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Why American Credibility on Taiwan is at Stake in Ukraine A PLA Navy vessel cuts across the path of a U.S. destroyer in the Taiwan Strait. U.S. Navy image.

Why American Credibility on Taiwan is at Stake in Ukraine

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At an AEI event held on June 27, Presidential Candidate Nikki Haley made the argument that Ukraine’s ability to defend itself from Russian aggression acts as a deterrent to a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan. She’s right.

There are ongoing efforts to both confront China and to create stability in the relationship with China, as illustrated by Secretary Antony Blinken’s recent diplomatic trip to the country. This was recently postponed due to ratcheting tensions, epitomized earlier this month by a Chinese naval vessel aggressively maneuvering into the path of an American destroyer operating in international waters. Concerned about China’s aggressiveness towards Taiwan, a vocal minority of analysts and pundits are voraciously calling for the United States to divert its support of Ukraine’s defense in order to better deter a hypothetical invasion of Taiwan, unwittingly to the detriment of potential success in both theaters. A disengagement from Ukraine will continue the U.S.’ problematic history of abrupt and unceremonious departures from regional conflicts that renders local governments non-viable. Moreover, it would reinforce the notion that America suffers from a short attention span, a dynamic which plays a crucial role in informing the strategies of U.S. adversaries. From its pattern of past withdrawals and disengagements, America’s adversaries derive the lesson that the U.S. will not commit indefinitely, that after a certain threshold the American electorate will lose interest in prolonged involvement, and that the local government previously allied with the U.S. will be defeated.

Critically, this logic extends to U.S. backing of both Ukraine and Taiwan, as Russia is betting it can wear down U.S. resolve in backing Ukraine, and China’s actions will be determined almost entirely by whether it believes the U.S. will be willing to risk lives and resources to defeat a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Accordingly, the course of American support for Ukraine matters for U.S. credibility in the Indo-Pacific because China’s decision on whether to invade will be based not only on what military assets the U.S. has available in the region, but whether it believes the U.S. will remain resolved to intervening and seeing a conflict through to victory. China has limited knowledge on which to base a decision whether to invade, and U.S. behavior in past conflicts serves as one of the few data sets China can use to predict American actions. To deter a war over Taiwan, China needs to believe that the U.S. will respond rapidly, effectively, and dedicatedly—thereby seriously raising the costs for China and decreasing its likelihood of success.

Some experts argue that the credibility of U.S. deterrence against a Chinese invasion of Taiwan is hampered by an over-commitment of limited resources to Ukraine, and that the U.S. should reduce that commitment in order to bolster a credible defense posture against China. This logic is flawed. If the U.S. significantly reduces its support for Ukraine to prepare a Taiwanese defense, then China would see the U.S. as easily flustering when multiple crises are on the horizon, demonstrating a limited commitment and attention span to any ongoing U.S. intervention. If the U.S. continues its track record of abruptly pulling the plug on one country to focus on another, then Taiwan and China should expect the same. Based on America’s reputation, a crisis developing in Iran or North Korea, possibly at Russian or Chinese urging, could be seen as a strategic tool to cause the U.S. to abandon Taiwan to prevent catastrophe elsewhere. The prospect of abandonment has two detrimental effects: first, China uses this reputation to fill part of its limited knowledge of the intentions of the United States, pushing Beijing toward a favorable assessment of an invasion. Second, the Taiwanese willingness to fight may be weakened by uncertainties surrounding the extent of America’s commitment.

Continued U.S. support for Ukraine addresses both concerns, filling in some of China’s limited knowledge by showing that the U.S. is breaking its habit of abandonment and intends to support Ukraine through to a resolution of the war. The U.S. standing by Ukraine inspires confidence within Taiwan that the U.S. will rise to its commitments and increases Taiwan’s willingness to hold out against a Chinese attack, buying time for an American response that will give Taiwan a fighting chance to retain its sovereignty. Just as Ukraine’s success in defending against Russian forces can be credited to the willingness of its people to fight, the success of a potential Taiwanese defense will be reliant on this same spirit—a variable that China must seriously consider.

This demonstration of commitment is essential at this moment given the history of strategic ambiguity about the defense of Taiwan. The U.S. has long preferred a “prenup” policy of ambiguity that offers the option of divorcing itself from any perceived obligation to defend Taiwan. The U.S. has never been unequivocally clear on whether it would defend the island from a Chinese invasion, leading China to believe that the U.S. would back down from a fight. The Biden administration has waffled on its declarations—when President Biden declared on 60 Minutes that American forces would directly defend Taiwan, the White House quickly backtracked on this statement. Strategic ambiguity gives the U.S. more flexibility of response, but also sows doubt about its willingness to fight a Chinese invasion, thereby forsaking a significant element of deterrence.

China-first pundits discount the contribution of credibility and signaling toward deterrence, focusing solely on in-theater military posture rather than a wholistic overview of rhetoric and behavior. They argue that China is happy to keep the U.S. engaged in Ukraine because it supposedly reduces the ability to respond to a Pacific crisis, despite the fact that no U.S. naval or air forces are engaged in Ukraine. In focusing on the material tradeoffs between European and Asian security, they get several things wrong.

Defense policy experts focus on the idea that military aid to Ukraine depletes stockpiles and resources available to Taiwan. However, the war in Ukraine is heavily focused on ground operations involving infantry, tanks, mortars, and artillery, little of which matter for Taiwan in preventing an amphibious landing. The only significant resource overlap necessary to prevent a successful amphibious landing is in air defense capabilities. Here, the war in Ukraine is providing valuable insights on effective air defense to Taiwan’s benefit. If Chinese forces reach and engage en masse on land, they will likely overwhelm the Taiwanese, almost certainly spelling the end of Taiwan. Ukraine’s relatively limited anti-ship missile capability has proven effective in preventing the Russian Navy from having a significant impact on the land war. A couple of Ukrainian Neptune anti-ship missiles sunk the Russian Black Sea flagship Moskva, and a U.S. Harpoon missile fired by Ukrainian forces sunk a Russian supply ship in June 2022. Mobile ground-based launchers for the Harpoon anti-ship missile system will be critical in preventing a successful amphibious landing on Taiwan. Though Ukraine has received some of these missiles, it has demonstrated how seriously threatening they could prove to an amphibious Chinese invasion force. They will be invaluable to Taiwan’s coastal defense when provided in sufficient quantities—and Taiwan recently ordered 400 of the land-based version.

The war in Ukraine serves as a relatively cost-effective option in both defanging Russia and deterring China, and does not seriously distract from the U.S. military’s ability to respond in the Pacific. At no cost in lives to the U.S., and at reasonable cost in American treasure, the Armed Forces of Ukraine have decimated Russia’s offensive ground potential—and have shown China that an invasion against a militarily “inferior” but determined force could prove extremely costly. While continuing support for Ukraine is not a cure-all for the past failures of American credibility, it does offer a mechanism to telegraph America’s renewed commitments. In the shadow of the calamitous Afghanistan withdrawal, an abandonment of Ukraine will cripple any U.S. attempts to convince China of its intentions and Taiwan of its commitment. An abandonment of Ukraine, even if theoretically justified to better defend Taiwan, will send the opposite message. Instead, the U.S. should make plainly obvious that its commitments to Ukraine show that it would be equally capable of making an invasion of Taiwan intolerably costly for China. Fortunately for Taiwan, the highly active war in Ukraine has jumpstarted the need for the defense industry to increase and streamline production before a hypothetical invasion of the island, helping the U.S. think more clearly about what is materially necessary for its defense.

A successful deterrent against a Chinese invasion of Taiwan relies on the U.S. clearly signaling commitments and intentions. Advocates of a China-first strategy concede that Chinese perception of U.S. resolve is paramount. The U.S. commitment to Taiwan is tied to its commitment to Ukraine due to a need to reinforce America’s reputation and credibility. Ukraine offers an opportune setting, without risking Americans’ lives and limbs, to signal to China and Taiwan its commitment to defending its allies. Otherwise, abandoning Ukraine shows the U.S. will certainly abandon Taiwan in what would be a much more costly conflict.