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#39 - A US-China Proxy War Plays Out in Europe
The Die is Cast
Politico recently discovered international trade documents detailing a shipment of 1,000 rifles, drone parts, and body armor delivered from China to Russia between July and December of 2022. In a separate investigation, trade data obtained by the Wall Street Journal showed that China also provided navigation equipment, jamming technology, and jet fighter parts to Russia.
These are likely lagging indicators of the existence of a flow of war material produced in China and delivered to the Ukraine battlefield. It is obvious to the most casual observers that Beijing desires to avoid attribution and blame for keeping Russia in the war. Why would Beijing support such an operation?
1 - To Bleed the US Dry
In 2022 alone, the US spent $112 billion dollars on Ukraine assistance. To put this in perspective, the entire US Army 2023 budget request was $178 billion, while the 2023 USMC budget clocked in at roughly $51b. The Ukrainian military has essentially become a seventh US military service from a budgeting perspective. This enormous price tag comes at the same time the US military is confronting two major internal crises.
First, all the services are scrapping aircraft, vessels, and other weapons early because there is not enough money to fund modernization and the current operating force simultaneously. The Navy is retiring ships before their end of service life, the Air Force has been cutting the total purchases of advanced aircraft for years as well as retiring multiple airframes (Possibly 269 in FY23 alone), the Army has shrunk to its smallest number of personnel since 1940 (when the US was supremely unprepared for WWII), and the Marine Corps has ditched its tanks, bridging equipment, battalion snipers, and multiple battalions worth of Marine infantry. US operating forces are hurting, and there should be a red light flashing at the POTUS/Congressional level.
Second, there is a military-wide recruiting shortfall. It was serious in 2022 and may be worse in 2023. All services are deeply affected, some were simply able to hide it in FY22. An all-encompassing revolution is required in US military recruiting, and money (while not the long pole in the tent) will certainly be required.
The well-publicized problems with US munitions production are second order consequences of the cost of Ukraine support as well as poor US planning assumptions.
2 - To Reorient the US towards Europe and away from Asia
US national leadership is traditionally crisis/reaction focused while the US military is traditionally geographically focused. Under this system, the Ukraine War creates a double dilemma. First, the exigency of such a sudden war has the US political establishment firmly glued on the Ukraine problem set. If money is the sinews of war, decisionmaker attention serves as its eyes.
Second, the US defense budget is the smallest it has been in 60 years as a percentage of federal revenue. The defense budget is also the smallest it has ever been in the past 60 years as a percentage of GDP with the exception of 1998-2001. With a conventional war in Europe and a rising power in China, the global threat environment is surely not what it was in 1998-2001. Yet the US military must prepare for a two front global war on a peace dividend Clinton era budget. Getting the balance right between being prepared to deter China in the present, executing the Ukraine campaign, and modernizing the force is likely impossible at this budgetary level.
3 - To Demonstrate to Taiwan that Resistance is Futile and Americans are Feckless Allies
Ultimately, Beijing likely prioritizes Asia above Europe. Chinese support to Russia is likely meant to send Taiwan a clear message that it will never be free. Ukraine has NATO’s support, a land border to funnel massive supplies, and the support of the US military. If Ukraine falls, then what hope does Taiwan have? And if Taiwan chooses to resist, how high is the cost?
4 - Defeat a US military effort on European soil.
This would be the first time such an event occurred since the US becoming a global power and the only time since the failed US Siberian expedition 1918-1920. If the US effort in Ukraine were to fail on the heels of the Afghanistan disaster, there would likely be a major recalculation in world politics on the effectiveness of US power (whether deserved or not). The costs of this recalculation could be minor or calamitous. The last time global politics did not operate under the presumption of American super power was roughly 100 years ago.
Consequences for Strategic Competition:
The US must shift gears immediately from an attrition strategy directed at Russia to a war termination (on US only terms) strategy directed at both China and Russia. If necessary, long range US strikes need to be employed to destroy Russia’s invading forces. The message this sends must be framed by US leadership clearly:
1. Invading other countries unprovoked is not acceptable.
2. If China or Russia do invade other countries or regions, the response will be quick, the price will be high, the counter-coalition will be deep and multilateral, and the US will remain the first amongst equals within said coalition.
3. Massive multilateral and unilateral sanctions will tear apart the aggressor's economy.
4. If progress towards war termination is not rapid enough, the US will put its own skin in the game to achieve decisive victory.