Friday, Feb. 24, marks one year since Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, which has cost hundreds of thousands of lives. Ahead of the one-year anniversary, Russian President Vladimir Putin met Wednesday with China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi.
Dakota Wood, a senior research fellow in defense programs at The Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense, says the visit wasn’t that “out of the ordinary, in terms of the relations that exist between various powers.” (The Daily Signal is the news outlet of The Heritage Foundation.)
However, “the unusual part would be this very overt effort between China, [the] Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping to work more closely and overtly, very explicitly with Vladimir Putin, Moscow, Russia as a whole,” Wood says. “So, is it an alliance? I don’t know that—it’s an alliance in practice, as opposed to some kind of a formal alliance that we saw in World War I, World War II amongst Axis powers.”
So, from the perspective of Moscow and Beijing, isn’t it better to join forces in a sense such that together, operating in our own spheres, it causes more problems for the United States, who is increasingly unable to address two major competitors at the same time? Keeping us off balance, dividing attention, and really putting a stressor on the resources we have available.
Wood joins today’s episode of “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss reporting that the U.S. is increasing its troop presence in Taiwan, lessons from the war in Ukraine, and the potential for China to supply Russia with weaponry.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:
Samantha Aschieris: Dakota Wood is joining today’s podcast. Dakota is a senior research fellow in defense programs here at The Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense. Dakota, thanks so much for joining us again.
Dakota Wood: Oh, what a hoot. This is going to be great. Thanks for having me on.
Aschieris: Of course. Now, there has been a lot of news this week relating to China, and to kick us off, I want to discuss some reporting that the U.S. is increasing its troop presence in Taiwan. The Wall Street Journal reports that between 100 and 200 troops will deploy to Taiwan over the next few months. For more context, about 30 troops were there a year ago. Dakota, first and foremost, what is your reaction to this news?
Wood: Not surprising. These are not combat troops. It’s not like we’re beefing up our presence in Taiwan like we had in Germany, for example, during the Cold War. I mean, these truly are trainers and liaison types. So if you sell another country a new weapon system, Taiwan’s buying aircraft, or a anti-ship cruise missile, well, you could send it to them in a package, but how do they figure out how to use it?
So we usually send personnel that could help train them up. Not only on operating the system itself, but what’s the care and feeding? The maintenance that goes along with that, contacts with the contractor who probably have technical representatives on the ground. You get a bad error code or you don’t quite know how to tighten the screw on the fitting or something like that.
So this increase in personnel would be associated with the increases we’re seeing in the discussion between the United States and Taiwan, with the provision of more and more modern military equipment.
There’s been that relationship of military support from U.S. to Taiwan for a very long time. It’s against the background of China’s reaching out to Russia, a growing China-Russia alliance by default or de facto, as opposed to a formal agreement. But Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine has had it looking for additional sources of supply. So China has made some noise about providing what they term, everybody calls the lethal aid as opposed to humanitarian aid. So munitions, ammo of various types, missile systems, that sort of thing.
So if you’re in Taiwan and you’re looking at that this very muscular, aggressive China, the statements that [Chinese President] Xi Jinping has been making about China’s ambitions and look at all those things, and you’re Taiwan, you look to your friends, very few in number, the United States being the primary friend. They would like more military support and we’re going to then provide the personnel that would be associated with those packages of support to help train and educate and act as a liaison.
Aschieris: Well, someone who recently brought up the idea of arming Taiwan and really spoke to the threat that China poses to Taiwan was Sen. Josh Hawley. He was just here last week at Heritage and he spoke about this pressing threat.
From China specifically he said, “If China invades Taiwan, they would prevail. Let me say that again. If China were to invade Taiwan today, they would prevail, which is why we are at an inflection point, a moment where we have to make some tough decisions, and I would just submit to you a moment for real change.” What do you think of Sen. Hawley’s assessment?
Wood: I think it’s accurate. The U.S. military today is roughly half the size it was during the Cold War. Some variations on that, but roughly half. So if we look at the Navy alone, we’ve shrunk from in the 1980s, 580 ships thereabouts to today 295, 294, somewhere there. It’s going to drop to 280.
In the Cold War, we kept about 100 ships deployed on a daily basis. Today, we still keep 100 ships. So how can you keep the same number of ships deployed with half the force? Well, it’s because you’re working the ships twice as much and the crews twice as much. Of those 100, maybe 60 are in the Indo-Pacific. So we would have 60 ships. How many are actually available in other places of the world to surge in that direction that it would take weeks to get there, not that many—40, 50, 60, something like that.
The Chinese navy today has 360. So a 6-to-1 advantage just in naval ships and then you have China’s shore-based anti-ship missiles, shore-based what we call maritime patrol aircraft, an airplane that can carry an anti-ship missile. All that’s right there on China.
So our forces would be operating 6,000 or 7,000 miles from home. All of China’s stuff is right there 100 miles away from Taiwan. So their ability to generate military power and have it immediately useful, in huge numbers, in any kind of fight over Taiwan, that’s China’s advantage. The United States advantage is the closest bases we have are in Japan. Still kind of close, but the four sizes aren’t significant. Then there’s Guam, Hawaii, ports in California, airfields in the western part of the United States, some stuff up in Alaska.
See, if you just think about the geography involved, very hard for the United States to quickly flow substantial military power, then to be able to sustain that with ammunition and fuel and repair parts and replacing combat losses. So the numbers are heavily in favor of China. So Sen. Hawley saying these things, that if China decided to move today or tomorrow or whatever, just by numbers alone and geographic proximity, they would probably carry the day.
So this idea of being more forward-leaning in our support to Taiwan, making it very clear that we’ve got a commitment, if not a legal commitment, there’s no treaty alliance, but we’ve certainly said things over the years to assure Taiwan that we would help to prevent a takeover by force from China. So I think he is raising a very clear, compelling, and understandable argument for the dangers that loom.
It all goes back to how much are we doing in Ukraine? But you can’t walk away because the potential for a Russian win in Europe and the implications for larger geostrategic interest in the United States. So the big takeaway here is how much have we allowed our own military to atrophy and to shrink, and what are the implications for the United States being able to secure its interest in many different parts of the world at the same time?
Aschieris: Well, we just brought up the war, the ongoing war in Ukraine, and today is the one-year anniversary of that invasion by Russia into Ukraine. Earlier this week, as we saw the news that President [Joe] Biden was meeting with [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskyy, we saw that [Russian] President Vladimir Putin was meeting with China’s top diplomat. That diplomat, Wang Yi, said, as NPR is reporting, that China “is willing to work with Russia to deepen mutual political trust, strengthen strategic coordination, expand cooperation, and safeguard each other’s interest.” Was this visit out of the ordinary and should the U.S. be concerned?
Wood: I don’t know that it’s out of the ordinary in terms of the relations that exist between various powers. They’re always looking over their shoulder and kind of outside to say, “Who might be challenging my interests or frustrating my attempts to grow those interests and secure them?”
So the unusual part would be this very overt effort between China, Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping, to work more closely and overtly, very explicitly with Vladimir Putin, Moscow, Russia as a whole. So is it an alliance? I don’t know that—it’s an alliance in practice as opposed to some kind of a formal alliance that we saw in World War I, World War II amongst Axis powers.
If we took the United States in its totality, easily overwhelms either a China or a Russia, if you could get all your stuff where you wanted it to be at one time and be able to use it effectively. But if now you have two major competitors, Russia and China, and you throw in a problematic country like Iran or North Korea with its nuclear inventory or just other issues in the world, you can’t handle all those at the same time.
So from the perspective of Moscow and Beijing, isn’t it better to join forces in a sense such that together, operating in our own spheres, it causes more problems for the United States, who is increasingly unable to address two major competitors at the same time? Keeping us off balance, dividing attention, and really putting a stressor on the resources we have available.
So these discussions back and forth, China offering potential lethal aid, weapons, ammunition, etc., to Russia for its war in Ukraine. The top diplomat visiting Putin to be followed by I believe it’s Xi Jinping himself also traveling to Moscow. A very worrisome development from the perspective of the United States and our friends now around the world.
Aschieris: Yes. I’m so glad you brought that up because I had been reading some reports that Xi Jinping was potentially visiting Russia over the next couple of months. Obviously, from the U.S. perspective, not a very positive move, not a very reassuring move, especially—
Wood: He doesn’t travel much. I mean, he doesn’t make many trips out of the country. So for one of these few to be to Moscow says a lot.
Aschieris: Yes, it definitely does. You’ve been talking about China’s potential arms transfer to Russia, and I just want to get your thoughts and pick your brain on this. Obviously, we’ve been talking about how today’s the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion. If China were to supply Russia with weaponry, what would that mean for this war that unfortunately doesn’t seem to be ending anytime soon and also for the world?
Wood: So a year ago, right?
Wood: If you looked at the inventories on both sides of the battle, Russia and Ukraine, Russia had four to five times as much equipment. It’s old Cold War stocks of munitions. I mean, it just dramatically outnumbered Ukraine.
In the initial weeks and few months, badly handled its offensive operation, just did a lot of very stupid things tactically, wasted a lot of ammo. The Ukrainians, you talk about a heroic defense, really outshone any expectations that they would be able to put up a fight.
So they did what they did with their own material equipment, willingness to fight, all those sorts of things. Their ability to sustain that fight was only made possible because of the sustained support from the West. So once they used up all of their own organic ammunition and their initial set of tanks and those sorts of things was blown up, to be able to replace that stuff in quantity and improved quality has made it possible for Ukraine to do what it has done up to this point in time.
So Russia has also been consuming Cold War supplies and it has been also reaching out to other sources. So it’s gone to North Korea, there’s been conversations with Iran. Iran is widely known to have been providing Russia with the unmanned aerial vehicles, the UAVs, or drones that have been used against Ukraine. So now, if China decides to open up its inventory of artillery, and short- and long-range rockets and all the other things that it could provide, like we have been supporting Ukraine with, it just enhances Russia’s ability to continue this assault on Ukraine.
Nobody is providing Ukraine bodies in terms of NATO forces and nobody’s even proposing to do that. But what that means is Russia’s limited population, how long can they tolerate continued battlefield losses? If support from the West in terms of ammunition and sorts, equipment, that kind of stuff, if that starts to dry up because of the reduction to worrisome levels in Western inventories for ourselves, what does that mean for the ability to sustain the fight?
So this promise or the potential for Chinese support to Russia gives Russia a huge lifeline to continue a level of fighting that just cannot be matched by Ukraine, unless it continues to receive similar types of support from the West.
Aschieris: Oh gosh. What a mess.
Wood: It’s a mess.
Aschieris: Yeah. Oh my gosh. I mean, we now have a year with this war in Ukraine, this pressing threat from China, potential invasion into Taiwan. If Sen. Hawley is correct, they would prevail in taking Taiwan.
Are there any lessons that we could learn from the last year and the fighting that’s been going on in Ukraine that could translate to a potential invasion of Taiwan?
Wood: Yeah, so, I think in two ways. There are positive lessons, the cost of Ukrainian blood, the West should be taking from this. But there are also insights or lessons, what have you, that China can be taking. That if Russia wins in Ukraine, then it’s a validation of the idea that you can use military force to take what you want in spite of the threat of sanctions or becoming diplomatically a pariah state or what have you. All that stuff has been levied on Russia. Putin doesn’t care. He’s in a land grab. He’s used this Ukrainian territory as rightfully Russian, part of Russia. So he’s expanding these frontiers for that primary objective.
Similarly, in China, China views Taiwan as rightfully Chinese, and it wants to bring this renegade province back under Beijing’s control. So if it works for Russia and Europe right there up against NATO allies of the United States, why couldn’t it work for China against Taiwan when all of Taiwan’s supporters, very few in number, are so far away? You would think that the problem set for China is that much easier.
So much of the world is economically dependent on trade with China. Who in the world did any trade at all with Russia? So China, their takeaway could be this is very doable. We probably want to do it sooner than later because as everybody wakes up to the reality of war and they start to re-arm, like Japan is just beginning to do, that’ll take years to make material changes in the Japanese self-defense war and other countries in that region. So instead of waiting until their potential opponents are ready for it, this incentivizes China to move more quickly.
The positive lessons for the United States is, in spite of all the rhetoric before the invasion in Ukraine, modern countries would never go to war with each other. There’s too much to be lost economically. You remember those arguments, right?
Aschieris: Yes. Yes.
Wood: And yet war occurred. Yeah. So it seems that large-scale conventional war that kills thousands of people and destroys countries is still a feature of 21st-century geopolitics. I think we have largely forgotten that in the West. This is a brutal reminder that it still is the case and it could also be a case in the Indo-Pacific with China’s move against Taiwan. So we just can’t dismiss that as some artifact of a bygone era.
Aschieris: Yeah, that is such a great point and really just a reminder, like what we’ve been talking about, is, it’s not out of the purview. It’s completely possible.
Just before we go, Dakota, I wanted to ask about what we’re hearing from the White House and if there’s been any response from them leading up this week to the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion and this pressing threat from China.
Wood: Well, the rhetoric is always pretty good because it’s easy to craft a speech that says all the right things. Where the breakdown occurs is, do you see actions that correspond to the words that follow up fairly quickly?
So President Biden and his speech in Kyiv, and then his speech in Warsaw, and even statements coming to the White House, will talk about our ironclad guarantee that we would defend every square inch of NATO. OK. I mean, who hasn’t said that in the past? A NATO country hasn’t been attacked yet, so it’s easy to make that promise.
If Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization paper, that treaty document was invoked so that if one NATO member is attacked, all NATO members are attacked. But Article 5, if you actually get into it, it doesn’t dictate how other member states would respond to that. It doesn’t guarantee or obligate a military response. You could just say, “Well, we’re going to cut off diplomatic relations or imposed tariffs or sanctions,” or something like that.
So the words sound good. It’s like the words of assurance to Taiwan and finger-wagging at China to say, “You better not move against Taiwan because the United States will stand fast with its friends.” OK. I mean, I buy that rhetoric. I want to hear those sorts of things. But what is the material action behind the scenes? Have we seen a dramatic shift in forces to the Indo-Pacific? Have we seen a dramatic expansion in the defense budget to get more ships and aircraft, which should be needed? Are there large investments in munitions manufacturing to replace what we’ve given to Taiwan and build the inventory that you would probably need in a war with China?
So until we see actions that follow the rhetoric, I think we still have to question the sincerity of the White House.
Aschieris: Well, Dakota, thank you so much for joining us today.
Wood: I wish we had happier topics to discuss.
Aschieris: Well, I appreciate your insight and your willingness to come on and talk about this. Definitely scary times that we’re living in, terrifying, I’d say. I appreciate it, and hopefully next time you join, we’ll have some better news to talk about.
Wood: I hope so.
Aschieris: Thank you so much.
Wood: Thanks for having me on. God bless.
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