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Ukraine’s lessons for Taiwan grow more ominous

The longer the Biden administration continues delaying and stinting its support for Ukraine without enabling Kyiv to halt and reverse Russia’s invasion, the more precarious both Ukraine’s and Taiwan’s positions become. 

This is not to disparage the substantial volume of U.S. and NATO weaponry that has flowed into Ukraine from a standing start, and for which Ukrainians have expressed gratitude. Rather, it is to note that the aid has been too little in quantity and quality and too late to avoid a catastrophic cost in human lives, destruction of cities, forced relocation to Russia of tens of thousands of Ukrainians, desperate emigration to other countries of millions more, and the crippling of Ukraine’s economy. It is a grotesque scenario out of World War II, yet the West is becoming desensitized to the horrific costs of Vladimir Putin’s brutal invasion and war crimes.

To Western officials, the glass on aid to Ukraine may be half full. But to many Ukrainians, while loath to appear unappreciative, it is half empty, enabling Ukraine only to slow the Russian advance and hold most of its territory together but not to stop the carnage and decisively defeat and eject the invaders.

The long-delayed delivery of HIMARS long-range artillery has shown in the battle for Donbas how sophisticated Western weapons can offset Russia’s advantage in force numbers and firepower. Yet, after months of withholding them, the Biden administration has delivered only a dozen of the systems so far, and Ukraine can use scores more that currently languish in U.S. and allied depots.

Similarly, Washington has refused to establish a no-fly zone because of President Biden’s apparent conviction that Vladimir Putin is less worried about escalation, potentially to World War III, than he is and would defy the ban by shooting down American planes. Even less understandable is Biden’s blocking the transfer of fighter aircraft from NATO allies and denying Ukraine the ability to enforce its own no-fly zone. 

On the maritime front, Washington has allowed Moscow to appropriate the Black Sea as a Russian lake from which it can bomb Ukraine’s cities, close its ports, and block the export of life-saving Ukrainian wheat from desperate African and Mideastern populations.

All this constrained assistance, even beyond the aversion to getting directly involved, conveys a sense of Western timidity against robustly helping Ukraine to defend itself. Those strategic failures of the Biden administration and NATO bode ill for a U.S. and Western response to the growing likelihood of China’s aggression against Taiwan. They make Biden’s thrice-declared intention to defend Taiwan ring hollow. 

Recent statements by his foreign policy and national security team downplaying the imminence of China’s action against Taiwan could be seen by Beijing as wishful thinking and the flagging of administration will.

Last month, Joint Chiefs Chair, Gen. Mark Milley, publicly disagreed with the warning of the former U.S. Indo-Pacific Command commander, Adm. Phil Davidson, and current commander Adm. John Aquilino that China is preparing to take Taiwan within the next six years.

“It’s a capability, not an intent to attack or seize. My assessment is an operational assessment,” Milley said. “Do they have the intent to attack or seize in the near-term defined as the next year or two? My assessment of what I’ve seen right now is no, but that could always change. Intent is something that could change quickly.”

Milley’s rationale for a less urgent evaluation of the danger is that launching the kind of assault on Taiwan that Russia has inflicted on Ukraine would be a daunting task for China: “The difficulty of an invasion of Taiwan is still a major barrier for the [People’s Liberation Army]. I don’t see it happening right out of the blue. There’s no reason for it and the cost to China far exceeds the benefit. President Xi and his military would do the calculation and they know that an invasion — in order to seize an island that big, with that many people and the defensive capabilities the Taiwanese have — would be extraordinarily complicated and costly. At this point in time, next 12 to 24 months, I’m not seeing any indicator warnings yet.” 

CIA Director William Burns reached a similar conclusion based on Putin’s “strategic failure” to achieve a quick victory over Ukraine, which Burns said “unsettled” Xi Jinping’s thinking about Taiwan. But, he added, it did not affect “whether the Chinese leadership might choose some years down the road to use force to control Taiwan, but how and when they would do it.” 

Both assessments are based on the premise of a full-scale Chinese invasion of Taiwan. “I suspect the lesson that the Chinese leadership and military are drawing is that you’ve got to amass overwhelming force if you’re going to contemplate that in the future,” Burns said.

But China, which favors the element of surprise in war and politics, may well decide to forego an all-out invasion of Taiwan within that time frame, opting instead to seize Quemoy and/or other Taiwanese islands as an interim measure. Together with, or separate from, such a move it could conduct massive missile strikes on selective strategic targets in Taiwan, possibly avoiding the civilian population at first.  

After all, Beijing gave this assurance in its Anti-Secession Law providing for the use of force against Taiwan: “The state shall exert its utmost to protect the lives, property and other legitimate rights and interests of Taiwan civilians and foreign nationals in Taiwan, and to minimize losses.”

An island seizure and selective missile attacks could be Phase 1 of an incremental, multi-stage effort to conquer Taiwan, none of which would be so dramatic as to necessarily precipitate a U.S. or Western response. It could be a launching point for further aggression, something like Russia’s relatively bloodless seizure of Eastern Ukraine and Crimea in 2014, which Putin evidently thought he would replicate in attacking Kyiv in February.  

If Biden follows the approach he led in 2014 as President Obama’s vice president and foreign policy guru, Washington will take no direct military action against Xi Jinping’s limited moves — just as it allowed Putin to swallow Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. Similarly, under that model, Biden will put shackles on any defensive weapons he provides the Taiwanese to ensure they don’t attack China, even the bases from which the aggression was launched.

Added to the U.S. shortcomings on Ukraine is Biden’s failure so far to guarantee security to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on her noble intention to visit Taiwan. Together, the shortcomings send a dispiriting message of hesitation and weakness that must surely worry the Taiwanese and other countries in the region and embolden Beijing.

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.

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