RSIS Distinguished Public Lecture by General (Ret) John R Allen, RSIS Distinguished Visitor
War in Ukraine and Taiwan: Implications and Consequences
If there is one lesson President Xi should be taking from the war in Ukraine, and Russia’s wider conflict with the West, it should be that a supposedly modern and modernized army is no guarantee for success in deterrence, in an aggressive war, or in battle itself. If nothing else, the lessons from Russia’s dismal performance in Ukraine should create pause, not encouragement, for contemplating the forced unification of Taiwan by China.
To this end, much of the conversation assumes China can do no better in an invasion of Taiwan, than Russia is doing in its invasion of Ukraine, ignoring, in the process, the enormity of the potential ancillary and collateral implications of a war in East Asia. The assumptions and expectations from this line of thinking are unrealistic and dangerous.
A war between the United States and China over Taiwan, must never be fought, as it is indeed, an imaginable catastrophe with untold and unspeakable societal, financial, and economic devastation, with long term, perhaps generational, political and military implications. No one, however, has seriously, systematically, and scientifically estimated the potential total destructiveness of this war. Understanding the totality of this war, and the persistent cold war hostility that would inevitably follow, should be clearly understood as part of this discussion, and should stand as one of the principal deterrents for all parties against going to war across the Taiwan Strait and more broadly across East Asia.
How should we think about conflict in East Asia? Apart from the obvious human suffering and death, what are the true economic implications of a war with an almost certain, violent, horizontal escalation across the region, and a potential vertical escalation to the nuclear threshold?
The US has been clear, that it adheres to a One China policy, and that America does not support Taiwan independence. But America has been clear that it will oppose, by force if needs be, any unilateral attempt to alter the peaceful status quo across the Taiwan Strait. As all parties contemplate the potential for a military conflict across the Strait, the larger, global implications and ramifications must also figure into these calculations. This will not be a contained, regional conflict as the war in Ukraine has been. Its effects will be immediate, global, devastating, and long lasting. In this moment of heightened US/China tensions preventing this war must be one of the principal objectives of leaders in Washington, Beijing, and Taipei.
About the Speaker
John R. Allen is a retired U.S. Marine Corps four-star general and former commander of the NATO International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, a force which at its peak number nearly 150,000 troops. Immediately following his retirement from the military, Allen served as the Senior Advisor to the Secretary of Defense on Middle East Security, and in that role, he led the security dialogue with Israel and the Palestinian Authority for 15 months within the Middle East peace process. At the request of President Obama, Allen subsequently served as Special Presidential Envoy to the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, growing the international coalition to 65 members in the face of the onslaught of the so-called Islamic State.
Allen commanded the NATO International Security Assistance Force and United States Forces in Afghanistan from July 2011 to February 2013. As such, he was the first Marine Corps general officer to command a theater of war. Allen’s extensive contingency and combat operations include the Caribbean in 1994, the Balkans from 1995 to 1996, Iraq from 2007 to 2008, and Afghanistan from 2011 to 2013. In Iraq, he participated in intense combat operations in the Al Anbar province where he was one of the principal actors supporting the emergence of the tribal “Awakening movement” that helped defeat Al Qaeda. From 2008 to 2011 he served as the Deputy Commander of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), the combatant command charged with the strategic responsibility for Central Asia and the Middle East.
As a general officer, Allen served as the principal director of Asia-Pacific policy in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, a position he held for nearly three years. In this assignment, he was involved extensively on policy initiatives involving Mongolia, China, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia. He was also involved in the Six Party Talks on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. He played a major role in organizing the initial relief effort in the aftermath of the devastating South Asian tsunami from 2004 to 2005.
John Allen is a Strategic Advisor to the Microsoft Corporation and has joined the Microsoft Advisory Council. He is a Senior Fellow at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is a permanent member of the Council On Foreign Relations and was appointed by President Biden to be a member of the U.S. Naval Academy’s Board of Visitors. He is a Distinguished Graduate of the Naval Academy. He was President of The Brookings Institution from 2017 to 2022.
He is the co-author of the book Turning Point: Policymaking in the Era of Artificial Intelligence alongside Dr Darrell M. West (Brookings Press, 2020). He is also the co-author of Future War and the Defence of Europe alongside LTG (Ret.) Frederick “Ben” Hodges and Professor Dr Julian Lindley French (Oxford University Press, 2021). Future War has been translated into German, Romanian, and, most recently, Ukrainian. He is one of the originators of the term “hyperwar”. As a co-inventor, Allen shares five AI related patents. He advises several tech start-ups.
He is the recipient of multiple US military and civilian agency personal and campaign awards, and has received international military awards from ten countries.
John Allen is a reader of history, particularly about the American Civil War, and is an enthusiastic, but by no means expert, cyclist.