Taiwan will not be able to resist a Chinese invasion without first resolving a paralyzing political crisis over its identity, for which the Taiwanese need Washington’s helpful intervention.
U.S. leadership has been wasting its scarce political capital, trying to convince Taiwan to improve the relevance of its armaments purchases, when it should instead be focused on resolving Taiwan’s crisis of self-confidence, which will impact more immediately on Taiwan’s will to prepare and fight. The findings of The Dupuy Institute have consistently shown that intangible political and cultural factors have a bigger impact on combat outcomes than any other variable, as is now self-evident in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
This surprisingly pessimistic and provocative conclusion is the result of a three-week research trip in May-June of 2023, in which I interviewed over 75 persons from every major city, north to south, in Taiwan. Equipped with an ethics certificate from my university and a translator, this author drove over 3,000 km, passing through every city with a population greater than 40,000. I approached persons while they were walking, and asked them a simple open-ended question: would they fight, did they expect their fellow citizens to fight, and what, if anything, do they want America to do? Interviews varied between 10 minutes to several hours, and included retired officers from the Taiwanese air force, army and navy, and a quarter of the interviews took place on the campus of National Taiwan University, the country’s top-ranked institution of higher learning. Only two individuals refused to participate, both university professors. The advantage of in-person open-ended conversations over formal surveys, revealed that Taiwanese insecurity is primarily the result of a lack of open political discussion about the security of Taiwan, rather than the impact of Beijing’s propaganda.
Washington’s apprehension of interfering in the domestic affairs of another country emerges out of the anxiety of provoking a local nationalist blowback, which it fears could further divide Taiwanese society, paralyzing its preparations for war, or even push it closer to Beijing. Chinese propaganda already portrays the U.S. as a “hegemonic” Western imperialist power, seeking to divide an originally united and brotherly Chinese community. However, these fears are unfounded. Instead, Taiwanese recall a sense of abandonment and insecurity when the U.S. departed in 1979.
Furthermore, since the assertion of the principle of self-determination during the decolonization wave of the 1960s, and the U.S. defeat in the Vietnam War, the Washington planners have resigned themselves to accepting whatever domestic political situation prevails in its ally. The heavy handed and successful U.S. intervention in Korea’s anti-Communist counter-insurgency, military command, and economic development, is largely forgotten. Failed U.S. attempts to mobilize sympathetic insurgent movements in Indonesia, Nicaragua, Angola, Syria, Lebanon, and Afghanistan, are often explained in a way that fits with the widespread view of Washington’s total ignorance of local cultural conditions. This reluctance is evident in Washington’s persisting lacklustre anti-corruption conditions on arms transfers to Kyiv. However, an emphasis on anticorruption is being pursued by the European Union, in exchange for financial support to Ukraine, which promises to pay enormous dividends in terms of regime legitimacy if they are successful in securing the rule of law.
My interviews yielded four responses. First, a majority of those individuals with family links to the former Kuomintang (KMT) regime were deeply alienated from the Taiwanese push to reform the island’s identity as both a democracy and distinct from China. This division is far more profound than simply the political difference between between the Green (Democratic Progressive Party of President Tsai Ing-Wen) and Blue (KMT) parties, as they differ over the ethnic basis for their support, the former primarily Min Nan-speaking locals, and the latter mostly transplanted mainlanders. It needs to be understood that the KMT’s deep-set ideology of persistent civil war against Communist China, has been entirely cancelled by the Greens. In large part, this is because the KMT failed to appreciate the profound and persisting hostility generated by the KMT’s use of violence and police-state repression during its rule, which ended in 1996. Given the emigration back to China of nearly one million former KMT supporters, there is virtually no chance they will ever win a national election, although their long experience in power means their technical expertise leads them to win regularly in local elections. This KMT resentment against the active restructuring of Taiwanese society, is manifesting itself as pro-Beijing sentiment, being primarily expressed as anti-Americanism. This poses a severe problem, because a significant portion of senior military and foreign ministry officials are former KMT officials, whose allegiances are not stable.
Second, there is a general pessimism about the future in Taiwan, despite the unprecedented growth of its hi-tech economy in centers such as Taoyuan, New Taipei, and Hsinchu. Taiwan’s GDP per capita surpassed that of South Korea in 2022, and is expected to pass Japan’s by 2027. However, without physical security, most university students I spoke to were seeking to immigrate abroad, although the tight job market was also mentioned as a factor. By comparison, in mainland China, a far lower per capita in the coastal provinces was sufficient to depress emigration during the pre-Covid period.
A third sentiment is the low faith that other Taiwanese would fight, at least for very long. For young reservists, the uneven quality of military training has the political effect of signalling that the Taipei government does not believe it can prevail and has deferred its security to U.S. decision-makers. For small and medium business owners, which were generally comprised of the older generations, there was little expectation of any change resulting from a Chinese occupation, and considerable disruption if there was a war. However, the bulk of the shift in Taiwanese identity is among the under-40s, who are the most likely to resist invasion if properly organized and led. Some of the better informed student respondents, who had completed internships in the Defense Ministry, were critical of a procurement focused on high-status weaponry in lieu of basic armaments such as artillery and anti-tank rockets, seen in use in the defense of Ukraine. Taipei typically invests in technologically intensive weapons to avoid the political costs of social mobilization for war, whereas the war in Ukraine has demonstrated that basic infantry weapons and well-supplied artillery provide the most cost-effective defense. Taiwan should trust that the U.S. will more effectively deploy the type of ordnance that will destroy fleets, and air bases and ports on the Chinese mainland.
A fourth aspiration, which was voiced by a third of respondents, and not well articulated, was for the U.S. to simply “help.” Some of these, mostly young university students, said that the U.S. should deploy its forces in Taiwan (as it had until 1979). In most cases, respondents lacked the vocabulary to describe precisely what the U.S. should do militarily, which gets to the principal cause of Taiwan’s morale problem. Most respondents volunteered that a U.S. deployment in Taiwan would be highly provocative to Beijing, and lead to an otherwise avoidable conflict.
The prevailing view among Taiwan pundits and experts is that low morale is the result of so-called “cognitive warfare,” in the form of effective propaganda being directed by Beijing. Its message and slogans are very similar to the justifications for the exclusion of the U.S. I was told by those aforementioned supporters of the KMT, which are largely conspiratorial and seem to fit well within a group suffering decline in their social status. Beijing’s messaging of manipulation is merely mirror-imaging Beijing’s own mistreatment of its citizens, so is easily understood, and the description of foreigners as essentially hostile to Chinese is a slogan that works well among Chinese who have immigrated to foreign countries when their integration is compromised by their poor language skills. To Western born Chinese with an average education, and to the cosmopolitan Taiwanese, Beijing’s “cognitive warfare” comes across as either unsophisticated at best, or at worst the embarrassingly unworldly perceptions of authoritarian apologists. While the clumsy policies of the Communist government of Xi Jinping may now delay China’s surpassing of the U.S.’s nominal GDP for a decade or more, Taiwan is about to outstrip Japan’s GDP per capita.
The cause of Taiwan’s morale problem is the failure of the Tsai Ing-Wen government, and the Green Party in particular, of engaging in a public debate over the issue of national security. The Democratic Progressive Party (The Greens) is a progressive left-leaning and nominally gendered government that relies heavily on shifting identity issues in Taiwan, leading to pronouncements that approach declarations of independence, that are no less provocative than if the U.S. were to deploy military forces on Taiwan. On the other hand, the Green Party is profoundly anti-militarist, many of its members having been imprisoned as dissidents against KMT rule in the 1980s. Taipei therefore finds itself in the paradoxical position of not being able to resist provoking Beijing while not being able to deter a Chinese response. Unlike South Korea, where an equally immediate threat in the form of the nuclear-armed and war-tested Kim Jong Un regime, has created a cross-party consensus on mass military mobilization, Taiwan has not yet found a sustainable political formula to achieve this. It is a common phenomenon that progressive leaders, like Prime Minister Leon Blum of France in the 1930s, fail to prepare for war, because their accumulated hostility against the elites that were backed by the military. The same ideological weakness led to the failure of the elected government in Madrid against the military revolt under Francisco Franco.
Taiwan is in a crisis of political self-confidence that needs U.S. intervention if it is to resist and deter a Chinese invasion. What the U.S. needs to do, as a condition of continued arms transfers to Taiwan, is to put pressure on President Tsai Ing-Wen to make three public policy changes. This is not U.S. meddling, but rather resolving a collective action problem that the Taiwanese cannot solve for themselves. First, there needs to be a public debate on defense policy that moves against the Taiwanese inclination, inherited from the decades of KMT-led war preparation against Communist China, of allowing defense policy to be considered in secrecy. On which beach China decides to focus its efforts, or on which airbases will land most of the DF-17 and DF-26 missiles, depends far more on the speed of mobilization and the eagerness of citizens to defend their cities, than on where the key caves will be that will hide the high-tech jam proof mobile radar systems. Almost by definition, the U.S. will be preoccupied defending bases in Okinawa and the Philippines and unable to fully intervene against the expected scale of a Chinese air and sea attack, unless it has exceptional human intelligence, for at least two weeks. Once equipped with a national security vocabulary, citizens will feel less powerless against traditionally secretive Taiwanese defense planning and will feel more willing to define their progressive society as the object worthy of defending.
Second, the U.S. needs to approach the degree of joint planning and operations with Taiwan, which it currently shares with its NATO allies and South Korea. Until the 1990s, South Korea’s peacetime military was actually operationally under U.S. command, which is desirable but politically unachievable with Taiwan. This degree of operational integration will be highly provocative to Beijing, but because it has low visibility, there is no redline around which China can retaliate. Here, the threat of Taiwan chain-ganging the U.S. into a war with China is desirable as a form of enhanced extended deterrence. This will also be an opportunity to transfer the values of tactical and technical professionalism from the U.S. to Taiwan, but will require Washington to provide significant subsidies. As I was told, in the early 2000s, Taiwan’s F-16 pilot training in the U.S. was constrained by the limited funds provided by Taipei, and the U.S. did not provide additional financing. Given the inadvisability of establishing a large presence of foreign training cells in Taiwan, this will also provide U.S. allies an opportunity to host Taiwanese officers in this effort. For example, given how little Canada contributes to defense of the West, with just 3 frigates deployed to Asia and a battalion in the Baltics, Washington should advise Ottawa that it is time to step up and help train Taiwanese artillery, armored and engineer officers, who need large training bases unavailable in Taiwan.
Third, the U.S. must ask Tsai Ing Wen to expunge the Taiwanese military of its legacy influence of senior anti-independence KMT officers. There are pitfalls here, because these individuals are not easily identified, and in a democratic state guided by rule of law, they may not be retired cheaply. Secondly, there will be a transition period in which the military will lack sufficiently skilled non-KMT officers, and the remaining KMT officers will be uncooperative. Third, both KMT and non-KMT Taiwanese frequently travel to the Chinese mainland or have relatives and even close family that do so, and this traditionally expected freedom will need to be curtailed.
Thus far the U.S. has failed to focus sufficient effort to steel Taiwan’s wavering will to fight. A people’s will to fight is the single most important variable in determining victory, more so than technology or geography. The defeats of the Chinese Civil War (1945-1949), Vietnam (1965-1975), Afghanistan (2001-2021), and the survival of South Korea (1950-1953), Israel (1948-1949, 1967, 1973), and Ukraine (2022-), are all demonstrations of this. History would likely have turned out differently if there had been an Anglo-French effort to embolden the Czechoslovaks to defend their country in 1938, or had Zelensky built-up the Ukrainian army before rather than after the Russian invasion. A public defense debate in Taiwan will create the politically-broad consensus that has been so stably accepted across the spectrum of South Korean society, and will lead to the defense-weapons mix that precludes the need for the U.S. to even deploy in Taiwan for deterrence.
Julian Spencer-Churchill, Ph.D., is an associate professor of international relations at Concordia University (Montreal), former army engineer officer, and has written extensively on Pakistan, where he conducted field research for over ten years. This first appeared in RealClearDefense.
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