While the world has been distracted, even amused, by the diplomatic tussle around China’s recent high-altitude balloon flights across North America, there are signs that Beijing and Washington are preparing for something so much more serious: armed conflict over Taiwan. Reviewing recent developments in the Asia-Pacific region raises a tried-and-true historical lesson that bears repeating at this dangerous moment in history: when nations prepare for war, they are far more likely to go to war. In The Guns of August, her magisterial account of another conflict nobody wanted, Barbara Tuchman attributed the start of World War I in 1914 to French and German plans already in place. “Appalled upon the brink,” she wrote, “the chiefs of state who would be… Read more
The night before boarding a flight home, at the end of a trip that had taken me from D.C. to Taiwan, Japan, Macedonia, Turkey, and back again, I came across a tweet that succinctly crystallized many of the fleeting impressions I had accumulated on the Pacific leg of my journey. The tweet was from Tanner Greer, a brilliant and iconoclastic China scholar, citing a quote about Taiwan sometimes attributed to Kurt Campbell, years before he became President Joe Biden’s chief Asia adviser on the National Security Council: “I thought I was going to find a second Israel; I found a second Costa Rica.”
“Whether Campbell ever said such a thing is beyond the point,” Greer wrote, explaining that he’d heard it from a Taiwanese think-tank associate. “What mattered was that this retired Taiwanese nat/sec official believed he could have said it, and believed the description accurate.”
The point of the anecdote is that the Taiwanese don’t seem to take the threats to their security nearly as seriously as most observers in Washington do. The Taiwanese worry, of course. It’s impossible not to, especially because China has altered the status quo in the Taiwan Strait after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit earlier this year by repeatedly sending fighter jets and frigates far into Taiwan’s territorial waters. But the mood on the island is much more relaxed than the mood in Israel, a country that similarly faces implacable hostility from some of its neighbors. Indeed, the contrast could not be more pronounced.
So what is going on with Taiwan? The two-day conference on nationalism I attended at Sun Yat-sen University, in the southern city of Kaohsiung, provided some clues. In my discussions with Taiwanese scholars, I quickly apprehended that Taiwanese identity is still in flux. This is not to suggest that Taiwan’s identity has not diverged significantly from China’s. Taiwan was long a Chinese backwater, with a distinct frontier culture, before it was ceded by the Qing dynasty to Japan in 1895. Half a century of Japanese colonialism left its mark, as did the subsequent brutal (and only semi-successful) re-Sinification policies of China’s nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek. The advent of democracy in Taiwan in 1996, and its entrenchment since, has only deepened the differences with the mainland.
But the differences are not so cut-and-dried. Spend some time talking with Taiwanese business leaders or policy specialists in the more prosperous north, and Taiwanese identity takes on other valences. Almost no one fully identifies with mainland China, but people believe they understand mainlanders well—certainly better than the panicked West does. There is no way that China’s leader, Xi Jinping, would order an invasion, my fellow visitors and I were repeatedly assured. Such a move would not only be fratricidal; it would be counterproductive—destroying a vital hub in global supply chains that would otherwise fall into China’s lap should peaceful unification happen. One defense expert I spoke with even ruefully floated the idea that Taiwan is a buffer state likely to be drawn into a tragic spiral of escalating tensions between China and the United States as they compete for regional hegemony. He was not quite blaming us Americans for the war that many in Washington think is inevitable—but only just not.
Young people have markedly ambivalent attitudes, too. One researcher at the conference discussed preliminary survey data suggesting that the TikTok generation is developing some cultural affinity for China, especially through a renewed commitment to Mandarin (although it is the island’s official tongue, it competes with several minority languages). Taiwan remains a net exporter of pop culture to the mainland, I was told, but influence is not a one-way street. Dexter Filkins’s recent essay on Taiwan in TheNew Yorker includes a profile of two Taiwanese university students who started a popular satire show on YouTube poking fun at China. As one of them told him: “We don’t feel connected to China, but there is no way that we can say that we are not related to China, because many people’s ancestors are immigrants from there.”
As someone who carefully watches the Russia-Ukraine struggle, I’m struck by the parallels. Taiwan is, in many ways, where Ukraine was before the 2014 conflict started solidifying its national identity well beyond the legacy of the country’s long and complicated history. Like Taiwan, Ukraine has distinguished itself from its antagonistic neighbor by being a liberal democracy. And just as Taiwan’s business class was conflicted about its ties to China, so too did Ukraine’s post-Soviet oligarchs feel equivocal about their links to Russia. And indeed, like the Taiwanese, many Ukrainians were in deep denial about the threat from next door until it was almost too late; despite all the evidence, even President Volodymyr Zelensky was typical of his compatriots who could not bring themselves to believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin would go all in and invade, as he did earlier this year.
Maybe, as in Ukraine, an all-out war with China would make the Taiwanese coalesce in ways that would surprise a visitor to the island today. But the problem for Taiwan is that, unlike Ukraine, it doesn’t have the possibility of trading territory for time, retreating and waiting until the enemy is overextended before delivering deadly counterpunches. Taiwan is more densely populated than anywhere else I’ve ever seen. The seemingly separate cities virtually constitute a single interlocking megalopolis that hugs the entire shoreline facing China. Behind the cities loom steep mountains. There is no equivalent of Poland for Taiwan—nowhere for refugees to flee, and nowhere to stage weapons deliveries.
So the Achilles’ heel of pluralistic democracies like Ukraine and Taiwan may be their inability to see what is staring them in the face, especially when that thing is too horrible to behold. Many Ukrainians (and several Russian liberals I know) found the idea of a fratricidal war like the one Putin unleashed simply inconceivable. Or maybe liberal democracies, which unshackle people to improve their individual lot above all else, just find it hard to price in the part that primal, atavistic impulses play in international relations.
At any rate, this is a reality that the United States faces in Taiwan. Americans, too, must not flinch and think that things are other than they are. Despite what many diplomats, politicians, and pundits say, the U.S. would not fight for Taiwan because it is a democracy. Taiwan would probably be worth defending even if Chiang Kai-shek were still ruling it with a bloody fist. Whether the island sometimes seems ungrateful for American largesse, or is even suspicious that the U.S. will drag it into a conflict it does not want, makes no difference.
To continue with the parallel, the U.S. is helping Ukraine not because it is a democracy, but because it makes sense for us to do so. Ukraine is weakening one of the main revisionist powers in Europe at comparatively low cost to us, and is thus helping lay the groundwork for a lasting security order in Europe. Taiwan is of greater strategic significance to the U.S. than Ukraine will ever be. And unlike aiding Ukraine, defending Taiwan could be much more painful.
What is America’s cost-benefit calculus? I’m up for that debate. But spare me the democratic sentimentalism.
A Pro-China supporter tears a U.S. flag during a protest against Nancy Pelosi on Aug. 3, 2022. | Anthony Kwan/Getty Images
The US-China relationship will continue to deteriorate.
China took several aggressive actions this weekend after Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan, including firing ballistic missiles in Taiwan’s vicinity and sanctioning Pelosi. While the incident may not lead to all-out war, it’s a further step in the dissolution of the relationship between the US and China — and it gives China’s military the training it needs to execute future attacks.
Pelosi is the highest-ranking US official to visit Taiwan since former Speaker Newt Gingrich went in 1997. In the 25 years since, China has grown both its economy and military exponentially. Along with that has come the nation’s desire — and increased capability — to lay claim to Taiwan. Taiwan, which governs itself independently of Beijing under current President Tsai Ing-wen, has increasingly chafed at Beijing’s tactics to “reunify” Taiwan with mainland China.
“There is much to object to in the Chinese behavior, but that said, there are many behaviors that the Chinese object to, that the various stakeholders in the US simply ignore and blow past, and perhaps do so at their peril,” Daniel Russel, vice president of international security and diplomacy at the Asia Institute Policy Institute, told Vox.
Previous administrations practiced “strategic ambiguity,” seeking to reassure Taiwan without inflaming China. In May, Biden pledged that the US would go above and beyond the support it’s already provided for Ukraine should China invade Taiwan, though members of his administration including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin insisted that Biden’s statement was in line with the One China policy — the official acknowledgement that the mainland is China and Beijing is the seat of power.
20 PLA aircraft (SU-30*10, J-16*4, J-11*4, Y-8 ASW and Y-20 Aerial Refueling) and 14 vessels conducted an air-sea operation on the surrounding area of R.O.C on August 6, 2022. Please check our official website for more information: https://t.co/Tj6C1y0WHRpic.twitter.com/apjMe6IYMn
— 國防部 Ministry of National Defense, R.O.C. (@MoNDefense) August 6, 2022
“[The Chinese military is] probably not even halfway through the various things that they have in mind,” Russel told Vox. “I think it’s pretty clear that the Chinese are in the acting out phase, the retaliatory phase, as they characterize it, and they have no interest in being calmed down until they have completed this circuit of punitive measures.”
The ultimate goal, at least when it comes to Taiwan, is not necessarily a military takeover — China is not yet capable of that, Russel said. Instead, every crisis is calibrated “to force Taiwan, essentially, to its knees, to force the leadership of Taiwan to capitulate to the mainland’s terms for political negotiation.”
China’s military might has grown considerably in the past three decades
China has become more aggressive in defending what it sees as its interests in several arenas, including militarily in the South China Sea and with hostile crackdowns against pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong — both of which represent a threat to Taiwan’s democratic system.
China claimed sovereignty over the South China Sea and several islands in the vicinity, including Taiwan, in 1992’s Law on the Territorial Sea. That document also outlines the conditions under which military vessels and aircraft may enter into Chinese territory. Now, 30 years later, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has the means to enforce its sovereignty, and has been doing so with increasingly provocative maritime action, including militarizing islands in the South China Sea
The US maintains that it has significant economic and security interests in the region and routinely conducts freedom of navigation and other exercises there, utilizing military sea and airpower to maintain the freedom of maritime areas. The US also sells weapons systems to Taiwan for defensive purposes per the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, but those capabilities just aren’t in proportion to what China’s military has produced over the past 25 years. Furthermore, as recently as last year both US and Taiwanese stakeholders expressed concern that Taiwan’s military suffered from low morale and readiness among reservists and conscripts. That’s due in part to a lack of funding and a disorganized reserve system, as well as the belief of many Taiwanese that the US will support their military should any major attack occur, according to a Wall Street Journal investigation from last October.
The situation is a far cry from the 1995-1996 crisis in the Taiwan Strait, when a visit by Lee Teng-hui, who would become Taiwan’s first democratically-elected president in 1996, to his alma mater Cornell University, sparked tensions between the US and China. China then deployed missiles and conducted military exercises in Taiwan’s vicinity, but the US was able to fend off those provocations by sending two aircraft carrier groups transiting through the Taiwan Strait.
Since suffering that humiliation, the Chinese government has pushed to create a military capable of facing — and beating — the US in a confrontation. What the People’s Liberation Army is missing is experience in the war zone, Russel told Vox. “They’re practicing, and that is not a good thing for us,” he said. “And it’s the sort of thing that directly remedies the biggest shortcoming of the People’s Liberation Army — namely, that unlike the US military, they haven’t spent the last 50 years at war.” Therefore, Pelosi’s visit was the perfect excuse to gain battlefield experience in the ideal context.
“The Chinese are taking advantage of what they are billing as a provocation,” Russel said. “They’re taking advantage of this to practice things that, in normal circumstances, would be so provocative that they didn’t dare rehearse. So these are joint exercises that are, in effect, dry runs for a military action against Taiwan — whether it’s a blockade, or an attack of another sort.”
Is there a diplomatic solution to the crisis?
There’s no reason to believe that China will launch an all-out amphibious assault on Taiwan at this point, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t currently serious risks.
“In terms of lowering the tension, rule number one: Don’t do anything that makes things worse,” Russel said. But that’s easier said than done when diplomatic relationships that would normally serve to diffuse such tensions are frayed, as they are now. The White House summoned Chinese ambassador Qin Gang on Friday to rebuke him for the military exercises; now, China has called off discussions on other critical topics and its military officials are not responding to the Pentagon’s overtures — increasing the potential for accidents and misinterpretations to spiral out of control.
“You’ve got a lot of US, PRC, and Taiwan assets moving around, in a relatively confined space. In the past there have been accidents where maybe overzealous or inexperienced Chinese pilots have collided with US planes — even much more recently there have been many more examples of very risky maneuvers by Chinese pilots and Chinese ship captains,” Russel said. “So that danger is a real one, and what makes it dangerous is not that a US plane and a Chinese plane could get in an accident, but that the US and China don’t have the mechanisms in place — the relationships, the dialogues, et cetera — that serve to block escalation, to prevent an incident from becoming a crisis, and a crisis leading to conflict.”
A complicating factor seems to be Chinese President Xi Jinping’s need to show force to shore up his power ahead of China’s 20th Party Congress later this year, where major leadership changes will be announced. Michael Raska, an assistant professor at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, told Bloomberg that China’s exercises in the Taiwan Strait are “a show of force that solidifies Xi’s political power at home and paves way for his third-term re-election.”
It’s also a distraction from the fact that “things are going to hell in a hand basket in Xi Jinping’s China,” Russel said. Between limits on technology use, overbearing social control, and major economic issues like a severe housing crisis, Chinese citizens are ridiculing the government’s policies on the social network Weibo — giving Xi every reason to dial up the pressure on Taiwan and the US, Russel said.
China also announced that it would not continue talks with US officials on climate change, one area where the US and China had willingly cooperated until Pelosi’s trip. “Each time there is an event that makes tensions between Washington and Beijing surge, as Nancy Pelosi‘s visit has done, [it] leaves the relationship, when it does calm down, that much worse,” Russel said, noting that Taiwan is not the only issue over which the US and China must negotiate.
“It makes the prospects for of any kind of real progress — not negotiating the fate of Taiwan, but the two major powers on planet Earth learning how to share the globe without blowing it up — makes that mission all the more difficult.”