An Urban's Rural View

What's at Stake in Ukraine is America's Will

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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It's 5,000 miles from Kyiv to Taipei, but what happens in Ukraine won't stay in Ukraine. (Map by

More than once recently, critics of U.S. arms shipments to Ukraine have argued 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, we 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. We need to show China we can stay the course in defending a democracy whose fall would threaten our NATO and East Asian allies and thus American interests.

Taiwan will get weapons from 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 Peoples Republic of China four decades ago, the U.S. has told China we'd accept a peaceful reunification with Taiwan -- but not a takeover. The Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 commits the U.S. to providing Taiwan with defensive weapons. It says "... any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means" would be of "grave concern." (…)

The statute doesn't commit the U.S. to intervening if Taiwan is attacked. The U.S. has left China guessing on this point. Our 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 time was on their side.

Under Xi, China has become impatient. A military invasion is now on the table. As a result, some American foreign-policy gurus think we 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, we signal China that we have 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 U.S. 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 us to the negotiating table by demonstrating we'd pay dearly in lives for every inch of ground we won as we island-hopped across the Pacific. It almost worked. Our admirals and generals started skipping islands to minimize the casualties and retain public support.

Today the Russians are counting on America's will to support Ukraine eroding. 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.

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 U.S. is two-pronged. Diplomatically, we continue to agree there's only one China, we discourage Taiwan from declaring independence and we insist reunification be peaceful. Militarily, we arm Taiwan to the hilt.

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

They know, as we do, that promises are words. A decision to go to war would depend on many things -- who America's leaders were when China invaded, the relative strengths of the U.S. 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, we can't count on them doing that. Deterrence is necessary.

Actions speak louder than words. Equipping Ukraine will have far more deterrent effect than abandoning strategic ambiguity. If we cannot stay the course in Ukraine even though we're not incurring casualties there, we embolden the Chinese. As Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida warned during his recent visit to Kyiv, "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.

Urban Lehner can be reached at


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