We all have a responsibility to not give antidemocratic regimes the oxygen and ammunition they need to swindle the international community, writes J. Michael Cole.
By J. Michael Cole, May 20, 2021
With the Biden administration making it perfectly clear that the US remains fully committed to ensuring that Taiwan can withstand pressure from authoritarian China – and that, in fact, it will likely double down on its engagement with Asia’s most vibrant democracy – various commentators in the US and elsewhere have renewed their calls for the abandonment of Taiwan. Based on assessments that China is on the rise and that the US is on an inevitable decline, they argue that the US and its allies within the democratic world should not do anything that risks dragging their countries into a war with China for the sake of preserving Taiwan’s sovereignty, system of governance, and way of life.
Leading the charge for abandonment are the usual suspects: George Washington University’s Charles L. Glaser, Australian National University’s Hugh White, the US Naval War College’s Lyle J. Goldstein, and a few others. They tend to either approach the question from a balance-of-power point of view or from a more leftist perspective, in which Taiwan is a legacy of the Cold War and a mere tool for the American Right, the military industrial complex, and, as the Quincy Institute would have us believe, purported US imperial ambitions.
To be clear, China is being the aggressor. It’s China that threatens war over Taiwan, decapitation of its leadership, and “all necessary measures” to punish the island-nation’s foreign minister; it’s China that has sent several dozen aircraft into Taiwan’s Air Defence Identification Zone over the past 18 months; and it’s China that, over the past decades, has spent billions and billions of dollars acquiring and developing the military wherewithal to attack its peaceful neighbour. Yet, according to the proponents of abandonment, it’s Taiwan and its supporters who are the hawks, the warmongers. And if not that, then they are unreasonable idealists, overly emotional types who are blinded to the necessary pragmatism.
What most if not all of these commentators have in common is their tendency to completely deny the 23.5 million people of Taiwan any say, any agency, in all of this. Their core argument, furthermore, is underpinned by old and by now altogether debunked assumptions about China’s intentions accompanied by a downright naive and ill-informed understanding of the nature, ideology, and ambitions of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). All tend to downplay the impact that abandoning Taiwan would have on regional stability, asserting that following China’s annexation of Taiwan, countries like Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Singapore, Vietnam and more distant Australia would understand that Taiwan wasn’t all that important to US interests but that they are. In other words, Washington’s willingness to obliterate decades of security commitments to an ally would somehow not cause apprehension in other capitals in Asia as those countries feared that they might be the next ones to be sacrificed at the altar of great power competition.
Many who argue for abandonment tend to have a very weak understanding of Taiwan, the history of the conflict in the Taiwan Strait, and the increasingly important role that this vibrant economy and successful democracy plays in the 21st century. Most of them write as if they’ve never set foot in Taiwan – and indeed, some never have. It is easy for them, therefore, to deprive Taiwan of its humanity and turn it into an abstract concept that can be simply shuffled around on a grand chessboard.
This poor understanding of history allows those favouring abandonment to regard Taiwan as unfinished business in a family quarrel, and to regurgitate Beijing’s misleading propaganda that claims that Taiwan is, and always was, part of China and therefore its future is an “internal matter” in which outside forces should not meddle. Whether by design or ignorance, these commentators tend to parrot Beijing’s contention that other countries must abide by a “one China” principle. They appear to ignore the much more ambiguous language contained in the agreement signed between them and the People’s Republic of China upon recognition of that state – that is, their “one China” policy, which, on the whole, merely “takes note of” or “acknowledges” Beijing’s claim that there is only “one China” and that Taiwan is part of China.
Rather than risk war with a supposedly implacable China, those favouring the abandonment of Taiwan argue that all security guarantees and all arms sales to Taiwan should cease, and Taiwan should be “ceded” to Beijing. Some of them, even in the face of the debacle in Hong Kong and mass incarcerations in Xinjiang, still seem to believe that under the “one country, two systems” formula, China would respect Taiwan’s way of life, political institutions, and that it would not deploy the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on its territory.
Such an arrangement, as Goldstein argues without any shred of evidence in his 2015 book Meeting China Halfway, would be “substantially more accommodating than that arranged with Hong Kong,” constituting “a generous arrangement amounting to very substantial autonomy.” As Peter Neville-Hadley observed in his review of Goldstein’s book in the Wall Street Journal, Goldstein’s account “sometimes unquestionably reproduces Chinese narratives of dubious accuracy.” Others, while conceding that “one country, two systems” is no longer an option, nevertheless argue that some “Greater Chinese Union,” as Gareth Evans and Linda Jakobson propose, would be a viable alternative. (It is telling that Evans, citing a proposal he and Jakobson made back in 2004, still believe that such an arrangement is possible under the drastically changed conditions today.)
Such naivety raises serious questions about the qualifications and scholarship of those making such assertions. It is impossible to imagine that, once having annexed Taiwan and busted its ramparts as a key element within the First Island Chain, Beijing would leave it undefended. The logic of empire being what it is, the acquisition of new territory is inevitably followed by the securitization and militarization of that real estate, which in turn cannot but alarm neighbours, spark a security dilemma, and lead to an arms race.
Glaser, for example, argues that conventional and nuclear US forces in the region, such as submarines, maritime patrol aircraft, and surveillance ships, would successfully prevent China threatening the West Pacific and the Second Island Chain. The notion that China would react passively to such military activity near what by then would be part of its territory simply baffles the mind. As does the notion that countries like Japan and the United States – their flanks and their sea lines of communication, crucial to their ability to move cargo and ensure energy security, now directly threatened by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and exposed to a Chinese embargo – would not adjust to this new geopolitical reality by increasing their military presence in the region. The occupation of Taiwan would have similarly destabilizing repercussions on the South China Sea, where China is locked in territorial disputes with a number of regional claimants. It would also further expose the highly strategic Pacific Islands, which constitute one of the new battlefields for the contest of influence between the West and a resurgent China.
Additionally, advocates for the abandonment of Taiwan assume that the Taiwanese, who shed authoritarianism in the 1980s and built a highly successful democracy, would sit on the sidelines while their country was taken over by a despotic regime. As anyone who has any knowledge of the conditions in Taiwan and the strong attachment its people have to their democratic way of life would know, we can expect no such passivity on the part of the Taiwanese. Instead, rather than “peaceful unification” following abandonment, the Chinese would be confronted with an insurrection, which in turn would compel Beijing to break its “promise” to not militarize the island by sending either the PLA or the People’s Armed Police. Thousands of arrests and quite possibly a bloodbath would be the result.
It is also hard to swallow the argument that abandoning Taiwan to its fate would somehow fix the West’s problem with China under Xi Jinping. It is already perfectly clear that China is on a trajectory that has bucked all academic assumptions about the rise of a middle class and the attendant democratization of that country. Instead, China has accumulated power so as to challenge the longstanding Western-led liberal order and its institutions. More than ever, as part of an axis of revisionist, repressive states like Russia and Iran, it has drawn the contours of a clash of ideologies on a global scale – a new cold war that forces all of us to choose sides.
The abandonment of one of Asia’s great success stories in democratization, of a country whose economy is increasingly important to ongoing efforts to build a new global supply chain as an alternative to the current one (which has become unhealthily reliant on a mercantilist authoritarian giant), would be as foolish as it would be self-defeating. Not only would abandoning Taiwan be morally wrong and risk fuelling fears of similar abandonment in other countries that fall within China’s coveted “sphere of influence,” it would also demonstrate collective weakness in the face of aggression. It would reward rules-breaking and belligerence, empowering a political party that not only represses its own people, but that, arguably, constitutes the greatest danger to international stability and the rules-based order.
As they choose their positions in this world of great power rivalry, Taiwan’s neighbours need to realize that helping Taiwan deter Chinese aggression, and getting involved in defending Taiwan should that deterrence fail, isn’t simply an exercise in altruism. More than ever, countering the CCP’s darker ambitions and, where possible, encouraging the better angels of its nature, is also a rational decision for each to make in the interest of their own national security. Whatever their motives, advocates of Taiwan’s abandonment seek to constrain our imagination. They want us to believe, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that we live in a fantastical world of a China that never came to be, and that this imagined China would remain even after the monumental folly that would be the “gifting” of Taiwan to the PRC.
It’s easy to see parallels with another dark period in history, when, like today, totalitarian regimes perceived a moment of weakness and saw an opportunity to rewrite the global map, which led to years of calamity. Such analogies are not an attempt to equate the CCP to Nazism, which critics of those who argue for Taiwan’s defence, crying foul, often accuse us of. Yet, we have a sound understanding of the dynamics that drive authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, and of the psychology that drives closed regimes to attempt conquest. Armed with such knowledge, the least we can do is to seek to avoid committing the same mistakes that, in the past, led to catastrophe – for those whose freedoms were traded by the great powers at the time, and eventually, when the appeasement of tyranny failed, for all involved.
Ignored for far too long, the Taiwan Strait is once again one of the world’s most dangerous flash points. It is also a frontline in a new clash of ideologies on a planetary scale, one that will have repercussions for much of the 21st century. The recent calls to abandon Taiwan – regurgitations of arguments that the said authors have been making for a decade – are a reminder that our media, academic institutions, think tanks, and politicians have a responsibility to know their subject if we are collectively to make enlightened decisions.
Because the Taiwan Strait is attractive as a newsworthy topic, we’ve seen the emergence of instantaneous “Taiwan experts” who have not done their homework, who do not understand who they are dealing with in Beijing, and, far too often, who cannot be bothered to closely study the increasingly complex place that is Taiwan. In most cases, their errors are unintentional, the result of the empowerment provided by the Internet, blogs, YouTube, and so on. In other cases, commentators have ulterior motives and a few have questionable ties to the CCP. Whatever the case, we can be sure that the CCP, along with its proxies in the West and elsewhere, will seize upon every bad take and amplify it to serve its own agenda. We all have a responsibility to not give antidemocratic regimes the oxygen and ammunition they need to swindle the international community.
Michael Cole is a Taipei-based senior fellow with the Global Taiwan Institute in Washington, D.C., and the Macdonald-Laurier Institute in Ottawa, Canada. He is a former intelligence officer with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.