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The real lesson of the war in Ukraine for Taiwan

To prevent military conflict, Washington must provide reassurances to Beijing while strengthening allied deterrence.

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

After two months of fighting in Ukraine, American weapons have helped fend off Russia’s illegal invasion. U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, are now calling to “weaken” Russia further by sending additional arms to Ukraine. Against this backdrop, there is a temptation to argue that the United States should preempt conflict with Beijing by sending more asymmetric weapons to Taiwan.

Already in 2022, the Biden administration has approved the sale of two arms packages for the island together worth $195 million. Washington risks making a mistake, however, by assuming that additional weapons for Taipei will deter rather than provoke Beijing.

The costs of Russia’s offensive — to Ukrainian civilians, peace in Europe, and the global economy — should convince U.S. officials that they must do all that they can to prevent conflict with mainland China. Despite weakening Russia, Ukraine has not emerged from battle unscathed. Any war in the Taiwan Strait, similarly, is likely to end in “disaster for all sides,” as Taiwan’s defense minister recently put it.

To avoid conflict with Beijing, the United States should focus less on providing direct weapons to Taipei and more on working with allies and partners to deter Chinese aggression. The recently announced delay of U.S. howitzer deliveries to Taiwan shows that the United States does not have unlimited capacity to strengthen deterrence in the Western Pacific. Bolstering allied capabilities is less likely to provoke mainland China than direct support for Taiwan yet more likely to shift the military balance in Washington’s favor.

Meanwhile, the United States should reassure mainland China that it does not seek military conflict. Reassurances alone cannot prevent a crisis, but good-faith efforts to reduce tension will signal that the United States stands for peace in the Taiwan Strait. As the war in Ukraine demonstrates, clarity about who is to blame for the conflict can help build a global coalition in opposition to the aggressor.

The dangers of the current situation in Taiwan are not lost on Washington. In Biden’s first year in office, the administration tried to build “guardrails” with Beijing to prevent a mutually destructive war from breaking out. After multiple attempts to reactivate U.S.-China defense hotlines, Washington made limited progress in reopening security dialogues with Beijing.

At the same time, the White House recognizes that the main battleground in U.S.-China competition is not in the Taiwan Strait, but in the international community, which will have a deciding vote on how to respond to any future Chinese attack. The new Indo-Pacific Strategy states that Washington seeks to “shape the strategic environment in which it [China] operates.” For this reason, the Biden administration has worked with allies and partners to pursue “integrated deterrence.” A number of U.S. allies, from Australia to Japan, have already taken steps to underscore the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, while the Quad and G7 have expressed concerns about Beijing’s destabilizing actions in the Western Pacific.

The reality is that sending more weapons to Taipei will do little to alter the military balance in the Taiwan Strait. The mainland is tooclose to the island,possesses too many advanced ballistic and cruise missiles, and has the political will too strong to back down if provoked. Many analysts assess that the PLA isunlikely to perform as poorly in Taiwan as Russia has in Ukraine and, even if the United States intervenes, it is unclear that Washington alone canprevail in conflict with Beijing.

In this context, it is tempting to argue that the United States should send more asymmetric weapons to Taiwan, as it has done with Ukraine, to stifle the mainland’s attempts at forceful unification. The risk, however, is that Beijing perceives additional support for Taipei as a pretext for Taiwan to declare independence and judges that forced unification is more likely to succeed sooner rather than later. For this reason, the United States should proceed with caution when deciding whether to export more weapons to Taiwan.

Nonetheless, there is much that the United States can do to deter Chinese aggression without provoking the same conflict that it is trying to avoid.

First, Washington should bolster the deterrence capabilities of countries in Asia with whom it shares official treaty alliances. Ukraine’s ill fate was partly the result of its tenuous position — at once removed from NATO yet too close to reduce Russian paranoia. Before the war, one respected Russia expertwrote, “the Kremlin increasingly views Ukraine as a Western aircraft carrier... Ukraine is now one of the largest recipients of U.S. military assistance.” The United States should not repeat its mistakes in Ukraine by emboldening forces in Taiwan that it is not ready to unambiguously defend. The majority of Americans donot support “committing to defend Taiwan” and shifting to a policy of “strategic clarity” would be a recipe for immediate escalation.

Instead, the United States should use its limited resources to reinforce the defense capabilities of the countries that it is formally obliged to protect and whose defense forces are more likely to deter Beijing: Australia, Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines. While these countries may not be willing to fight mainland China on their own, their commitment to defend the United States could be invoked if Beijing targets U.S. assets in the course of attacking Taiwan. The Biden administration has been correct, therefore, to strengthen allied deterrence, but its actions to date, such as stationing attack helicopters in South Korea and sending additional aircraft to Australia, are wanting.

Second, the United States should work with allies and partners in Europe and Asia to mount a unified response to Chinese aggression. Perceiveddaylight between Washington and Brussels before Moscow’s invasion was a major weakness in NATO’s deterrence. Signaling that an attack on Taiwan could trigger international sanctions would do more to deter and less to provoke Beijing than the export of more weapons to Taipei.

Finally, Washington should reassure mainland China that it does not seek military conflict. Recent U.S. actions, such as dispatchingmarines and congressionaldelegations to Taiwan, have done little to raise the costs of a potential attack. Instead, Washington has given Taipei false hope that it supports Taiwan independence and convinced Beijing that it has little regard for its interests. Mainland China now believes that the United States is dead set on using Taiwan as a strategicasset to contain it. The Biden administration should quell these perceptions by reiterating that the United States does not support Taiwan independence in keeping with decades of past U.S. policy. Even if reassurances fail to prevent conflict, efforts to reduce tension will signal that the United States stands for peace, helping to clarify who is to blame in the event of a future conflict.

The costs of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine should convince Washington that it must do all that it can to prevent a military conflict with mainland China. Bolstering the defense capabilities of U.S. allies, speaking in concert with international partners, and providing reassurances to Beijing will do more to alter the mainland’s calculus than the export of more American weapons to Taiwan. The alternative would be a world in which conflict is inevitable and the United States’ prospects on the battlefield are uncertain.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (Shutterstock/Kaliva); President Joe Biden (Devi Bones/Shutterstock);Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (shutterstock/Glen Photo)
Analysis | Asia-Pacific
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