It is all-important whether the question: Should we go to war over Taiwan? is posed in Beijing or in Washington…
In the 1940s, it took the West a few years to realise that Stalin had started a Cold War. Although he had in June 1941 joined forces with Great Britain and the other Commonwealth countries, after Hitler broke the Non-Aggression Pact between the two dictators and attacked the Soviet Union, he had previously been Hitler’s eager partner. Stalin never became a loyal ally of the Anglo-Saxon powers which however, with the crucial help of the Russian people, defeated Nazi Germany in May 1945. At the end of the War Stalin used his Red Army to set up puppet governments in Central and Eastern Europe unlike the victorious Anglo-Saxon powers which restored democracy in Western Europe. Winston Churchill was one of those who early on realised that Stalin had no intention of respecting his post-war commitments, for example about free elections in countries occupied by the Red Army. Stalin was an orthodox and unrepentant Marxist, bent on world domination. In 1946, Churchill famously described an iron curtain which had descended from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic. The Cold War, fought on many fronts between the foundation of NATO in April 1949 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991, was not only a power struggle between two well-armed giants, the United States and the Soviet Union. It was also a clash between two sets of ideas, practised by two groups of nations: in the West, democracy, private property, free trade, and the rule of law, and in the East, despotism, public ownership of the means of production, central economic planning, and a one-party police state.
China’s ‘Wolf-Warrior’ Stance
Since 2012, when Xi Jinping took power in Communist China, the giant in the East has been preparing for and even starting a new Cold War against the West. Those who had sympathetically observed what seemed to be the cautious introduction of capitalism in China had hoped for peaceful cooperation between her and the West, based on mutual gain from trade and a gradual evolution in China towards democracy and respect for human rights. They have seen their hopes dashed. Communist China not only remains a one-party police state and determined to survive as such. She has also become increasingly despotic. In Tibet, she rules like a colonial power, systematically trying to destroy the identity and culture of the Tibetan nation. In Hong Kong she has violated the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration about ‘one country, two systems’, essentially putting an end to the civil liberties enjoyed by the inhabitants when they were under British rule. In her remote eastern province, Xinjiang, she conducts what amounts to a war against a Muslim minority, the Uyghurs, who are sent in droves to labour camps. This is Gleichschaltung, Chinese style. Persecutions of Christians have started again in China, the internet is tightly controlled, and books are banned whenever they expose communist excesses, such as the seminal works by Jung Chang and Frank Dikötter, even if such excesses are at least partly admitted by the communist leadership. President Xi is also using the powers of the state to pull down those business tycoons who dare to challenge him, treating them almost like the Bolsheviks handled the NEP-men in the 1920s. For Lenin and Stalin, the partial liberalisation of the NEP period between 1921 and 1928 was ‘one step backwards to be followed by two steps forwards’. Is Xi treading in their footsteps?
The Chinese communists do not confine their aggression to their unfortunate subjects. They have adopted a new ‘wolf-warrior diplomacy’ abroad. They refuse to accept any comprehensive and credible investigation of the Wuhan virus which has turned the world upside down in the last twenty-two months, thus indicating that they have something to hide; they seem to be organising cyber attacks on Western institutions and companies; they are trying to take control of international organisations, censoring reports from the World Health Organisation and the International Monetary Fund; they are establishing a dubious network of so-called Confucius centres in Western universities; they have been intimidating Indian forces on the long and mountaineous border between the two countries; they use foreign businessmen based in or passing by China as hostages for resolving disputes with civilised countries like Canada and Australia; they reject the ruling by the Permanent Arbitration Court in the Hague that they have no claims on the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, and maintain a military presence there; their fishing vessels operate with impunity inside the fishing zones of other countries such as the Philippines and Indonesia. In short, for those of us who had hoped for the integration of China into global capitalism, she has changed into an unreliable, vindictive and aggressive partner. Moreover, now President Xi seems to be preparing an invasion of Taiwan.
Is Taiwan Worth a War?
Taiwan has not been a part of China for more than a century, except for four years immediately after the Second World War, and her inhabitants definitely do not want to share the fate of the Chinese in Hong Kong, or the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, or the Tibetans. They are almost to a man opposed to a Chinese annexation of the island, unlike the Germans in Sudetenland and the Russians in Crimea who welcomed the invasions by Hitler and Putin, respectively. Those who admire the rapid economic growth in mainland China after she rejected full-scale communism in the late 1970s should bear in mind that the three other Chinese economies, in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan, have seen much brisker growth and greater general prosperity, demonstrating the creative power of capitalism. It is true that the West went to war over Poland, South Korea, and Kuwait. But it did not resist by force the annexation of Sudetenland, Tibet, Crimea, and Hong Kong (not to mention the Baltic countries). Most recently, it abandoned Afghanistan. Is Taiwan worth a war? This is a question which has to be discussed seriously, and not simply dismissed either by the hawks who have never seen a war they did not like or by the doves who always want appeasement. First, I should point out that I am using the notion of ‘the West’ in a wide sense, encompassing not only Europe and North America, but also Australia, New Zealand, South Korea and Japan, and possibly other Asian countries such as India, Indonesia and the Philippenes. In the second place, this will never be a question about Taiwan alone. When you feed the hungry wolves, you strengthen them. It is a question about what would happen next, with a greatly emboldened China. This is a continuing dynamic process rather than a stationary state.
Most importantly, the question whether to go to war over Taiwan cannot be discussed in the abstract. Everything depends on where that question would be posed and who would be asking it. If Taiwan, with her natural allies such as the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom, and perhaps South Korea and Japan, would succeed in repelling an initial attack by the misnamed ‘People’s Liberation Army’ of China, then it would be the rulers in Beijing who would be asking this question to themselves: Should we go to war over Taiwan? If however Communist China would manage to occupy Taiwan relatively quickly and effortlessly, before reinforcements could arrive, then it would be the governments of the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom and their allies who would be asking this question: Should we go to war over Taiwan? In both cases the answer is likely to be: No. Therefore the fate of Taiwan will be decided by her capacity to defend herself against an initial attack. Although she is dwarfed by China, the outcome of such a military conflict is not a foregone conclusion. The Goliaths do not invariably defeat the Davids. Remember the naval battle of Salamis in 480 B.C. when an alliance of Greek city states won a victory against the mighty Persian Empire. More recently, consider the Finns in 1939 and the Israelis in 1948. The Finns succeeded in resisting the Red Army sufficiently long and at such a cost to Stalin that he decided to accept Finland’s sovereignty, only claiming some Finnish territories of strategic importance to the Soviet Union. The Israelis managed to repel the attack of the joint Arab League and to defend their sovereign state, and they have done so to this day, with some Arab states eventually recognising Israel.
Taiwan Can, Like Finland in 1939 and Israel in 1948, Defend Herself
These two examples suggest what has to be done. Taiwan is a highly defensible island. She has to maintain such a strong defence force that she can, like Finland in 1939 and Israel in 1948, avoid being occupied in the course of a few days. Then the question will be posed in Beijing rather than in Washington: Should we go to war against the other superpower over Taiwan? But as Edward Luttwak has cogently argued, Taiwan has not been investing sufficiently in her military capabilities, unlike Finland and Israel. She only spends around eleven billion dollars a year on her security, the same amount as Singapore. Israel spends much more, twenty-two billion dollars, on a highly motivated and intensely trained defence force while Finland relies on 600,000 reservists. Taiwan needs a well-equipped and superbly trained standing army of one to two million recruits (in addition to reservists) instead of relying on the Americans. The country should be defended, but primarily by the Taiwanese themselves, and with the help of the Western countries and those of China’s neighbours who want to maintain some balance of power in the region. The recent military deal between the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom has to be extended to Asian countries like Japan and India. There are two reasons why China has started a new Cold War. The communist leadership faces increasing domestic economic and demographic difficulties and desperately wants to preserve and to expand its power and prestige, at the same time as it underestimates the West because of the apparent lack of leadership, the political turmoil and the woke absurdities it observes in North America and Europe. But if Taiwan stands strong enough, with firm messages of support from the West, backed up by the presence near Taiwan of the U.S. Navy and other military forces, Communist China will let it suffice to intimidate rather than to invade. There is no reason why we should be defeated in this new Cold War where Taiwan will be a crucial test. As the Romans said, Si vic pacem, para bellum. If you want peace, prepare for war.