Elbridge Colby

The threat of a US-China war requires a US-Israel reset

No more bear hug: Washington must stop managing Israel's diplomatic strategy and focus on shoring up US might in Asia
From left: US President Joe Biden,
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Chinese President Xi Jinping
(Mandel Ngan/AFP; Alex Kolomoisky/Pool/Flash90; Noel Celisa/AFP)
From left: US President Joe Biden, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Chinese President Xi Jinping (Mandel Ngan/AFP; Alex Kolomoisky/Pool/Flash90; Noel Celisa/AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans to visit China later this year have drawn criticism from a number of quarters, but whether close allies are in favor of Israel visiting Beijing is the wrong lens for viewing US alliances in this renewed era of superpower rivalry. Rather than demand rhetorical or economic fidelity from our allies and partners, Washington should instead insist that they invest sufficiently in their defense spending and it should enable partners and allies more agency to manage their national security interests, freeing up the US military and economy to focus on the looming threat from China. This new paradigm presents tremendous upsides for the Jewish State.

It is now clear that there is a very real possibility of a Sino-US war in the coming years. Beijing is actively preparing for such a conflict, which would likely center on Taiwan but extend well beyond it in violence and consequence. China is dramatically upgrading its conventional and nuclear forces, attempting to sanction-proof its economy, and signaling its resolve to compel Taiwan to unify with the Mainland and take on America as part of doing so. No one knows if or when such a war might break out, but Xi Jinping himself has instructed the Chinese military to be ready for an assault on Taiwan by 2027.

This is a threat to American interests of a wholly different order of magnitude than we are accustomed to. China is the first state to match America in economic scale since the 19th century and is competing with it at the forefront of modern technology. Beijing’s ambitions appear to be to establish regional hegemony over Asia, the world’s largest market area, and from that position, to gain global prominence. If China were to attain dominance over Asia by defeating America in a regional war, it would be a grave blow to Americans’ – and, for that matter, Israelis’ – interests. No other state in the world can reasonably entertain such domineering ambitions. Even Russia is just one-tenth China’s economic size.

Yet America is doing too little, too slowly to match this intensifying military threat from China. Much of the attention to confronting China these days goes to economic measures such as “de-risking” and largely symbolic statements by allied leaders. But the fact is that nothing short of military force would stop a Chinese assault against Taiwan and quite possibly other US allies along the Pacific’s crucial first island chain. America and its allies therefore need to be able to defeat a Chinese attack on Taiwan, not just lob sanctions on Beijing. Contrary to a common argument, Beijing will not be deterred from attacking Taiwan by actions America takes in Europe or the Middle East. Common sense dictates that it will only be deterred or defeated by the military might made available for Asia.

Washington is notionally pursuing this strategy in Asia and making some progress, but not at the scale, pace, or intensity needed to match China’s own buildup, which the US Government judges to be unprecedented. Indeed, many highly credible sources indicate the United States and its allies would struggle and suffer in – if not lose – such a conflict against China.

In this context, Washington needs to hyper-focus on the Western Pacific. It needs to reorient its military and defense industrial base, money, and political capital to urgently strengthen its defenses along the first island chain. It can either do so before a war breaks out, and hope to deter one, or after, but in much more unfavorable circumstances.

This means that Washington will not be able to sustain the globe-spanning foreign policy of past decades when America dwarfed every challenger. This does not mean it needs to abandon the Middle East, Europe, or Latin America – but it will need to economize its efforts in these regions.

Allied autonomy and empowerment

Needless to say, this prioritization will have major implications for US allies, including very close ones such as Israel. But it need not jeopardize our close and vital ties. The key is adaptation, looking at things realistically and clearly as our starting point rather than ignoring or wishing this tough reality away. By the same token, though, Washington must look realistically, clearly, and respectfully at Israel’s threat perceptions, including of Iran, Hezbollah, and in the territories.

How should we adapt together, then? Fortunately, there is a ready model for our nations’ critical alliance that presents itself as the solution in this new era. That is a model of allied autonomy and empowerment, supported by America. In recent decades, Washington’s influence was dominant everywhere; the benefit of this for US allies was its ubiquitous strength, but the downside was often that Washington set the political line, which sometimes felt like a straitjacket.

To replace it, we can move to a different approach. Allies take more responsibility for the security threats outside of East Asia they feel most acutely. Washington defers more to allies’ approach to how to handle threats and actively supports and empowers them politically and materially in how they do so. Allies understand America will not take the lead or commit major forces outside of the Western Pacific, as Washington cannot afford to open itself to Chinese assault in Asia, but America will provide strong political support and military, intelligence, and other resources that do not detract from its readiness for a conflict with China along the first island chain.

The implications are clear. Instead of a bear hug of Israel, Washington should defer more to Israel’s judgment about how best to manage its security challenges. A visit to Israel last week with the Foundation For Defense of Democracies drove home for me the complexity and scope of these threats, above all from Iran.

America should be ready to provide potent material and political support to Israel. But at the same time, Israel should understand that the United States, which cannot afford to be enmeshed in another Middle Eastern war, will take a supporting role. In key respects, this would be a return to the allied model of the late Cold War, after 1973. Indeed, given Israel’s willingness and ability to take on threats, it can be an international model for the type of alliance the United States should promote: ready and committed to defend itself autonomously, and looking to Washington to enable it to do so.

The Israel-US alliance remains crucial. America should remain strongly committed to the security of the Jewish state. But, like any good thing, it must be adapted to new realities. Wishing away America’s need to prioritize Asia is both futile and more likely to undermine our vital alliance than reckoning with it together. Fortunately, there is a way forward. Our two nations should take it.

About the Author
Elbridge Colby is a principal at The Marathon Initiative. He served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Force Development from 2017-2018. He is the author of The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict.
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