Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Four Remarks on the Future of Taiwan


1.      Appeasement-Talk is Amoral and Dangerous

The American Conservative – one of the handful of indy media sites that’s unorthodox enough to be worth paying attention to these days – has for some time been publishing a chain of articles, by several different authors, converging on a new foreign policy idea – that the United States should respect Chinese ownership of Taiwan.

To be fair, TAC is not a monoculture, and not everyone there is in agreement on the matter; even so, it is hard not to notice the implications when somebody equates President Biden’s decision to stop interfering with the new gas pipeline between Germany and Russia with President Nixon’s decision, back in the 1970s, to cozy up to Red China by gradually drawing down America’s military and diplomatic ties with Taiwan. The reasoning here is that both are examples of a US president respecting another nation’s sovereignty.

Yet this idea that Taiwan and mainland China are parts of the same country, despite being written into countless official pronouncements and repeated endlessly by both the Communist government and its bootlickers, simply isn’t true. It is a piece of newspeak, a statement that people repeat for political reasons even though they all know it doesn’t match the situation on the ground.

(The rule here at Twilight Patriot is that if a territory is controlled and administrated by a government other than the one which the United Nations or whoever says ought to control it, I go with the situation on the ground. The Crimea is a part of Russia; Taiwan is not a part of China; it really is that simple.)

So while the Chinese Communist Party may breathe out threats against anyone who tries to “split China,” in reality, it was Chairman Mao who split Taiwan from the rest of the country way back in 1949, when he set up a new government on the mainland while failing to eliminate the rump of the old government on Taiwan.

Now, it’s one thing to claim that America’s promises to defend Taiwan are impractical; it’s another thing to actually sympathize with Chinese imperialism. Because – let’s be honest here – if a historical connection between two functionally independent states was justification for the larger one to conquer and occupy the smaller one, then we would have to say that a British invasion of Ireland, or a Russian invasion of Finland, or a German invasion of Austria, is an ‘internal affair’ from which other countries should remain aloof.

Nobody thinks that way, except with China and Taiwan. Which shows that the ideology that the American Conservative is warming up to – which has also been the ideology of the UN for almost 50 years – isn’t really about sovereign nations respecting one another’s rights. It’s just an ideology of appeasement.

To be clear, I don’t think that it is a good idea for the United States to try to police the world. At the same time, I do believe that men and nations have a duty to keep their promises.

And keeping promises is the key issue here, because over the last half-century, the US has intentionally kept Taiwan in a state of dependence, by making lavish promises of protection while sternly discouraging Taiwan from doing anything to actually make itself stronger, such as developing a nuclear weapon or formally declaring its independence (rather than continuing to officially be a rival government of China).

But the trouble with maintaining Taiwan in an intentional state of weakness and dependency was that, when keeping America’s lavish promises started looking dangerous, the idea that America simply shouldn’t keep them started going mainstream. To say that the Chinese leadership has noticed such changes in rhetoric, and is growing emboldened by the knowledge that the US is either indecisive, or is just planning on walking away when the going gets tough, is simple common sense.

So while I sympathize with people who want to see the US withdraw its navy from the Asian coast (our empire really is declining, and what can’t be sustained, won’t be sustained) I also think that the good old virtues of prudence and honesty demand a more nuanced approach to Taiwan than simple abandonment.

At the present moment, I think that the best US policy for the near future would consist of unlimited arms sales, non-interference in the event that Taiwan revives its nuclear program, and keeping up “strategic ambiguity” for as long as possible.

2.     Most Taiwanese Aren’t Taking This Seriously Enough

In the event that the Chinese choose to invade Taiwan without using nuclear weapons – and for a number of reasons, they probably won’t use any – the tactical and geographic situation actually favors the defender.

On China’s side, simply having a lot more bodies to throw around isn’t going to cut it. History is full of examples of a determined sea power with good natural defenses repelling a vastly more numerous invasion force from a land empire – just think of Xerxes in Greece, or Kublai Khan in Japan.

Amphibious assaults are hard. The biggest one in history, Operation Overlord, only worked because most of the German forces were tied down on the Eastern Front. And if the Chinese invade Taiwan, they will have to cross a wider, rougher stretch of water than Eisenhower’s men did, and they will have to do it while being fired on by missiles and artillery far more accurate than anything available in 1944.

While China has more combat aircraft than Taiwan, these are, for the most part, lightly modified versions of the same Russian export planes that got shot down by the bushel in the Arab-Israeli wars. Taiwan’s main fighter is the F-16, designed at the peak of American technical excellence.

To guard against a sneak-attack, Taiwan’s aircraft are kept in vast, nuclear-proof underground hangars, each connected to multiple redundant runways by steel blast doors. Similar fortifications protect the hundreds of cruise missiles aimed at Beijing and Shanghai, missiles which may well be Taiwan’s best line of defense. These days, everybody with his eyes open knows that the China’s ruling class, despite its vestigial commitment to “socialism,” is mainly interested in commerce, and airstrikes against a country’s financial centers are bad for commerce.

Nice central business district you’ve got there. It would be a pity if something were to happen to it….

For Taiwan, the hedgehog strategy is a winner. So long as the goal is not to occupy Beijing, but simply to do enough damage that China would have gained nothing by attacking, the Chinese numerical advantage isn’t really that big of a deal.

But… there’s also this. Really, you should read the article yourself – it was written by Tanner Greer, a sinologist who has spent a lot of time living in both mainland China and Taiwan, and it really changed my thinking about the whole matter.

Anyone can look at Wikipedia and see that Taiwan’s military spending is only 1.9 percent of GDP. (For comparison, America’s is 3.7, and Taiwan has repeatedly spurned US pressure to get its own figure up to 3.0.) Obviously, this isn’t a good sign, though to really get a feel for what’s going on, you’ve got to hear it from a man who’s been on the ground there.

Taiwan has universal conscription; the usual term of service is four months. During that time, according to Greer’s account, young Taiwanese men will, at most, fire ten magazines from their rifles. They will learn to navigate with their cell phones and take orders through WhatsApp. On some days, they’ll be kept busy doing yard work for somebody higher up in the chain of command.

Most of these young men go into the service excited to do their part to defend their country. Most of them leave demoralized and quite uninterested in a military career. Even the minority that do stay rarely become competent soldiers; Greer mentions meeting a (professional, not conscript) artillery observer who has never seen his weapon fired, and an infantry officer who had to travel to Thailand on his own dime to get basic TCCC training.

Greer also discusses deeper issues related to Taiwan’s tangled socio-political history, and how the shocking degree of thuggery with which the army kept the population in line during the Chiang Kai-Shek years (Taiwan didn’t actually become a functioning democracy until the 1980s) ruined the Taiwanese people’s ability to have a high degree of trust in, and support for, their military, even when it’s clear to everyone that a strong military is what they desperately need.

The main different between Greer’s take on the matter and my own is that Greer writes from the assumption that Taiwan’s battle plan should basically be: ‘hold off the invasion force until the Americans arrive,’ whereas I’m too pessimistic to include the Americans. Though it is still interesting to note that Greer finishes his piece by recommending that, unless the Taiwanese get their act together sometime soon, US officials should stop promising to defend their country.

3.     Taiwan is Preparing for the Wrong Kind of War

But let’s go even further. Try to forget, for the moment, about Taiwan’s internal weaknesses, and just consider things from the Chinese point of view. Imagine that you work for the Politburo and have been tasked with drawing up a plan for “reunification.” What options would you consider?

You could invade Taiwan – and give the Taiwanese the kind of war that they have, however half-heartedly, been preparing for all their lives. Naturally, this sort of action carries heavy risks – to begin with, there are all those cruise missiles pointed at the mainland, and there’s also the fact that even though the “international community” pays lip service to your claim that Taiwan is a rebel province, pretty-much all of your country’s major trading partners still think that the “dispute” with Taiwan should be resolved peacefully.

And there’s also the fact that Taiwan has a lot of economically valuable infrastructure – such as the factories that supply most of the world’s microprocessors. If those got destroyed, then a lot of people would probably yell at you.

But invasion isn’t your only option – you could also blockade Taiwan. Since Taiwan is basically a merchant state which only grows one-third of its own food, the “breakaway province” would be quite vulnerable to this sort of thing. And rather than taking a long and hard look at this vulnerability, it appears that Taiwan’s leadership hasn’t even studied the logistical challenges of surviving a blockade.

Then add in the apathy and defeatism that dominates Taiwanese culture, and I think it’s fair to say that when put to the test, the Taiwanese will probably prove willing to accept the same status as Hong Kong if that’s what it takes to have a normal economy again.

In the past, China wasn’t ready to do this, because America and its allies still had too much economic power and naval power. But that is changing: In 2000, China was the world’s sixth largest economy; now, it is vying with the United States for first place. (If you look only at industrial output, and exclude America’s vast troves of hallucinatory paper wealth, then China is already in first place).

And China also has a larger navy, as well as hypersonic cruise missiles, purchased from the Russians, which can sink enemy surface ships up to a thousand miles offshore.

If the Americans had to choose between fighting a naval war with China, or simply saying something along the lines of “we agreed to the One-China Policy back in 1979 and we still stand by it today” and then “advising” Taiwan to “accept the inevitable,” is it really that hard to figure out which option they would choose?

(And remember that it isn’t just American lives that are on the line. The Yankees also care about next month’s shipment of microprocessors arriving on time, and the CPC will, of course, see to it that this can still happen, once “One Country, Two Systems” has been accepted by all sides.)

Now the next question: switching perspectives back to Taiwan, is there any way to fight this?

Even if the Taiwanese worked up the courage to get themselves some nuclear weapons, that alone would not suffice. When the Chinese Navy has surrounded your island and, without firing a shot, stopped the traffic of merchant ships to Taipei (since nobody will insure them anymore) what are you going to do? Drop a nuke on Beijing? Do you really think that this will make the situation better and not worse?

The only response I can think of is for the Taiwanese to have (1) several years’ worth of food and other supplies squirrelled away underneath their mountains, (2) A thousand or so long-range hypersonic missiles with which they can threaten to destroy China’s merchant shipping if China interferes with theirs, (3) an indigenous capacity to build and launch the satellites that will be needed to target the missiles, and (4) the willingness to sacrifice their wealth and comforts and endure years of hardship rather than lose their liberties.

Taiwan doesn’t have these things. To the extent that they do prepare for war, the Taiwanese are preparing for the wrong kind of war – a war where their enemies attack on the beaches with guns blazing, and the whole world then denounces them as beasts and comes to Taiwan’s aid.

Hence my belief that, when the day comes to deal with the “breakaway province,” China will start off with sanctions or a blockade rather than an unnecessary, high-risk beach war.

4.    Not with a Bang, but with a Whimper

Americans of a certain stripe often complain that China’s threats against Taiwan are part of an assault on the “global rules-based order.” Which to any Chinese patriot just comes across as pure hypocrisy – after all, according to the “rules” officially subscribed to by the UN, the US, and every other country more populous than Guatemala, Taiwan belongs to the People’s Republic of China.

No doubt my readers have heard the saying, “with friends like these, who needs enemies?” Indeed, it is hard to say whether Taiwan should be more frightened by China itself, or by the obsequious bootlicking of the “international community.”

After all, the architects of the “rules-based order” are, by and large, the same people who decided that, since big countries are more important than small countries, it is within China’s rights to declare that Taiwan can’t use its own flag and anthem at the Olympics, or be a member of international organizations like the UN, IMF, and WHO, and that these organizations must pepper their reports with lengthy footnotes explaining that treating “Taiwan Province of China” as a separate “statistical area” does not imply political legitimacy.

Americans in particular like to think of their country as Taiwan’s faithful ally; in reality the relationship is tepid at best. Arms purchases are touch and go; Taiwan can buy F-16s, but only in some years, while F-15s are always off-limits. Taiwan can have GPS-guided artillery, but not the most accurate kind. Modern submarines have always been a no-no; hence, Taiwan is still using submarines left over from World War II. Middle-eastern despotates like Turkey and Saudi Arabia have a much easier time buying weapons from Uncle Sam.

When Donald Trump accepted a congratulatory phone call from Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-Wen shortly after winning the White House back in 2016, most of his advisors said things to the effect of, “Once you are president, you must never do that again.” And once he was president, he never did it again.

If the Taiwanese leadership was more level-headed, they would admit to themselves that a nation too cautious to take a phone call from their president is probably too cautious to take their side in a war. And they would likely look to Israel as an example of what a small nation should do when it is surrounded by enemies who insult its right to exist, and when its pretended allies have shown themselves to be fair-weather friends only.

Israel outsources its defense to nobody. To begin with, military spending makes up a much larger share of Israel’s government budget than Taiwan’s. Also, Israel’s conscription term is longer, and its training regimen is not a joke.

Unlike Taiwan, Israel has acquired nuclear weapons. Was the “international community” upset about this? You bet. When Mordecai Vanunu, who worked in the Israeli nuclear program, absconded to England in 1986 and revealed its secrets to the western press, there were great howls of outrage, and other countries put all kinds of pressure on Israel to stop.

The next month, Vanunu went vacationing in Italy with his new girlfriend, only to discover that said girlfriend was actually a Mossad agent. By the time he woke up from the drugs, he was already aboard a destroyer bound for Haifa. The Israeli nuclear program continued unabated, and Vanunu himself was tried for treason and sentenced to 18 years in prison. He had learned, a little too late, the same lesson Eichmann learned a quarter century earlier – that Israel’s arm is very long.

Taiwan had a similar experience in 1988 when Colonel Chang Hsien-Yi betrayed the Taiwanese nuclear program to the United States. Ronald Reagan angrily demanded that Taiwan cancel the program; Taiwan complied, and Chang Hsien-Yi has been living as a free man in the US to this day.

In short, Israel’s actions, unlike Taiwan’s, are the actions of a people with the will to survive.

(To be honest, you don’t even need to look at Taiwan’s military weakness to see that this trait is largely absent there; the fertility rate of 1.07 should be enough to clue you in. Someone needs to tell all those young Taiwanese professionals that, no matter how many computer chips or even fighter jets they make, if they can’t also make the beast with two backs, their country doesn’t have much of a future).

In a sense, it isn’t really fair to compare Israel and Taiwan. Israel has never been a military dictatorship, and it doesn’t suffer from Taiwan’s lack of social trust. Nor has any generation of Israelis ever grown up under the boot of a one-party state, or learned to despise their country’s armed forces as the henchmen of an illiberal order.

Instead, Israel was settled by Zionists who had devoted their lives to the dream of building a strong Jewish state, followed by a big wave of European Jews who had just become bitterly acquainted with the consequences of being weak. Thus is explained Israel’s undying desire to be stronger than its enemies – a desire which cuts across all domestic factions.

So it is, perhaps, unfair to hold Taiwan to Israel’s standards. But the new international order that China is building around itself doesn’t care about fairness, it only cares about strength.

Ideally, the people in Taiwan right now would be looking at the video of those Afghans falling out of the wheel well of the C-17 in Kabul and saying: “This is us if we continue to rely on the Americans for protection.” And then they would go out and make the necessary changes to allow their country to outlast a blockade, or repel a beach invasion, or respond in kind to a nuclear strike.

But I remain pessimistic. My prediction is that, sometime in the next decade or two, Taiwan’s experiment with democratic government will end, not with a bang, but with a whimper.


  1. This addresses the trickiest problem facing the US: what to do if China decides to forcibly incorporate Taiwan?

    There is no good answer. Even if the US were a strong, healthy, militarily-powerful nation -- which is less and less the case -- it would be tricky.

    In the late 1950s, the US had a somewhat similar dilemma in Europe: if the Soviets invaded with conventional forces, they would win. But we had the nuclear option and we said we would use it. However ... would we really have used it? Would we potentially trade Detroit for Tallin? A Soviet leader who was a gambler -- meet Nikita Khruschev might decide we were bluffing. So ... we built up our conventional forces so that they were at least a credible deterrent to the Soviets. That option is not available now.

    The Taiwanese should understand that the US will probably not come to their aid militarily, should the Chinese decide to reclaim what they see as their lost province. This means, as the author notes, making some hard choices about their own self-defence.

    A friend of mine in Taiwan reports that many Taiwanese are developing close economic ties with the mainland, and thus developing a sympathetic attitude to it as well: the heart follows the purse. If the Chinese government is smart it will just wait and hope that the Taiwanese, in their majority, start to want some sort of new relationship with the mainland, although China's recent actions in Hong Kong will make it difficult to pull the 'one nation, two systems' trick off again.

    As for the US, as it declines, its foreign policy demands on other countries will seem more and more grotesque: our State Department lecturing the victorious Taliban about how they have not included enough women in the government to satisfy us is only the latest example. He who wills the end must have the means ... and increasingly, we do not have the means.

    Hopefully, our rulers will stop interfering in other nations' affairs, and concentrate on enforcing diversity and inclusion in our armed forces.

    That's a battle they can probably win, because they will have the social equivalent of the Second Law of Thermodynamics on their side.

    1. I agree with pretty-much everything you say here - and I admit that when I wrote this I was not thinking much about the increasing trade/economic ties between the ROC and PRC. You are of course right that it is a bad idea to become economically intertwined with a country that doesn't acknowledge your right to exist - can you imagine Israel allowing Iran to become its biggest trading partner while continuing to hold regular "Death to Israel" rallies? Neither can I.

    2. I'm not sure I agree with that. Economic interdependence cuts both ways: if China decided to take Taiwan by force, it would have no access to anything produced in Taiwan while the war is going on, and would probably end up destroying most of Taiwan's industrial infrastructure in the process, meaning it could be years before the computer chips, for example, produced in Taiwan would be available again. That's going to be another deterrent.

    3. William, I addressed that issue in Section 3 of my post. In short, I don't believe that China is going to invade Taiwan with guns blazing. Economic ties indeed cut both ways, but you've got to remember that Taiwan's economy is much smaller and more dependent on imports than China's, and thus Taiwan has a lot more to lose from economic warfare. Hence me belief that the most likely way for the situation to be resolved is that China uses blockades and/or sanctions to forcibly absorb Taiwan with little or no overt violence.

  2. Good morning Allen. It's raining and cold here. But the Braves did win last night and are up 2 to 1 in the World Series. Hope the weather is better there and things are good with you and Jan.

    Regarding the Taiwan - Cuba swap we've been discussing, as always your points are sound. Every point, from Taiwan's fear of self-defense to the willingness of the Quad to actually commit the lives of their citizens to protect the Taiwanese, and the difficulty for the US to fight a war on the other side of the world being both military and political suicide. Especially since the US has no treaty obligation to actually "fight" to defend Taiwan and has lost its last two war games there. 

    So all of that coupled with the US's new diplomatic position to recognize China's 'One United Country' stance would appear to make a fighting war over Taiwan unlikely, despite biden's misstatements to defend Taiwan.

    As for the Taiwan/ Cuba swap and whether Russia's gains (if any) would be adequate to garner Russia's participation, please consider these points:

    1. The biden administration has already given Russia a great inducement to participate by lifting the ban on the oil and gas pipeline into Europe via Germany. That's a huge economic boon for Russia and a tremendous loss for America's economy.

    2. The ever-increasing military and economic cooperation between Russia and China grow more apparent every day. Russia, via China, now has unobstructed access to Afghanistan's natural resources. And their first-time joint military maneuvers in the sea of Japan were widely publicized as a potential new threat to global peace. 

    3. The enormous (if phony) global goodwill gained by the three nations if such a trade were achieved. And,

    4. Russia's financial savings if it we're able to extricate itself from Cuba. All lead me to easily visualize a swap over a war.

    As I've mentioned, I think the swap would happen after the Chines sponsored Olympics in February and before China's November elections. War with Taiwan before the Olympics or X's re-election in November would be bad for China and X's public appearance. But a reunification of Taiwan just before China's November 2022 elections would be excellent PR for X, biden, and Putin. 

    Of course, this is all speculation. But I humbly submit, the idea makes more sense than a multi-nation war over a politically split Taiwan

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.