Taiwan Could Heat Up Our Cold War
By Brendan Wilson
While the world dozed, Asia’s sleeping giant awoke and began closing the gap on American global supremacy. We now find ourselves embroiled in a 21st century Cold War against an adversary more economically powerful than our previous foe.
This standoff is different. Marshall and Kissinger never had to deal with insidious cyber espionage, intellectual property theft, or economic interdependence that renders once resolute allies less reliable. But the biggest issue threatening hot war is not trade, technology or Xi Jinping Pooh Bear memes; it is a small island in the Pacific roughly the size of Maryland.
Though miniscule, Taiwan has had an outsized impact on Asia’s balance of power. For decades, Beijing has proclaimed that nations could have relations with China or Taiwan, but not both. Intent on humbling China, President Trump pursued unprecedented diplomatic engagement with Taipei. He further ruffled dragon scales by authorizing the sale of $17 billion in F-16 fighter jets and defensive weapons to Taiwan's military.
Recent actions taken by the incoming administration indicate that support for Taiwan represents the sole glimmer of bipartisan cooperation in Washington. President Biden responded to Chinese fighter jets buzzing the island as if it were a control tower in Top Gun by conducting naval war drills near the Taiwan Strait. In his first week in office, he declared that America’s support of Taiwan was “rock solid.”
Given all this, one could reasonably conclude that America counts Taiwan as a strong ally and vigorously supports its independence, yet neither is true. To understand the role played by this small island in this geopolitical drama, we look back to its complicated history.
For centuries, Taiwan was ignored by China as an indigenous outpost populated by blood thirsty headhunters and Japanese pirates - a deadly fusion of Tortuga and Where the Wild Things Are. In the 17th century, China’s Qing Dynasty settled the island, but lost it to Japan in 1895 after being routed in the First Sino-Japanese War. Japan modernized Taiwan, only to return it to Beijing following defeat in World War II.
China’s nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek now ruled Taiwan, but quickly found himself enmeshed in civil war with Mao Zedong’s communist forces. After suffering defeat in 1949, Chiang and over a million supporters fled to Taiwan to establish a government in exile. He vowed to return one day to reunify China.
Fortunately for Chiang, President Truman’s “All Communists are the Devil” policy (or was it “Containment?”) led America and the UN to recognize Taipei as China’s diplomatic seat of government. A capitalist economy fostering consumerism fueled rapid economic growth that created a middle class hungry for democratic reforms, which the government reluctantly granted over time. While millions starved to death on the mainland in Mao’s Great Leap Forward, Chiang slowly molded Taiwan into the beau ideal of the western Cold War partner.
But Cold War calculus increased the gravitational pull of Beijing. The Nixon administration moved closer to Mao to gain leverage over the Soviet Union, China’s seat in the UN was eventually transferred to Beijing, and America formally severed diplomatic relations with Taiwan in 1979. As a consolation prize, Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, declaring its support for the autonomous region and denouncing any mainland attempt to retake it by force. The act stopped short of declaring it would defend Taiwan militarily, instead choosing to adopt a policy of “strategic ambiguity.” The uncertainty of whether America would use its military to prevent mainland invasion was designed to maintain a cautious status quo.
In 1979, Deng Xiaoping advanced the concept of "one country, two systems,” proclaiming that as long as “Taiwan returns to the embrace of the motherland, [Beijing] will respect the realities and the existing system there.”
But this sugarcoated overture of autonomy was made at a time when the inward facing Middle Kingdom was focused solely on domestic development. In recent years, Xi Jinping has adopted a bellicose approach to foreign affairs. The militarization of the South China Sea, the dubious intentions of the Belt and Road Initiative, and the violent clashes with Indian soldiers are obvious signs that China has begun to forcefully assert itself on the world stage. Taiwan has been paying close attention to developments in Hong Kong, another “autonomous” region supposedly operating under the “two systems” framework. In the last two years, Xi has trampled Hong Kong’s democratic and judicial independence, allowing Taiwan a harrowing preview of its future should it accept reunification.
President Tsai Ing-Wen has wisely chosen to sidestep this bear trap. In 2019, she made her position clear to Beijing: “I want to reiterate that Taiwan will never accept 'one country, two systems'. Most of the Taiwanese public opinion also resolutely opposes 'one country, two systems', and this is also the 'Taiwan consensus'." Xi disagrees, warning that Taiwan must accept that it “must and will be reunified with China.”
There are three reasons why the United States must prevent this outcome.
First, Taiwan boasts a liberal democracy that has created an independent judiciary, free and fair elections, and a per capita GDP three times higher than that of the mainland (they also have awesome pro baseball). The prosperity and freedom of the Taiwanese must be protected from the fate suffered by Hong Kong.
Next, regional allies like Japan and South Korea will interpret American failure to act as unwillingness to come to their aid should the need arise, forcing them to turn away from Washington and begin the process of appeasing Beijing. America’s influence in the world's most populated region would be greatly diminished.
Finally, China would use Taiwan as a beachhead for projecting its power and influence, exporting its framework and ideology to its neighbors at the expense of American values. In short, dominoes would begin falling.
If the United States wishes to avoid having to make the choice of whether to react militarily to what increasingly seems like an inevitable invasion by China, it must abandon the ambiguity of its current policy. It should firmly declare that while it does not accept Taiwanese independence, an outcome Beijing will never tolerate, any attempt to retake the island will result in severe consequences, such as blocked access to dollar denominated markets and, if necessary, naval retribution. As Richard Haas and Brett Sachs wrote in Foreign Affairs last year, “The best way to ensure that the United States does not need to come to Taiwan’s defense is to signal to China that it is prepared to do so.”
America stood idle as Xi Jinping flattened democratic independence in Hong Kong. It cannot afford to allow the same situation to play out in Taiwan. When the liberal democratic values of freedom and self-determinism flourish in all parts of the world, humanity benefits. This was the crux of the first Cold War and it is true once again.
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