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An Asia Hand’s Argument for Putting Ukraine First

At first glance, it seems like a contradiction. In President Biden’s $105 billion request to Congress, only $7.4 billion is earmarked for all of Asia, compared to $61.4 billion for Ukraine. Yet according to the administration’s own National Defense Strategy, China presents “the most comprehensive and serious challenge to U.S. national security.” The threat to Taiwan grows increasingly dire, with the cross-Strait and trans-Pacific military balances tipping in China’s favor, even as Xi Jinping hints at growing impatience for unification. So it only makes sense that Washington should prioritize the Indo-Pacific and the defense of Taiwan over the war in Ukraine, right?


The two theaters are inextricably linked – although that linkage is not a simple as some pundits and politicians preach. No, Russian victory in Ukraine will not give China a blank check in the Pacific, nor will Russian defeat alone scare China out of an impending turn to aggression. And yet, Ukrainian success will ultimately pave the way for more effective American deterrence in Asia.

Why is this true? A common – and flawed – argument is that the United States must support Ukraine to deter China. As Senator Lindsey Graham, for example, has said, “There can be no backing off of helping Ukraine, because if we fail here, there goes Taiwan.” Or as Graham’s Democratic colleague Chris Murphy argued recently: “If we abandon Ukraine and Kiev becomes a Russian city, NATO is next, and the invasion of Taiwan not far behind.”

But this is oversimplified. American actions in Europe undoubtedly do shape Chinese assessments of American will and intentions, but those actions amount to just one factor in China’s complex considerations about its own domestic politics, the balance of power and the potential use of force.

While China may be a greater threat long-term, Russia is the more pressing threat right now – and while Asia may be more important than Europe for the global economy, Europe in many ways remains more important for the US. Concerns about a potential war in the Taiwan Strait are real, but there is an actual war on in Europe now—one with grave implications for both the United States and for Asia.

“Asia-first” approaches to American foreign policy tend to elide the continuing centrality of Europe to US interests. The bilateral US-European Union economic relationship, when factoring in investment and trade in goods and services, is the world’s largest. The United Kingdom is consistently a top-ten destination for American goods exports. In terms of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), the United States is more deeply invested in Europe than in the Indo-Pacific, and the reverse is true as well. Indeed, the difference between American FDI in Europe and Asia has been growing, not shrinking over the past two decades. And although the total value of US trade with major Asian economies ($2.13 trillion in 2022) now outstrips that with major European economies ($1.81 trillion), the United States still exports more goods and services to Europe than to Asia, while maintaining a far more balanced trans-Atlantic trade relationship (see figure). A downturn in that trade would be widely felt in the United States, despite America’s more sizeable trans-Pacific trade.

“Major European economies” comprises EU plus Switzerland. “Major Asian economies” comprises Australia, China, Hong Kong, India, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, and Vietnam. (Chart by Michael Mazz

These trade and financial links are essential to America’s economic strength, which, in turn, underlies its ability to resource its military. Stability, security, and prosperity in Europe go hand-in-hand with America’s economic capacity to meet the challenge in Asia. And given Vladimir Putin’s near-decade-long war on Ukraine, and the economic havoc it has wrought in global markets for everything from oil to wheat, taking that stability, security, and prosperity for granted is no longer a safe assumption.

Conversely, instability in Europe and the resulting economic downturn would not only impact Americans’ well-being, but that of Asians as well. The European Union is the third largest overall trade partner for JapanSouth KoreaIndiaAustralia, and the combined markets of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. It is a major source of foreign direct investment for all of those markets and for Taiwan, for which the EU is the fourth largest overall trade partner.

A victorious Russia, moreover, will have both the confidence and the resources—financial, diplomatic, and military—to make trouble for the United States and its allies in Asia, including by directly or indirectly supporting Chinese aggression. Put simply, Europe and Asia are not two strategically distinct theaters.

This is why America’s Asian allies are committed to Ukrainian victory—not for purely symbolic reasons and not primarily, despite the rhetoric of some, because they see it as part of a global competition between autocracy and democracy. Rather, it is because Asian democracies understand a key historical truth. From the age of exploration to the colonial era, from the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand to the Treaty of Versailles, and from Germany’s 1939 invasion of Poland to the outbreak of Cold War in the late 1940s, history teaches that what happens in Europe does not stay in Europe.

Asia-firsters might accept all this and still insist that the Europeans themselves provide for European security. But that insistence ignores European history and current politics. The so-called continent – more accurately, a peninsula projecting from the vast landmass of Asia – remains small and crowded, with differences in security outlooks among capitals. Although European military and economic assistance to Ukraine is now equal to what the US is providing, the war has once again made clear that US engagement and leadership are necessary to get Europeans pushing in the same direction.

This is partly due to American wealth and power. But it is also because no other country has the international standing or institutional heft—or the geographic and metaphorical distance from internal European politics—to effectively fill that leadership role. Few if any in Europe are prepared to submit to French or German leadership, nor is European security by committee likely to be effective. America remains the essential nation when it comes to European security, and European security remains essential to America.

What would be the result if America sacrifices Ukraine on the altar of Taiwan’s security? An insecure Europe vulnerable to Russian aggression, requiring even greater American attention and resources than at present. Any gains in the Indo-Pacific would be fleeting as the unchecked Russian threat required ever more attention and resources to contain. Conversely, Ukrainian victory and the chastening of Russia could finally pave the way for the US to make a real pivot to Asia.

That is well worth another $61 billion in security assistance for Kyiv. Keep the aid flowing.

Source : Breaking Defense