Ross Douthat and Noah Smith on Asia (kinda)

The reason I say kinda is because Ross Douthat’s column is titled “Why We Should Fear More Than Middle Eastern War“. Noah Smith’s post, on the other hand, is titled “Asia Is Much More Important to US Interests Than The Middle East“.

But both are really talking about the same thing, if for slightly different reasons: the real fight for the USA is going to be with China, and therefore Asia is what President Biden (and whoever comes next) needs to focus on.

Here’s Ross Douthat:

“It makes sense to talk about China, Iran and Russia as a loose alliance trying to undermine American power, but it is not a trio of equals. Only China is an arguable peer of the United States, only China’s technological and industrial might can hope to match our own, and only China has the capacity to project power globally as well as regionally.”

And here’s Noah:

“The EU and the UK together have more than enough people, industrial capacity, and technology to defend against Russian aggression indefinitely with minimal American assistance, should they choose to do so. The only reason the U.S. remains key to Ukraine’s war effort is that Europe has been reluctant to step fully into that role. Over time, that will hopefully change. But in Asia, China is so strong that U.S. power is indispensable.

In sum, Asia wants and needs the U.S. to protect it. It needs U.S. military power and economic engagement, not to crush China, but to preserve the status quo that has worked so well. Developed Asian countries want to keep being rich and free, and developing Asian countries want to keep getting rich on their own, and to do this they need the U.S. to deter Xi Jinping from trying to upend the modern world’s greatest success story.”

Wish it away as much as you like, there is likely to be a showdown of sorts between America on the one side, and Russia, China and Iran on the other. Who else will be with America, and to what extent (and for what reasons) will only become clearer with time, and ditto for the other side. But it is coming – like I said, like it or not.

By the way, Noah Smith has advice for the United States about how to go about getting the answers to the questions I raised in the previous paragraph:

In Asia, meanwhile, the U.S. should be beefing up both our defensive power and our engagement with other countries. We need to accelerate the supply of defensive weapons to Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam, India, and the Philippines, and to keep building and strengthening and expanding multilateral organizations like the Quad. We need to re-engage economically by re-joining the modified TPP, and by creating a dense network of other economic agreements in Asia. And in general, we just need to pay a lot of attention to the region, making sure our allies and quasi-allies and potential allies know we’re there for the long haul, and won’t suddenly withdraw to go plunge into some foolish conflict in the Middle East.

In effect, both Ross and Noah are asking Biden a question I am fond of asking here (and they’re answering it for him too): what are you optimizing for?

And both of them are saying that America should be optimizing for going up against, and not being defeated by, China.

(The way I chose to frame that last sentence is striking to me, by the way, and I realized it as I was typing it out: not being defeated by China. Not, you understand, defeating China. Quite telling, no?)

Why does this matter for the USA?

China hawks tend to argue that losing a war over Taiwan would be much worse than our post-9/11 debacles, worse than letting Vladimir Putin hold the Donbas and Crimea permanently. You cannot definitively prove this, but I think they’re right: The establishment of Chinese military pre-eminence in East Asia would be a unique geopolitical shock, with dire effects on the viability of America’s alliance systems, on the likelihood of regional wars and arms races and on our ability to maintain the global trading system that undergirds our prosperity at home.

And it’s at home where I fear the effects of such a defeat the most. America has experience losing wars of empire — in Vietnam and Afghanistan, for example, where we were extending ourselves without putting our full might into the fray. But we have no experience being defeated in straightforward combat, not guerrilla war, by a great-power rival and ideological competitor.

Whatever anxieties you have about our current political divisions, whether you fear left-wing disillusionment with America or right-wing disillusionment with democracy or both, such a defeat seems more likely than anything to accelerate us toward a real internal crisis. Which is why, even with other foreign crises burning hot, a debacle in East Asia remains the scenario that the United States should be working most intensely to avert.

And what about India? What is our position, and what should be our position?

The really big wild card here is India, which has a huge population and a reasonably hefty economy. The USSR was India’s protector during the Cold War, and much of India’s military equipment still comes from Russia (though this is starting to shift). So India can’t be expected to enter into any conflict against Russia. But China is a very different matter. China is India’s main military threat, and the two countries have come to blows recently over a disputed border. They are also rivals for influence in the Indo-Pacific region. This is why India has joined the Quad, forging a loose quasi-alliance with the U.S., Japan and Australia whose purpose is obviously to hedge against China.

We live in interesting times. On that score, there is no doubt.

One person worth following on Twitter on this topic is Elbridge Colby. This is his pinned tweet, if you’re asking why he is worth following on this issue:

Bottomline: buckle up. Life is about to get very interesting indeed.

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