2 votes

Taiwan is competing for arms with the Middle East, not Ukraine


  1. Fal

    Returning from a visit to Taipei in February, U.S. Rep. Mike Gallagher, the Republican chairman of the House’s recently established select committee on China, expressed concern about the pace of arms deliveries to Taiwan, including the much-discussed $19 billion backlog, telling the New York Times, “We have to prove that we’re willing to deliver.”

    The scale of the backlog has been widely cited by political leaders on both sides of the aisle as an indicator of a weak U.S. defense industrial base that is unready for a major-power war and unable to meet demands from Russia’s war in Ukraine and a potential conflict over Taiwan simultaneously. Gallagher’s Democratic co-chair, Rep. Ro Khanna, made this Ukraine-Taiwan trade-off explicit in a late April speech on U.S. competition with China, in which he also called for the use of the Defense Production Act to dramatically ramp up U.S. weapons production. The argument that U.S. aid to Ukraine must be cut to allow for sufficient support to Taiwan also has many advocates beyond Capitol Hill, chief among them Elbridge Colby, the lead architect of the 2018 National Defense Strategy, and Kevin Roberts, the president of the Heritage Foundation.

    Rather than Ukraine, Taiwan has competed most directly with other countries purchasing new systems. Among its biggest competitors are large buyers in the Middle East, including Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. These countries not only buy many of the systems Taiwan needs most, but they also buy these weapons in large quantities—often exceeding what has been allocated to Ukraine, from stocks or otherwise.

    The fastest and most efficient way to get needed weapons into Taiwanese hands would be to pause or reduce deliveries to large arms buyers in the Middle East—specifically Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE, at least temporarily. Though these Arab states do have some legitimate security concerns, particularly coming from Iran and its proxies, substantial and largely condition-free arms transfers to these countries have frequently fueled regional conflicts, produced security outcomes that are antithetical to U.S. interests, and contributed to human rights violations.

    Both parts of this approach could receive pushback from members of Congress, defense contractors, and certain U.S. security partners. Portraying these decisions as temporary and strategically necessary would be one way to allay such concerns. More generally, the Biden administration has demonstrated a willingness to compromise U.S. economic gains for national security when it comes to competing with China.

    Speeding up and increasing arms sales to Taiwan will come with trade-offs. But neither supersizing the U.S. defense industrial base nor terminating aid to Ukraine is the best choice. If the United States is serious about arming Taiwan “to the teeth,” as Gallagher has urgently recommended, it will pause or slow arms deliveries to partners with less urgent need, including large buyers in the Middle East, to divert this production capacity toward Taiwan and invest more heavily in Taiwan’s defense sector to build additional capabilities and self-sufficiency.

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