Does Taiwan Want to Fight?
Monday Notes
Does Taiwan Want to Fight?
It seems woefully unprepared for the bloodshed that could be coming soon.
Published on: Nov 28, 2022  |  

The night before boarding a flight back home, at the tail end of a trip that has taken me literally around the world—from DC to Taiwan, Japan, Skopje, Istanbul, and back again—I came across a tweet that succinctly crystallized many of the fleeting impressions I accumulated on the Pacific leg of my journey. The tweet was from Tanner Greer, the brilliant and iconoclastic China scholar, citing a possibly apocryphal quote attributed to a younger Kurt Campbell, President Joe Biden’s chief Asia hand on the National Security Council.

“I thought I would find a second Israel,” Campbell apparently said upon first visiting Taiwan years ago. “Instead, I found a second Costa Rica.”

Greer heard the quote second-hand and could not vouch for its veracity. But, he said, “whether Campbell ever said such a thing is beyond the point. What mattered was that the retired Taiwanese natsec official believed he could have said it, and believed the description accurate.”

The point of the anecdote is that the Taiwanese simply don’t seem to take the threats to their security nearly as seriously as most in Washington seem to. They do worry, of course. It’s impossible not to, especially since China has permanently altered the status quo in the Taiwan Strait after Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit earlier this year by regularly sending fighter jets and frigates well into Taiwan’s territorial waters. But the mood is much more relaxed than in Israel, a country that similarly faces implacable hostility from its neighbors. Indeed, the contrast couldn’t be more pronounced.

So what is going on with Taiwan? The two-day conference on nationalism I attended at Sun Yat-Sen University in Kaohsiung in the country’s south provided some clues. In discussions with Taiwanese scholars, it quickly becomes apparent that Taiwanese identity is still in some state of flux. This is not to suggest that Taiwanese identity has not diverged significantly from China’s. Taiwan was a Chinese backwater before it was first ceded by the Qing dynasty to Japan in 1895, already a distinct frontier culture. Half a century of Japanese colonialism left its mark, as did the brutal (and only semi-successful) re-Sinification policies of Chiang Kai-shek. The arrival and entrenching of democracy to Taiwan’s shores in 1996 has only served to deepen the differences with the mainland.

But the differences are not so cut and dry. Spend some time talking to business leaders, and even some policy specialists, in the more prosperous north of the country, and Taiwanese identity takes on different valences. Almost no one fully identifies with mainland China, but there is a belief that they understand them well—certainly better than the panicked West, in any case. There is no way Xi Jinping would order an invasion, we were repeatedly assured. It would not only be fratricidal, it would be counterproductive—killing the goose that lays the golden egg. One defense expert even ruefully floated the idea that Taiwan is a buffer state likely to be tragically drawn into a spiral of escalating tensions between China and the United States as they compete for regional hegemony. He was not quite blaming us for the war that many in Washington think is inevitable—but only just not.

Young people have increasingly ambivalent attitudes, too. One researcher at the conference discussed preliminary survey data pointing to the TikTok generation developing some cultural affinity for China, especially through a renewed attachment to Mandarin. Taiwan remains the net exporter of pop culture to the mainland, we were told, but influence is rarely a one-way street. Young people just don’t get worked up about things in the same way as their parents’ generation. Dexter Filkins’ recent big Taiwan essay in the New Yorker includes a profile of two Taiwanese university students who started a popular satire show on YouTube poking fun at China. “The People’s Republic is a slightly crazy neighbor, whose main purpose is to provide fodder for jokes,” Filkins writes. “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,” one of the comedians told Filkins.

To someone who has watched the Russia-Ukraine struggle for some time, I’m struck by the parallels. Taiwan is in many ways where Ukraine was before the 2014 invasion started solidifying its identity well beyond what a long and complicated history had bequeathed it. Like Taiwan, Ukraine could distinguish itself from its antagonist by being a democracy. And like Taiwan, Ukraine’s “business interests”—the post-Soviet oligarch class—were similarly conflicted about ties to Russia. And indeed, like Taiwan, many Ukrainians, including most famously President Zelensky himself, were in deep denial until it was almost too late; they could not bring themselves to believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin would go all-in as he did earlier this year, despite all the evidence pointing to the contrary.

Maybe, like in Ukraine, an all-out war will make Taiwanese coalesce in ways that would surprise a visitor to the island today. But the problem for Taiwan is that unlike Ukraine, they don’t have the possibility of trading space for time, retreating along vast swaths of territory, waiting until the enemy is overextended to deliver a deadly counterpunch. Taiwan is more densely populated than anything I’ve ever seen with my own eyes. The cities you see named on a map more-or-less constitute one interlocking megalopolis that hugs the shoreline facing China. Right behind the cities loom steep mountains. There is no equivalent of Poland for Taiwan—nowhere for refugees to flee to, and nowhere to stage weapons deliveries from.

So a pluralistic democracy’s Achilles’ heel may end up being its inability to see what is staring it in the face, especially when that thing is too horrible to behold. Many Ukrainians (and several Russian liberals I know) simply couldn’t believe a fratricidal war like the one that Putin unleashed was conceivable. Or maybe it’s that liberal democracies, which unshackle individuals to improve their own lot above all else, may just find it hard to price in the role that primal, atavistic, impulses play in international relations.

In any case, this is a reality the United States is facing in Taiwan. We, too, must look this reality in the eye—not flinch, not think things are different than they are. But before you say that we ought to “let China have Taiwan” or something similar, let me try to stop you, at least on sentimental grounds. Despite what many diplomats, politicians, and pundits say, we would not be going to fight for Taiwan because it is a democracy. It being seemingly ungrateful for our largesse, or even being suspicious of us for dragging it into a conflict it says it does not want, makes no difference. Taiwan would probably be worth defending if Chiang Kai-shek was still ruling it today with a bloody fist.

To continue with the parallels, we are helping Ukraine not because it is a democracy, but rather because it makes a lot of sense for us to do so. Ukraine is successfully weakening one of the main revisionist powers in Europe at comparatively very low cost to us, and in doing so it is helping lay the groundwork for a lasting security order in Europe. Taiwan is, if anything, much more existentially critical to the United States than Ukraine could ever dream to be. And unlike Ukraine, defending it is going to be much more costly and painful.

What’s our cost-benefit calculus? I’m all ears for that debate. Just spare me the democratic sentimentalism.