Prioritizing Ukraine Assist Threatens Deterrence by Denial within the Pacific

Ukraine plays a much smaller role in China deterrence than Taiwanese defences.

There are others who say that preventing China from gaining influence requires a Ukrainian win over Russia. Recently, South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said, “There can be no backing off of helping Ukraine because if we fail here, there goes Taiwan.” The reality is significantly simpler- Deterring China has far less to do with the fighting in Ukraine than it does with convincing Chinese leader Xi Jinping that U.S. and Taiwanese forces will be able to successfully defeat a Chinese assault.
Putting Ukraine first at the expense of U.S. and Taiwanese forces in the Pacific has had a negative impact on both countries. It may also lead Beijing to question Washington’s sincerity about protecting Taiwan. The U.S. can right the ship by redoubling its efforts to discourage China in the Indo-Pacific, but blackmailing China with punishment won’t work. Xi has considered unifying Taiwan an important part of his legacy, and the Chinese Communist Party is prepared to pay a heavy price to achieve this goal.

It has spent enormous sums on military modernization, even at the sacrifice of other priorities during the COVID-19 epidemic, and this shows a willingness to do so. This is further demonstrated by Beijing’s efforts to protect China’s economy against Western sanctions in advance of any potential confrontation. Therefore, it is quite unlikely that relying solely on the imposition of costs will be enough to discourage Beijing.
Deterrence by denial, or convincing Chinese officials (and Xi in particular) that an invasion of Taiwan would be futile, is what the United States should focus on instead.

The United States must immediately distribute and harden Western Pacific operational regions, enhance munition stocks, and create a constant targeting-quality shared operating picture in order to put this policy into action. To fight an invading army, Taiwanese forces need anti-ship missiles, mobile air and missile defences, and anti-armor weaponry, all of which they should have and be able to use effectively.

By making it more difficult for the Chinese military to cross the Taiwan Strait, land on Taiwan, and take and hold Taipei or other strategic locations, these and similar efforts contribute to deterrence by denial. For an invasion to be successful, China needs to be capable of doing all of these things. We can improve deterrence by reducing confidence in China’s potential to win by degrading Chinese military capabilities in these areas.
Helping Ukraine does not provide the same outcomes in the Pacific. Defeating the Russian invaders in Ukraine would not significantly hinder China’s military’s ability to attack Taiwan. On the contrary, Beijing is probably preparing for a fight with Taiwan in a way that prevents Chinese soldiers from making the same mistakes Russian forces made in Ukraine. That might only strengthen China’s ability to conduct a cross-Strait invasion and hence Beijing’s confidence in the sameā€”even as it erodes whatever benefits U.S. forces would derive from their own observations in Ukraine.

As a result, Beijing may be tempted to take a more combative stance right from the start. Events in Ukraine can also enhance Chinese authorities’ confidence in China’s military edge by pulling U.S. resources away from the Indo-Pacific. Such examples include the National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems, Patriot air defence systems, High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, Guided Multiple Launch Rocket Systems, Harpoon anti-ship missiles, Stingers, Javelins, and drones that the United States has already sent to Ukraine but could have used to strengthen Taiwan’s defences.
Due to the severe depletion of several U.S. stocks, we can no longer transfer weapons to Taiwan directly from the U.S. stockpile, and the U.S. defence industry is having trouble producing enough replacements.

The Biden administration has not yet given Taiwan the same level of priority as Ukraine when it comes to future arms delivery, leaving Taiwan without the tools to construct an effective denial defence. Some people who want to help the Ukraine might argue that the country’s lack of resources is no reason to waver in its fight against totalitarian assault. China’s military development, however, is geared specifically towards deterring American involvement in a Taiwan situation, so this won’t be enough. Building the capability required to ensure deterrence by denial is more vital than demonstrating determination.

Even if America’s willingness to oppose aggression is made clear by assisting Ukraine in defeating Russia, that won’t necessarily mean China will recognise America’s commitment to defending Taiwan. The importance of deterring China in the Indo-Pacific should not be inferred from the relative urgency of sending aid to Ukraine. Moreover, more than military aid is needed to ensure Taiwan’s safety.

The United States has a vested interest in preventing Russian dominance in Ukraine, and assistance should be provided in a way that is compatible with the emphasis placed on deterring China in the Indo-Pacific. The decision to attack Taiwan will be made in Beijing regardless of the outcome of the situation in Ukraine. Providing the capabilities to deter China in the Indo-Pacific should continue to be a priority in order to effectively protect against China’s aggression.


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