A helicopter flies a Taiwanese flag in Taoyuan, Taiwan. Photo: Ceng Shou Yi / NurPhoto / Getty Images

More than once recently, critics of US arms shipments to Ukraine have argued that the weapons should go to Taiwan instead. In the long run, these critics say, China is the more worrisome adversary and its threats to take Taiwan by force must be countered.

They’re half right. Yes, the US must stop China from attempting a military takeover. But abandoning Ukraine would undermine that effort.

What Taiwan needs more than weapons just now is a demonstration of American will. The US needs to show China it can stay the course in defending a democracy whose fall would threaten its NATO and East Asian allies and thus American interests.

Taiwan will get weapons from the US in the future, as it has in the past. Unlike Ukraine, Taiwan isn’t under attack. American intelligence says China’s leaders want to be ready to attack by 2027 but that doesn’t mean they’ll do so even then.

Since establishing diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China four decades ago, the US has told China it would accept a peaceful reunification with Taiwan – but not a takeover.

The Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 commits the US to providing Taiwan with defensive weapons. It says that “any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means” would be of “grave concern.”

The statute doesn’t commit the US to intervening if Taiwan is attacked. The US has left China guessing on this point. US policy has been “strategic ambiguity,” essentially telling China, “Maybe we’ll come to Taiwan’s defense, maybe we won’t. Do you want to take that chance?”

Before Xi Jinping took the reins in China in 2012, that worked. Previous Chinese leaders felt they could wait for what they saw as an inevitable peaceful reunion. They felt that time was on their side.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has spoken frequently about ‘reunifying’ Taiwan with the mainland. Photo: Twitter

Under Xi, China has become impatient. A military invasion is now on the table. As a result, some American foreign policy gurus think the US should forsake strategic ambiguity and promise to intervene.

In what seemed like breaks with strategic ambiguity, President Joe Biden has more than once vowed to defend Taiwan. But each time the White House has issued statements saying Taiwan policy is unchanged. The Chinese, therefore, must continue to guess.

By helping Ukraine, the US signals to China that it has the will to do what is needed. The will to fight and keep fighting is critical to military success. In a democracy, public opinion can easily turn against a war, sapping the nation’s will to continue.

As much as anything, North Vietnam won the Vietnam War because it had the will to accept whatever pain was necessary to achieve its goals. The US didn’t.

In World War II, Japan’s military strategy aimed to wear down Americans’ patience with heavy casualties. The Japanese thought they could bring the US to the negotiating table by demonstrating that it would pay dearly in lives for every inch of ground the US won as it island-hopped across the Pacific. It almost worked. US admirals and generals started skipping islands to minimize the casualties and retain public support.

Today, the Russians are counting on the erosion of America’s will to support Ukraine. Americans must understand: This is no mere territorial dispute. This is one nation saying another has no right to exist. Vladimir Putin is intent on rebuilding an empire. If he swallows Ukraine, he won’t stop there.

Vladimir Putin. Photo: AFP

The Chinese are watching. So are our Asian allies. If Ukraine is abandoned, some of them may decide they have no choice but to join Team China. Others may resist by developing their own nuclear weapons. Neither is in our interest.

Understand, everybody should be doing everything possible to avoid war. The Taiwanese must do a better job of preparing for an attack while avoiding provoking one by formally declaring independence. As Taiwanese often say, “Taiwan can practice independence but must never preach it.”

The best course for the US is two-pronged. Diplomatically, the US continues to agree there’s only one China, it discourages Taiwan from declaring independence and it insists reunification be peaceful. Militarily, it arms Taiwan to the hilt.

There’s little to be gained from abandoning strategic ambiguity. If the US explicitly promised to defend Taiwan, would the Chinese believe us?

They know, as the US does, that promises are words. A decision to go to war would depend on many things – who America’s leaders might be when China invaded, the relative strengths of the US and Chinese militaries and the American public’s willingness to support a war in defense of a faraway land.

For their part, the Chinese should go back to taking the long view. Alas, the US can’t count on it doing that. Deterrence is necessary.

Actions speak louder than words. Equipping Ukraine will have a far more deterrent effect than abandoning strategic ambiguity. If the US cannot stay the course in Ukraine even though it’s not incurring casualties there, it will embolden the Chinese. As Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida warned during his recent visit to Kiev, “Ukraine today, East Asia tomorrow.”

The best thing we can do to avoid a Chinese military takeover of Taiwan is to avoid a Russian military takeover of Ukraine.

Former longtime Wall Street Journal Asia correspondent and editor Urban Lehner is editor emeritus of DTN/The Progressive Farmer. 

This article, originally published on April 2 by the latter news organization and now republished by Asia Times with permission, is © Copyright 2023 DTN/The Progressive Farmer. All rights reserved. Follow Urban Lehner on Twitter: @urbanize