With crises in Ukraine and Israel, can America still defend Taiwan?

WHEN JOE BIDEN entered the White House his priority was to establish “a stable, predictable relationship” with Russia and end America’s “forever wars” in the greater Middle East, to concentrate on the economy at home and rivalry with China abroad. It did not work out that way. Russia invaded Ukraine; Hamas attacked Israel. As America helps its friends under assault, can it still defend Taiwan?

Strategists worry about a “window of vulnerability” in the Indo-Pacific this decade, as China’s forces grow stronger and America’s investments in new military equipment don’t fully bear fruit until the 2030s. Concerns about this gap will deepen with the approach of 2027, the year when Xi Jinping, China’s leader, wants the People’s Liberation Army to be able to invade Taiwan if ordered to do so. But whether a war breaks out does not just depend on the military balance. Much will be determined by politics. And with both America and Taiwan holding elections in 2024, the danger period may start soon.

Despite talk of America’s decline, it remains a military colossus, accounting for 39% of global defence spending at market exchange rates. But as Australia’s defence strategic review concluded in April 2023, “The United States is no longer the unipolar leader of the Indo-Pacific.” The changing balance places a premium on America’s unparalleled network of alliances. Mr Biden has worked hard at repairing the damage to this network wrought by his predecessor, Donald Trump. NATO has united, expanded and rallied to support Ukraine.

Asian allies have helped, too. There is no NATO in the Indo-Pacific, but Japan is sharply boosting defence spending and America is building up its presence in Australia. It is also weaving a “latticework” of ad hoc partnerships. These include the AUKUS deal with Britain to supply Australia with nuclear-powered submarines and jointly develop other weapons; a defence-industrial deal with India to produce jet engines; and the Philippines’ agreement to grant America access to several bases. Expect America to add more such strands in 2024.

Much depends on the perception of America’s credibility and capacity. On credibility, critics of Mr Biden believe America’s pell-mell departure from Afghanistan in 2021 signalled weakness to America’s foes. Similarly, others contend that cutting aid to Ukraine would grant a victory not just to Russia but to China, too. As for capacity, the Pentagon long ago abandoned the requirement that its armed forces be able to fight two major regional wars simultaneously. Instead it now seeks to “deter and, if necessary, prevail in conflict” against a major adversary, while also being able to “deter opportunistic aggression elsewhere”.

In Europe Mr Biden has helped Ukraine without sending American forces, and deployed more units to Europe to deter attacks on NATO. In the Middle East, he sent two aircraft-carrier strike groups to the region, and strengthened other forces, to deter attacks by Iran and its proxies.

On the face of it, supporting friends is a cheaper way to preserve American power than direct involvement in wars, as in Iraq and Afghanistan. But American defence firms are struggling to boost production to supply allies while replenishing depleted American stocks. War games suggest America would run out of long-range anti-ship missiles within days of a war with China over Taiwan. “We have a one-war military and a two-week industrial base,” notes Kori Schake of the American Enterprise Institute, a think-tank.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to sustaining America’s role in the world is political dysfunction at home. “America first” Republicans have hampered normal budgeting and have grown especially hostile to funding the war in Ukraine. If they succeed in cutting aid to Ukraine in 2024, allies everywhere will shudder—doubly so if their champion, Mr Trump, is again elected president. 

Anton La Guardia, Diplomatic editor, The Economist, Washington, DC