Analysis & Opinions - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Is the War in Ukraine Distracting the U.S. From the Much Larger Challenge China Poses in Asia Specifically and to the U.S.-led World Order Generally?

| Oct. 30, 2023

 

BACKGROUND

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has prompted policymakers in Washington to devote substantial attention and resources over the past 20 months to supporting Kyiv. Although the United States has long pursued multiple interests at the same time, resources such as weapons systems, diplomatic engagement, and the time and attention of senior leaders are ultimately limited. Some observers fear that the war in Ukraine could divert the United States’ focus from other priorities, most notably the wide-ranging challenges posed to U.S. interests by a powerful and ambitious China.

ABOUT THE STUDY GROUP

Over the course of six sessions, this study group, led by Dr. Karen Donfried, is examining key foreign policy debates flowing from Russia’s war against Ukraine.  The objective is to provide a deeper understanding of the geopolitics of the war in Ukraine and the implications for U.S. interests. Two teams of four students each debate the weekly topic as the rest of the study group observes.

Distinct or Related Challenges

AGREE

China poses an intense and multifaceted challenge that requires significant attention to counter. The U.S. government views China as its “pacing challenge.” Beijing is making military advances, engaging in predatory economic practices, posing cyber and espionage threats, and committing genocide against its Uyghur population. It also threatens other countries as well as international trade through its attempted control of the South China Sea. The United States must counter China with an intensive strategy that leverages alliances in the Indo-Pacific and seeks negotiations and a working relationship with Beijing.

DISAGREE

The challenge of China is directly related to that posed by Russia in Ukraine. Assisting Ukraine is not a distraction but instead another means for the United States to address the China challenge. Indeed, diminishing the power of authoritarianism anywhere—such as by countering Russia in Ukraine—sets back authoritarianism everywhere. More specifically, China may be discouraged from any invasion of Taiwan as it sees the robust international response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Conversely, China would be encouraged were the West to withdraw its support for Kyiv. Ultimately, defending Ukraine mitigates the expansion of Chinese power and fortifies the U.S.-led world order.

Capacity and Limits

AGREE

The United States has limited capacity to fight on two fronts: helping Ukraine counter Russian aggression and confronting the challenge of China in the Indo-Pacific. The conflict that has arisen between Israel and Hamas in recent weeks opens a third front, further increasing the demands on the United States. Within NATO, the United States contributes some 16 percent of common funding, and the country is called upon for the majority of weapons sent to Ukraine. China is content for the war in Ukraine to continue and deplete U.S. resources. It will take time for the United States to replenish its military production, giving China an advantage.

DISAGREE

The United States, one of the world’s richest countries, can afford to uphold its commitment to Ukraine. European allies are also stepping up, though this takes time. Ukraine relies on American defense support and it would be unwise to pull out. Moreover, the military resources necessary to support Ukraine and to counter China are different, so one does not deplete the other. For example, naval resources, vital in the Taiwan Strait, are not so crucial for Ukraine. In fact, the effort to counter Russia redoubles U.S. military innovation and experience. As the United States sends more ammunition and weapons, this helps revitalize the American industrial base.

Walking and Chewing Gum

AGREE

Over the past 20 years, China has been modernizing its armed forces while the United States failed to do so to the same degree. Now, the war in Ukraine is distracting the United States further from this task. The power of U.S. deterrence is also in decline, which may lead adversaries to be more adventurous and destabilizing. China represents the biggest threat to the liberal order, and we cannot be sure it will find the status quo acceptable in the future.

DISAGREE

Empirically, Ukraine has not distracted the United States so far. The Biden administration has achieved successes in Asia even while devoting attention to Ukraine. A major example is the rapprochement between Japan and South Korea and the strengthening of trilateral military coordination. If there’s any country that can think two thoughts at the same time, it is the United States.

Cross-Cutting Considerations

AGREE

A more stable Transatlantic partnership is desirable to deal with China, but how much help could the United States expect from its European allies in the event of a conflict with Beijing? These European countries should step up to mitigate the war in Ukraine while the United States focuses on more pressing threats to its interests. China has an economy about ten times larger than Russia’s and, unlike Russia, it seeks to control the global economy. However, China is not solely an adversary. The United States could make China more of a partner, which could lead to a more favorable outcome in Ukraine.

DISAGREE

A two-front war is a serious concern, but abandoning support for Ukraine is an even greater concern. U.S. backing for Ukraine is consolidating allies, whose support will be vital were a crisis to arise with China, for example in Taiwan. European allies will not look kindly on the United States if it abandons them in supporting Ukraine. Moreover, were the war in Ukraine to spread to a NATO member state, this would bring the United States into a conflict in which President Biden would have to make very difficult decisions. Finally, even if the United States ended its support for Ukraine, tens of thousands of U.S. troops would remain in Europe, as they have for decades.

Grand Strategies and Big Questions

AGREE

If the United States and China go to war, many actors would try to exploit the great power conflict. The United States could not act as a global police power at the same time as it prosecuted this conflict. Ideally, the United States will bring together allies in the Indo-Pacific to ensure security through offshore balancing of China. Meanwhile, the United States is prepared to make financial sacrifices and overcome domestic disagreements to support Ukraine. It must not, however, lose focus on the danger China poses.

DISAGREE

The question is what the United States and China are competing over, and what it would mean to win. Ukraine shows that the United States will continue to support its values and can sustain this support for longer than one news cycle. The United States has damaged the capabilities of China’s most important ally, albeit an ally for which China has little sympathy. If China invades Taiwan, Russia’s ability to launch another military front in Europe is now significantly degraded.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:Is the War in Ukraine Distracting the U.S. From the Much Larger Challenge China Poses in Asia Specifically and to the U.S.-led World Order Generally?.” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, October 30, 2023.