In three short years, the world has witnessed the worldwide Covid lockdowns, America’s dismal retreat from Afghanistan, and the return of land war to Europe. But there are reasons to believe the dramatic events the 2020s have offered thus far might be only the beginning. If you follow the chatter of Beltway mandarins, an ominous change has taken place over the past year when it comes to China. A decade ago, the Middle Kingdom was a distant concern; five years later, it was viewed as silly and uncouth of Donald Trump to rail constantly against Beijing.

But in 2023, all that has changed drastically: There is now open talk in Washington about a potential war with China, and soon. To take just one example: In a conversation hosted earlier this year by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Reps. Mike Waltz (R-Fla.) and Jason Crow (D-Colo.) spoke as if a war with China is highly probable, even guaranteed. Crow went so far as to suggest that the United States abolish any caps on how many of its military personnel in uniform are permitted to work on Taiwan as instructors, war planners, and military attaché. Such a move—which itself would move the United States and China closer to war—is warranted, according to Crow, because “the cat is out of the bag,” and “it’s very clear we’ve chosen sides.”

In the brewing conflict between Washington and Beijing, all eyes are on Taiwan, but the truth is the island itself doesn’t matter as much in itself as many believe, nor does the threat of Chinese control of its crucial semiconductor sector. After all, China already dominates a massive list of inputs that America needs (rare earths and metals, ordinary metals, electronics, pharmaceutics, machine tools, telecom equipment, and much more besides); one more Chinese-cornered market won’t make or break the US economy. The fate of the population of Taiwan is equally unimportant: Whether 20 million ethnic Chinese pay their taxes to Taipei or Beijing is immaterial to the future of ordinary Americans.

What America has to defend today isn’t really Taiwan, microchips, or democracy, but the very concept of US primacy. The Chinese position on Taiwan is fairly clear: A Taiwanese declaration of de jure independence is a red line that will mean war. However, the only feasible way for Taiwan to assert and defend its independence would be through the aid of a powerful outside backer, and that backer can realistically only be America. Thus, for Washington to acknowledge it can’t win a war over Taiwan would mean conceding America’s hegemon status.

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