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Ukraine invasion echoes in Pacific region

Lawmakers question Pentagon officials about China's threat to Taiwan

Protests have broken out in Taiwan against the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Protests have broken out in Taiwan against the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Lam Yik Fei/Getty ImagesGetty Images)

The war in Ukraine is having spillover effects that threaten harmony in the Pacific region, defense officials told members of the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday.

Lawmakers said they were worried that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could embolden China to do the same in Taiwan.

Adm. John Aquilino, commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, said the Russian invasion of Ukraine was a wake-up call.

China, he said, has launched the “largest military buildup that we’ve seen since World War II” and aspires to regional dominance, adding: “We need to be more robust.”

Still, Ely Ratner, the assistant secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs, said the unified response of the United States and European allies to the Russian invasion has sent a powerful message.

Ratner called it “an important signal to potential aggressors in the Pacific,” adding that “some of the economic measures that the United States and others have been willing to take to raise costs on Russia in this instance is also an important lesson.”

At the same time, Ratner said the conflict in Ukraine underscores the importance of Taiwan developing its own defensive capabilities.

Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., noted that the Ukraine conflict could destabilize the Pacific region in other ways. For example, Ukraine exports 50 million metric tons of corn and wheat a year, and more than a quarter of that ends up in the Pacific region.

“We need to be doing some type of analysis of what the political and economic disruptions look like when that food is no longer hitting the global supply,” he said.

Meanwhile, Russia, even as it invaded Ukraine, has increased its force posture in the Pacific, introducing another destabilizing factor in the region, Aquilino said.

“They pushed out 20 ships and submarines as we can count. They placed them in defensive positions,” he said. “They postured other forces to defend their eastern flank.”

Pacific Deterrence Initiative

Washington Democrat Adam Smith, the panel’s chairman, noted that Congress created a Pacific Deterrence Initiative in the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act aimed at keeping the peace in the region.

It’s modeled after the European Deterrence Initiative, which has provided more than $26 billion in military aid to eastern European allies and partners, including Ukraine. But the Pentagon did not prioritize the Pacific Deterrence Initiative in its budget proposal, much to the annoyance of many committee members.

“I think it’s fair to say that the department’s budget request for fiscal year 2022 did not meet congressional intent with respect to PDI. I believe that we’ve made the necessary corrections, and I expect that the fiscal year 2023 budget request for PDI will align more closely with congressional intent,” Smith said.

The fiscal 2022 omnibus appropriations bill now pending in Congress does aim significant funding at the region. The bill provides nearly $1.4 billion, including $550 million to accelerate an Indo-Pacific Command missile tracking satellite demonstration. In the military construction section of the funding bill, there’s $474 million specifically set aside for Pacific Deterrence Initiative.

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