Failure to deal decisively with Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine would be the easiest way to inspire Xi Jinping to invade Taiwan. If the US and its allies can inflict enough pain on Putin in exchange for his gamble in Ukraine, Xi is likely to determine that Taiwan is not worth the risk, at least for the time being.
This may appear contradictory because every ounce of effort the US devotes to Europe appears to be an ounce of effort that is not available for Asia. In a military sense, the US must ensure that it has enough force to deal firmly with China if it decides to use the Ukraine conflict to make a move on Taiwan.
However, conceiving of Europe and Asia as a zero-sum game ignores other fungible and educational dimensions of power. This is especially true in the case of Russia and China, which both hold revisionist positions and have a history of studying and learning from one another’s actions. China is keeping a careful eye on two things in the current crisis.
First and foremost, Beijing will keep a close eye on Russia’s military performance. China, like Russia, has spent the last few years modernising its military by learning from US military offensives in the Balkans and Iraq. Ukraine is the first example of the benefits of those expenditures in the face of a significant adversary.
The US and its allies can highlight the dangers that even a very large power suffers in a lengthy struggle on unfriendly territory by assisting the Ukrainians in inflicting heavy costs on the invaders. In Taiwan, the same thing could happen.
Second, Beijing is keeping an eye on Russia’s economic performance. China, like Russia, has been warned that if it invades Taiwan, it will suffer severe penalties. China’s economy is significantly more connected with the global economy than Russia’s commodity-driven economy, making it vulnerable to interruptions in financial and trade flows.
If the US and its allies are unable to have a decisive effect through sanctions on a second-rate economic power like Russia, China may decide that penalties against China will be even less successful.
“Great powers don’t bluff,” President Joe Biden said before the assault, and he was correct. If the US threatens Russia with catastrophic sanctions over Ukraine, they had better be catastrophic, because the credibility of the US-led financial system for punishing large-scale aggression is at stake. The US will only have one chance to demonstrate its credibility, and Ukraine is that chance.
The good news is that Ukraine has provided the US and its allies with a brief, and fleeting, window of opportunity to act decisively and not just deal with the crisis in Ukraine, but also to deter a move against Taiwan that would likely escalate into a worldwide war.
Putin’s cruelty has galvanised European burden-sharing, which is a game-changer for US global policy. With Germany spending more on defence than Russia in the next years ($110 billion vs. $62 billion), the US will be able to concentrate more of its conventional resources on deterring China.
Ukraine is also striking a severe dent on Russia’s ability to wage war in the foreseeable future. Whatever happens next in the fight, the Russian army will have depleted a substantial number of high-grade munitions that are difficult to replace. Due to reduced money and lost investment, the Russian economy will also be put back for years. Of course, Russia will remain a serious threat, but it will require time to recover at a time when Europe is becoming more capable.
All of this is to imply that the current situation is disproportionately important in terms of US strategy. Between now and the time when Europe’s defence measures begin to bear fruit—a span of several years, but not indefinitely—Taiwan faces the greatest danger.
How we think about US policy should be informed by seeing the current situation as a strategic window through which the European and Asian situations are linked. It advises that the US and its allies should apply maximum pressure as soon as feasible in the fight, in contrast to the Biden administration’s stairstep approach.
Only because the Russian military performed poorly in the early days of the fight were we able to go easy on the first two rounds of sanctions. China may easily believe that it could strengthen its grip over Taiwan in a comparable amount of time while the US and its allies waited to assess Taiwanese resistance.
If the US is going to penalise Russia’s energy sector now, it should do so in collaboration with the Europeans, not least to show the Chinese that the US and its partners are willing to share the pain of recession in order to deter large-scale aggression. And expanding US energy production is critical now, not only to shore up the country’s ability to weather shocks, but also to show the Chinese that, when the chips are down, the US has the ability to control environmentalist instincts for the sake of national security.
The same principle applies militarily, up to a level. Now that Putin has overplayed his hand, a sequencing approach would apply as much indirect military pressure as possible. The most successful form of this pressure is in Ukraine, where US weaponry and information are being used to wear down Russian combat capabilities. There are also other weapons that the US might permanently put in frontline NATO without jeopardising its military capabilities in Asia. Most American armour and mechanised equipment, for example, will not be required in Asia but would have a significant positive impact if deployed in Poland and Romania.
However, because the current window is strategically valuable, authorities in the United States should avoid moves that might lead to a direct confrontation with Russia, such as establishing a no-fly zone. A confrontation like this may sway China’s decision to attack Taiwan now, based on the reasoning that a US war in Europe would engross US attention and resources far more than a proxy war in Ukraine.
For similar reasons, the US should oppose secondary sanctions against China, such as those imposed for assisting Russia in evading Western pressure. The goal should be to keep American force applied as surgically as possible to the weaker of the two enemies, with the goal of draining it decisively and, as a result, facing China with greater strength at a later period.