Those who advocate U.S. military support for the defense of Ukraine frequently argue that if Washington doesn’t deter or prevent Russian aggression in Ukraine, it will undermine our ability to deter China from conquering Taiwan. American credibility, they argue, will suffer if Russia succeeds in bullying Ukraine into submission or conquering it. President Xi Jinping, they say and write, is watching what we do in Ukraine and is more likely to act against Taiwan if we don’t stop Russian aggression in Ukraine. This argument is the latest version of the domino theory that led to U.S. commitment and ultimate defeat in Southeast Asia in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s.
Effective foreign and defense policy requires recognizing important distinctions where they exist. The United States has effectively been an ally and committed to the defense and independence of Taiwan since the early 1950s. The Eisenhower administration twice during the 1950s threatened atomic war to defend Taiwan, with whom the United States had a mutual defense treaty (signed in 1954). Washington continuously supplied military and diplomatic aid to Taiwan throughout the 1960s. And even after Nixon’s opening to China, which was further solidified when the Carter administration terminated formal diplomatic relations and the mutual defense treaty with the Republic of China, Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act in April 1979. That Act committed 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 established diplomatic relations with Ukraine in 1991 after the fall of the Soviet Union. There is no “Ukraine Relations Act” that commits the United States to the defense of Ukraine, though the Budapest Memorandum provided “security assurances” to Ukraine in return for its surrender of former Soviet nuclear weapons. And while some in the U.S. (including President George W. Bush) and in Europe talked about inviting Ukraine to join NATO (which would commit the United States to come to their defense), it didn’t happen. NATO expansion wisely stopped short of Ukraine, which historically and geographically is in the Russian sphere of influence. And in 2014, the Obama administration prudently refused to come to Ukraine’s defense when Russia invaded the Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, stating accurately that Ukraine is a “core interest” for Moscow, but not for the United States.
The differences, therefore, between Ukraine and Taiwan are stark and important. To put it bluntly: The independence of Ukraine is not a vital security interest of the United States, while the independence of Taiwan is. Russia, with an economy the size of Italy’s, dominating Ukraine poses no national security threat to the United States (other than its nuclear weapons). But China, with an economy that rivals the United States’ and whose Belt and Road Initiative and growing military (including nuclear and naval) power threaten predominance on the Eurasian landmass, in control of Taiwan – a key geopolitical barrier of the “first island chain” in the Western Pacific – would threaten to overturn the balance of power in East Asia and beyond.
As Forbes’ Loren Thompson wrote in October 2020, Taiwan has become “the geographical pivot of history in the Age of the Pacific,” and if it “fell under the sway of Beijing, either peacefully or by force, the strategic balance in the Western Pacific would be irreparably changed.” Thompson warned that Taiwan is one of those “places in the world that are of such extraordinary military and economic importance that a change in their status might signal the end of an era, or the beginning of a new global order.” And that new global order would be led by the Chinese Communist Party.
The Biden administration needs to speak with unmistakable clarity on both Ukraine and Taiwan, but those messages should not and cannot be the same. Washington should deploy sufficient forces in and around the South China Sea and construct a security alliance with countries in the region that will serve to deter China, while toning down the rhetoric over Ukraine and not getting us into a shooting war with Russia. Otherwise, we may find ourselves in wars on two fronts – the worst possible outcome.