The Messenger

A Victorious Ukraine Will Make Taiwan Safer—and US Assistance Is Crucial

Senior Fellow, Center on Europe and Eurasia
President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy addresses the general debate of the General Assembly’s seventy-eighth session on September 19, 2023. (UN Photo via Flickr)
President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy addresses the general debate of the General Assembly’s seventy-eighth session on September 19, 2023. (UN Photo via Flickr)

One of the most often heard objections to additional U.S. military support for Ukraine is that Russia’s aggression is a “distraction” from the more pressing threat coming from China. We are told that “Washington faces a choice” between Europe or Asia, and that America “must prioritize delivering weapons to Taiwan.”

These views are lazy. It takes a complex issue — namely, how to advance U.S. national interest across the whole Eurasian landmass and not just one corner of it — and boils it down to something that works better on a bumper sticker than in a strategy document.   

In the words of Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida: “The security of the Indo-Pacific region cannot be separated from European security.” Defending Ukraine is critically important to deterring China. When the West displays weakness, a geopolitical vacuum is created, which its adversaries rush to fill. Think about how the world looked in February 2022 on the eve of Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine. Just six months earlier, images of Afghans falling from C-17s during America’s chaotic retreat from Kabul dominated the news. In the face of America’s defeat in Afghanistan, our adversaries were emboldened. Meanwhile, allies and friends from Europe to Asia questioned American resolve. In part, the road that led to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was paved on disaster in Kabul.

Russia and China are partners on the global stage. Anyone thinking otherwise is not paying attention. Just 20 days before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a “no-limits partnership” stating that “there are no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation.”

Of course, this partnership was agreed upon before the world witnessed the raping of Ukrainian women, the abduction of Ukrainian children, the mass graves of Bucha, and the destruction of Mariupol. Instead of these atrocities pushing Beijing away from Moscow, the two have become even closer. When Xi visited Moscow last March, he told his Russian counterpart: “Now there are changes that haven’t happened in 100 years. When we are together, we drive these changes.” Putin nodded in agreement.

Since they are partners, anything that can be done to weaken Russia will also indirectly make China weaker. As China calculates what it will do against Taiwan, Beijing is watching how the West supports — or doesn’t support — Kyiv. A victorious Ukraine will make Taiwan safer. Anyone who believes that we can peel away Russia from China by abandoning Ukraine is hopelessly naive.

Nor is America’s military support for Ukraine reducing our ability to help Taiwan. Nobody can seriously claim that the 10,000 Javelins or 2,000 Stingers sent to Ukraine are somehow the determining factor in whether a Chinese invasion of Taiwan can be deterred — but they were the determining factor when pushing Russian troops away from Kyiv in the beginning weeks of the war.

The weapons of choice for the U.S. in a conflict with China will be torpedoes, the air-launched long-range strike missiles, naval mines, and Tomahawk cruise missiles. None of these has been provided to Ukraine. Anyway, the weapons offered to Ukraine are all being replaced by newer systems, better preparing us for the future.

Not only is helping Ukraine the moral thing to do, but the Ukrainians are doing us a favor. By using our weapons, they are dismantling the conventional armed forces of the Russian Federation — one of our top adversaries. They are doing so without a single American soldier pulling a trigger or coming under fire. Furthermore, the lessons we are learning from the war in Ukraine will make us stronger in the Indo-Pacific and allow us to help make Taiwan safer.

Major shortcomings in our defense industrial base are being addressed. The performance of American-made military equipment gets a real-world combat test in a way not possible in a peacetime environment. This prepares us for future warfare in a manner otherwise not possible.

Because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, countries in East Asia have stepped up to the plate, too. Defense spending by Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and Australia has increased. As Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen recently said: “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a wake-up call to us all.”

American support for Ukraine does not delay our military support for Taiwan. On the contrary, because of the lessons learned from supporting Ukraine, some American weapons are now getting to Taiwan faster than originally planned. For the first time, presidential drawdown authority was used to rush weapons to Taiwan this year. Even Taipei’s recent order for High-Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) will be arriving in Taiwan one year early, after the U.S. re-prioritized the sale. Without the experiences from our support of Ukraine, none of this would have happened.

Regarding the debate over whether to support Ukraine or Taiwan, there is one important point that is often brushed aside but needs to be addressed. Those policy experts who, in good faith, argue for prioritizing Taiwan over Ukraine, are used by the isolationists to advocate against all aid to Ukraine. This will come back to haunt anyone who is serious about supporting Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion.

If China does invade Taiwan, it is unrealistic to think that isolationist lawmakers will suddenly support sending America’s sons and daughters to fight China over a country that the U.S. has not recognized as independent. It would be quite the intellectual journey to go from opposing sending just weapons to Ukraine to supporting the deployment of U.S. troops to Taiwan.

The U.S. has too many economic and security interests to simply ignore Ukraine or Taiwan. We must help Ukraine defeat Russia and we must deter China from invading Taiwan. When asked whether it’s possible to do this at the same time, the commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command recenty said: “I haven’t been impacted at this point, as it applies to my deterrence mission, so I do believe we can do both. I believe we have to do both to maintain the peace.”

Public spending is about establishing national priorities. Right now, U.S. aid to Ukraine amounts to four-tenths of 1% of the U.S. gross domestic product. There is plenty of wasteful spending across the federal government that lawmakers should cut before cutting the modest amount of aid to Ukraine. We can afford to help Ukraine and to deter China. We can’t afford not to.

The road that led to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was paved by disaster in Kabul. Let’s not allow the road leading to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan to be paved by defeat in Ukraine.

Read in The Messenger.