By J. Michael Cole, January 15, 2024
An earlier version of this article was originally published in Spanish by Centro para la Apertura y el Desarrollo de América Latina (CADAL) and is published here in English with permission.
The people of Taiwan elected a new government and parliament on January 13, giving the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) an unprecedented third term, though one in which the party has lost its majority of seats in the Legislative Yuan. This democratic island-nation of 23.5 million people is at the heart of the contest of the century, one that will determine whether the established international order and the norms that buttress it will endure, or be replaced by authoritarian revisionism, greater repression and territorial expansionism.
Taiwan, or the Republic of China (ROC), as it is officially named, is on the frontline of a struggle that is global in scope and whose outcome will leave no one unaffected. Despite efforts by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in Beijing to depict the dispute in the Taiwan Strait as an “internal matter” and the people of Taiwan’s desire for freedom and democracy as “separatism,” this decades-long conflict is, in reality, about two highly incompatible political systems and an authoritarian regime’s colonial designs upon a territory over which it has never had authority.
The people of Taiwan do not dispute the legitimacy of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and to varying degrees identify with many cultural and linguistic elements the two sides have in common. And yet, Taiwan is also idiosyncratic, the result of multifarious external influences which it has absorbed, redefined, and made its own over centuries. This, among other things, includes five decades of being part of Japan and, in the late 1980s, the embrace of liberalism and democracy. While Taiwan shares cultural and linguistic traits with China, and does business with it, polls have consistently shown that a very small number of people in Taiwan — 1.6% — whether they are from the “green” (Taiwan-centric) or “blue” (closer affinity for the ROC, greater willingness to deal with China) agree to immediate unification with China (5.8% believe that Taiwan should move in that direction at a later point). The great majority — supporters of Taiwan independence or those who define themselves as citizens of the ROC — are united in the desire for their country to remain free and democratic, and most do so by embracing the “status quo,” or de facto independence
It is because of this high incompatibility, of the divergent paths that the people on the two sides of the Taiwan Strait have taken over the years, that the only possible way by which Beijing’s ambitions of unification can be realized would be by coercion, the use of force, and the violent pacification of millions of subjects under occupation. Because of its ideological rigidity, and because it has staked its reputation on the so-called “reunification” of Taiwan with the “mainland,” the CCP has put itself in a position from which it cannot back down. No Chinese leader today would be daring and confident enough to go against the entire military-industrial-propaganda complex that was built upon Beijing’s claims over Taiwan.
As it confronts an increasingly belligerent and frustrated CCP, which cannot countenance the Taiwanese refusal to be annexed and which sees in democratic Taiwan a dangerous precedent for the Chinese people, Taiwan has sought to internationalize the conflict just as Beijing has endeavoured to isolate Taiwan international community, poaching the ROC’s official diplomatic allies and using its influence at the UN and elsewhere to deny Taiwan participation. As a result, a country that ranks in the top 25 economies worldwide, which has emerged as a key driver of the technology that fuels our world while at the same time transforming itself into a beacon of progressive liberalism in Asia, is forced to live a half-existence in the eyes of the world. Insisting on what it calls the “one China” principle, Beijing forces a zero-sum decision on the rest of the world, coercing them into refusing to officially recognize Taiwan and punishing them if they refuse to collaborate in this great injustice. To counter this attempted isolation, Taiwan has counted on the help of allies, chief among them the United States, which since 1979 has been its main security guarantor and provider of defensive equipment.
The importance of the U.S.’ role in all this cannot be overstated. Using “strategic ambiguity,” Washington has kept Beijing guessing as to how the U.S. would react if it attacked Taiwan. This red line has played a major part in preventing war in the Taiwan Strait for decades. Continued U.S. leadership in the region, with assistance by other stakeholders in the area, such as Japan, will be paramount as China continues to build up its military capabilities. Nothing could invite war in the Taiwan Strait more than for Beijing to conclude that the U.S. would not help its fellow democracy defend itself against authoritarian expansionism. U.S. support for Taiwan isn’t purely altruistic, nor is it provocative, as Beijing claims. Rather, this longstanding support is there because it is in the U.S. national interest — and that of the community of democracies — for Taiwan to avoid annexation by the PRC.
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine helped put Taiwan in a differ-ent light, China’s assertiveness, its corrosive influence on institutions and disregard for international norms had already forced a reckoning in many parts of the world — that reckoning is uneven, and in many countries elite capture and corruption, which the CCP has exploited to its advantage, have slowed down that process, often over the heads of the citizenry. And just as Beijing was cracking down on Hong Kong democracy activists, terrorizing millions of Uyghurs and Tibetans and tightening its already restrictive domestic laws — in other words, debunking forever the notion that a more integrated China would somehow soften up and perhaps democratize — Taiwan was going in the opposite direction and establishing connections, albeit at the “unofficial” level, with an ever-growing number of countries around the world. Thus, while Beijing lured official diplomatic allies, Taiwan countered asymmetrically by solidifying exchanges with a number of significant economies and countries with which it shared an ideological outlook. All of this was possible — permissible — under those countries’ “one China” policy.
As a result of all this, a much more powerful China has nevertheless become more insecure and more willing to flex its military might to get what it wants. Aircraft and vessels from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) now threaten Taiwan — and the region — on a nearly daily basis, and the threat of major war, once thought unimaginable, looms larger than ever after Russia’s Putin showed the world that tyrants do not necessarily weigh the pros and cons of catastrophic decisions in a manner that the rest of us would characterize as rational. U.S. leadership and security commitments to Taiwan there-fore remain essential impediments to Chinese military adventurism, and given the extraordinary dis-location that war in the Taiwan Strait would cause to the global economy, more and more countries recognize that they, too, have a stake in ensuring that Beijing refrains from taking that one extra step into war.
Understanding the dynamics that drive ongoing conflict in the Taiwan Strait — the highly incompat-ible political systems, Beijing’s colonial ambitions and refusal to accept reality — should dispel the notion that the Taiwanese people are somehow to blame for the continued tensions and risks of war. No people should be given the untenable choice between subjugation and annihilation, and if we force such choices on free peoples, we not only lose our humanity but, more problematically, we increase the likelihood that other tyrannical regimes will conclude that it is possible to coerce, terrorize, and subjugate their neighbors. And with such a chain of events, we would be taking our world one step closer to anarchy, into a new Dark age where might determines the fate of millions, if not billions, of people.
J. Michael Cole is a Taipei-based senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and the Global Taiwan Institute, as well as senior advisor on Countering Foreign Authoritarian Influence (CFAI) with the International Republican Institute in Washington, D.C. He is a former intelligence officer with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.