Is Taiwan worth defending?

April 14, 2023 10:14
Photo: Reuters

No one seems to know how the United States would react if China were to invade Taiwan. For decades, US leaders did all they could to avoid this question. Then, in September of last year, President Joe Biden seemed to have ended Washington’s policy of “strategic ambiguity” when he said that US troops would defend the island in the event of “an unprecedented attack.” But almost immediately after Biden spoke, White House officials backtracked, insisting that US policy on Taiwan had not changed.

While the 1960 US-Japan Security Treaty obliges America to go to war if Japanese territory is attacked, the US has no such treaty with Taiwan. If China decided to attack the island, it would have to guess how the US would respond. But while strategic ambiguity is meant to serve as a deterrent, the real question is whether it is enough anymore. After all, China is far more powerful now than it was when it tried to “liberate” Taiwan from Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists by shelling the islands of Quemoy and Matsu during the 1958 Taiwan Strait Crisis. The US still had a mutual defense treaty with Taiwan back then, and American military leaders pushed to launch a nuclear strike on the mainland.

Today, China has the world’s largest military in terms of personnel and a substantial nuclear arsenal. Chinese President Xi Jinping knows that the US cannot risk a nuclear war, which is why it has not intervened directly in Ukraine, and that emboldens him. After all, if the US does not want to fight the far weaker Russia, it will certainly not go into battle against China.

A political shift in the 2024 US presidential election could bolster China’s hopes of taking Taiwan by force. A Republican president, whether former President Donald Trump or a like-minded figure, might choose to isolate the US from quarrels in faraway countries. This is a good reason for locking in place a security commitment to Taiwan now.

But is Taiwan really worth defending, even at the risk of a devastating war? I believe it is. An attack on Taiwan would also be an attack on Japan and South Korea. If allowed to dominate the South and East China Seas, China would have a stranglehold over the economies of both countries. If Japan and South Korea lose confidence in America’s ability or commitment to defend their security, they would either have to submit to Chinese domination or start acquiring nuclear weapons – and fast. Both options could have disastrous consequences.

Then there is the matter of Taiwan’s strategic importance as the producer of more than 90% of the world’s advanced semiconductors. A Chinese takeover of Taiwan and its chip industry would help tip the global balance of power in favor of China, with far-reaching economic and strategic implications.

None of this would be a serious problem if China were a liberal democracy, or at least a relatively open society. Alas, it is not, and that is perhaps the most important reason to defend Taiwan.

Ironically, when the US was obliged to defend Taiwan in the 1950s, the island was still ruled by an oppressive autocratic regime, not the democracy it is today. At the time, however, America’s support of Chiang Kai-shek made sense: Mao Zedong’s China was far worse. Fortunately, even though Maoism was popular for a while among revolutionaries, mostly in poor post-colonial countries and on Western university campuses, Mao’s bloody tactics had little global appeal.

The current Chinese model has a great deal more credibility these days. Unlike the Soviet Union, the Communist Party of China has managed to confound liberal expectations by achieving remarkable economic success while maintaining a Leninist dictatorship. Liberals previously assumed that the combination of a growing middle class and a free-market economy would inevitably result in democracy. The transformation of South Korea and Taiwan from military dictatorships to liberal democracies seemed to lend support to this thesis. But we now know that capitalism can thrive under “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

China’s success has inspired many autocrats in developing countries, where large Chinese investments in infrastructure have bolstered the regime’s image as a more efficient, more powerful, and more reliable partner than the often messy and meddlesome Western democracies. This is a dangerous trend, particularly at a time when liberal democracies are under attack by radical populists at home. A Trump victory in 2024 would galvanize dictators and authoritarians around the world, including Xi.

A pernicious form of cultural propaganda has long fostered strongman rule in China and in other parts of Asia. Its central idea, effectively promoted by Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founder and long-serving former prime minister, is that “Asian values” are incompatible with democratic governance. In Confucian societies, the argument goes, individual interests must be subordinated to the collective interest, obedience to authority is sacrosanct, and social order trumps freedom.

Members of China’s increasingly wealthy middle class often subscribe to this view. Ordinary Chinese, one is often told in certain circles in Beijing and Shanghai, are not yet ready for democratic governance and still need the firm hand of authority to keep them in line.

That is why Taiwan matters. Aside from nationalist pique, China’s rulers seem obsessed with Taiwan because its very existence refutes the premise of the authoritarian Chinese model. Because Taiwanese democracy might give Chinese people the “wrong” ideas, China wishes to crush it, as it has done in Hong Kong. Biden has repeatedly vowed to protect democracy against the threat of autocracy. If he is serious, he must ensure that Taiwan remains free.

Copyright: Project Syndicate
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Author of The Churchill Complex: The Curse of Being Special, From Winston and FDR to Trump and Brexit