By Eli Kravinsky ’24; Image by The Times
24 million people in Taiwan live under the constant threat of foreign invasion and occupation. Taiwan is a prosperous, vibrant, and democratic society. The one-party state 100 miles to its West, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), routinely threatens the use of military force to, in its own words, “reunify it with the motherland”.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) relies on several historical falsehoods to justify its aggressive stance. It’s important to correct these narratives not only because they are empirically false but also because the policies they justify are harmful not only to Taiwan but to the international community. The Chinese government claims that Taiwan is its rightful territory because Taiwan was once considered part of the Chinese Qing dynasty. While it’s true that Taiwan was a peripherally settled colony of the Qing, it’s absurd to insist that this fact means Taiwan ‘belongs’ to China. This same logic would insist that the United Kingdom rightfully owns the modern U.S. It’s even more absurd when one considers that the modern-day PRC claims Taiwan but has abandoned other Qing-era claimed territories, such as the Russian Far East. One should also consider that the Qing was a ‘foreign’ dynasty in that its ruling class were ethnic Manchu peoples. Much of what we consider China today, along with Taiwan and other independent nations, were essentially imperial subjects of the Manchus. One might as well claim that Ireland belongs to the U.S. because both nations were part of the British Empire. Likewise, the CCP claims the right to annex Taiwan against its will due to the fact that many Taiwanese are ethnically Chinese. Again, this ignores the fact that a significant proportion of Taiwanese have indigenous Austronesian heritage, and furthermore ethnicity does not equal citizenship. This attitude is exactly the same chauvinism that drove Russia to brutally invade Ukraine. Studying Chinese and Taiwanese history in comparison proves that the two societies have had significantly divergent experiences which is reflected in the attitude of the Taiwanese public.
Opinion polls routinely show that only a tiny minority of Taiwanese citizens desire unification with China; in recent years around 7%. Objectively, Taiwan is already a de-facto sovereign and independent state in all but one factor: international recognition. Taiwan has its own government, police and armed forces, but is formally recognized by a minority of states. However, many countries do not recognize Taiwan due to threats and inducements from China, which seeks to isolate Taiwan internationally. Many states, including the U.S., have informal relations with Taiwan just below the threshold of formal recognition. Taiwan is already a sovereign, independent nation; China, and some of the rest of the world, just need to wake up to this fact.
While many downplay the risk of a Chinese attempt to annex Taiwan, all available evidence shows that the threat is credible. The Chinese military, or People’s Liberation Army (PLA), openly claims that accomplishing this very task is the goal of its modernization program. It constantly rehearses for invading Taiwan, sending huge numbers of warships and aircraft to harass the Taiwanese armed forces. The PLA would likely not spend billions of yuan on fighter jets, missiles, and transport vessels if it did not intend to use them. It even fired missiles over Taiwan itself in August of last year to show its displeasure at the U.S. House Speaker Pelosi’s visit. North Korea exhibits the same behavior and is a pariah state, while China avoids similar judgment. Beyond military preparations, the CCP and its leader-for-life, Xi Jinping, clearly stake their legitimacy on successfully conquering Taiwan. We should take China at its word – and actions – and take their threats to Taiwan as credible. CCP propaganda on Taiwan takes a bloodthirsty tone, advocating to liu dao, bu liu ren: preserve the island but not the people. This rhetoric, which endorses the occupation of Taiwan at the expense of butchering the Taiwanese people, is reminiscent of similar threats throughout history which precede atrocities. Some might say that interstate warfare is impossible today given the interconnected global economy. Similar claims were made – and then shattered – before Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, and even before the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Both examples also show that rationality is no guard against such catastrophes. Just like Russia has, China may launch a war against Taiwan even if doing so devastates both nations and sends shockwaves throughout the rest of the world.
Even if one agrees that the threat of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan is credible, one must also examine why external actors should care. It’s important to note that Taiwan produces nearly all of the world’s supply of advanced semiconductor chips. Any conflict could destroy this complex industry and drive the global economy to a halt. While this is an extremely significant motivator, Taiwan is worth defending for its own sake and for the principle it stands for. Taiwan is a free and open society and deserves to chart its own path. No matter what the CCP wants, we should do everything we can to preserve Taiwan’s freedom. If the rest of the world stands by as the PRC swallows Taiwan, it will conclusively destroy the principles of state sovereignty and national self-determination. These principles have led to an enormous flourishing of peace and liberty globally throughout history, but are increasingly under threat. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has chipped away at them, and a Chinese takeover of Taiwan would lead to a much more repressive and much more conflicted world, where the great powers impose their will on smaller states. While the U.S. has much to atone for in its conduct internationally, it has an opportunity with Taiwan to use its capabilities for good.
The only way to prevent an invasion of Taiwan is to enhance Taiwan’s defenses so that it is unconquerable. Doing so could deter a Chinese invasion or at least ensure its failure. The CCP has made clear it will accept no compromise regarding Taiwan. Its promise to allow limited Taiwanese self-governance under Chinese control are proven false by its brutal crackdown on Hong Kong’s free way of life. Despite promising to Hong Kong itself, the U.K., and implicitly the international community that it would respect Hong Kong’s democratic society for at least 50 years, it reneged on that promise and essentially turned the city into a police state after less than 25. Arming Taiwan furthers its own self-defense; Taiwan is a small and democratic state with no offensive designs on its neighbors. Taiwan purchases nearly all of the arms it receives from the U.S.; taxpayers bear no cost. Likewise, sending Taiwan existing but unused stocks of U.S. weapons systems would be an essentially free way of upgrading Taiwan’s defensive capabilities. The ideal world would be entirely disarmed, but as we live in a world where no international government can restrain aggressive powers, we need to aid the defense of states under such threat.
This threat is very real and so are the consequences of failing to take it seriously. Other states such as Europe vacillate on aiding Taiwan defend itself, but regional actors such as Japan and Korea feel the pressure of Chinese adventurism and do what they can to counter it alongside Taiwan. However, only the U.S. can ensure that Taiwan will remain able to enjoy its sovereignty. This challenge requires incredible revolt and ingenuity to tackle. The nuts and bolts of exactly how to do so are highly complex and too much for one blog post. If we make clear our resolve to defend Taiwan’s – and the world’s – right to determine its own path, then we can rise to this historical challenge.