As the Republican presidential primary intensifies, a burgeoning contingent of right-leaning foreign policy experts has emerged to claim that President Joe Biden’s Ukraine policy is eroding America’s ability to deter a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Consequently, they recommend drastically reducing, if not outright halting, American support for Ukraine’s defense. Politically, this argument is shrewd—it appeals to an increasingly Ukraine-skeptical Republican primary electorate without compromising its proponents’ credibility within mainstream foreign policy circles. Given the widespread consensus that China poses America’s most significant strategic challenge, framing a rollback of current Ukraine policy this way lends the argument an air of hard truth told by sober-minded adults. However, while certainly politically savvy, geopolitically, this line of reasoning is highly unsound.
At its core, the case for reducing U.S. support for Ukraine is based on a supposed policy tradeoff: every dollar or bullet sent to Ukraine is one less for Taiwan’s defense. Because Taiwan’s security is more strategically significant to Washington than Ukraine’s, critics claim the U.S. must realign its policy to match its priorities.
However, this argument overlooks several factors that challenge its fundamental assumptions. Notably, one doesn’t need to accept the view expressed by the Taiwanese, among others, that the United States must support Ukraine to deter China. Even setting aside concerns about U.S. credibility or resolve, there is ample reason to conclude that the critics of Washington’s current Ukraine policy are mistaken. Similarly, while the most compelling argument for assisting Ukraine is arguably the moral one, even within the framework of tradeoffs, the case for the Biden administration’s current policy is strong.
First, the defense budget does not solely consist of spending on Ukraine and Taiwan. Many other programs, some arguably wasteful, could be reduced or eliminated to increase funding for Taiwan’s defense. Furthermore, Russia is China’s most militarily capable partner and would likely be willing to supply weapons to China during any conflict over Taiwan. Therefore, providing Ukraine with the means to destroy Russian military capabilities is possibly the most cost-effective Defense Department program currently in existence, even when one looks at it through the lens of a Taiwan contingency. And while far from guaranteed, if Russia’s poor performance in Ukraine eventually results in Putin’s overthrow and replacement by a more benign Russian government, the gains to U.S. and Taiwanese security would be even more significant.
The radically different nature of the two conflicts further undermines the notion of a sharp tradeoff between arming Ukraine versus Taiwan. The Ukraine conflict is predominantly a land war fought over short distances, while a Taiwan conflict would likely be a primarily naval war fought over long distances. While reports of the depletion of American weapons reserves are worrying, the weapon systems in question are not the submarines, aircraft, anti-ship missiles, sea mines, and torpedoes crucial to Taiwan’s defense.
The U.S. military has also gained valuable information thanks to its support for Ukraine. The war has exposed inefficiencies and gaps in America’s defense industrial base—lessons better learned now than in the middle of a potential conflict with China over Taiwan. The Ukraine mission is also giving the Pentagon a chance to test new equipment and develop the logistical skills necessary for long-distance supply operations, knowledge that would prove invaluable should the United States need to come to Taiwan’s defense.
One might counter that the U.S. commitment to Ukraine will tempt China to strike Taiwan while the United States is tied down in Europe, especially if the conflict drags on for years. But attacking Taiwan while the Ukraine conflict is ongoing would be a strategic disaster for China. Beijing hopes to drive a wedge between Europe and the United States over Taiwan, and as evidenced by recent comments from leaders like French president Emmanuel Macron, they have had some success. However, a Chinese attack on Taiwan amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would torpedo that diplomatic effort and likely result in the two conflicts merging into one global East-West struggle. Under such circumstances, Europe would likely support U.S. efforts to defend Taiwan in return for continued American assistance in Ukraine. In short, attacking Taiwan in the context of the Ukraine war makes the emergence of a pan-Western coalition to counter China more likely, not less.
Lastly, there is an essential distinction between the current conflict in Ukraine and a hypothetical one over Taiwan that makes arguments about potential tradeoffs moot: the role of nuclear weapons. The U.S. has wisely refrained from direct involvement in the Ukraine war to avoid the possibility of a nuclear confrontation with Russia. But a serious conflict over Taiwan would necessitate significant U.S. military involvement, likely involving missile strikes on the Chinese mainland. It is illogical to conclude that Washington is correct to worry that direct military engagement in Ukraine could result in a nuclear war with Russia, but killing significant numbers of Chinese citizens does not also risk a nuclear exchange. Misconceptions about the role of atomic weapons in a Taiwan conflict have likely been reinforced by DC think tanks’ war games, which often take them off the table. But in any real-world conflict over Taiwan, the prospect of nuclear war would immediately loom over the minds of policymakers in both Washington and Beijing.
To be clear, the threat of nuclear war with China is not a reason to abandon Taiwan, just as during the Cold War, the threat of nuclear war was neither a reason to abandon Berlin. Nevertheless, the fact that hypothetical mushroom clouds loom over any U.S.-China conflict constrains the role of conventional weapons in any Taiwan scenario.
Those who worry about tradeoffs for Ukraine make the mistake of believing that the United States must exceed China’s conventional capabilities in the Western Pacific to achieve deterrence. Under this logic, it is understandable why one would be desperate to shift every weapon possible from Ukraine to Taiwan. But attempting to match China’s conventional forces this way is untenable and unnecessary.
To deter a Chinese invasion, the United States simply needs to maintain sufficient military capabilities in the region such that China cannot successfully invade Taiwan without simultaneously attacking America’s Pacific bases, particularly Guam, but conceivably Japan and the Philippines as well. Under these conditions, China will find itself confronting a sort of “Guam trigger.” Given the stated U.S. policy, Beijing must operate under the assumption that Washington would actively assist in Taiwan’s defense. If China launches an invasion without first destroying America’s military assets in the region, its ships will be left vulnerable to attack. However, if it launches a preemptive strike on U.S. forces, especially on American soil in Guam, it will experience the full wrath of a vengeful United States. Given this, China faces a choice between a failed invasion or a major conflict likely ending in atomic annihilation. Given those options, Beijing will presumably choose to maintain the status quo, achieving Washington’s goal of deterrence with limited deployment of conventional arms. China may attempt to escape this bind by adopting more restrained tactics, such as a blockade of Taiwan. But any U.S. attempt to counter such a move would primarily involve diplomatic outreach and air and sea lift, areas that are not hampered by U.S. support for Ukraine.
It is undoubtedly correct that U.S. national security officials must recognize tradeoffs, but it is equally true that they must also recognize false tradeoffs when they emerge. The idea that Washington must choose between defending Taiwan and defending Ukraine is one such false choice, and the Biden administration is wise to ignore such criticisms.
Robert Nelson is a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford University studying U.S. foreign policy. He previously served as a national security aide to Senator Chris Murphy. His Twitter handle is @RW_Nelson.