What happens in Ukraine doesn’t stay in Ukraine: Austin adds clarity on Taiwan

In recent weeks, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has made some important policy statements — on the continuing war in Ukraine, on the threatening conflict over Taiwan, and on the possible linkage between the two.

After meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in late April, Austin said Washington’s long-range goal goes beyond helping Ukraine to defend its sovereignty and independence: “We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.” 

The remark was consistent with President Biden’s own stark description of Russian President Vladimir Putin as a genocidal war criminal who “cannot remain in power” — which administration officials quickly minimized as Biden’s moral outrage at Putin’s monstrous actions and not a call for “regime change” in Moscow.

U.S. weapons and intelligence have aided Ukraine’s heroic resistance substantially, but not enough to stop the killing or the ongoing loss of Ukrainian territory. Administration fears that Putin might accuse the U.S. of “escalation” have hampered the dual aims of protecting Ukraine’s sovereignty and reducing Russia’s aggressive capabilities. 

For three months, administration officials refused to meet Ukraine’s urgent requests for fighter aircraft, longer-range artillery and other weapons they considered too potent, too provocative.  Last week, they finally approved four High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) capable of hitting targets 40 miles away. But approval was conditioned on Ukraine’s promise to use them, as Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “only for defensive purposes” and not “against targets on Russian territory.” Ukraine got only medium-range rounds.

Washington’s hesitancy has implications for its potential role in defending Taiwan against China. When Austin was asked about the connection at a congressional hearing in April, he responded, “I don’t want to speculate on whether an invasion [of Taiwan] is likely or less likely. I would say that we need to be careful about making direct comparisons between what’s going on in Ukraine and what could happen in Taiwan.”

When pressed on the matter, he said: “I think that it’s not advisable to make direct comparisons between Ukraine and Taiwan. These are two completely different scenarios, two different theaters.”

The two theaters do differ in obvious ways — Taiwan as an island invokes a different wartime scenario. But, at a geostrategic level, the similarities overwhelm the divergences. Threatened by powerful, aggressive neighbors, Ukraine and Taiwan are vibrant democracies whose value systems challenge the legitimacy of the authoritarian regimes in Moscow and Beijing. Both are on the frontlines of the global struggle between freedom and autocracy.

Washington seeks to thread the needle in both cases by doing the minimum needed to assist in their defense, without triggering a military confrontation with either Russia or China. During the House Armed Services Committee Hearing in April, Austin addressed the impact that Putin’s war might have on Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s likely actions toward Taiwan, saying, “I don’t want to speculate about what is in Mr. Xi’s head, but I think as the world looks at this, they’ve been impressed by the commitment, the resolve of many countries in the world to resist that kind of behavior.”

But deterring aggression is all about what is in the aggressor’s head, and the United States is the only country whose potential commitment to defend Taiwan matters to Beijing. When Chinese officials put that ultimate question directly to the Clinton administration in 1995, the response was, “We don’t know … it would depend on the circumstances.”

Every administration since then has applied the same policy of strategic ambiguity — except, for five minutes each, George W. Bush and Donald Trump — until Biden, who has declared emphatically three times that America will defend Taiwan. On all five occasions of presidential clarity, respective administration officials hastily cautioned that U.S. policy on the defense of Taiwan “has not changed.”

They ritualistically invoke the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) as providing the declarative policy answer to the question Chinese officials asked in 1995, and journalists and experts still ask today: Will America defend Taiwan? Yet, the TRA — enacted in 1979 but not mentioned in the 1995 Sino-U.S. exchange — offers its own ambiguities. It obligates the United States to provide Taiwan “arms of a defensive character” but does not define defensive weapons as narrowly as Washington describes what it is sending Ukraine. The TRA also commits America to maintain its own “capacity to resist” aggression against Taiwan, but does not require or authorize the president to exercise that capacity.  

Congress proposed the Taiwan Invasion Prevention Act to fill that strategic policy lacuna by authorizing the president to use force to defend Taiwan, but both the Trump and Biden administrations opposed the legislation. Almost universally ignored is the implication contained in TRA’s declaration “that the United States decision to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China rests upon the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means.”

Should China use force against Taiwan, Washington would have a basis in both domestic and international law to terminate relations with the People’s Republic of China or, at a minimum, to resume formal recognition of the Republic of China on Taiwan. It already has ample grounds to declare a One China/One Taiwan policy, given China’s threatening military actions and its Anti-Secession Law, which formally mandates China’s use of force against Taiwan.

Meanwhile, Washington seems to be sending mixed signals regarding the weapons systems it is willing to sell Taiwan. It rejects requests for helicopters and anti-submarine systems, urging artillery and anti-ship missiles instead. But then it delays delivery of howitzers and anti-aircraft missiles because of either COVID-related supply line issues or demands of the war in Ukraine. (If the latter, it demonstrates how China and Russia — as “no-limits strategic partners” — can pressure America from two directions at once.)

It remains to be seen whether the weapons the U.S. decides to send Taiwan will be the most advanced and whether their range and use will be as constrained as the arms going to Ukraine.  Such limitations shrink the costs and risks of aggression and reduce deterrence.

Austin sought to remove some of this added ambiguity in U.S. policy when he told Nikkei the U.S. would send Taiwan weapons “commensurate with the Chinese threat,” which Blinken and other U.S. officials describe as “expanding.” He was asked whether U.S. reluctance to send forces to Ukraine would apply to Taiwan as well, and said, “They are indeed two highly different scenarios” — a distinction implicitly inching further toward strategic clarity.

Taiwan’s Foreign Minister, Joseph Wu, noted last week, “The reaction to Ukraine here is very strong because it is a mirror image of what might happen to Taiwan in the future.” A Biden statement that America won’t let Taiwan be a reprise of Ukraine would go a long way toward strategic clarity and deterrence.

Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He served in the Pentagon when Vladimir Putin invaded Georgia and was involved in Department of Defense discussions about the U.S. response. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA.

Tags Biden China aggression Lloyd Austin Russian invasion of Ukraine Taiwan independence US defense of Taiwan Vladimir Putin Volodymyr Zelensky

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