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Helping Ukraine Can Deter China

Beijing is watching the war as closely as we are—and us, too.
April 14, 2023
Helping Ukraine Can Deter China
Ukrainian soldier walks through a burning building after bombings near the Bakhmut frontline as the military mobility continues amid Russia-Ukraine war in Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine on April 11, 2023. (Photo by Diego Herrera Carcedo/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The best way the United States can deter China from military aggression in Asia is to help Ukraine defeat Russia.

The West’s cohesive response and Ukraine’s determined resistance to Russia’s latest unprovoked invasion have given Beijing pause regarding the potential use of force against Taiwan. American assistance to Ukraine doesn’t distract from a more significant threat from the People’s Republic of China, as some commentators have argued. The Ukraine fight is the China fight.

Countering China on a European battlefield may seem counterintuitive, but by helping Ukraine successfully repel an assault from a rapacious Russia and by imposing strict sanctions on Moscow for what it has done to Ukraine, we are deterring an authoritarian and revanchist China from taking similar actions toward Taiwan and other vulnerable Asian nations. Halting assistance to Ukraine would risk significantly weakening our chances of containing authoritarian ambitions, whether they come from Moscow or Beijing.

Proponents of the misguided “China first” argument claim that the United States has limited resources and should focus on the China threat, leaving Europe to shoulder the burden for the Ukraine fight. It’s a question of “tradeoffs,” Elbridge Colby, former deputy assistant secretary of defense in the Trump administration, and Kevin Roberts, the president of the Heritage Foundation, asserted recently.

In fact, it isn’t, but such thinking promulgates a series of myths that don’t withstand scrutiny—or even common sense. Dangerously, it also gives fringe politicians a convenient excuse to peddle falsehoods and score political points.

Myth 1: Military assistance to Ukraine is hurting our Indo-Pacific posture.

It’s true that future contingencies in Asia require us to bolster our defense industrial base. However, what we have so far given Ukraine for a land war—armored vehicles, howitzer shells, and artillery pieces—aren’t the items that would be required for a possible air and sea conflict with China. None of the equipment sent to Ukraine came from the pipeline of weapons bound for Taiwan, as Hudson Institute scholars Peter Rough and Mike Watson note.

Consistent underinvestment in our Indo-Pacific capabilities goes back years and should be addressed urgently. But as Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin recently testified, this year’s Pentagon budget for the Pacific Deterrence Initiative is up 40 percent from last year. This is a welcome development that should be sustained, but not come at the expense of helping Ukraine.

Myth 2: Europe isn’t shouldering enough of the Ukraine burden.

It’s true that Germany and other European nations are still derelict in their defense spending commitments and need to do much more to get their degraded post-Cold War militaries into shape. (There are some exceptions, especially in the Baltic and Nordic regions.) But Russia’s invasion has brought a sea change on the continent. Germany effectively ended its decades-long dependence on Russian energy, removing a major source of disagreement with Washington. Berlin is the top continental provider of military, financial, and humanitarian assistance to Kyiv, while also allocating over $100 billion for revamping its own armed forces, though the commitment to follow on this announcement remains to be seen.

In the meantime, Poland and the Baltic States are punching well above their weight and spending prodigiously to help Ukraine. The U.K. has done its share, too. For the United States to abandon these allies now would be a calamity not only for Ukraine, but for the entire post-Cold War alliance system that the United States helped build and which continues to serve our national security interests. It would undermine NATO, granting Vladimir Putin a major victory and sending the wrong signal to Beijing.

Myth 3. Our actions toward Ukraine won’t help deter China.

It’s true that the United States must take seriously Beijing’s consistent threats to “reunify” Taiwan with the mainland through whatever means necessary—and plan accordingly. Xi Jinping is strident on this point, asking China’s armed forces to be ready to do so by 2027.

But intent doesn’t equal capability. Concerted actions by the United States and our allies to repel Russia in Ukraine have given Beijing second thoughts with regard to its military’s shortcomings in a Taiwan scenario. “The United States should build upon the template it is now creating during the ongoing Ukraine crisis, sharpen it, and apply it to the Indo-Pacific region,” Charles Edel, with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, has testified.

The American withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 likely contributed to Putin’s thinking that the United States was disengaging from the world and he could get away with an invasion of his neighbor without paying a steep price. Abandoning Ukraine and its European allies would send a similar signal to Chinese leaders, raising the risk of a Taiwan contingency.

Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine is approaching a critical turning point. As the Russian offensive grinds down in the Donbas, Ukraine is preparing for a major counteroffensive with the intent to liberate all of its territory. We must help Ukraine win—the future of a Europe whole, free, and at peace hangs in the balance—as do hopes of deterring Chinese moves against Taiwan.

Igor Khrestin and David J. Kramer

Igor Khrestin is the Bradford M. Freeman managing director of global policy at the George W. Bush Institute, where David J. Kramer is executive director.