Taipei Times

The Globalization of Taiwan’s Defense

Senior Fellow and Director, China Center
A Taiwanese honour guard takes part in a changing of the guard ceremony at the Martyrs' Shrine in Taipei on April 10, 2023. (Jameson Wu/AFP via Getty Images)

In the 74 years since its founding, the leaders of the People’s Republic of China have always seen the Republic of China in Taiwan as a thorn in their collective side. The Chinese Communist Party has wished for nothing more than to remove this thorn and fulfill its vision of communist revolution. During the Cold War, Beijing couched these ambitions in the language of “liberating” Taiwan. Now it strikes chords of national unity and sings the new propaganda line of unification of the motherland.

But in those 74 years the Republic of China has undergone a revolution of its own: a revolution of freedom establishing a truly open society in the Chinese-speaking world, embracing liberty, pluralism, and self-determination. Because of its values, its geography, and its centrality to global trade, this beacon of freedom in East Asia has emerged from its humble beginnings to become a linchpin in the international order. Defending Taiwan, therefore, has become a global endeavor. Ensuring its security is not only essential for the United States, the Indo-Pacific region, and Europe, but for the propagation of democracy worldwide.

The United States, the world’s superpower since World War II, has always seen Taiwan as a bulwark against communism; defending it now is as important as defending West Berlin was in 1948 and 1961. Hence Washington resolutely opposes any military invasion of the island. Even since the termination of their Mutual Defense Treaty in 1980, the United States has continued to commit to Taiwan’s defense through the Taiwan Relations Act and a series of executive orders and policy statements. That neither side of the Taiwan Strait is allowed to use force to change the status quo, and that both sides of the strait must endorse any prospective settlement, have been central tenets of trilateral relations among Washington, Taipei, and Beijing since the 1970s. As previous editions of this column have made clear, there is no strategic ambiguity in US policy: every American president since Carter has left no doubt that he would use military force to stop the Chinese Communist Party’s invasion of Taiwan. As the CCP has accelerated its military preparations and intensified its rhetoric, the current US President, Joe Biden, has remained unequivocal in his vows for Taiwan’s defense through military intervention, so central is the island to American interests.

Other Indo-Pacific nations have also prioritized Taiwan’s security. Leaders of both Japan and Australia have insisted that what matters to Taiwan’s defense matters to theirs too. The Philippine government, in dispute with China over territorial waters in the South China Sea, also casts a wary eye on the CCP’s ambitions, and is determined to stand with its ally, the United States. To that end Manila has granted crucial basing rights to the US military on several strategic islands close to Taiwan near the Bashi Channel and Taiwan Strait. South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol stated a few weeks ago, with crystal clarity, that the Taiwan problem is by no means a regional problem, but a global problem.

Europe is also keenly concerned. The leaders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization — whose primary mission is European security — have asserted that Taiwan’s defense should also be one of NATO’s obligations. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has repeatedly stated that what concerns Taiwan’s security is also what concerns NATO’s security. At a time when the CCP’s military threats are in full swing, Secretary General Stoltenberg has met several times with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to discuss Taiwan’s security. Josep Borrell, the powerful chief of foreign affairs for the European Union, also published an article at the end of April proposing that the navies of EU countries send warships to conduct strategic patrols in the Taiwan Strait in demonstration of the EU’s commitment to the island’s defense. In recent years legislators and politicians from other important EU countries, including France, Germany, Lithuania, the Czech Republic, and Poland have also visited Taiwan in solidarity. Whatever appeasement rhetoric that has managed to escape the lips of European leaders, like that of French President Emmanuel Macron, has been mercilessly criticized and refuted in European public forums.

These nations have all been galvanized by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Putin’s folly has raised an important alarm for liberal democracies all over the world, and Beijing’s threats share his logic of aggression. Formerly great empires, Russia and China are inspired by revanchist dreams of their once-unified nations. This logic of aggression completely disregards the sovereignty and independence of neighboring countries — Ukraine, Finland, Taiwan and so on — that happen to share linguistic and cultural traditions with the aggressor. If this irredentist worldview is not defeated, world peace cannot be guaranteed. From this point of view, defending Taiwan’s democracy is undoubtedly of universal significance.

The CCP, despite its unwarranted reputation for shrewdness, has also inadvertently unified the democracies of the world by making clear that its war against Taiwan is only the first battle in its fight for global domination. Beijing’s high-tech military is preparing for global war. Its oceangoing navy, global strike and deterrence force, space command and control capabilities, and acquisition of numerous deep-sea ports worldwide are not all reserved for an invasion of Taiwan. Instead, they reflect the CCP’s global ambitions. Because of this, the world has become more aware that defending Taiwan is essential to defeating China. No entity has done more than the CCP to globalize the defense of Taiwan.

Yet in many ways it is only natural that Taiwan’s defense be international in scope. Despite its tiny land area, the island is an outsize player in the world economy, crucial to global supply chains for semiconductors and biomedicine. It is located at a strategic chokepoint in key global trade routes abutting the first and second island chains of the Western Pacific, routes the CCP covets. If Beijing takes Taiwan, it will control commercial traffic through the South China Sea, the East China Sea, and even the Strait of Malacca. This would be an untenable outcome for leaders in Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul, for whom defending Taiwan means safeguarding domestic economies reliant on international trade.

The EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell said as much at the European Parliament three weeks ago, when he insisted, “Taiwan is clearly part of our geostrategic perimeter to guarantee peace... It is not only for a moral reason that an action against Taiwan must necessarily be rejected. It is also because it would be, in economic terms, extremely serious for us, because Taiwan has a strategic role in the production of the most advanced semiconductors.” If Taipei falls, the world’s most advanced technologies could quickly be at risk.

Yet much more than tech is at stake in the strait. The preservation of the universal values of freedom and self-determination and the promotion of democracy as a viable political model hinge on the defense of Taiwan. In the Asia-Pacific region, the most important trend of the past several decades has been that region’s gradual move toward democratization. As several authoritarian regimes of the Cold War collapsed in the wave of protests organized with the support of the United States — beginning in 1986 with the overthrow of the Marcos regime by the People’s Power revolution in the Philippines — countries of the region began to see a future in democracy. South Korea, long under dictatorship, became a strong and proud modern democratic country. The people of Taiwan embraced this vision too, making their country a signal light for all of East Asia. This beacon of democracy poses a huge threat to the few remaining communist regimes who take their cues from Beijing.

That is because the democratic practices of the people of Taiwan inspire the 1.4 billion mainland Chinese under the rule of the Communist Party. A few days ago, a Netflix series called Wave Makers, produced in Taiwan with a plot concerning Taiwan’s democratic elections, aroused great interest among tens of millions of viewers throughout China. They are all asking a question: since the people of Taiwan can freely elect their own leaders, why can’t we?

Taiwan’s soft power and the attractiveness of its way of life threaten the CCP dictatorship, which reckons its people would be much easier to control without the inspiration of their Taiwanese brethren. They know that Taiwanese dreams are the dreams of their own people, too. For this reason as much as any, the millions in Taiwan who harbor aspirations to live perpetually in freedom’s light will never be alone in their homeland’s defense.

Read in Taipei Times.