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Artillery Row

Between deterrence and escalation

The Chinese doom argument

China might send lethal military aid to Moscow for its war in Ukraine, the Biden administration suggested recently — or perhaps, actually, it won’t.

In early February, CIA Director Bill Burns said China has been “very reluctant to provide the kind of lethal weapons to Russia to use in Ukraine,” but by midmonth that story was evolving. From the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced Washington’s “deep concern” that Beijing is “strongly considering providing lethal assistance to Russia.” Unnamed U.S. officials in a Wall Street Journal report specified the aid could include “artillery and drones,” and on the following day, Burns declared himself “confident” that the lethal aid plan was under consideration.

But National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and President Joe Biden himself took a different line. Sullivan reiterated on CNN and NBC that no such transfers have happened to date, and in an interview with ABC News, Biden said he doesn’t expect them to happen at all.

So why raise the issue? In Burns’ telling, the point was to send a warning, “to make very clear what the consequences of that would be.” Blinken promised “serious consequences.” Biden pledged he “would respond.” And Sullivan said this “bad mistake” would “come at real cost to China,” including “alienat[ing] them from a number of countries in the world … and [putting] them for square into the center of responsibility for the kinds of war crimes and bombardments of civilians and atrocities that the Russians are committing in Ukraine.” “No limits” partnership or not, the White House team argued, helping Moscow this way would be bad for Beijing.

But surely Beijing already realized that fact. China’s communist government is oppressive, even genocidal — but that doesn’t mean decisionmakers in Beijing are unable to game out the possible effects of getting into proxy (or even open) war with the U.S., the world’s foremost military power. Perhaps the administration simply wanted to give its intel-release-as-deterrence strategy a second shot at success. Regardless, it’s a warning that arguably could have been left unsaid in a time of already fraught U.S.-China relations.

The more worrisome explanation for raising the prospect of Chinese arms in Ukraine is that it could provide an excuse for escalatory action we might well come to regret. Indeed, the suggestion has already been used that way. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) is pushing the Biden team “to do two things quickly: Make Russia a state sponsor of terrorism under U.S. law, which would make it harder for China to give weapons to Russia, and we need to start training Ukrainian pilots on the F-16 now.”

And Graham isn’t alone in that position, nor in his linking of the advanced fighter jet idea to the China story. “Now it’s time for the West to escalate its assistance to Ukraine, in ways that will deter China and defeat Russia,” argued The Atlantic’s Tom Nichols in a recent column. To “China, it would say that our commitment to Ukraine and to preserving the international order we helped create is greater than Beijing’s commitment to Moscow.” The West “could fundamentally change the war” by giving Ukraine “combat air power,” said David A. Deptula and Evelyn N. Farkas in The Wall Street Journal, and we should do it before Russia gets “additional aid from Chinese strongman Xi Jinping.”

Whether that aid is coming very much remains to be seen

Whether that aid is coming very much remains to be seen, as Biden and Sullivan made clear. (Beijing has vehemently denied the allegation, in turn accusing the U.S. of hypocrisy given our own record of funneling lethal aid into this conflict.) But if this drive to preemptively increase U.S. aid to Ukraine succeeds — and particularly if we take a major new step like sending F-16s — Washington could occasion the very escalation we hope to deter.

Throughout this conflict, advocates of increasing U.S. support for Ukraine have made a version of the “fight them over there” argument we heard in the early days of the global war on terror: If we don’t help Ukraine stop Russia now, the thinking goes, Moscow will crush Kyiv and keep on going, attacking NATO nations and therefore forcing us into direct great power conflict. But if avoiding direct conflict is our aim, there must be self-imposed limits to U.S. involvement in Ukraine. Otherwise, we risk starting the very open warfare we are trying to avoid.

An analogous risk is present with the prospect of Chinese involvement in Ukraine. The Biden administration rightfully wants to deter Chinese lethal aid to Russia, but at some point in the process of perpetually scaling up U.S. intervention, we will have left deterrence behind. With U.S. tanks already heading to Ukraine, adding in American-supplied F-16s would be a leap toward the degree of entanglement the president has said he does not want. It was with good reason that Biden rejected calls for a U.S.- or NATO-enforced no-fly zone early on. He needs more of that same prudence now.

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