What are we watching in Ukraine? Is the Russian invasion a blundering failure by a desperate tyrant? Or is it possible that Vladimir Putin was correct in his estimate that Western democracies have become weak, decadent, and cowardly, so that his ultimate victory in Ukraine is assured? This is not a matter of moot speculation, to be volleyed back and forth in a game of intellectual badminton, but rather an issue of utmost urgency, which serious people must address if we are to avert destruction.
The limitations of Russia’s military power have been made obvious enough by their retreats from Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Kherson, leading to the bloody trench-warfare stalemate now centered on Bakhmut and elsewhere along the Donbas front. However, even if Russia is too weak to win in Ukraine, this does not mean that China can’t succeed in seizing Taiwan, and the West’s ability to deter Chinese aggression will quite likely decide whether we can expect war or peace in the near future.
Air Force Gen. Mike Minihan sent up a signal flare last month (see “Asian Geopolitics Just Got Scarier,” by Francis P. Sempa, Feb. 8) with a memo warning that Chinese President Xi Jinping had “set his war council in October 2022” and may be preparing for an attack on Taiwan within two years: “My gut tells me we will fight in 2025.… Taiwan’s presidential elections are in 2024 and will offer Xi a reason. United States’ presidential elections are in 2024 and will offer Xi a distracted America. Xi’s team, reason, and opportunity are all aligned for 2025.”
If the blunt wording of Minihan’s memo seems alarmist, he is certainly not alone in his assessment of the potential for Chinese aggression in the near future, as Bill Gertz of the Washington Times pointed out: “The Chinese war council mentioned by the general in the new memo was the basis for a string of new warnings from senior U.S. officials [in October 2022] about China‘s timetable for possible military action against Taiwan.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday were among those speaking out about China’s aggressive stance.
Why would China risk war with the U.S. and its allies over Taiwan? Well, what price did Russia pay for its 2014 seizure of Crimea? That is to say, if the West was not willing to fight Russia over Crimea — certainly a region of strategic interest — why should China suppose that we would regard Taiwan as worth fighting for? It should be obvious that Putin made a similar calculation about Ukraine, likely encouraged by President Joe Biden’s disastrous 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan to view the West as weak. And while Putin’s invasion has not produced the quick victory he might have expected, nevertheless it has revealed Western vulnerabilities that may lead the Chinese Communists to believe they could afford the risk of attacking Taiwan.
Consider this: NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg recently warned that the Ukrainians have been “consuming an enormous quantity of Allied ammunition,” requiring an effort to increase production capacity, especially of artillery shells. “According to some estimates, Ukraine is firing up to 6,000-7,000 artillery shells each day,” the Associated Press reported and, if such estimates are correct, that would require the West to supply Ukraine with 2.5 million shells a year just to maintain the status quo stalemate against Russia. Our current production capacity is nowhere near that, and the U.S. and its allies have already seriously depleted their own munition stockpiles to supply the Ukrainians. If America wants to maintain its status as the “arsenal of democracy,” therefore, we must get serious about ramping up the production of military supplies.
The good news here is that the war in Ukraine has triggered something of an employment boom in the U.S. defense industry. CNN recently reported that the Scranton Army Ammunition Plant is hiring workers and planning to shift to round-the-clock “24/7” production, among other consequences of the Ukraine war supply effort:
Across the US, munitions factories are increasing production as fast as possible. A Lockheed Martin plant in Camden, Arkansas, is cranking out a series of rockets and missiles, including those used by the Army’s Patriot missile system — all of which are in high demand in Ukraine. Bush told reporters in January that the Army was standing up a new plant in Garland, Texas to make artillery shells, while an existing plant is being expanded in Middletown, Iowa that loads, packs and assembles 155 millimeter shells.
Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Texas, Iowa — these are just a few of the places where the demand for war materiel in Ukraine is translating to jobs for American workers. The tank-killing missile that the Ukrainians dubbed “Saint Javelin,” for example, is manufactured at a Lockheed Martin plant in Troy, Alabama, which has recently gotten more than $300 million in new contracts.
The bad news, however, is that it takes time (and lots of taxpayer dollars) to expand armament manufacturing capacity, and if the war in Ukraine is straining NATO’s ability to meet the demands for weaponry, how could we produce the far greater output that war with Communist China would require? For most Americans, of course, the idea of all-out war with China is so terrifying as to be unthinkable, but if our political leaders are serious, they must think about such a scenario. The best way to prevent war is by deterrence — “Peace through strength” — and deterrence requires preparedness. The American people have proven in the past that they will support such measures, if their leaders will speak plainly to them about the threats we face. Yet many of our leaders seem more focused on trying to gain partisan political advantage than on sounding the alarm about the need to prepare for our next war.
If the West was not willing to fight Russia over Crimea — certainly a region of strategic interest — why should China suppose that we would regard Taiwan as worth fighting for?
Since the dramatic early weeks of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, most Americans have turned their attention elsewhere, and most are unaware of the underlying problems that the Ukraine war has exposed, in terms of the West’s warfighting capabilities. When Donald Trump was president, he repeatedly scolded our NATO allies about the need to increase their military expenditures, and the difficulties now being experienced in supplying Ukraine with weapons have validated Trump’s warnings. But with Biden in the White House, many conservatives are skeptical of the “proxy war” we are now fighting against Russia in Ukraine. This skepticism is certainly understandable, as most conservatives have bitter memories of the false claims and wishful thinking that preceded the invasion of Iraq. Of course, there is validity to the criticism that Biden appears to care more about defending Ukraine’s borders than he cares about defending our own borders. Likewise, conservatives were right to call attention to the bad optics of Biden visiting Kyiv while the residents of East Palestine, Ohio, were dealing with the toxic aftermath of a railroad disaster. No matter how much one may agree with criticisms of Biden’s foreign policy — in Ukraine or anywhere else — this does not, however, change the reality of the problems of military preparedness now facing the U.S. and our allies.
Even if you don’t trust Gen. Minihan’s gut hunch about a Chinese attack on Taiwan in 2025, history shows that peace is never permanent, and the United States would be foolish to pretend that we have reached that longed-for day when, as the old spiritual had it, we can lay down our sword and shield and “study war no more.” A recent documentary series about the period between the two world wars of the last century, Impossible Peace, goes year by year in chronicling the West’s blunders during those two decades of interbellum illusions. If Gen. Minihan’s hunch is correct, this historical analogy puts us somewhere in the vicinity of 1937 by now, and the time for preparation is ticking away rapidly.
What can be done? Permit a few general suggestions:
In politics, it is best not to expect people to act upon their professed ideals, but rather to pursue their narrow self-interest. With the possibility of war with China looming in the near future, Republicans need to look for ways to persuade Democrats that it is in their self-interest to support U.S. military preparedness.
If you watch the Impossible Peace documentaries, you’ll be reminded that much of the problem that hampered Western democracies from responding appropriately during the era of “appeasement” was their own internal political quarrels. Between 1929 and 1940, France changed prime ministers more than 20 times, crippling their ability to unite against the rising military threat of Germany’s Third Reich. The parallels to our own situation are obvious enough, and given how quickly we may be approaching a real crisis (here you can picture in your mind the 1939 newsreel footage of Stukas dive-bombing Warsaw), smart politicians should be mindful of history’s lessons.
Part of Gen. Minihan’s calculation of China’s war timeline is that our presidential election campaign next year “will offer Xi a distracted America.” Every prospective candidate for 2024 should strive to avoid becoming part of that distraction. Republicans ought to put the need to meet the threat from China front and center in their campaign rhetoric and — just a personal hunch here — I think a certain former Navy officer might be ready to make that case. Given how much Biden and his fellow Democrats have argued for the importance of arming Ukraine against Russia, they can hardly evade the responsibility for arming us against China, and by emphasizing this need, GOP candidates can help unite the country to meet the threat.
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was based on a calculation of Western weakness, a calculation that has so far proven wrong. If China is casting its eye upon Taiwan with similar ideas in mind, America had better do all it can to persuade them otherwise.
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