Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday 19 November 2023


How Joe Biden Can Deter China


Mr. Biden low-balled Taiwan and friends to try to conciliate Mr. Xi ahead of handshakes in San Francisco. But Beijing is responding to U.S. restraint by harassing American aircraft and unleashing water cannons on allied vessels from the Philippines. Mr. Biden’s diplomacy would be stronger if backed up by hard power. Here’s what a Pacific deterrent package might look like:

• More authority for Taiwan to buy weapons and draw down U.S. stocks. The U.S. has propped up Ukraine’s fight against Russia by pouring weapons over friendly borders for nearly two years. America will have no such strategic luxury in Taiwan. The window to arm the island is before sparks go up in the Strait. The $2 billion for regional friends isn’t sufficient for a fight that could happen at any time, and a serious request would add at least $2 billion more—directly for Taiwan.

These sales can be complemented by money for direct drawdowns from U.S. inventory. Eric Sayers and Dustin Walker of the American Enterprise Institute note that $650 million of such drawdown authority for Taiwan expired in fiscal 2023. Congress can approve more and include funding to replenish U.S. military stocks with newer weapons.

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• A road map to speed up weapons deliveries.As a letter from Congress recently noted, the U.S. announced the sale of 400 Harpoon antiship missiles to Taiwan in October 2020. But the Navy didn’t enter a contract until April 2023. Press reports say deliveries may not be complete until 2029. One helpful item at the margin could be codifying that Taiwan can cut in line ahead of other partners for weapons deliveries.

• Buying bombs and missiles for U.S. forces in bulk. The first obligation of a Commander in Chief is to make sure U.S. forces are never unprepared for a fight. The U.S. doesn’t have enough long-range fires to prevail decisively in the Pacific, which weakens America’s ability to deter the Chinese Communist Party.

The U.S. still produces excellent weapons—such as the long-range antiship missile, which can skim the sea to elude missile defenses. The job now is to make thousands. Another crucial munition is Patriot interceptors, as air defense is now in high demand from the Middle East to Europe. Larger buys of everything from Stingers to the Army tactical missile system are insurance against another surprise like Ukraine and Israel.

• A plan to get the U.S. Navy to 66 attack submarines. Mr. Biden proposed $3.4 billion for the U.S. submarine industrial base, and the Australians are chipping in as part of the Aukus agreement. But the Biden Administration touts Aukus as a great success even as it’s at risk of collapsing absent a plan for the U.S. submarine fleet.

The U.S. Navy has only 49 attack hulls even as it says it needs 66, and the 30-year shipbuilding plan doesn’t expect the fleet to reach even 54 hulls until 2036. What’s missing as much as money is a Commander in Chief who tells voters why these stealthy subs are vital to deterring war with China.

Some in the Administration will argue that stiffening the U.S. Pacific deterrent is provocative. But the empirical record is the opposite: Beijing exploits U.S. timidity, whether by militarizing islands in the South China Sea or routinely crossing the median line in the Taiwan Strait to menace Taipei.

The Pacific is a higher-risk theater than the public appreciates, but the U.S. can still prevent a war over Taiwan. Mr. Biden doesn’t want to be remembered as the President who squandered America’s precious time to prepare.

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