Can the US Handle Conflict on 3 Fronts?

Mearsheimer asserts that the determinants of who wins a war, particularly wars of attrition like that in Ukraine, are manpower and manufacturing capacity.
Can the US Handle Conflict on 3 Fronts?
A U.S. Marine Corps AH-1Z Viper helicopter takes off during an air defense drill aboard the amphibious dock landing ship USS Green Bay (LPD 20) in the Pacific Ocean on Sept. 17, 2023. (U.S. Marine Corps/Cpl. Christopher Lape)
Graham Young
10/31/2023
Updated:
11/1/2023
0:00
Commentary

The United States needs to pivot its defence from Europe to the Indo-Pacific to deal with China, its number one strategic competitor, according to eminent U.S. political scientist John Mearsheimer, but will have trouble doing that because of its entanglement in Ukraine and the Middle East.

Mr. Mearsheimer, who was a guest of the Centre for Independent Studies, was talking in Brisbane, Australia. He is from the “realist” school of international relations, which means that he thinks great powers should, and do, act only in their own interests.

It’s a pity Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese was not able to hear him and was already en route to Washington to lobby for AUKUS at the time.

Mr. Mearsheimer’s view that the United States needs to pivot is shared by the Australian, Indian, Japanese, and various other smaller Asian governments, including, in some ways most critically, Taiwan.

Mr. Mearsheimer recognises three superpowers: the U.S., China, and Russia. He points to Russian political weakness post the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and Chinese poverty, as having created a unipolar moment for around 30 years when the United States was dominant.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has brought Russia back from the dead, and Chinese leader Xi Jinping has centralised power in a massive country that has become a middle-income nation that can now flex its muscles.

Today, the United States is embroiled in a war in Ukraine, and almost certainly one in the Middle East. In a tripartite world, it has antagonised the swing power, which is Russia, and now it is two to one.

A graduate of West Point, Mr. Mearsheimer asserts that the determinants of who wins a war, particularly wars of attrition like that in Ukraine, are manpower and manufacturing capacity.

On this basis, he deduces that Ukraine will lose, by which he means the Russians will occupy another 20 percent of the country in addition to the 20 percent it already has, and it will remain an unresolved war, similar to the Korean War—a stalemate with no peace treaty and the ever-present threat of fresh hostilities.

A young girl holding a Ukrainian flag runs in front of a destroyed cultural center during the graduation ceremony of art students in the town of Derhachi in the Kharkiv region of eastern Ukraine. (Sergey Bobok/Contributor/AFP/ Getty Images)
A young girl holding a Ukrainian flag runs in front of a destroyed cultural center during the graduation ceremony of art students in the town of Derhachi in the Kharkiv region of eastern Ukraine. (Sergey Bobok/Contributor/AFP/ Getty Images)

Just as the United States has 70,000 troops still in South Korea, he thinks it will need to have massive numbers in Ukraine for decades.

He also sees a bleak future for the Israeli state.

The problem for both Ukraine and Israel is that their enemies are more populous. Ukraine has 36.7 million inhabitants and Russia has 144 million—a four-to-one advantage. In U.S. dollars, the size of the Ukrainian economy is $173 billion, and Russia’s $1.862 trillion (although to put Russia into perspective, the size of the Australian economy is $1.688 trillion).

Israel has an economy four times the size of Ukraine’s, but in an area Mr. Mearsheimer refers to as “Greater Israel” being Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank, the Jews represent around 7.2 million souls, and the Arabs about 7.2 million as well.

In both these cases, without outside military aid, including the provision of materiel, the position of the U.S.’s allies is fraught.

This means as the United States tries to pivot, it is operating on three fronts.

Manufacture Capacity Debacle

I think things are more dire than Mr. Mearsheimer’s analysis suggests because when it comes to manufacturing, the West is in a disastrous position.

During the last 20 or more years, we have outsourced much of our manufacturing to China. This has turned China into a great power, fattened the balance sheets of Australian miners, and at the same time crowded out the shelves of households with electronic goods.

So far, so good. But it has also hollowed out our ability to manufacture, as well as centralising the production of some strategic elements in China.

For example, China dominates the rare earths market with 84 percent of world production, and these are used for the latest generation of hi-tech weaponry.

U.S. military manufacturing capacity has also declined to the extent where there are doubts as to whether Australia can obtain the AUKUS nuclear submarines from the U.S. because they might not be able to meet their own resupply needs for the ships, let alone supply others with them.

Semiconductor chips on a printed circuit board on Feb. 17, 2023. (Florence Lo/Illustration/Reuters)
Semiconductor chips on a printed circuit board on Feb. 17, 2023. (Florence Lo/Illustration/Reuters)

At the same time that manufacturing has been hollowed-out, we are also crippling the cost-effectiveness of what manufacturing we have by attempting to run a modern economy on windmills and solar panels.

China is radically increasing its consumption of fossil fuels for power generation at the same time as it hedges its bets with nuclear. Renewables are a tiny proportion of their overall power generation.

China’s labour productivity is also such that its military is rapidly surpassing the U.S. in terms of size.

In 2005, the Chinese navy had just over 200 principal combat ships, and the U.S. had just less than 300. Not even 20 years later, the U.S. has 294, while China has 351.
At the same time, the West has made it more difficult to extract domestic fossil fuels, forcing the price up, and increasing the West’s reliance on the Arab Middle East (which in terms of the current Middle East war is a potential transfer of power to Israel’s enemies), as well as unsavoury suppliers like Venezuela.

What About the Taiwan War Possibility?

Mr. Mearsheimer doesn’t expect China to move on Taiwan, citing the difficulties of a sea assault.

I don’t agree.

Mr. Xi has explicitly stated that he wants the capacity to reunite Taiwan with China by 2027.

Why not take him at his word? Most of what he says, he will do, or at least attempt to.

And why does he have to try an assault at all? By 2027 he will have a much larger navy than the United States.

South Korean Navy's destroyer Yulgok Yi I (R) U.S. Navy's aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (C) and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force's Umigiri sail in formation during a joint naval exercise in international waters off South Korea's southern island of Jeju at an undisclosed location, on April 4, 2023. (South Korean Defense Ministry via Getty Images)
South Korean Navy's destroyer Yulgok Yi I (R) U.S. Navy's aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (C) and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force's Umigiri sail in formation during a joint naval exercise in international waters off South Korea's southern island of Jeju at an undisclosed location, on April 4, 2023. (South Korean Defense Ministry via Getty Images)

While the U.S. Navy will be operating halfway around the world from its berths, the Chinese Navy will be close to its home ports.

The U.S. Navy will also be strung out around the world, with two carrier groups just having moved to the Middle East in recent days.

Why not enforce a blockade and “starve” Taiwan into submission?

While it is probably self-sufficient in food, 97.7 percent of its energy supply is imported (and a lot of that from Australia).

A further problem for the U.S. is that “the United States is now almost entirely reliant on foreign sources for the production of the cutting-edge semiconductors that power all the AI algorithms critical for defense systems and everything else” (pdf)—foreign sources mostly being Taiwan.

The U.S. is also running down its existing supplies of munitions which are being given to Ukraine, and now to Israel.

While the needs of both countries are to some extent complementary, the United States’ diminished manufacturing capacity is going to have trouble supplying the Ukrainians, let alone maintaining supply in a third front.

Decades of Complacency

The unipolar decades gave both the United States and Australia a false sense of security. We ran down our militaries at the same time as we ran down our military capacities and enriched a trading partner that had designs to become a strategic competitor.

Now we are playing catch up (although the current Australian government is spending even less on defence than the previous one).

We are onshoring the production of strategic minerals, investing in transferring some of Taiwan’s chip manufacturing capacity to the United States, and diversifying our outsourced manufacturing away from China.

One of the missing factors in Mr. Mearsheimer’s analysis is the part that India can play. Its economy is only one-fifth of China’s, but this year it just passed China in population size.

The size of India’s economy is doubling every 10 years. If manufacturing and investment are diverted to India, this will accelerate.

The next decades promise to be less idyllic than the last ones. Australia has bet its continental security on the United States.

It’s time we started laying some of that off by investing in our own defence directly and putting some of it towards other regional alliances.

Arrangements like AUKUS and the Five Eyes security partnership will only work with genuine commitment. Entering into them is easy, but delivering on them is not.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese needs to bear that in mind as he visits both our modern-day “imperial courts” in Washington and Beijing.

Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Graham Young is the executive director of the Australian Institute for Progress. He is the editor and founder of www.onlineopinion.com.au and has conducted qualitative polling on Australian politics since 2001. Mr. Young has contributed to The Australian newspaper, The Australian Financial Review, and is a regular on ABC Radio Brisbane.