AMERICA HAS long believed that helping Ukraine to repel Russia’s invasion was not only essential to preserving the security of Europe, but also important to deterring China from invading Taiwan. On July 28th it took that reasoning a leap forward by announcing it would for the first time start to arm Taiwan from America’s own military stocks, as it has done repeatedly for Ukraine. The main difference is that it has not invoked an “emergency” to justify the move. Instead, it believes the arms supplies will help forestall a war across the Taiwan Strait.
The military move may instead provoke a new crisis. China will not accept American claims that it is nothing out of the ordinary, and represents “no change” in America’s Taiwan policy. After all, America is shifting from selling weapons to Taiwan to subsidising its armed forces. Even before the announcement, a Chinese defence-ministry spokesman denounced arms supplies to Taiwan as “malicious acts”, saying they posed “a serious threat to peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, and created significant strategic risks in China-US military relations”.
The question is whether, as in the past, China will show its anger by stepping up its military harassment of Taiwan, such as its daily testing of Taiwanese defences by flying close to its airspace and sailing near its territorial waters. Last year China fired salvos of missiles close to the self-governing island following a high-profile visit by Nancy Pelosi, the then Speaker of America’s House of Representatives. America has repeatedly accused China of carrying out dangerous manoeuvres close to its ships and planes, raising the risk of collision and superpower escalation.
The White House offered few details of the arms, worth $345m, to be supplied through the fast-track “presidential drawdown authority” (PDA). It said only that it would provide “defence articles and services” as well as “military education and training”. A Pentagon spokesman said the package would include unspecified anti-armour and anti-aircraft weapons, as well as “multi-domain awareness” (MQ-9A surveillance drones, according to leaks). More such military aid may soon follow, given that Lloyd Austin, the defence secretary, has said he intends to use the full $1bn authorised by Congress before the current fiscal year ends on September 30th.
The attempt to play down the move—by burying the announcement in legalese and issuing it late on a Friday, classically a means of burying awkward news—betrays a certain trepidation in the administration of President Joe Biden. He faces at least three sets of conflicting pressures.
First is the worry about provoking a new crisis with China, having sent a succession of senior officials to talk to their Chinese counterparts since May. They include Jake Sulivan, the national security adviser; Antony Blinken, the secretary of state; Janet Yellen, the treasury secretary; and John Kerry, the climate envoy. All, in their various ways, have sought to create a “floor” under Sino-American relations. But military-to-military communications are still all but non-existent. “The Department of Defence continues to seek open communication with Beijing,” the Pentagon said, adding that it would “continue to support Taiwan’s maintenance of a sufficient self-defence capability.”
Against this effort is the countervailing pressure from Congress, especially Republicans, who accuse Mr Biden of being too soft on China and getting little in return for his diplomatic outreach. Indeed, some believe the president has delayed the Taiwan PDA for fear of upsetting the Chinese—a claim that American officials vehemently reject.
Third, Mr Biden must satisfy Ukraine’s pressing need for more weapons as its counter-offensive progresses slowly and its cities are repeatedly pounded by Russian missiles and drones. After a wave of attacks on Odessa, Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, urged the world to create a “full-fledged sky shield” over Ukraine. “We need more air-defence systems for our entire territory, for all our cities and communities. The world must not get used to Russian terror,” he wrote in a Telegram post.
The Biden administration has hitherto claimed it could “walk and chew gum” at the same time: that is, help push back Russia’s onslaught while deterring China. Even as it has rallied European allies to help Ukraine defend itself, the administration has been weaving a variety of mini-alliances in the Indo-Pacific to constrain China. Mr Blinken and Mr Austin have been criss-crossing the Pacific this week to strengthen the geopolitical “latticework”. In Brisbane on July 29th they are expected to announce a further tightening of the military alliance with Australia, including the upgrading of military bases in the country, more deployments of American forces, deeper defence-industrial ties and greater military co-operation with other countries in the region.
Typically military supplies for Ukraine have been donated from American stocks—this week it announced its 43rd PDA for Ukraine, worth $400m and bringing the total to $24bn—whereas Taiwan has bought its arms under the lengthier Foreign Military Sales system. The Pentagon says the Taiwan package will not affect supplies for Ukraine. Yet Ukraine and Taiwan are now competing for American donations and, in some cases, the same weapons, too. The backlog of Taiwanese orders, which stands at more than $14bn, includes contracts for the Javelin missile, used to stop tanks, and the Stinger, used to bring down aircraft. Large quantities of both have been supplied to Ukraine.
In contrast with the PDAs for Ukraine, Congress has not appropriated funds needed to replenish weapons being given to Taiwan. In the short term the Pentagon can probably re-allocate funds internally, say congressional staffers. But for the new Taiwan policy to be sustainable, Congress will have to appropriate money in the next fiscal year. That, in turn, will depend on the tortuous budgeting process in a divided Congress, especially the House, where “America First” admirers of Donald Trump, who are sceptical if not hostile towards Ukraine, hold greater sway.
Assuming Congress can agree on a budget on time, Mr Biden will probably face demands for even stronger measures to help Taiwan, including grants to buy weapons and more intense training. After all, one of the few issues on which Mr Biden’s political supporters and foes can agree is the need to confront China. Some senior figures worry that such unanimity may prove an even greater danger than political dissension. ■