As Republican Senator Lindsey Graham put it recently, “There can be no backing off of helping Ukraine because if we fail here, there goes Taiwan.” No doubt, this same thinking motivates many of those reportedly trying to insert Ukraine funding in the next disaster relief bill to go to Congress.
The truth is much simpler: Deterring China has far less to do with the war in Ukraine than it does with convincing Xi Jinping that U.S. and Taiwanese forces will be able to soundly defeat a Chinese assault. Prioritizing Ukraine at the expense of U.S. and Taiwanese forces in the Pacific has not only detracted from America’s ability to do just that. It may also cause Beijing to doubt America’s commitment to Taiwan’s defense.
To right the ship, the United States must redouble efforts to deter China in the Indo-Pacific—but threatening to punish Beijing won’t be enough. Xi Jinping has made Taiwan a central part of his legacy, and the Chinese Communist Party appears willing to bear high costs to bring the island under its control, by force if necessary. That willingness is evident in the vast sums it has spent on military modernization, even at the expense of other priorities during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is further evident in Beijing’s apparent efforts to insulate China’s economy against Western sanctions in the event of war. As a result, reliance on cost-imposition alone almost certainly won’t deter Beijing.
Instead, the United States should rely on deterrence by denial, or convincing Chinese leaders—Xi Jinping, in particular—that any attempt to invade Taiwan will fail, and they are therefore better off not trying in the first place. Implementing such a strategy most urgently requires the United States to disperse and harden operating locations in the Western Pacific, increase munition stockpiles, and develop a persistent targeting-quality common operating picture, among other things. Taiwanese forces, meanwhile, must field and demonstrate proficiency in the asymmetric defenses required to defeat an invasion force, like anti-ship missiles, mobile air and missile defenses, and anti-armor weapons.
These initiatives and others like them contribute to deterrence by denial because they materially weaken the Chinese military’s ability to enter and transit the Taiwan Strait, secure a lodgment on Taiwan, and seize and hold Taipei or other key terrain on the island. China must be able to do all these things for an invasion to succeed. By directly undermining Chinese forces’ ability to perform these tasks, we can inject doubt into Chinese leaders’ assessment of China’s likelihood of prevailing, thereby strengthening deterrence.
Aid to Ukraine does not achieve similar effects in the Pacific. Even if Ukraine’s defenders can eject Russian invaders, which seems unlikely, it would do little if anything to materially weaken Chinese forces’ ability to invade Taiwan. To the contrary, Beijing is no doubt taking steps to ensure Chinese forces do not repeat Russia’s errors in Ukraine should it go to war over Taiwan. That will probably only improve China’s ability to execute a cross-Strait invasion and thus Beijing’s confidence in the same—even as it erodes whatever advantages U.S. forces might gain from their own observations in Ukraine. It may also encourage Beijing to resort to more aggressive tactics from the outset of a conflict.
Events in Ukraine may also bolster Chinese leaders’ confidence in China’s military advantage by drawing U.S. resources away from the Indo-Pacific. Already, for instance, the United States has sent large amounts of military aid to Ukraine that could have been used to strengthen Taiwan’s defenses, including National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems, Patriot air defense systems, High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, Guided Multiple Launch Rocket Systems, Harpoon anti-ship missiles, Stingers, Javelins, and drones. Many U.S. stockpiles are now significantly reduced as a result, limiting our ability to deliver weapons to Taiwan from the U.S. inventory, even as U.S. defense industry struggles to produce replacements. Meanwhile, the Biden administration shows no sign of prioritizing Taiwan over Ukraine for future deliveries of weapons both require, further delaying our ability to arm Taiwan for an effective denial defense.
Proponents of more aid for Ukraine might respond that capability is just part of the deterrence equation—resolve is also key. According to them, helping Ukraine to defeat Russia shows the United States is willing to resist totalitarian aggression not just in Ukraine but also in Taiwan. Doing so, in turn, could help stay Beijing’s hand if Chinese leaders were otherwise betting on the United States staying out of a Taiwan fight.
But what matters most for deterrence by denial is capability. So long as we are underinvesting in our military posture in the Pacific, betting on demonstrations of resolve to deter China amounts to relying on a bluff to avoid a third world war. Moreover, China’s ongoing military buildup is optimized for countering U.S. intervention in a Taiwan scenario, which strongly suggests Beijing thinks it is likely, if not inevitable, that we will fight. Beijing’s perception of our resolve, then, does not seem to be the issue. But even if U.S. resolve is in question, our present strategy of prioritizing aid to Ukraine at the expense of U.S. and Taiwanese forces in the Pacific seems less likely to convince Chinese leaders of our resolve to deter or win a war over Taiwan than it is to show Beijing that defending Taiwan is not the priority we say it is.
Finally, unlike in Ukraine, Taiwan’s defense will require more than military aid from the United States. Taiwan’s defense will require U.S. intervention, which is an entirely different level of commitment than that on display in Ukraine. It is unclear how or why sending aid to Ukraine would convince Beijing of our willingness to send American servicemembers to fight over Taiwan.
Doubts about whether a Ukrainian victory will help to deter China should not prevent America from helping Ukraine at all. The United States has an interest in preventing Russia from dominating Ukraine, and we should use military aid to protect that interest, but only in a manner that is consistent with the prioritization of deterring China in the Indo-Pacific. As war in Ukraine goes on, we must not deceive ourselves into thinking that the outcome in Ukraine will be anything close to decisive as Beijing considers whether to invade Taiwan. Instead, we should focus on what matters most—deterrence by denial in the Indo-Pacific.
This piece originally appeared in 1945