Elbridge A. Colby served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development from 2017 to 2018, and is the author of “The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict.” Alexander Velez-Green served as national security adviser to Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo).
Many argue that the United States does not need to choose between aiding Ukraine and deterring a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. This is a comforting but dangerous delusion. The sad truth: It does.
The main question is how to do so. The answer is by focusing U.S. resources on Taiwan’s defense against China, by far the United States’ strongest rival, while relying primarily on European allies to defend against a weakened Russia.
The Pentagon regularly says that preparing for conflict with China over Taiwan is its top priority. And rightly so. If Taiwan falls to a Chinese assault, the United States’ military position in the region, and Asian states’ confidence in Washington’s ability and resolve to confront Beijing, will both be gravely weakened. The result would be a major step toward Chinese hegemony over the world’s largest and most important market. If China can establish such dominance, it will be able to supplant the United States as the world’s premier economy and use that leverage to diminish our prosperity and interfere in our national life — with dire implications for Americans’ everyday lives.
But the United States’ ability to prevent China from conquering Taiwan has been severely eroded in recent years. China’s navy already dwarfs our own; its air and space forces are rapidly improving; and its missile forces threaten to prevent the U.S. military from intervening effectively to defend Taiwan. Even the normally confident commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command recently testified that trends in the Pacific are going “in the wrong direction.” As a result, it is now a very serious question whether the United States can defeat a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.
Restoring deterrence is still possible — if we get Taiwan and U.S. forces in Asia what they need as quickly as possible. But we cannot expect to do that while delivering so much aid to Ukraine. The fact is that both Ukraine and Taiwan need many of the same weapons, the United States has only limited quantities of those weapons in its available stockpiles, and our defense industry will not be able to produce enough of these critical capabilities for years. These trade-offs will worsen as China’s historic military buildup continues and the war in Ukraine goes on.
So how do we ensure Taiwan can be defended while still securing important but secondary U.S. interests in Europe?
First, the United States must accelerate delivery of critical weapons to Taiwan, including strike capabilities such as HIMARS, ATACMS, GMLRS and drones, as well as defensive systems such as NASAMS, Patriots, Harpoons, Stingers and Javelins. Americans have grown familiar with the names of several of these military systems because the United States has sent many of them to Ukraine. But Taiwan also desperately needs them — including weapons for its ground forces that would confront an amphibious invasion.
counterpointTaiwan is urging the U.S. not to abandon Ukraine
To accomplish this, the Biden administration should use presidential drawdown authority to rapidly send weapons to Taiwan from U.S. stockpiles, as the administration has announced it will do. But it must favor Taiwan over Ukraine for any weapons that both need.
Unfortunately, U.S. stockpiles are depleted as a result of aid to Ukraine, so Taiwan will be forced to rely more heavily on the slower foreign military sales process. To help it do so as quickly as possible, the administration should put Taiwan at the front of the line for foreign military sales as well — ahead of Ukraine but also ahead of partners in the Middle East and beyond.
At the same time, Washington should ramp up security assistance to Taiwan. Such assistance can facilitate both drawdowns and new sales. But it should not be a blank check. Instead, U.S. aid to Taiwan should be strictly conditioned on Taiwan increasing defense spending and embracing an asymmetric defense strategy.
Second, the administration and Congress need to urgently expand U.S. defense production by reinvigorating our anemic defense industrial base — and fast. As they do so, it is imperative to focus on boosting inventories for the Pacific ahead of Europe or elsewhere. Where trade-offs arise because of limited funds, suppliers, labor, components or other constraints, Taiwan’s defense must take precedence.
Finally, for all its talk about deterring China, the administration has made Ukraine’s defense its clear priority with regular high-level engagement, congressional briefings and requests for funds. By contrast, the administration left U.S. Indo-Pacific Command with almost $3.5 billion in unfunded priorities this year. The administration must treat Taiwan’s defense with far greater urgency, including by ensuring that U.S. forces in Asia receive essential intelligence resources and that the United States’ political capital is laser-focused on bolstering our defensive perimeter in Asia.
None of this means we should abandon Europe. Instead, our allies must take primary responsibility for Europe’s conventional defense, relying on the United States mainly for its extended nuclear deterrent and select conventional capabilities that do not detract from our ability to deter China. Our European allies must also take the lead in helping Ukraine.
This redistribution of labor within NATO is not just a matter of fairness. It is also imperative if Europe is to be able to deter and defend itself against Russia while the United States focuses on the much bigger challenge from China. The Russia threat is not going away. We and Europe should prepare accordingly.
Prioritization is never easy — but it is long overdue. The administration and Congress have rightly described China as the preeminent threat to the United States, but they have not acted with the focus, scale and urgency needed to address it. The window for facing the Chinese threat to Taiwan, with all that entails for Americans’ concrete interests, is fast closing. Failing to do so could lead to the most consequential conflict since World War II.