In an opinion piece appearing in the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, John Bolton rightly calls attention to the need for the Biden Administration to issue a clear China strategy. This has yet to appear, despite the critical importance of America’s relationship with China.
Thus far, U.S. policy has consisted largely of a series of broad statements by senior administration officials peppered by repeated references of an intention to compete, confront, and cooperate with Beijing where possible; some general agreements or understandings in specific areas such as climate; and most recently, a virtual summit meeting between President Biden and President Xi Jinping. While a positive step forward, the last development provided little more than some reassuring remarks and the prospect of future bilateral working groups on major policy issues.
For all of his bluster, Bolton provides no China strategy of his own to fill this gap. He focuses only on two (albeit very important) issues: Taiwan and strategic arms. And his policy views toward both are exactly what one might expect from a committed neoconservative wedded to U.S. military primacy and preemptive warfare: double down on deterrence toward Beijing, treating Taiwan as a de facto ally and a critical strategic location necessary for containing China within the first island chain. Moreover, he wants to counter China’s supposedly existential nuclear threat to the United States by jettisoning the U.S.-Russia nuclear deal and strengthening America’s “global nuclear umbrella.”
Mr. Bolton needs to stop regarding every security problem the U.S. faces as a nail to be whacked with an American hammer. Treating Taiwan as a strategic asset to be denied Beijing through military means, as Bolton seems to suggest we do, is the surest path to an otherwise avoidable conflict with China. Taiwan is an important democratic friend, but it is not a vital component of America’s defense. It is primarily a political problem that cannot be solved by ever greater levels of U.S. military strength and open-ended support for the Taiwan government. China is too big, too strong, and too committed, and the island is far too close to the Chinese mainland, for such a simplistic approach to work, even if financially viable (which it is not).
The only viable U.S. strategy for managing this problem over the foreseeable future is to reinject new life into Washington’s anemic One China policy by clearly limiting its political and military ties with Taipei even as it pressures the island to do much more for its own defense, while also building the U.S. capabilities necessary to prevent a Chinese miscalculation. Few Americans will agree to send their sons and daughters to fight and die for a Taiwan that fails to do what is required to defend itself. This is especially true if Washington is seen as provoking such a conflict by throwing away the only policy approach that has preserved the peace in Asia.
On the nuclear front, Bolton again seems to think that more weapons are always better. A renewed nuclear arms race, this time including China, will simply deplete U.S. resources desperately needed elsewhere without adding one whit to U.S. security. China’s nuclear weapons pose a direct potential threat to the United States, and its increasing nuclear arsenal indeed requires Beijing’s entrance into some level of strategic dialogue with the other nuclear powers. But this should proceed on the basis of a U.S. recognition of the reality of mutual deterrence based on mutual vulnerability, and a desire to place clear limits on those types of nuclear weapons that make such warfighting more acceptable, not on some destructive effort to eliminate all restraints.
Bolton is right to demand an actual China strategy from the Biden Administration, but we don’t need the strategy he appears to be pushing.
This article originally appeared in Responsible Statecraft.