Taipei Times

Three Misconceptions about Taiwan’s Defense

Senior Fellow and Director, China Center
Honour guards take part in a welcome ceremony for Paraguay's President Mario Abdo Benitez and Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen in Taipei on February 16, 2023. (Photo by Sam Yeh / AFP) (Photo by SAM YEH/AFP via Getty Images)
Honor guards take part in a welcome ceremony for Paraguay's President Mario Abdo Benitez and Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen in Taipei, Taiwan, on February 16, 2023. (Sam Yeh/AFP via Getty Images)

The Chinese Communist Party is waging a cognitive war against Taiwan that is presently in full swing. In this effort it is taking advantage of Taiwan’s free-media environment, which makes it all too easy for many people to fall into the public opinion traps the CCP sets up. As a result, people—some unwittingly—spread malicious rumors, echo China’s false narratives, bamboozle some in Taiwan into believing these deepfakes about their country. All of this is detrimental to Taiwan’s democratic and free system, and to the future of the island democracy.

Beijing’s cognitive war has cultivated three major misconceptions among some Taiwanese people. To win that war, these falsehoods must be understood and combated.

The first misconception Beijing has pushed, and reiterated by some pundits in Taiwan, is skepticism about America’s resolve to defend Taiwan: doubts about the strategic intent, determination, and ability of the United States to militarily intervene if the CCP invades Taiwan. With the deepening and strengthening of the CCP’s interference on Taiwan’s elections, suspicion of the United States in Taiwan has spread quietly alarmingly.

This suspicion has deepened just within the past couple of years. It is now openly questioned among some Taiwanese whether the United States would defend Taiwan in the event of an invasion. Some pundits even suggested that TSMC’s establishment of a factory in the United States is a sign of American abandonment of Taiwan because the US is already getting Taiwan’s crown jewel of industry and technology. Others argue that even if the United States supports Taiwan militarily, it will, as it has allegedly done in Ukraine, only use Taiwan as a proxy battlefield between the United States and China to contain and consume the power of the Chinese Communist Party. These suspicions only exacerbate Taipei’s anxiety that it is being used as a chess piece in a game between Beijing and Washington. This of course plays directly into Beijing’s hands.

But these suspicions do not reflect the truth and reality. Instead, the guarantee of US military intervention in the event of a Chinese attack on Taiwan has never been in doubt: there has never been any “strategic ambiguity.” Since the abolition of the Sino-US mutual defense treaty in 1980, not a single US president has stated ambiguously about this, and whenever the CCP has fomented a crisis around Taiwan, the sitting US president without exception has publicly declared or demonstrated the determination and will of the US to directly intervene with military force.

At present, the CCP is heightening its belligerence and military ambition across the Strait, and often engages in saber-rattling. As is the case in the past decades, the current US President, Joseph Biden, has publicly stated on at least four occasions in the past two years that the United States will not hesitate to intervene militarily in the event of the CCP’s armed attack on Taiwan. Though some contend that the US State Department has “corrected” the president’s statements, this contention however is utterly inaccurate and false. On the contrary, whenever a US president, including President Biden, has expressed his determination to protect Taiwan by force, the US State Department has always steadfastly stated that the president’s words are completely consistent with the US policy towards China and Taiwan, and therefore nothing is out of the ordinary.

So what exactly is US policy toward China and Taiwan when it comes to Taiwan’s defense? It includes three inseparable components. First, the United States recognizes that there is a claim that Taiwan is a part of China; second, the United States opposes any use of force to change the status quo in the Taiwan Strait; third, any solution to the Taiwan issue must be agreed to by the people on both sides of the Strait. These three integral points have existed in concert since the Nixon era, and they make clear that there is no contradiction between the US presidents’ repeated announcements of strategic intent to militarily defend Taiwan, and long-term US policy. On the contrary, every statement made by the US State Department in the aftermath of a presidential declaration of America’s strategic intent to militarily defend Taiwan further confirms America’s resolve for military intervention. No one can find any public “correction” by any active senior government officials in this universe that specifically states US presidential declarations of military intervention in the event of a CCP invasion of Taiwan is incorrect or wrong. Because there is none.

Those skeptical of that resolve also ignore a fundamental fact: no CCP leader has any doubts about Washington’s determination to intervene militarily were Beijing to attempt to take Taiwan by force. This is so because these skeptics fail to understand why a democratic and free Taiwan is so important to the national interests of the United States. Taiwan is the first link in the CCP’s chain of aggression in the Indo-Pacific region. If the US sits idly for a military attack on Taiwan, US allies in the Indo-Pacific region and the world over will have immeasurable doubts and concerns about the value of America’s word and the worth of their alliance with the US. The United States also knows that all countries in the Indo-Pacific region that have been bullied, intimidated, and coerced by the Chinese Communist Party, such as Japan, Vietnam, South Korea, India, Australia, and the Philippines, count on the United States to lead a resolute counterattack against a military invasion of Taiwan. Because they all understand that as Taiwan goes, so goes the region.

The second misconception Beijing has cultivated in its cognitive war on Taiwan is the false narrative that if the CCP does not invade Taiwan by force, Taiwan will declare independence. The so-called “Taiwan Independence” is a red herring perpetrated and grossly exaggerated by the CCP. The CCP has used this propaganda line as a pretext for aggression for many years. Yet it, too, runs counter to the reality of Taiwanese public opinion, which has long been to maintain the status quo of neither independence nor unification.

It is under this status quo that Taiwan remains a de facto independent sovereign state, the Republic of China, that has never been under the jurisdiction of the People’s Republic of China for one single day. The political leader in Taiwan, either from the Kuomintang or the Democratic Progressive Party, is called the president of the independent Republic of China, justly and democratically elected by the Taiwanese people. Taiwan’s major political parties share the belief that because Taiwan is already a sovereign country called the Republic of China, there is no need for Taipei to declare independence at all, contrary to the CCP’s insistence on the phantom existence of a robust “Taiwan Independence Movement.”

The truth is that regardless of whether the appellation “Taiwan” appears in brackets after the Republic of China, the existence of an independent Republic of China is an undeniable fact. Based on all my experience working in the US government, and my interactions with all the US political and diplomatic leaders I have dealt with, I have never met or heard of any Taiwan political leader or activist coming to Washington to lobby for Taiwanese independence. The CCP has always been chasing rumors, creating things out of nothing, and looking for trouble where none exists. It is unfortunate that there are also many people in Taiwan who exaggerate the possibility of Taiwan independence without any restraint, ignoring the recognition of the sovereign and independent Republic of China by the vast majority of Taiwanese people.

The third misconception Beijing pushes is the false narrative of cannon fodder: that the United States uses Taiwan to check and balance China, and in the event of an invasion would only use the Taiwanese people as cannon fodder to weaken the PRC for America’s self-interest. This falsehood is as provocative and reckless as it is wrong.

The United States’ commitment to Taiwan’s defense is to protect the free and democratic system that the people of Taiwan have achieved through unremitting struggle. The US and all its democratic allies in the world admire the great achievements the people of Taiwan have made over the past few decades. This admiration stems from an awareness that China’s ambitions for Taiwan are also a result of a deep fear about the enormous inspirational impact of a Chinese-speaking liberal democracy in Taiwan upon the repressed and chained Chinese people in the mainland. Taiwanese who hold to the “cannon fodder” theory fail to realize the great threat that Taiwan’s free and democratic system poses to the CCP’s authoritarian communist government, and its great appeal to the mainland people who lack these freedoms.

The American commitment to Taiwan is for the protection of universal values and democratic and free systems. There is no need for the people of Taiwan to feel that they are a small country with few people, a pawn in the politics of big countries. Many small countries in the world can profoundly affect the world.

Israel, with less than 40 percent of Taiwan’s population and only one-third of Taiwan’s territory, has also endured prolonged diplomatic encirclement, political blockade and cognitive warfare attacks. Yet Israel is not afraid of its existential threats from all sides and strives for self-determination and protects its inviolable sovereignty and democracy. It allies itself with the democracies of the world and serves as a beacon of freedom, democracy, and prosperity in the Middle East.

Just like Israel, Taiwan and its democracy have a huge impact on the world. The people of Taiwan should stand proud, confident that the support of the democratic countries of the world has no ulterior motives. They can have this confidence because the vast majority of democratic countries and alliances, such as NATO and the EU, have come to the new realization that the crux of Taiwan’s struggle is not just an issue of sovereignty, but more importantly one of the continuing epic struggle between democracy and freedom on one side, tyranny and repression on the other. Who wins and loses on this fundamental issue is of great importance, and its significance goes far beyond the narrow Taiwan Strait.

Furthermore, today’s Taiwan is no longer the Taiwan of the past. Taiwan is now an important country in the global economic, trade and technological systems. Taiwan has one of the most educated citizenries in the world, has first-class commercial, industrial, and trade management talents, and occupies a leading, and often dominant, position in many fields that are critical to the world economy.

It is true that China stands as the third-largest trading partner of the United States. But Taiwan’s size is 267 times smaller than that of China, its population is nearly 70 times smaller, with a per capita GDP exceeding those of Japan, South Korea and of course China, Taiwan proudly stands as the United States’ eighth-largest trading partner among the more than 200 countries in the world, and this trade relationship is constantly strengthening. Taiwan also has its own considerable advantages and strengths in finance, technology, politics, and even some aspects of modern warfare. On the other hand, the economic difficulties, social tensions, institutional defects and other international and domestic challenges faced by the CCP are quite severe. The cannon fodder theory serves only Beijing’s interests as Taiwan itself holds many advantages of its own over its giant communist neighbor, both materially and inspirationally.

Finally, it should be noted that whatever tension exists in the Taiwan Strait is the result of provocations perpetrated by Communist China. If the CCP gives up its ambition to conquer a democratic, free, and independent Taiwan, both sides of the Strait will win; if Taiwan succumbs to the CCP’s ambition and cognitive manipulations, the independence, freedom and sovereignty the Republic of China enjoys will cease to exist. With stakes as high as these, Taiwan must do all it can to understand and combat Beijing’s efforts to undermine it.

Read in the Taipei Times.