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How America can support Ukraine and stay on guard against China

The alluringly false choice of security in the Euro-Atlantic or stability in the Indo-Pacific ignores the totality of American power and the distinction between the two theatres. Succumbing to this siren call risks seeing America’s leadership failing in Europe and catastrophically undermined in Asia at a time when both are critical to success in both.  

It is not unexpected that ahead of the 2024 presidential election that there are emerging questions as to why the United States is continuing to support Ukraine. This reflects the isolationist and populist strain of Republican politics, but also the White House’s marked failure to convey to the American people why this fight and Ukraine’s success are vital to America’s national interest. 

While these calls should not be dismissed, the more concerning argument is that the continued support for Ukraine risks undermining America’s ability to pivot to the Indo-Pacific.  

Here, this emerging strain of thought within Washington policy circles posits a binary choice between backing Ukraine and ensuring Euro-Atlantic security or pivoting toward the Indo-Pacific and preparing for the possibility of conflict with China. The argument suggests that the longer the United States focuses its political will, economic resources and defense-industrial base on Ukraine the worse position it will find itself in should Beijing act on its predatorial designs on Taiwan.  

If one only looks at the raw numbers of the conflict, the argument appears to have merit and is attractive. The more equipment and materials that are sent to Ukraine, or to America’s allies in NATO to backfill their expenditures, the fewer tools the United States would have to confront Chinese aggression. A 155mm howitzer shell used in support of Bakhmut cannot be used in Kaohsiung. Further, as more attention is paid to replacing spent assets, industrial capacity is reduced and thus fewer resources are available to procure, build and deploy munitions necessary for contingencies in the Indo-Pacific.  

Yet, the war in Ukraine and the potential conflict in the Indo-Pacific are markedly different fights. While there is some overlap in the types and kinds of munitions, it is unlikely that the United States will find itself in a large-scale conventional artillery duel with Beijing or fielding large quantities of armored vehicles. There is greater overlap in more advanced weapons such as loitering munitions, drones, cruise missiles and precision-strike platforms, and where greater investment is certainly needed to meet immediate needs in Europe and prepare for future contingencies in Asia. In the case of the latter, the announcement that Lockheed Martin opened a second production line for the long-range anti-ship missile is welcomed but reflects the delayed prioritization of critical assets for the Indo-Pacific. To meet its future needs, Washington should also consider leveraging its regional allies in the Indo-Pacific to support and augment weapons procurement.  

For a fight in the Indo-Pacific the United States must focus on long-overdue investment in the Navy and Air Force, which are necessarily long-term, capital-intensive projects which increase the demands on an already strained industrial base. Expectations that American industry can simply retool overnight are flawed and risk setting unrealistic expectations. The failure here has nothing to do with Ukraine and is wholly the responsibility of successive administrations to prioritize the right investments.  

The broader argument is structurally flawed and sees American power and purpose only through a narrower lens — raw power — than the current era of strategic competition demands. Right now, the United States is providing aid and material to Ukraine to support its actual, ongoing national defense against Russia’s invasion. Here, both physical assets and leadership are needed in equal measure, with the former more pressing than the latter given the mutual support of allies like the United Kingdom. Yet, that leadership is helping drive changes in the Euro-Atlantic security architecture and national investments that will see NATO in a much stronger position to deter future Russian predation.  

The Indo-Pacific is about the establishment of a deterrent environment that dissuades Beijing from acting against Taipei and working to deny the former its hegemonic ambitions. There is, of course, a hard power element to this equation — deterrence is unachievable if it is not backed by the credible use of military force. Yet, if deterrence is to be successful in the Indo-Pacific it must be about much more than just hard power.  

Stability in the Indo-Pacific is about embedding the United States into a network of alliances and agreements that enhance collective security while creating tangible security benefits. The recently announced AUKUS agreement, while overwhelmingly a technology-sharing framework, is about aligning the Anglosphere in the Indo-Pacific, while also fielding more naval capability to the region. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or “Quad” is a multilateral grouping of countries with a shared interest in regional security and stability — well short of a formal alliance, it nonetheless reflects the mutual interests of Australia, India, Japan and the United States.  

More broadly, Washington’s energies in the region are about aligning interests across multiple domains such as economic policy, technology standards and supply chain security, and creating a deterrent effect toward China’s ambitions. This necessitates American leadership and engagement more than the immediate deployment of hard power capabilities and assets. Investments are necessary. The defense industrial base needs mobilization. Yet, American leadership across the region is more valuable and in more pressing demand. This also means getting America’s allies in the region to do more at home in their own countries — mobilizing resources, domestic political will, and investing in their own defense. The more prepared countries are in the Indo-Pacific, the greater the resistance to China’s hegemonic ambitions. 

Strategy is about the art of allocating finite resources towards desired ends. Washington cannot do everything everywhere all at once, but it need not do so. Prioritizing the delivery of munitions and arms to Ukraine now, buttressing continental security integration, and sustaining collective political resolve will strengthen the Euro-Atlantic. Engaging multilaterally, aligning allied diplomatic and economic policies and investing in overdue Navy and Air Force expansion and modernization will lead toward a more stable and peaceful Indo-Pacific and create a greater deterrent effect. 

Global security is not an either-or proposition, but a challenge that demands clever statecraft and seeing the totality of American and allied resources, not just bullets and bombs.  

Joshua C. Huminski is director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress, and a George Mason University National Security Institute Fellow. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.  

Tags Politics of the United States Reactions to the 2021–2022 Russo-Ukrainian crisis Taiwan–United States relations US military aid to Ukraine US-China relations US-China tensions

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