War Chariots

Tom Stevenson

The number of Trump administration officials who could be called ‘very competent’ is small, but the former deputy national security adviser Matt Pottinger is one of them.

A private school boy from Massachusetts who learned to speak excellent Mandarin, Pottinger was once the Wall Street Journal’s correspondent in China (where he was punched in the face in a café by someone he described as a ‘government goon’). He was in New York during 9/11 and, in 2005, he joined the US marines as an intelligence officer after watching a video of al-Qaida leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi beheading the American hostage Nicholas Berg. Between tours in Iraq and Afghanistan he wrote about refining intelligence and counter-insurgency, the old tools of imperial management.

Perhaps inevitably, Pottinger found his way back to the intellectual world of the US right. He has been associated with the neoconservative Foundation for the Defence of Democracies for at least two decades, and is a fellow at the right-wing Hoover Institution. He is also an old associate of the far-right Christian nationalist and QAnon supporter Mike Flynn, about whom he continues to speak with some affection. After Trump was elected, Pottinger joined the National Security Council as director for Asia. At the height of the Covid pandemic he delivered a twenty-minute speech in near-perfect Mandarin. Admittedly, Pottinger was never a true MAGA devotee (he resigned as deputy national security adviser on 6 January 2021 over the Capitol riots). But he also says he was proud of Trump’s ‘foreign policy accomplishments’.

Out of government, Pottinger has devoted himself to agitating for a confrontation between the US and China, often in the pages of Foreign Affairs. The American right has been infatuated with this thinking for some time, but it has rarely had such qualified champions. Still, the democrats under Biden have adopted many of their ideas. Rush Doshi, Biden’s former head of China strategy on the National Security Council, recently responded to an article by Pottinger and a co-author by saying ‘they propose steps that the administration is already taking.’ It was Biden, not Trump, who overturned the decades-long US policy of strategic ambiguity on the military defence of Taiwan.

Senior US military officers, and several US political factions, are now invested in an imminent global crisis over Taiwan. Pottinger has recently published an edited volume (The Boiling Moat: Urgent Steps to Defend Taiwan) pushing the argument that the US should prepare for war with China.

The news sometimes seems to provide support for their position. On 23 May, China began major military exercises around Taiwan that it described as ‘punishment’ for comments made by the new president in Taipei, Lai Ching-te, in his inauguration speech. The US navy announced plans to deploy MQ-4C surveillance drones to Okinawa for regional ‘over-water’ surveillance.

For advocates of a Sino-American war over Taiwan, the logic is explicitly that of maintaining the US global empire. Taiwan’s democracy is mentioned in passing, and there is some Cold War style blather about China ‘propelling autocracy ahead in the contest of global systems’. But the main argument is that Taiwan is a strategic asset for the US.

Pottinger often brings up General Douglas MacArthur’s assertion that ‘the domination of Formosa by an unfriendly power’ would be a disaster for American strategic interests. His former deputy on the National Security Council, Ivan Kanapathy, has pointed out that ‘avoiding war between the United States and China is relatively easy’. The problem is avoiding war while also ‘protecting substantial US interests’.

Why must the war be over Taiwan, which the US officially acknowledges as part of China? The end of the de facto US protectorate of Taiwan would be bad for Japan’s security. But Pottinger and his supporters go further. They claim that if China were to annex Taiwan it would somehow allow it to ‘project power throughout the Pacific, the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic’. How that would be the case, given the huge US naval advantage, is left to the imagination.

Should Trump be re-elected later this year, there’s every chance that Pottinger and other thinkers in the same orbit (Elbridge Colby, Oren Cass, Robert Lighthizer) will return to government. Their ideas have every chance of becoming US policy. Even in opposition they have currency. What is their plan?

The main recommendation is that the US immediately stockpile large amounts of munitions and prepare to fight ‘China’s Wehrmacht’ with a view to making the Taiwan Strait a graveyard for the Chinese navy. The US should get to work on mass production of more LRASM missiles. Taipei should abandon its plan to acquire more submarines (leave that to the US) and focus on coastal defence, conscription and interoperability with US forces. Japan, Australia, Britain and France should be prepared to help. If the logistics sound difficult, Pottinger notes: ‘There is evidence already that US support for Ukraine has in some respects improved US procurement for a war with China.’

The idea that these actions might increase the risks of a global crisis is dismissed by advocates of war with China as a misconception. A Taiwan crisis can only be the result of China’s drive toward ‘building an empire’.

Chinese thinkers, unsurprisingly, tend to see things differently. After the US secretary of state, Anthony Blinken, visited Beijing in the summer of 2023, the director of the Centre for American Studies at Fudan University, Wu Xinbo, who advises the Chinese foreign ministry, remarked that the US ‘deals with China through what it calls “strategic competition”, which is actually containment and suppression’. Officials use stronger language still. At the Shangri-La dialogue in Singapore on 1 June, Lieutenant General Jing Jianfeng accused the American leaders of ‘tying the region’s countries to the US war chariot’.

China has certainly contributed to the deterioration in relations with the US. It has, for example, been promoting an idiosyncratic reading of General Assembly Resolution 2758, which restored the PRC’s seat at the UN’s tables in 1971, in order to cajole other countries into referring to Taiwan as a ‘province of China’.

But to say that China alone has recklessly departed from the status quo is an inadequate account of recent history. It obfuscates fearful US attempts to restrict China’s industrial manufacturing economy, which has been the impetus for much of the deterioration in Sino-American relations.

The US and its allies regularly hold massive military exercises in the Pacific. Half of all US attack submarines are deployed in the Pacific theatre. Pottinger and his supporters want the share to increase and talk of using those submarines to ‘sink China’s navy’.

Pottinger’s view, like Trump’s, is that China has taken advantage of the US through trade manipulation. China, he says, is the major ‘propaganda and diplomatic supporter’ of Russia and Iran. Xi Jinping is portrayed as a nefarious totalitarian leader who must be defeated by the US.

On 24 May, Malaysia’s former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad gave a different assessment. ‘Unfortunately, America likes to see a confrontation between Taiwan and China,’ he said at the Future of Asia conference in Tokyo. ‘For us, there is no necessity.’ Chinese leaders may sometimes make obstreperous territorial claims, ‘but they don’t do anything.’

David Daokui Li, the director of the Centre for China in the World Economy at Tsinghua University, has argued that, ‘facing the increasingly hawkish stance of the United States’, the consensus within China is ‘to respect and negotiate with the United States … but stand firm and not give in on issues of long-term interest to China’ – including Taiwan.

A global crisis over Taiwan is possible and would be a disaster for the world. Yet in their talk of Wehrmachts and victory, supporters of a war with China appear to yearn for it. Perhaps that is because their discussions and designs all seem to take place in an alternative dimension – one where there are no nuclear weapons.


  • 14 June 2024 at 9:27pm
    Scott says:
    Unmentioned in this post is the fact that the largest semiconductor manufacturer in the world, and the only manufacturer of cutting-edge, next generation chips, is the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, located in Taiwan. Until recently, all of its manufacturing plants were only in Taiwan, and the latest generation of chips are still only able to be manufactured on the island. Whoever controls Taiwan, controls the world's computing infrastructure.
    This is not to disagree that conflict with China over Taiwan is a very dangerous game to play -- but the stakes now are higher than they have ever been, and US policy wonks are understandably very nervous about the global consequences of China seizing control of the island, or even simply blockading it or otherwise taking offline its industrial base.

  • 15 June 2024 at 11:10am
    Graucho says:
    I believe the Romans said "If you want peace, prepare for war". Putin invaded the Ukraine because he thought nothing could stop him. Xi is cut of the same cloth. He tore up the agreement on Hong Kong because nothing could stop him. He provokes his neighbours with illegal territorial claims and attacks their fishing boats because no one is stopping him. If he isn't convinced that an invasion on Taiwan will cost him so much that it threatens his leadership he'll do it.

  • 19 June 2024 at 11:57pm
    Clive Hamilton says:
    "The news sometimes seems to provide support for their position." Sometimes? Tom ought to live in this part of the world. The news of Beijing's aggressive acts is a drum-beat here--claiming the vast area of the South China Sea as its territory and building military bases around it; rejecting international maritime law; military action severely injuring a Filpino sailor on a resupply mission to an island in Philippine waters; intercepting an Australian air force helicopter over international waters; preventing Vietnam exploiting oil wells in its waters; lobbing missiles over Japanese waters; and of course Taiwan.
    It's not true, as Tom writes, that "the US officially acknowledges [Taiwan] as part of China". That's Beijing propaganda. The US acknowledges that China claims Taiwan, which is not the same thing.
    Tom's article reads like those of the European apologists for Putin's attack on Ukraine. He writes off the claims to basic human and democratic rights and freedoms of 24 million people living in an independent country, rights and freedoms that would go the way of Hong Kong's were China to succeed in its ambition to occupy Taiwan. The unfortunate historical resonances of Tom's argument go back to the 1930s. I'm guessing he has never been to Taiwan, because it's not so easy to look someone in the eye and tell them that you do not care about their freedoms.

  • 20 June 2024 at 12:12am
    wse9999 says:
    "fearful US attempts to restrict China’s industrial manufacturing economy, which has been the impetus for much of the deterioration in Sino-American relations,"
    That's nonsense.
    The US and West welcomed China joining world trade but it's a China openly hostile to the global liberal model which has abused this relationship, in accord with Xi's reactionary self-serving nationalist neo-Maoist swerve [cf Tsang, Steve; Cheung, Olivia, 2023. The Political Thought of Xi Jinping, Oxford University Press, 2023]. Scared stiff of his people.
    Meanwhile they threaten a hot war over Taiwan not because the island matters historically to China [it never did], rather because its successful [Chinese] democracy is an acute embarrassment.

  • 20 June 2024 at 1:02am
    wse9999 says:
    Step back a bit here.
    We'll all be dead soon, some sooner than others, and dead too will be Xi and his self-serving nationalist fantasies, along with a paranoid American Right.
    Xi's current strategy for PRC is historically unsustainable, will not work, one way or another will fail, that is bottling up China's 1.3b people in a world now where after 5 millennia of countless variations on autocracy for only the first time full enfranchised democracy has meaningfully manifested, has traction globally, the radical notion of giving authentic voice to popular sovereignty, which Marsilius wrote about mid 14th C in Defensor Pacis, squaring off against Rome.
    Just like neo-Soviet Russia is failing right now, digging its own grave in Ukraine, at a fearful cost to both sides.

  • 20 June 2024 at 5:47am
    wse9999 says:
    Step back further.
    Talk of the “US global empire” is also nonsense.
    End of the day the only “empire” [ie abroad] which ultimately matters to the US is economic.
    The post WW2 cornerstone international relations problem for liberal democracies has not just been coping with non-democracies but rather with not one but two still large hostile reactionary nationalist “Communist” autocracies, both products of revolutions stemming from the calamitous WW1.
    These states have not just been critical of liberal democracy [the West / “West”], but openly hostile, starting with the Korean War and to this day in Ukraine.
    It’s the only reason the US still has such a large military commitment, and very fortunate for Ukraine they still do.
    Being drawn into Europe’s disastrous self-inflicted WW1 kick started this commitment, over a century ago, and coping with a series of reactionary autocracies hostile to democracy has kept it in business ever since, seeing off Imperial Japan and the Nazis [with Soviet help] but still facing Russia and China.

  • 20 June 2024 at 2:33pm
    wse9999 says:
    Continuing charm offensive!
    "Only Pirates Do This’: China Uses Axes, Knives in Sea Fight
    The Chinese coast guard used crude weapons against Philippine military boats in the latest confrontation in the South China Sea, marking a sharp escalation in China’s use of forceful tactics against a U.S. ally." [WSJ]

  • 23 June 2024 at 11:13pm
    larrykoen says:
    " Democrats under Biden":

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