U.S. Hawks Must Finally Get Real About China

U.S. Hawks Must Finally Get Real About China

It is now broadly agreed on the right of center that China poses the greatest threat to Americans’ security, freedom, and prosperity—and that the danger is growing. As Beijing continues its vast and historic military buildup, it is widely understood that our own military is not keeping pace and that the U.S. is quickly running out of time to deter war over Taiwan. Worse still, there is growing recognition that the U.S. might actually lose a war over Taiwan if deterrence fails.

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Hawks are those who believe in an assertive and expansive U.S. foreign policy, like many on the center-left, but emphasize unlike them that military power and advantage are truly central to underwriting that policy. Accordingly, hawks support increased defense spending and an active U.S. military footprint around the globe. While they trumpet the growing threat of China, however, they argue that the defense of Taiwan runs through Ukraine and are the leading voices on the right for continued military support to Ukraine. Hawks are differentiated on the right from prioritizers, who, guided by realism, recognize the current limits of American power and advocate for a U.S. foreign policy that puts the American people’s interests first. As a result, they call for prioritizing China over all other threats and urge America’s allies to bear a greater share of the burden in supporting our friends and allies in Europe and the Middle East. At the other end of the spectrum on the right are restrainers, who generally oppose U.S. involvement in conflicts or commitments overseas.

Hawks, above all these groups, ought to recognize the urgency and severity of this moment. After all, the definition of a hawk is someone who takes hard power very seriously and know that it can be determinative if unchecked. Thus hawks have for more than a decade been loudly lamenting the chronic underinvestment in our military relative to the demands our traditional strategy has laid upon it. Year after year, prominent defense hawks have said we need to spend much more on defense to uphold this multi-theater national strategy. Today, they emphasize that China is undertaking an historic military buildup and, for instance, has two hundred times our ship-building capacity.

Yet now many hawks are acting as if suddenly our military can still dominate in three theaters, and in particular meet the challenge of a rising China, despite years upon years of relative underinvestment that they themselves have critiqued. Most worryingly, many are rejecting calls to prioritize military aid to Taiwan and strengthen U.S. force posture in the Pacific in favor of a continued heavy engagement in and flow of materiel to Europe and the Middle East. Yet how can this be? If the hawks were right in the past, then our military situation now must be desperate relative to the challenges we face. So why the sudden complacency?

Some hawks argue that tradeoffs can be deftly managed by sequencing the dangers in front of us. But it is clear that Russia, Iran, and terrorist groups are not going away. Hawks themselves point out they are potent, dangerous, and aggressive and thus cannot be “parked.” Other hawks contend that such tradeoffs can be avoided entirely, despite the parlous state of our defense industrial base, through “smart” and inexpensive strategies. The most credible of these is to rely primarily on long-range precision-guided missiles, particularly anti-ship missiles, to deter or defeat a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. With a relatively modest price tag of about $10 to $15 billion per year over several years to revamp the munitions industrial base, this strategy would seem to allow us to continue business as usual while handling China.

Read More: Why Taiwan Really Matters to the U.S.

But, while the solution is tempting in its simplicity and affordability, hawks would be profoundly mistaken—and indeed contradict their own core logic—in arguing that it is a prudent course. Hawk logic itself shows why.

First, the strategy assumes that a yearly investment of $10 to $15 billion can actually fix our broken munitions industrial base. Yet as we have seen during the past two years, our defense industry has lagged in simultaneously producing weapons for Taiwan, Ukraine, and other partners, let alone for the U.S. military itself. Stories of delays involving the production of key missiles have become the norm, not the exception. Key stockpiles are now depleted and will take years to replace.

Counting on industry to produce weapons on time that would be needed to fight the People’s Liberation Army, while those supply chains remain vulnerable and indeed systemically dependent on China, would be enormously risky. To be clear, the U.S. absolutely needs to make historic efforts to revitalize our defense industrial base, especially to grow our munitions stockpiles. But those who emphasize military realities above all should be clear-eyed about the constraints—industrial, political, and fiscal.

Second, even if industry did manage to produce these weapons on time, this strategy still relies dangerously on best-casing. Precision-guided missiles would of course play a key role in stopping a Chinese amphibious invasion of Taiwan. But just as we develop such missiles, the PLA will create countermeasures and defenses, just as the Russians are doing in Ukraine. China might, for instance, attack U.S. forces and bases or launch massive cyberattacks on our infrastructure and space assets which enable such long-range strike assets, any of which could reduce our ability to execute our plans in a timely and effective way. Or it might use different operational concepts to assault Taiwan, for instance relying more on air than naval forces in earlier stages. Hawks themselves point out that China is spending almost as much on its defense as we are, which will allow Beijing to leverage the advantages of scale, position, adaptation, and initiative. In this context, hawk logic dictates that we simply cannot prudently rely on what is essentially a single theory of success. Rather, we must have multiple ways and layers of defense.

That is why the U.S. and its partners will need much, much more than long-range missiles to mount an effective defense of Taiwan. Hawk thinking dictates that our strategy and plans must be guided by a healthy respect for our potential adversary, not by some hopeful notion that we can defeat China by threading a needle. We therefore will also need many more attack submarines and torpedoes, robust air and missile defenses, capable logistical assets, and sufficient intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance systems, and ground weapons, among many other capabilities. Yet we don’t have enough of any of these.

A final problem with the hawks’ proposal is a political one. Say we tell the American people today that we can deter China with $10 to $15 billion a year for a few years. Perhaps there is a small chance that is true. But in what world is cutting it close the hawk approach? And does that strategy adequately convey the scale of the challenge China poses that hawks themselves emphasize? How much of a threat is the PLA if it is addressable at such a modest cost? And, if mighty China can be deterred at such a deal, then it stands to reason lesser threats like Russia, Iran, and North Korea can be, too. So American taxpayers, burdened with rocketing debt and high taxes, might justly ask why we are spending close to a trillion dollars per year on defense. So how did hawks get from calling for doubling the defense budget to making an implicit argument for cutting it?

Hawks have been saying for decades that we are living in an incredibly dangerous world. That was an exaggeration twenty years ago but now is actually true. In such a context, our nation needs hawks to follow their convictions where they lead: That hard power is central, that we face scarcity, that it will take years at best to redress, that we can’t “walk and chew gum,” and that the most dangerous threat we face is the one with the most hard power—China. In such a context, it is wildly imprudent to cut it close against our most important threat, banking on a single theory of victory. Hawks must now match their commendable rhetoric on China with real action—and above all, a willingness to prioritize confronting this, our greatest threat.

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