Biden should give Ukraine all it needs — and formally commit to defend Taiwan
If U.S. support for Ukraine against Russia’s aggression is a model for America’s role after a Chinese attack on Taiwan, the Taiwanese people are in for a rough ride.
In 2008, at the urging of President George W. Bush, NATO issued a communique from its 26 members, stating, “We agreed that [Georgia and Ukraine] will become members of NATO.”
Vladimir Putin objected strongly to NATO’s position, calling it a threat to Russia’s security, despite the specific 1997 security guarantee to Ukraine from the United States, the United Kingdom and Russia, in exchange for Kyiv’s surrender of the nuclear weapons stationed on its territory when it was part of the Soviet Union.
Notwithstanding those security commitments,Washington and other NATO capitals took no action when Russia invaded Georgia later in 2008. Encouraged by U.S. and NATO acquiescence, Putin planned his next move toward “national reunification” and “territorial integrity.”
That move consisted of the 2014 invasion of Eastern Ukraine and Crimea. The Obama administration followed Bush’s example with Georgia and did nothing to stop it.
Without U.S. leadership, NATO also accepted Putin’s second act of aggression, which inevitably led to his planning for a decisive third act. That came in February 2022, with plenty of advance notice as Russia mobilized an invasion force along Ukraine’s border, ignoring the Biden administration’s warnings of “severe” economic sanctions.
After Russian forces crossed into Ukraine and advanced toward the capital city of Kiev, officials in Washington and its NATO allies expected the imminent collapse of Volodymyr Zelensky’s government. The West’s role, then, would be minimal and relatively risk-free, facilitating negotiations for Ukraine’s surrender and reconstruction under Putin’s rule. President Biden said challenging Russia directly with U.S. forces on the ground — which Ukraine did not request — or by imposing a no-fly zone — which it did request — “would be World War III.”
Taiwan does not have the same level of Western security guarantees that ultimately failed to protect Ukraine against Russian invasion. Instead, it has the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), which states that “any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes is considered a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.”
To respond to any such hostile action, the TRA provides that the United States “shall provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character; and shall maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion.”
Every U.S. administration since has complied with the first part of the TRA mandate by providing Taiwan with defensive weapons. The Trump and Biden administrations significantly increased the volume and quality of Taiwan arms sales, in response to China’s escalating rhetoric and increasingly hostile actions.
Beijing, however, is unlikely to be deterred from taking kinetic action against Taiwan because of the island’s military capabilities given Washington’s rigid emphasis on the “defensive” nature of the weapons it is willing to provide Taiwan. Here, too, the Ukraine experience is not an encouraging one for Taiwan.
U.S. and Western fear of Russian escalation — including the possible use of nuclear weapons, which Putin has threatened several times — has succeeded in inhibiting the transfer of Western arms that could strike Russian territory from Ukraine’s present defensive positions.
Similarly, American administrations consistently have refused to sell Taiwan advanced fighter aircraft, diesel submarines and other weapons systems that could threaten Chinese assets and potentially deter Beijing from initiating a conflict.
In recent years, U.S. defense officials have elevated the withholding of lethal arms to the realm of strategic doctrine. They advance the so-called “porcupine strategy,” by which “many small things” — e.g., mines, beach obstacles and anti-amphibious weapons — would make Taiwan an “indigestible” victim for attacking Chinese forces.
U.S. policy on Taiwan is hamstrung by the same fear of escalation that inhibits Biden from providing Ukraine with the advanced weapons systems it needs to decisively defeat Russia, out of fear that a humiliated Putin might lash out with weapons of mass destruction.
But, to the extent that Washington constrains Taiwan’s capability to not only defend itself but to deter Chinese aggression, it increases the need to enhance America’s own “capacity to resist” it, as mandated by the TRA.
No administration since 1979 has issued a definitive declaration that the United States would actively defend Taiwan, aside from sending it limited arms with which it could try to defend itself. It is called the policy of strategic ambiguity.
The Clinton administration told Chinese officials in 1995 the United States did not know what it would do if China attacked Taiwan, saying “it would depend on the circumstances.” President Bush told reporters in 2001 that America would do “whatever it took,” suggesting we did know what we would do, even if China did not. President Trump said menacingly, “China knows what I’m gonna do.” So, now, both Washington and Beijing were in on U.S. intentions toward the defense of Taiwan, but the American and Chinese people remain in the dark about the prospects of war over Taiwan. Biden attempted to shed new light on the situation by stating four times, in increasingly specific terms, that the U.S. will send its own fighting forces to defend Taiwan.
Yet, with each president’s comments, White House and State Department spokespeople “explained” that their words reflected no change in America’s “one China policy” and peaceful resolution of cross-Strait differences, a repetitious evasion of strategic clarity on defending Taiwan.
National security adviser Jake Sullivan recently was asked about his boss’s multiple statements that the U.S. “would defend Taiwan militarily,” and confirmed only “our commitment to the [TRA], which does commit the United States to ensuring we’re providing the articles for Taiwan’s defense.”
Sullivan did not say the U.S. will exercise the “capacity” to defend Taiwan, also mandated by the TRA. Another open question is who defines what “articles” Taiwan needs to defend itself — Taipei or Washington? — which replicates the tensions Washington and Kyiv confront on Ukraine’s security requirements.
Now, reports indicate that Ukraine and Taiwan may be in competition for weapons from dwindling U.S. stocks, which is good news for “no limits” strategic partners Russia and China as they coordinate to pull Washington’s attention and resources in different directions. That is all the more reason for Biden to state formally a U.S. commitment to defend Taiwan while he ensures that Ukraine gets all it needs to defend itself.
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.