By Matthew Bondy, August 3, 2022
US President Joseph R. Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping finally spoke bilaterally during a phone call on July 28.
The two leaders had a sweeping, two-hour conversation about core Sino-American bilateral issues and much besides. When the subject of Taiwan was raised, President Xi gave a warning to the US in reference to US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan: “those who play with fire will perish by it.”
The two men were clearly staking out positions on an issue that, despite decades of successful “strategic ambiguity” about the future of Taiwan, has become a contemporary flashpoint in an era of authoritarian great power resurgence – as evidenced by Xi’s dire warnings over Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan, which began on August 2, with all eyes now on China’s possible response to this visit.
China has become increasingly aggressive toward Taiwan, including persistent People’s Liberation Army’s Air Force (PLAAF) incursions into the latter’s air defence identification zone (ADIZ) – a probing manoeuvre designed to test a rival’s defensive readiness and the international community’s hypothetical response to further aggression.
In light of Xi’s recent comments to Biden about China’s willingness to fight over Taiwan, it’s important to consider the three core stakes truly at play, and what success – in the form of Taiwan’s continued democratic autonomy – requires from the US-led West.
In a 2022 report, Freedom House – an international non-governmental organization mandated to monitor levels of freedom in countries around the world – stated that, “authoritarians have been on the offensive, while liberal democratic practices have increasingly been discarded.” They went on to say, “conflict, coercion, and attacks on the legitimacy of key principles and institutions have proliferated at the expense of good-faith dialogue and the search for common interests.”
Taiwan is the liberal refuge for free Chinese/Taiwanese and the migrants that the island nation’s dynamism has attracted to their shores, following the country’s liberalization in the 1990s. Considered a “renegade province” by the Communist People’s Republic of China, it is in fact nothing of the sort.
If the free world permits Communist China to dismantle and consume Taiwan in the same way it did to Hong Kong, it will underscore a key finding of Freedom House’s Nations in Transit 2022 report: “The liberal international order will only be as strong as the democracies that defend it.”
The signal to those aspiring to liberty around the world will be clear: you’re on your own. This will only encourage dark forces of tyranny across the globe.
In recent years, commitments by mature democratic powers to young aspiring democracies have proven to be unworthy of the diplomatic cables they’re written on.
Take two examples.
When the Royal Yacht Britannia sailed away from Hong Kong mere decades ago, it was under the premise that following the United Kingdom’s 99-year “lease” that kept Hong Kong under British rule until 1997, Communist China would commit to preserving Hong Kong’s unique social and economic systems for at least the following 50 years. Those were the terms of the Sino-British Joint Declaration that made the transition from British to Chinese stewardship of the liberal financial hub possible.
Fast forward almost 25 years, and China has hollowed out Hong Kong liberalism with a sweeping new authoritarian security law and declarations that, “Hong Kong is China’s Hong Kong and no external force has the right to interfere,” even to uphold the terms of the Declaration. The UK looked on as if it lacked the diplomatic, economic, and political heft to respond powerfully, as it was obligated to do.
Then look to Ukraine.
Under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, the United States, United Kingdom, and Russia each committed to non-aggression against Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, in exchange for each of the three nations’ willingness to surrender Cold War-era nuclear weapons capabilities. The West provided security assurances to the three post-Soviet countries to help assuage their concerns. The Memorandum required all signatories – especially Russia, for obvious reasons – to “respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine.”
The Memorandum was meant to signal that embracing peace, including nuclear disarmament, need not induce strategic vulnerability. Sadly, the states that agreed to western great power protection in exchange for nuclear disarmament were left to fend for themselves.
When the Putin regime first invaded Ukrainian territory in 2014 – in Crimea – that should have triggered the mobilization of a major diplomatic and military response to uphold the credibility of western commitments. It didn’t.
It begs the question: why should Taiwan, living in a tough neighbourhood and outside the NATO mutual defence pact, have confidence in a western security commitment that is anything less than absolute, categorical, and backed by its partners’ demonstrable willingness to use force?
In answering this question, the credibility of the United States and its allies, and the viability of the rules-based international order, are on trial. Despite these two major recent examples of rules violations being tolerated, the international community need not interpret this sad precedent as binding or acceptable. The United States and its allies can and should clarify that Chinese aggression against Taiwan will be met with not mere statements and hand-wringing but stout defence. The responsibility for this strategic global risk lies with the People’s Republic of China as the aggressor and the challenger of the status quo.
It is so often presumed that technology is the field of the future, whereas nation-states are the remnant of the past. However, in an era of nationalist resurgence and great power rivalry, this binary split between economic dynamism and geopolitics no longer holds up.
As Bloomberg reported last year, “the world is dangerously dependent on Taiwan for semiconductors.” The Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, hailed by leading Canadian innovation scholar Danny Breznitz as having “completely transformed” the global semiconductor industry, is the global market leader in chip fabrication that enables computers, smart-phones, cars, and manifold other devices that make modern middle-class life what it is today. Chinese sabre rattling over Taiwan has led the United States to develop a plan for onshoring a total chip-development supply chain, sending exactly the wrong signal – one of accepting and hedging against Chinese imperial designs over Taiwan. Other jurisdictions, including Europe, and Japan, are following suit.
To abandon Taiwan in stages to Communist Chinese control – which the free world appears to be doing in deeds though not yet in words – means surrendering the benefits of global supply chains, national specialization, comparative advantage, and mutual codependency, all of which reply upon and strengthen a rules-based, open, free-market, international order. In his book, The Next Age of Uncertainty*, former Bank of Canada governor Stephen Poloz calls this national economic reconsolidation the replacement of creative destruction for non-creative destruction, meaning each nation will be made less wealthy and dynamic as a result.
The way forward
However, all is not lost. China has clearly not yet determined that the United States and its allies will abandon Taiwan if the island nation is attacked. Otherwise, Taiwan’s obituary would already be the stuff of contemporary historical textbooks.
If democratic powers renew and commit to the protection of a vision for a peaceful, rules-based international order, the world may yet say, “here and no further,” leaving Ukraine and Hong Kong in struggle but extending a rock-solid umbrella of guaranteed protection over Taiwan and other states, like the NATO-bound Finland and Sweden, to the benefit of free men and women everywhere.
Taiwan isn’t just about Taiwan. It’s about the future of freedom, the viability of international rule of law, the success of nuclear non-proliferation, and the rate of international technological advancement going forward. Doing right in this case requires taking a path of courage and renewed commitment to the protection of liberal democracy.
Such a path, despite mounting evidence to the contrary, remains open for western powers to take.
*Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly titled Stephen Poloz’s book “The New Era of Uncertainty”, the correct title is in fact “The Next Age of Uncertainty”.
Matthew Bondy, MA, is vice-president of external relations at Communitech Corporation.