The Lessons of Ukraine for Taiwan—and the U.S.

Although Ukraine’s potential membership in NATO has been discussed for more than a decade and half, it is not a member—and so the alliance is not committed to defend it, nor to attempt to deter attacks against it. (Indeed, a vote over whether to deter an attack against Ukraine would likely have splintered the alliance.) Vladimir Putin took full advantage of Ukraine’s living in this gray zone where its frequently voiced aspirations for NATO membership are not matched by a security guarantee. Still, after Russia’s invasion began, NATO’s guilty conscience prompted decisions to funnel arms and equipment into the beleaguered country; the Western anti-tank and anti-aircraft systems reinforced and enhanced the ability of Ukrainian defenders to wreak enormous damage on the Russian aggressor, rendering combat ineffective some 15 to 20 percent, if not more, of the Russian battalion tactical groups devoted to the operation. 

Today, despite the Ukrainians’ various successes against the invaders and despite Russia’s apparent withdrawal from the environs of Kyiv and northwestern Ukraine, the country’s situation remains parlous.

There are many lessons for Americans to draw from all this. And there are lessons, too, for Xi Jinping and his colleagues among China’s top leadership. For starters, the United States does not have a formal treaty commitment to Taiwan’s defense, à la NATO’s famous Article 5. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, this presents the Biden administration, as well as other Republican and Democratic leaders who profess to care about security in Northeast Asia, with a clear choice: If the United States is prepared to see Taiwan conquered by the People’s Liberation Army, the United States should retain its current policy. If, however, we are not prepared to see a thriving, prosperous democratic society swallowed up by a brutal autocratic regime led by messianic zealot, there are a series of steps the United States must take—and soon.

First, the Biden administration must recognize that the policy of “strategic ambiguity” with respect to the defense of Taiwan is played out. The Taiwan Relations Act (passed in 1979, with then-Senator Joe Biden voting affirmatively) contains four key provisions:

“It is the policy of the United States . . . to consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.”

“It is the policy of the United States . . . to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character.”

“It is the policy of the United States . . . to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.”

“The United States will make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.”

In accordance with this act, the United States could declare that it will assist Taiwan to defend itself until such time as the government of Taiwan, in a free and fair and supervised election, decides on peaceful reunification with the PRC.

To support this, and to avoid the eleventh-hour supply of arms and equipment that characterized the desperate efforts to sustain the Ukrainian armed forces, the United States should begin immediately to send advanced anti-air, anti-missile, anti-armor, and anti-ship equipment to Taiwan, accompanied by American trainers and advisers.

Further, the United States should deploy contingents of air, ground, and naval forces to Taiwan and invite its Pacific allies to do the same, such deployments to remain until the issue of reunification with the PRC is peacefully resolved. The mission of those forces would be to contribute to deterring attack on the island as well as training Taiwan’s forces to become better able to defend their homeland.

A clearly stated U.S. commitment to vigorously defend Taiwan against efforts to forcibly incorporate it into the PRC against the will of the inhabitants and backed up by arms supplies and deployments of allied forces before the fact would serve to complicate any effort by Beijing to rattle the nuclear saber, establish an early blockade, and decapitate Taiwan’s leadership—all to reap the benefits of lessons learned from Russia’s recent experience in Ukraine.

Deterrence ahead of time could very well be the stitch that saves nine. Waiting until the crisis is at hand will be more expensive and infinitely more dangerous for Taiwan, for regional security in the Indo-Pacific, and for U.S. national interests.

Eric S. Edelman was undersecretary of defense for policy from 2005 to 2009 and is a counselor at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. Franklin C. Miller served as a special assistant to President George W. Bush and senior director for defense policy and arms control on the National Security Council staff from 2001 to 2005. He is a principal of the Scowcroft Group.

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