This is an important summary of the debates over Taiwan’s national security strategy during the last few decades, and the role played by “asymmetric warfare.” On that term, or “porcupine strategy,” students of global affairs are wise to be cautious to separate the jargon-chasers/repeaters from the professionals with a realistic grasp of the trade-offs between different options. Dr. Lai’s essay is an additional important corrective – in a field dominated by American voices, where the civilian, non-China KMT party-state voices inside Taiwan are scarce, it is a good sign that Taiwan’s decades-long democracy is slowly penetrating the China KMT dictatorship-dominated national security arena. Dr. Lai’s paragraph on America’s strategic ambiguity and Taiwan’s inability to fully accept the American advice on asymmetric warfare is most important. To the extent that the US, Japan, and democratic allies can operationalize President Biden’s repeated expression of strategic clarity regarding Taiwan’s democratic sovereignty status quo, adopting a version of asymmetric warfare would become more likely in Taiwan.
The first photo is of the Taiwanese ambassador to the US opening the new building for the Taiwanese military mission to the United States. Second is the historic US Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) logo from the US-Taiwan Mutual Defense Treaty days. What do you see? MAAG represents decades of US military advisors and assistance in fixing a hapless China KMT military (along with Japanese military advisors ….). An era when the US interest in Taiwan not becoming a part of the PRC was official and required little doublespeak. It is impossible for the Taiwanese embassy or military attache to choose a logo without US feedback. If this is the case this would have been the most oddly inconsistent episode for a hypercautious President Tsai, and her even more hypercautious Ministry of National Defense.
So what does this mean? I don’t think it is a coincidence that the US, Japan, and even some in NATO have moved towards strategic clarity coupled with actual military muscles in and around Taiwan. I also think it is easy to see shadows – updated for a different reality in Taiwan and the US – of MAAG in the Taiwan Policy Act of 2022. The US-Taiwan-Japan strategic dilemma of 2022 is not hardware alone – Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense, its generals and admirals and officer corps, and its national intelligence apparatus, require guidance and rapid reforms.
Much as my observation before that the salami slicing process the US and the PRC went through from 1949 to 1979, the US, Japan, and other global democracies are doing with democratic Taiwan now – with the reality that PRC is militarily more powerful than the Chiang dictatorship back during 1949-1979 – with the ultimate objective of pushing US-Japan-NATO relations with Taiwan Republic up to everything but formal diplomatic recognition, with an international consensus that a Chinese communist military invasion to annex Taiwan would not be tolerated. The process began with Taiwan’s first president Dr. Lee decades ago, the special state-to-state formula, now given substance by President Tsai, Prime Minister Abe’s free and open Indo-Pacific, and President Biden’s strategic clarity. 29.9.2022
A quasi-Taiwanese oligarch once contemptuously asked, “What’s democracy? Can you eat it?” An archaic, narrowminded summary of the contrast between what the Pelosi visit to Taiwan meant, versus the conventional wisdom pushed by Beijing, its allies inside Taiwan, and some in western media and academia.
Western conventional wisdom notwithstanding, the Chinese communist belligerence is not about Pelosi or The Speakership or PLA Day. At every public stop in Taiwan Republic and Japan Speaker Pelosi said the communist taboo words “democracy,” “human rights,” and “Taiwan is a democratic nation.” Taiwan’s democratically elected president Tsai said the communist taboo words “democratic sovereignty” repeatedly. Speaker Pelosi’s visit to the Taiwan Human Rights Park-Museum commemorating the victims of the invading China KMT, and meeting survivors of Chinese communists occupied Tibet, occupied East Turkestan, occupied Hong Kong, and the Tiananmen massacre was what the China Communists and their allies in Taiwan and the west feared the most. A visit mostly ignored or poorly covered by the western media is too cool for school for this democracy-human rights sappiness. Incidentally, one could make a similar observation of the western press corps’s inability to focus on democracy and the threats posed by domestic extremists, too. Ditto the coverage on the courageous Ukrainians defending their democracy, along with their genuine love of their beautiful nation.
This is the world history level irony-paradox: for decades the China KMT and China CCP conspired to domesticate the “Taiwan problem.” How can the functioning democracy be a “problem” while an ethno-nationalist, belligerent, militarist communist dictatorship is not? Yet by its barbarism and belligerence, Beijing has done as much to internationalize Taiwan — a global, oceanic, outward-facing democratic Taiwan, away from the Chinese authoritarian muck and mire — than any force inside Taiwan. If the Biden White House would buck up, instead of fussing about the Pelosi visit, they should coordinate a legislative delegation from democracies to visit Taipei every week from now until the end of the year. If the PLA copycat Russian jet engines are decent enough to sustain massive military barbarism weekly, well then I tip my cap to them. Then maybe we can ask the oppressed masses of communist China: How come you don’t have a democratically elected legislature for foreign delegations to visit? Are you really incapable of exercising your Buddha-given right to choose your own leaders? If “little/periphery” Taiwan can have a democracy that is prosperous and full functioning, why can’t China do the same? 5.8.2022
One of President Tsai’s greatest accomplishments is to fashion a democratic and inclusive Taiwanese national identity – convincing her party to tolerate and even grudgingly embrace RoC iconographies, while opening a democracy-to-defend -Taiwan’s path for supporters of the China KMT and/or RoC. Taiwan is not immune from the dark forces of polarization and mindless populism/utopianism. Tsai’s formulation is a solid governing majority – no one’s entirely satisfied, but good enough for at least three-quarters of this diverse citizenry. And Tsai has managed to do so by leading, summarizing, channeling, and shaping, while listening, responding, understanding where her diverse nation’s citizens are at, and meeting them halfway. A good lesson for autocrats in Moscow and Beijing, and imperialists in DC and NY and beyond: with national identity, a soft touch is more effective than harsh, autocratic edicts. And threats of violence almost always create the opposite effect.
For authoritarian Leninist parties like the China KMT and Chinese Communist Party, and for some western imperialists, national identity and nationalism flow in one direction – top down. Autocrats in the CCP, China KMT, and America complain similarly about books and educators “brainwashing” wayward children reflecting this autocratic mindset. As a history teacher, I’ve always noticed this naivete – autocrats giving formal education, textbooks, and long-suffering teachers way too much credit.
In reality, national identity and nationalism are the results of complex, multidirectional, contradictory forces, often resulting from unintended consequences. When Taiwan became a colony of Japan in 1895 the Japanese did not intend to provoke modern Taiwanese identity – yet they did. When Taiwan was occupied by the China KMT in 1945 the Chinese autocrats did not intend for the Taiwanese to see themselves as different from the invaders – yet they did. Latter-day China KMT, Chinese Communist Party, or DC imperialists did not intend for citizens of Taiwan to see themselves as members of a national community – however defined – apart from the People’s Republic of China, yet this occurred. Far from a top-down model – the pattern is that the harder an autocratic power pushes, whether the Japanese, China KMT, or Chinese communists, the more likely the masses to resist and move in the opposite direction.
This is why even though I am an academic historian, schooled in international relations and world history, I have never agreed with the premise that Taiwan’s status must be history-based, or international law based. National identity and historical memory are not determined by anyone outside power, or authority, or premised on a top-down approach. Decades of Chinese communist genocide against Tibet and East Turkestan will not erase the national identity of those occupied nations. Decades of China KMT brainwashing against the Taiwanese have been equally ineffective. This, by the way, go a long way in explaining why the Soviet-sponsored government of Afghanistan or the US-sponsored governments of Vietnam and Afghanistan melted on contact with the enemy, whereas Ukraine’s democratic government held – a resilient nationalism is one that’s bottom-up, organic, native to the place and people.
Which gets us to this year’s RoC National Day logo. I have written previously about President Tsai’s 2021 National Day speech, and the domestic and international consensus she fashioned regarding what Taiwan’s “status quo” means now. This year’s logo is a deepening of this process. The color and design move farther away from the stodgy China KMT Leninist party-state conceptions. In Mandarin, “You and I together, let’s defend our soil and protect our nation.” A simple statement of democratic sovereignty. Some will fuss that the formal national name RoC did not appear, but that’s the point isn’t it – Tsai and Lee’s efforts have been to fashion a stable domestic compromise – Taiwan, Taiwan RoC, RoC Taiwan, RoC – a democratic, diverse nation where citizens may define “our nation” from that list, with “NOT PRC” as the boundary of this Taiwan status quo. And in English for a global audience, Taiwan’s slow rebranding of itself – ever so slowly disentangling itself from China/Chinese “renegade province/breakaway province ….” nonsense.
Leaders lead, and citizens often do not follow. In this President Tsai has an even deeper understanding than President Lee. So China KMT and other extremists complaining about brainwashing notwithstanding, I think President Tsai understands the complexities of Taiwanese national identities after the Pacific War. Those here before 1945, those who came 1945-1949, those who fled in 1949, and those who arrived later. Indigenous and Hakkas, different regions of Taiwan, social classes and professions, etc. To engineer an inclusive national narrative reflecting these groups and minimize their conflicting memories and share in their democratic present-future. To have this vision accepted by the great powers, the US, Japan, and the EU. Tsai needs to maneuver adroitly and with pragmatism coupled with simple, important principles. This contrasts with the self-inflicted dilemma of the China KMT, wherein its successive chairs are outflanked by loud extremists regarding surrendering to the PRC. Whereas Tsai has managed to pull her party into a remarkable embrace of RoC, its flag, its national day, and its military. And as a part of this process, Taiwanese citizens and their democratically elected national government are creating a national identity and historical memory based on democratic sovereignty. 9.9.2022
This history series by Taiwan’s 三立 is a rare public forum for Taiwanese history on Taiwanese mass media. Academic historians can, and will, find something to fuss over history for a mass audience. What is notable about this series is that it provides a rare oasis of thoughtful content in an otherwise content-poor Taiwanese electronic media landscape. It also does an admirable job breaking down politically and historically created barriers in how Taiwanese history has and has not been conceptualized. Nothing in the public discourse in Taiwan can escape the omnipresent national identity-historical memory either/or’s, the “Are we Taiwanese or Chinese or both” debate. This series makes a serious attempt to push across these artificial boundaries – periodization, conceptual categories, national identity as confined by modern nation-states, and so on while placing Taiwan the place, and Taiwanese the ever-evolving communities of humans on this island, at the center. In this effort, it echoes the evolving views developed by newer generations of Taiwanese leaders – pushing farther back into Taiwanese history and pre-history (Dutch, indigenous, Oceania), while broadening beyond the usual characters (Han Chinese, Japanese, China KMT) – and providing new ways to include contradictory and competing historical memories, from indigenous to the Japanese to the disaggregated Taiwanese to the immigrants of 1949 to the even more recent immigrants from Southeast Asia and beyond to the global Taiwanese diaspora, into a dynamic Taiwanese national identity bond together by place and by democracy. I have often noted that for a nation that formally declares such reverence for history, Taiwan is comparatively apathetic to its own history and quick in developing historical amnesia. Any effort, such as this series, to reverse this trend will do much to deepen and enhance Taiwan’s democratic sovereignty.
I am not as optimistic as Dr. Song – if the Taiwan Policy Act of 2022 passes without major revisions, and if it is signed by President Biden, the executive branch has many tools to slow-walk and water down the measures (see also, legislation re: the Chinese communist genocide in East Turkestan.)
What these major legislative push shows are three main things. First, decades of mediocre American presidents have long delayed much-needed reevaluations of US-Taiwan policies. Such reviews started way back during the Clinton administration, and for one or another reason, expectations were never matched by results. Bureaucratic inertia, foreign entanglements, domestic scandals, “the blob” being its blobby selves, etc etc. Therefore, it is good to see sustained pressure coming from both political parties in Congress.
The second context is this. DC policy circles are mostly stuck in the imperious idea that they are “managing” or “creating” the world as we experience it, overestimating their roles and underestimating factors out of American control. Whether DC chooses to adjust to the dynamic, changing meaning of the “status quo,” Taiwan Republic, communist China, and even the US in 2022 are vastly different than 1972, or 1978. Rather than seeing this legislative effort as “changing the status quo,” it is a belated updating of formal policies to catch up with geopolitical reality.
Finally, this reminds me of the no-we-are-not-maybe-we-will Ross and Rachel dance between the US and the PRC from 1949 to 1978. While the US embassy to China remained in Taipei, and while the official statements kept asserting that US policy remained unchanged, salami slicing continued unabated, with changes in world conditions, the nature of contact between DC and Beijing changed, substantially, and rapidly. Given the dismal performance of the Biden White House on the Pelosi episode, I am not holding out high hopes for this. A wise and creative executive would minimize fighting against Congress on this issue, and use this as an opportunity to “internationalize” America’s policies on Taiwan – i.e., exporting the Taiwan Relations Act+ model to fellow democracies of Japan and EU. Using this approach as one of many other policy tools to prevent a Chinese communist war of annexation against Taiwan from ever starting. If we learn nothing else from the democratic west’s failure in Ukraine, it ought to be that porcupine or not, finding credible ways to prevent an authoritarian belligerent from starting an invasion is key for all of our interests. 7.9.2022
Saw this graph on The Twitters. It fits with a recurring narrative that Taiwan is spending too little on defense, and some of the more obnoxious addendums to this line of thought is that Taiwan is purposely waiting for America to bail it out.
Taiwan should spend at least 3% of its GDP on defense. Taiwan should not have allowed its armed forces to fall below 200,000. I have no idea why a nation like Taiwan, facing the enemy that it has, does not have conscription for men and women for at least a year. Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense and national security establishments are overdue for thorough modernization and reform. If the point of this graph is that Taiwan should spend more on its military, and take its own defense more seriously, I am in agreement.
How social media and a graph can easily mislead is this. I don’t think Taiwan’s democratic forces have the wherewithal, without sustained assistance from the US and Japan, to reform its national security establishment – Ministry of National Defense, intelligence, etc. One can pour ten times the cash into this structure and raise the conscription time to three years and still get unsatisfactory results. This graph also does a poor job of capturing the effect of decades of contradictory, unsteady, and self-defeating US policy on how to arm Taiwan, and sometimes, even whether or not to arm Taiwan. A few examples:
The US sabotaged Taiwan’s nuclear weapons program. I have mixed feelings about this policy choice, but even if Taiwan only has a credible not totally assembled nuclear deterrence force, maybe the scaremongering headlines of 2022 would read differently.
For decades the US interfered with and sabotaged Taiwan’s indigenous counterstrike/long-range missile programs.
Did Taiwanese combat pilots fly the venerable F-100s and F-104s well into the 1990s because they love history, or because the US prevented sales of advanced jet fighters for decades?
The billions the Taiwanese were forced to spend by US policy to develop the inferior IDF fighters achieve better result had the US sold the jet fighters it was willing to sell to Israel and Korea.
When the US forced Taiwan to purchase the inferior F-16A/B in the 1990s instead of the F-16C/D, with minimal anti-surface munitions and inferior Sparrow missiles, was this about Taiwanese budget or US policy?
Are the Taiwanese, in 2022, still sailing two 1980s Dutch diesel submarines and two World War II era GUPPY IIs because they refuse to spend on defense?
Are the millions Taiwan is forced to spend to cobble together its own indigenous submarines now the best way to spend defense dollars?
How many years did US policy force the Taiwanese Navy to sail World War Two era destroyers?
Or prevented Taiwan from importing AEGIS/VLS for its navy?
Or interfered with Taiwan’s acquisition of anti-ship missiles throughout the 1970s and 1980s, forcing Taiwan into a costly and fun-filled route importing the Israeli Gabriels, reverse engineering it, and manufacturing its own HFIIs and HFIIIs?
Imperial superpowers have the luxury of selective amnesia and never having to apologize. Might makes right, we get it. If you take every single dollar Taiwan has ever spent on the military from 1960 to 2022, and had the US treated Taiwan as an ally like Israel, or Japan, or Korea, or Singapore – if that amount spent by Taiwan could have avoided decades of US policy detours and delays and the DC “balancing” and “managing” and “de-escalation” and “off ramping” …. Taiwan’s security in 2022 would have been in a far, far better place, and US policymakers would not feel this cornered. So yes encourage Taiwan to spend more and do more, but American policymakers should also take a long hard look into the mirror.
A world history level pattern of dictators pursuing policies generates the exact opposite results of their stated objectives. President Biden and Zelenskyy, before the Russian invasion, probably could have reached accommodating deals with Putin that would continue to maintain or even enhance Russia’s historic influence in the region. Everything being equal, by size China has much going for it vis-a-vis Taiwan and its other neighbors. Yet in both cases, by lacking patience, not having confidence, by exporting the dictatorial attitude they are used to in domestic rule, Xi and Putin have created opposite effects. Even though the Chinese communists have stigmatized Taiwan’s democratically elected Presidents Lee and Tsai as radical pro-independence activists, they are likely the last two democratically elected Taiwanese leaders willing to tolerate pragmatic, face-saving for the snowflakey Chinese communist’s arrangements (for e.g. by keeping the RoC, even though the status quo is two separate sovereign entities on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, the appearance of “C” remains and no one says anything about what happens a century, or two, from now.)
From 2014, or maybe even earlier, absolutist and belligerent positions from Moscow have unintentionally solidified Ukrainian resolve; and likewise, the Leninist Chinese Communist Party and its inability to share power/space with any other entity mean it has done as much to promote Taiwanese national identity than any other force. The most important “escalatory spiral” is that of seeing the world through the eyes of a Leninist tyrant – ever more belligerence and ugliness even though all metrics show one is getting the opposite effect. After the Xi genocide in East Turkestan and the brutality in Hong Kong, how many democratic citizens of Taiwan – whether they love Taiwan Republic, or Taiwan RoC, or RoC Taiwan, or just RoC – would be interested in a deal with the communists?
Western corporate media and talking heads may not be great at this, but this is where Twitters and open source military observers shine. A textbook example of this unintended consequence of the Chinese communist reflex is this important detail: When the US sent two Ticonderoga class cruisers through the Taiwan Strait, they were shadowed by Chinese communist destroyer(s) and accompanied by a Taiwanese naval frigate and a Taiwanese Coast Guard corvette – Taiwanese and American ships sailing in formation.
The ‘breakthrough’ is not that this has never been done – one suspects after 1996 Taiwanese, American, and Japanese military vessels and aircraft have had many “chance meetings” away from the limelight. What’s interesting about this case is that photos of the Taiwanese naval vessels sailing alongside US naval vessels were publicized by the US Navy. Even though Beijing thinks ratcheting up its military belligerence will isolate Taiwan, it has actually promoted many breakthroughs.
I would guess that it is nearly impossible, given the tasks needed, that the highest national security officials in Taiwan do not occasionally communicate directly with their counterparts in Tokyo and DC. But up to this point, it is taboo to acknowledge this in public. I think Beijing’s threats are creating the opposite intended effect by forcing these contacts into the public. And sooner rather than later, for practical and for symbolic reasons, continued Beijing belligerence will accelerate the pace when American, Japanese, and maybe even NATO officers returning to Taiwan. 5.9.2022
Leaders in Taiwan Republic, Japan, and the US must study how the Chinese Communist Party defeated China Kuomintang in 1949. With a formidable military, funded with American aid, and equipped with topline American weapons, Chiang Kai-shek’s military evaporated. 2022 Taiwan Republic is not 1949 Nanking RoC. The world has changed significantly. Though, old habits die hard. Has the Taiwanese Ministry of National Defense democratized and modernized its mentality? Has it realized that rather than a lumbering bureaucracy for an old continental power, it is now a ministry for a mid-sized democracy that requires agility creativity and rapid problem-solving skills? Have the democratic allies of Taiwan, Japan, and the US studied how the Chinese communists infiltrated, sabotaged, and defeated Chiang’s government military from within – spies and infiltrators, useful idiots, and fifth column united front idealists alike? In an environment where malevolent authoritarians like the Chinese communists are using full-domain information warfare against liberal democracies, how should democracies such as Taiwan balance freedom of the press, free flow of capital, migration, and business in a way that protects national security? The most important lesson from the defeat of the Chiang regime in 1949, buttressed by examples from South Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Ukraine, is this. Hardware and weapons will only get one so far. In the struggle between democracy and dictatorship, the most important battlefield is ideological-political-information. Or as the Ukrainians have shown, one cannot defeat authoritarians without heart. How to actively defend democracy without resorting to authoritarian means is the most important lesson for leaders in Taipei, Tokyo, DC, and other frontline democracies. 3.9.2022
Gorbachev visited Taiwan Republic in 1994, and gave a speech at the Legislative Yuan. I don’t recall any hysteria from western talking heads or Beijing …. Not sure if this was before or after his Pizza Hut commercials ….
Because I never believed the Cold War ended, much less that ‘we’ won, I ignored the incessant arguing in the west over who should get the credit. Though as a subset of the anti-anti-communism in the west, I have been fascinated by the western adoration for Gorbachev, the kind of cult of personality that no mortal human could possibly live up to, and wondered to what degree the adoration is about Gorbachev, and how much is a dig at Reagan. This is where, and not shocking if you have been following closely how the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been covered differently in the west versus the less credulous, more realistic Ukrainian, Baltic, and eastern European press, reminders from these victims of Soviet communism with less fond memories of Gorbachev provide a useful antidote.
I think this is a fair assessment. Gorbachev rose through the ranks of a totalitarian communist system, anointed by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union to be their dictator. So I have never had illusions about how he came to power, and what that meant. However, on a range of behavior of communist dictators that one would reasonably expect, Gorbachev must be given credit for taking the least bloody route while facing the final collapse of the Soviet Union – i.e., by his decisions, lives were spared. This is particularly important when comparing Gorbachev’s decision with that of the Chinese communists.
Interesting too, to think of different global examples of this cruel and inhumane Leninist party-state – Gorbachev’s Communist Party of the Soviet Union; Sun Yat-sen, Chiang Kai-shek, Chiang Ching-Kuo, and Lee Teng-hui’s China Kuomintang, and the Chinese Communist Party. And to compare similar Leninist reflexes – authoritarian, paranoid, corrupt, secretive, bloody. And to see different paths chosen by different leaders at key historical moments. The China CCP chose in 1989 to murder students and civilians. And their subsequent policies of techno-authoritarian control were reflections of the Chinese communists not wanting to repeat Gorbachev’s “mistakes.” Whereas Gorbachev’s CPSU and Lee’s China KMT in the 1990s accepted democratization and electoral competition relatively peacefully. The China KMT after Lee and Russia after Gorbachev both had adjustment problems, too complicated to get into here. Though thus far Taiwan-the-democratic-nation has fared far better than Russia’s stillborn democracy. At key historical moments, a brave and clear-eyed leader is needed to prevent a bloody massacre – that part of history is basically luck. What would have happened had Gorbachev accepted the institutional impulse of his CPSU and resorted to a bloody crackdown in Eastern Europe and USSR? Or had he tried to engineer a war against NATO to save his communist empire? What might have happened if Dr. Lee coveted wealth and power more than he did and engineered a way for his Leninist China KMT party-state to operate a Singapore-style ‘soft’ authoritarian technocratic state?
Other world history cross currents and sidenotes on the Leninist party-state. Without Sun Yat-sen turning to the Soviet Union for aid the re-engineered China Kuomintang may not have survived. And without the military academy that the Soviets sponsored, which produced so many early China KMT and CCP military leaders, the latter-day anti-communist Chiang Kai-shek probably would not have been able to seize leadership of the China KMT. Chiang’s eldest son Chiang Ching-Kuo, the last dictator over Taiwan, was sent to study in the USSR and briefly held hostage by Stalin. And Lee Teng-Hui was rumored to have flirted with Marxism during his college years as a Taiwanese subject of the Japanese empire. One should also note: that the two shrillest, most narrow-minded, hardliner extremist ethnonationalist political parties of modern China, KMT and CCP, are both products of an alien, Leninist ideology-structure. Ironies of history abound ….
Which got me thinking about Nelson Mandela. Not quite the same storyline as the Leninist parties, but with a lifetime of suffering and cruelty wherein when he came to power historical precedence would have easily predicted something far more vengeful and bloody. And I have always marveled at and pondered on how Mandela managed to do the exact opposite – to have the discipline and moral-ethical fortitude to choose to use his credibility to spare his long-suffering nation decades of chaos and violence. To lead his people to a path of peace and reconciliation.
This is why history and studying human behavior are so much fun. One can track data, one can study patterns – yet history is full of these blink of an eye, contingent on personality and luck choices individuals make. What would China and the world be like now had the students of Tiananmen survived and if some of them are now leading their nation? What might have been. 1.9.2022