear. So in theory, anyway, the nuclear dimensions of my concerns could be reduced.
Moreover, my willingness to run greater risks to safeguard Taiwan and South Korea in particular, and pay the needed economic price – even if they keep free-riding on defense spending – is growing, too. That’s because of the theme of that forthcoming article I mentioned: Intel, the only major U.S.-owned company left that both designs and manufactures the most advanced kinds of semiconductors, has run into major problems producing the last two generations of microchips. In fact, the problems have been so great that the company has lost the technological lead to South Korea’s Samsung and in particular to Taiwan’s TSMC, and their most advanced facilities are in South Korea and Taiwan, right on China’s rim.
Given the importance of cutting edge semiconductors to developing cutting edge tech products in general, and ultimately cutting-edge weapons (including advanced non-weapons electronic gear and cyber warfare capabilities), acquiring the knowhow to produce these microchips by whatever means – outright conquest, or various forms of pressure – would make China an even more formidable, and even unbeatable challenge for the U.S. military, at least over time.
So until Intel, whose most advanced factories remain in the United States, figures out how to regain its manufacturing chops, or some other U.S.-owned entrant rides to the rescue, there will be a strong argument on behalf of protecting South Korea and Taiwan against Chinese designs at very high risk and cost. And as noted above, Americans may even have to tolerate some more military free-riding along with, in the case of South Korea, fence-sitting in the overall U.S.-China competition for influence in East Asia.
At the same time, because of the military (including nuclear) risks still involved, seizing back control of the semiconductor manufacturing heights ultimately is the best way out of this bind for Americans. So shame on generations of U.S. leaders for helping this vulnerability develop by swallowing the kool-aid about even advanced manufacturing’s obsolescence and replacement by services. But this grave mistake can’t be wished away, or overcome instantly, either – though efforts to regain this lost tech superiority need to be stepped up dramatically. So shame on current leaders, their advisers, and wannabe advisers – whatever their favored foreign policy strategy – if they fail to acknowledge that dangerous new circumstances may be upon the nation, and the sharp imperatives they logically create. And that includes yours truly.