JD Vance's Take on Ukraine vs Taiwan (Does the America First Crowd See a Difference?)

AP Photo/Jay LaPrete

Last weekend Sen. J.D. Vance gave a speech at the Munich Security Conference in which he made the case for negotiating an end to the war in Ukraine. But his argument went beyond that. In fact, the main point he was trying to make was that America needed to pivot from a focus on Europe to a focus on East Asia.

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The problem with Europe is that it doesn’t provide enough of a deterrence on its own because it hasn’t taken the initiative in its own security. I think that the American security blanket has allowed European security to atrophy.

“And again, the point is not we want to abandon Europe. The point is we need to focus as a country on East Asia, and we need our European allies to step up in Europe. I appreciate what my English friend [David Lammy] over here said. And of course, England has been one of the few exceptions where I think it has fielded a very capable military over the last generation. But that hasn’t been true for a lot of Europe, and that has to change.”

“It’s very hard, the juxtaposition between the idea that Putin poses an existential threat to Europe, compared again against the fact that we’re trying to convince our allies to spend 2% of GDP. Those ideas are very much in tension. I do not think that Vladimir Putin is an existential threat to Europe and to the extent that he is, again, that suggests that Europe has to take a more aggressive role in its own security...

There are a lot of bad guys all over the world, and I’m much more interested in some of the problems in East Asia right now than I am in Europe.

I think Vance's argument about Europe's need to step up its own commitment to defense is a solid one that's pretty hard to argue with. You can look at the list here. France isn't far off Germany is well below 2% and, as we saw with their dependence on Russia gas, had become way too trusting of Putin.

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Where I have a problem with this is Vance's suggestion that the reason the US needs to pivot away from Ukraine is because we need to focus on China. He doesn't say China but that's clearly what he means. And of all the problem we face there, the most obvious one is the ongoing threat of an invasion of Taiwan. Again, Vance doesn't ever mention Taiwan but I think that's what he's saying.

Over at the NY Times, Ross Douthat has tried to break down this argument into more fundamental points. He says that the decision about how quickly we need to pivot away from Ukraine and toward Taiwan really comes down to a guess about how soon China is prepared to invade. Obviously if the answer is a decade from now, then we're not in much of a hurry. But if the answer is something in the next 2-3 years then you really can make a reasonable argument that Taiwan is the more significant battle for the US to fight, or at least to support in the same way we've supported Ukraine.

If you see the two countries as essentially equivalent, both American clients but not formal NATO-style allies, both democracies vulnerable to authoritarian great-power neighbors, then there’s a stronger case for doing everything for Ukraine when it’s immediately threatened, regardless of the consequences for Taiwan.

But they are not equivalent. The American commitment to Taiwan goes back almost 70 years, and for all that we’ve cultivated ambiguity since the Nixon era, the island is still understood to be under the American umbrella in a way that’s never been true of Ukraine. Taiwan is also a mature democracy in a way that Ukraine is not, which means its conquest would represent a much more stark form of rollback for the liberal democratic world. And Taiwan’s semiconductor industry makes it a much greater economic prize than Ukraine, more likely to hurl the world into recession if the industry is destroyed in a war or grant Beijing newfound power if it’s simply absorbed into China’s industrial infrastructure...

China’s wealth and potential hard power dwarf all its Asian neighbors, and its conquest of Taiwan would enable a breakout for its naval strength, a much wider projection of authoritarian influence and a reshuffling of economic relationships in Asia and around the world.

For an in-depth argument about these kinds of consequences, I recommend “The Taiwan Catastrophe” by Andrew S. Erickson, Gabriel B. Collins and Matt Pottinger in Foreign Affairs. You don’t have to be convinced by every piece of their analysis to grasp the potential stakes. If a Russian victory in Ukraine would feed authoritarian ambitions, a Chinese victory would supercharge them. If Ukraine’s defeat would hurt American interests, Taiwan’s fall would devastate them.

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I find this pretty persuasive. The entire western world is connected with Taiwan as the top producer of the most high-tech chips in the world. A US-Europe alliance of private companies create the cutting edge lithography machines that make those chips possible. And that keeps the free world several years, maybe even a decade ahead of China's capabilities. 

But if China were to seize the island as they did with Hong Kong, everything would change. China would leap forward and the US and Europe would need years to replace the chip foundries currently located in Taiwan with new ones here at home. The disruption that followed from an invasion could make the pandemic related tech shortages of the last couple years look like a minor bump in the road by comparison.

So it probably sounds like I'm mostly in agreement with Vance. Except I think he's overlooking a few things. First, China and Taiwan are watching what the US is doing in Ukraine. What they see is the US vowing to not let Russian aggression stand while Russia plays the long game, waiting out its enemies. And now, two years later, it looks like Russia's patience is about to pay off as the US cuts aid and appears ready to let Russian aggression stand. Taiwan, not surprisingly, finds this a worrisome precedent.

Taiwanese senior officials repeatedly questioned members of a visiting U.S. congressional delegation on what stalled aid to Ukraine means for U.S. commitments to defend the island from potential Chinese aggression...

“Taiwan is extremely interested in Ukraine, and extremely worried that we might walk away from Ukraine,” Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), chair of the House Select Committee on China, told reporters on Friday at the end of a three-day CODEL to the self-governing island.

The issue of U.S. support for Ukraine came up repeatedly in meetings that Gallagher and CODEL members including committee ranking member Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) had with senior officials including Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen and President-elect Lai Ching-te. “They are watching the supplemental requests for Ukraine like hawks and they view Ukraine prevailing against the criminal invasion by Russia as incredibly important in sending a message to the Chinese Communist Party,” Krishnamoorthi said.

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I'm certain China is watching just as closely, only instead of worrying about it they are feeling relieved at the thought that any US commitment of aid comes with an expiration date. Like, Russia, they just have to seize what they can and then wait until the inevitable pushback begins at home.

And that's really the other point that I think Vance misses. Most people arguing for the US to cut off aid to Ukraine aren't making an argument about a pivot to Asia. From what I see online most are just isolationists. They want to leaving wars in far away places to those in far away places. Look at Tucker Carlson, who has been taking a pro-Russia line for months and warning that pushing back on Putin could result in nuclear war.

All those same arguments will be applied to Taiwan when the time comes. I don't know if Tucker will be the one visiting Beijing and telling us how great the subway is and how cheap the groceries are (and by the way how many nukes China has), but someone just like him will do it. And all of the people saying "we have homeless people here at home who need help" (which is true but entirely beside the point) will say the same thing when the topic is funding for Taiwan's defense. Once you've embraced that kind of not-our-problem isolationism, it works equally well for everywhere.

So this is my problem with Vance. I don't know how sincere his commitment is to pivoting America's focus to China and Taiwan, but assume for the sake of argument he really means it. I think he's going to be surprised to discover how few of the people who agree with him on stopping aid to Ukraine are going to support sending aid to Taiwan instead.

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David Strom 6:40 PM | April 18, 2024
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