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Defending Taiwan vs. Defending Ukraine: What’s the Difference?

F-22
F-22 Raptor. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Eight months into Russia’s attempted annexation of Ukraine there remains a chorus of conservative commentators who argue that our military support for NATO and materiel support for Ukraine enable China

Pre-invasion, we were warned not to take our eye off China. Asia specialists lamented that Ukraine would distract America from China and Taiwan. After the invasion, a lone U.S. senator voted against allowing Sweden and Finland to join NATO because it was a “legacy commitment” in Europe with no role in a China fight.

In a series of illogical but common threads, cable commentators and podcast pundits lectured that preparing for war with China was a national security imperative while aiding Ukraine was warmongering. They rhetorically asked when Congress would start putting America’s needs ahead of President Zelensky’s. Satirical articles and memes have exploded of Zelensky wearing gold chains and shamelessly asking for more money to fund, for example, a diamond coated swimming pool. Support for Ukraine is broadly called a “cult.”  

Yet, you never hear them ask when Congress will put America’s needs ahead of Taiwan President Tsai’s.

The same isolationist sentiments that would argue against aiding Ukraine should also apply to Taiwan and, to be honest, all of East Asia. In fact, would not war with China be unnecessary if we did not have interests to protect and we retrenched back to our shores?

This strange phenomenon is what I call “selective isolationism,” and it finds safest harbor in conservative circles that adopted former President Trump’s warning against “forever wars.” That inoffensive, anodyne warning has metastasized into a deep distrust of all of America’s institutions, foreign policy ideals, and national security goals.

In the past, America’s political left derided military operations in Iraq as a “war for oil” and “imperialism” for any attempt to defeat communism. America’s uniformed military leaders had “blood on their hands,” were “child killers,” were banned from college campuses, and were generally held responsible for the political decisions of their leaders.

Compare that with today, where many conservative commentators make pronouncements that would fit right in at the 2003 anti-war rally in D.C. I observed while interning for a senior Republican member of Congress. 

They tell us the United States started the war in Ukraine by allowing the Soviet Union’s freed former puppet states to join NATO. They tell us Ukraine is so uniquely corrupt that it deserves no support whatsoever. They proclaim that merely supplying Ukraine with the means to defend itself is immoral and born from corporate greed. In fact, it is not uncommon to see them now off-handedly say that the United States started the war in Afghanistan. They have become indistinguishable from a leftwing college professor ranting about the military-industrial complex.

How then did we arrive at these same people telling us that preparing for conflict with China is a necessity? What is the difference?

The China Crisis

By their logic are we not “starting a conflict” with China by arming Taiwan to defend itself, working with Japanese allies on defense reform, and holding annual military training exercises with the Republic of Korea? Beijing holds this exact view.

The argument that we are taking our eye off China by paying attention to the Russia-Ukraine War is seriously misguided. If our adversaries knew that we were evaluating every conflict everywhere against how it impacts the primacy of strategic competition with China it would make war more likely, not less.  

Our adversaries would take more strategic initiative, believing that they could seize and lock-in gains while the United States debated internally over whether a U.S. response was “worth it.” This policy would also encourage China to outsource its activities to proxies in the belief that plausible deniability would make U.S. action more politically difficult.

I almost cannot believe I have to make this point, but Russia is engaging in a land war right now on the borders of a major U.S. alliance system. If Ukraine had not bravely resisted, other states would likely be under occupation at this stage. To argue that we should not have an interest in the conflict happening right now because of what China may do in the future is strategic malpractice.  

To accept the selective isolationist view, you would have to believe that China is deterred by a U.S. that spends no treasury or political will on treaty allies in Europe who are being directly threatened by a revanchist and resurgent empire on its borders.  

Navy Taiwan Strait

171207-N-JH929-039 PACIFIC OCEAN (Dec. 7, 2017) The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Kidd (DDG 100) prepares to perform a sea-power demo alongside the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68) during Tiger Cruise 2017, Dec. 7, in the Pacific Ocean. The Nimitz Carrier Strike Group is on a regularly scheduled deployment to the Western Pacific. The U.S. Navy has patrolled the Indo-Asia-Pacific region routinely for more than 70 years promoting peace and security. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Cole Schroeder/Released).

Ukraine is not a U.S. treaty ally. Taiwan is not a treaty ally. Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania are U.S. treaty allies that border Ukraine. Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines are U.S. treaty allies who would face destructive consequences in a Chinese invasion of neighboring Taiwan.

The strategic parallels are clear, but the arguments are disjointed. Reasonable people can disagree on what constitutes a core national security interest. They could conclude, wrongly in my view, the first major land war in Europe since World War II should not concern the United States at all. If they want to make that argument, they need to explain why defending Taiwan and standing up to China are grave national security imperatives but defending Ukraine and challenging Russia is an act of avarice, corruption, and warmongering.

Now a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, Anthony W. Holmes was Special Advisor to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs from 2017-2021.


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Written By

Anthony W. Holmes was a special advisor for North Korea in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2017-2021. He co-represented the Department of Defense at the first summit between the United States and North Korea in Singapore. He is a senior non-resident fellow at the Project 2049 Institute.  The views expressed are the author’s alone and do not necessarily represent the views of any agency. He currently lives in Florida.

19 Comments

19 Comments

  1. 403Forbidden

    November 2, 2022 at 2:52 pm

    No difference. Was there any difference between Wehrmacht marching into Poland and big red dot military marching into Shanghai in the 1930s ?

    No difference. Ukraine is an ongoing deliberately manufactured affair, just like Taiwan. Same thing with Cuba, if one takes trouble to read up on CIA plans to invade it as well as attempts at doing false flag ops, like in operation mongoose. Or operation cuban Twitter.

    US likes to poke its finger in every pie and only way to stop it is if you have the right tool or implement to cut off that finger. Just wave it at the man and soon he realizes no more poking at pies in other people’s table.

    • L'amateur d'aéroplanes

      November 2, 2022 at 4:16 pm

      Totally and deliberately incomprehensible text? Another madman who believes that the CIA is leading the Kremlin and the Forbidden City to launch their armies against their neighbors? By the way, the Red Army invading Poland in 1939 at the same time as the Nazis, is it a set-up by the Americans?

    • MortenHJ

      November 3, 2022 at 8:17 am

      Belgium i also a manufactured affair. Should France invade?

  2. Jacksonian Libertarian

    November 2, 2022 at 3:29 pm

    As the Leader of the Free World, America must oppose belligerent Authoritarian Regimes everywhere.

    Supporting newly democratic countries like Ukraine and Taiwan is critical to ensuring there will be more democratic countries in the future.

    The Free World has been losing countries over recent decades as authoritarian supporting cultures (Leftist Culture, Islamic Culture, etc.) slide back into Dictatorships (Turkey, Venezuela, etc.).

    Proxy wars against Authoritarian invaders is a very efficient way to destroy/discredit Authoritarian regimes as the Ukraine war demonstrates. This is especially true now as the evolution of weapons has Authoritarian powers burdened with obsolete weapons platforms (Armored vehicles, non-stealthy combat aircraft, surface warships, dumb weapons) that are easily defeated by the high tech 1st world’s smart weapons.

    Combat Power rule of thumb: 1 smart weapon = 500 dumb weapons

  3. HAT451

    November 2, 2022 at 5:59 pm

    Ukraine has been in a state of civil war since the spring of 2014 after the toppling of the elected president. Crimea, Donetsk and Lugansk regions declared their independence from Ukraine. In Crimea, there was a general election and the residents voted to join Russia and Russia accepted them. There were also elections in Donetsk and Lugansk later, but at that time (2015) they were not accepted into Russia.

    There were 2 major military operations by Ukraine to bring the fledgling newly independent countries back under the Ukrainian flag, one in 2015 and one in 2016. In both cases the Ukrainian army was defeated in detail and had to rebuild. From late 2016 to early 2022, it was mostly status que, with the Ukraine rebuilding their army.

    Everything changed in mid to late February 2022 when Russia recognized the independence of Lugansk and Donetsk. Based on my sources on the ground in Eastern Ukraine at that time, most of the residents of Lugansk and Donetsk want to be either independent or part of Russia.

    Taiwan is very different, in that it has been an independent country since the the late 1940, and does not want to be part of China.

    A much better analogy is that Ukraine more similar to China, with Ukraine trying to control the breakaway republics in the same way China wants Taiwan. Lugansk and Donetsk are more similar to Taiwan in that neither wants to be part of Ukraine or China respectively.

    • Rational Joe

      November 3, 2022 at 9:03 am

      Well if you’re allowed to invent your own history on zero factual basis whatsoever, as you just did, I guess it makes sense to hold these two contradictory views.

      • HAT451

        November 3, 2022 at 1:30 pm

        What you are referring to as “invent your own history factual basis whatever” is underreported or unreported news in US / EU media. This does not mean that it did not happen, consider the following:

        https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/war/russo-ukraine-2015 htm for just 2015.

        There is much more, if you are not afraid of the truth, especially if you are a linguist and speak residents from that part of the world on a regular basis.

    • Joe Comment

      November 3, 2022 at 10:29 am

      HAT451: “Most of the residents of Lugansk and Donetsk want to be either independent or part of Russia.” This raises thorny questions. How could one accurately assess public opinion under the conditions in those provinces of martial law and many displaced persons? And if the status of every province is up for grabs, what might that mean for Russia itself, with many peripheral non-Russian parts like Chechnya, Tuva or Karelia that were annexed to the country with various degrees of unwillingness?

  4. El Gato

    November 2, 2022 at 5:59 pm

    The Big difference is invading Taiwan will affect our strategic manufacturing ability, due to the fact the Island produces 90% of the worlds Computer chips. We would be screwed royally if China took over Taiwan

  5. Steven

    November 2, 2022 at 8:47 pm

    You people are clueless. We are in WW3. It started on 9/11/01. Russia has just been defeated, China’s next. Then back to the Middle East we go! Boom! Boom!

  6. GhostTomahawk

    November 3, 2022 at 1:31 am

    How about not doing anything with either…

    Restore our nation’s military

  7. June

    November 3, 2022 at 4:03 am

    I think the biggest difference is the Chinese government knows the invasion would be very risky and there is no guarantee to win the war. On the other hand, Putin knew that the US and NATO would not intervene in the Ukraine war. So, he thought the war would be easy. However, it is difficult to predict a war. To win the war, the Chinese has to preemptively attack US bases in Korea and Japan and, as a treaty ally, Korea and Japan have no choice but to join the war. If China wins, the outcome will be an existential threat to Korea and Japan. Furthermore, a weakened US will destabilize the world order. So, some NATO countries will eventually join the war. I do not believe the Chinese can win the war against these big military powers. Russia is already very weak and cannot and will not help China.

  8. Kelvin Clarke

    November 3, 2022 at 5:01 am

    Anyone who thinks that the West walking away from Ukraine is consequence free is seriously deluded. The whole of Europe is dependent upon Ukrainian victory.

  9. MortenHJ

    November 3, 2022 at 8:19 am

    China should instead look to recapturing Manchuria instead of Taiwan.

    Russia is soon out of soldiers and weapons and the timing is perfect.

    An Nobody will come to Raussias assistance…

    • ofer desade

      November 3, 2022 at 12:54 pm

      … or mongolia – all that oil and resources.

  10. ofer desade

    November 3, 2022 at 12:59 pm

    why u being so hard on the US – and what of the other European countries, for whom chamberlain-style appeasement is still a thing? they’re still supplying russia and china, they’re still buying their stuff (oil etc.). they say they cant afford not to but they’re in fact still stuck in their colonization days when they could sit back and wait for the goodies to come from the colonies. laziness is not a good thing and a lazy coward will always find a reason not to act. it was true in ’39; it’s true now.

    scared of russia cutting off gas, scared of russia sending nukes. wake up – a threat once made is always a threat. eventually it may happen. let’s wait and appease until it’s too late? didn’t work the last time and wont work this time. not in russia, not in china. when ur up against someone who does not value life, you must lose unless u take up his values. at that point, it’s a question of making the other chump die for HIS country.

  11. Dave Nelson

    November 3, 2022 at 3:42 pm

    Way back in August, 1914, the orchestra of the Imperial world order began playing the Overture to Wagner’s Goeterdamerung — in this case the end of the world as Imperial Europe knew it.

    By 1918 Round One had come to a close; Three of those Empires perished — German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman. The Russian Empire did not perish but it’s form of governance did.

    By 1939 a man who came to his maturity in one of those empires started Round 2 by invading Poland. He wanted to resurrect a new German Empire. Of note another country chose Imperialism in Asia and started it’s war a few years before.

    1945 sees Round 2 come to a close. Round 3 begins a few years later when the Russian Empire decides to say in Central Europe. Eventually the remaining empires — England and France drop their empires.

    Round 3 comes to a close in 1989 and the Russian Empire dissolves at last. End of history… WRONG.

    Round 4 begins in 2005 when a man who came to his maturity in an empire tells the world the collapse of the Soviet Union (Russian Empire) was the worst geo-political catastrophe of the 20th century. None of the former Soviet Republics, now free of the Imperial yoke, agree.

    2008 Russia invades Georgia. 2014 Russia invades Ukraine and annexes Crimea. 2022 Russia invades Ukraine again, claims to annex three more provinces.

    Imperialism is a difficult monster to slay. And this time some in America are saying look away? Not a chance! Go back to 1918 and Wilson’s “Self determination of the people”, or simply put, no more Imperialism. It did not carry the day but by 1945 it had; a rules based world order, still in place. Every President who lived thru WWII would recognize the nature of what is going on in Ukraine and be leading the US to stop Russia from winning. And China. And Iran. Nobody else has Imperial ambitions, just those three, and that is why our Foreign Policy is coming to realize history did not end in 1989.

  12. Chris Cha

    November 3, 2022 at 10:46 pm

    Until we move Taiwan Semiconductor’s capabilities to the USA, Taiwan is in our vital strategic national interests. I don’t think that happens until 2024 / 2025-ish. We should have made that move years ago.

    Our foreign policy is a mess due to lack of foresight and honest assessment of our enemies.

  13. will

    November 24, 2022 at 12:37 am

    Taiwan is a legacy of China’s civil war, and the reunification of the country is the long-cherished wish of every Chinese. The United States does not want its own states to be separated, right? Ditto for China and Taiwan.

    China wants peaceful reunification with Taiwan, and China is not a belligerent country. China will not actively attack U.S. bases in the Asia-Pacific, but if U.S. forces interfere with China’s reunification by force, China will certainly respond with full force. China has a geopolitical and comprehensive advantage, the U.S. has no chance of winning a war with China in Taiwan, and the U.S. military bases in the Asia-Pacific would be destroyed. China is not Iraq or Afghanistan, China is a permanent member of the Security Council, a space power with thousands of nuclear bombs, and the U.S. wants to meet China head-on for Taiwan? If the U.S. interferes with China’s reunification, it will only bring about its own faster decline.

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