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Guest Contribution: Understanding the China-Taiwan conflict

Bush+school+professor+Ron+Sievert+says+voters+should+be+informed+on+Taiwan+and+breaks+down+what+they+should+know+ahead+of+the+2024+election.
Photo by Cameron Johnson

Bush school professor Ron Sievert says voters should be informed on Taiwan and breaks down what they should know ahead of the 2024 election.

As the 2024 election shapes up, it is perhaps natural that politicians from both parties will take turns proclaiming how tough they will be against what is perceived as potential Chinese aggression towards Taiwan. The U.S. policy has long been “strategic ambiguity,” but President Biden surprised some of his advisers by stating clearly that the U.S. would militarily defend Taiwan in the event of an invasion. Senator Tom Cotton has proclaimed that the U.S. should change its policy to “strategic clarity: the U.S. will come to the defense of Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack … strategic clarity and military strength.” Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee Michael McCaul reflects a more nuanced approach, stating that he strongly supports Taiwan, but in the event of an invasion, our response should be discussed with Congress and the final analysis would be up to the American people.

Chairman McCaul is absolutely correct in his public declaration that the decision belongs to the American people, but how knowledgeable is the American electorate about Taiwan? A poll taken in March 2023 indicated that, in the event of a Chinese invasion, 37% of respondents stated the U.S. should help protect Taiwan with military force, 22% were opposed, but, perhaps of greatest concern, 41% said they do not know enough about the topic to offer an opinion.

The position of the American people should be reflected in their votes for candidates in the upcoming election, but for the people to choose wisely, it is important that they know the facts. It is the duty of American politicians, media and journalists to explain, not obscure or gloss over with one sentence, those facts. Any effort to list fundamental truths risks being attacked for bias, but the author believes the following narrative catalogs at least some of the essential elements that must be understood by the American people.

First, those politicians who aggressively proclaim that we should use the U.S. military to defend the “independence” of Taiwan and the American public must understand that since 1972, we have formally acknowledged that “there is but one China and that Taiwan is part of China. The United States does not challenge that position.” This major diplomatic concession has already been made. Only 15 countries have official relations with Taiwan and it is not recognized by the U.N. Other than when it was occupied by Japan, China controlled Taiwan since the 17th century. Based on the fact that 41% of Americans stated that they do not know enough about this topic to offer an opinion, it is very likely that many Americans simply do not know these essential facts. An attack on Taiwan is not Germany invading Poland or even Iraq attacking Kuwait. 

At the same time, since the Chinese nationalist forces fled to Taiwan in 1949, the island has developed into a flourishing democracy and a major trading partner with an extremely strong economy. Taiwan was the 15th largest exporter of goods in the world in 2021 and manufactured “60% of the world’s semiconductors and 90% of the most advanced ones.” The percentage of the population who identify as solely Chinese has dropped significantly to 2.7% while 63% regard themselves as Taiwanese. The United States has stated it opposes any unilateral changes in the status quo and that although “we do not support Taiwan independence we expect cross-strait differences to be resolved by peaceful means.”

Finally, and perhaps most importantly for the American electorate, war games demonstrate that war with China in the Taiwan Strait would be disastrous for both sides. A 2022 think tank simulation predicted heavy losses in “ships, hundreds of aircraft and tens of thousands of troops.” The U.S. reportedly “failed miserably” in a 2020 war game centered on Taiwan.

In thinking about how the U.S. might reply to a move on Taiwan, politicians and the electorate also must consider that Chinese action might not initially be kinetic. If China can not get what it wants through diplomacy, its immediate reaction may be cyberattacks that bring down the island’s electrical grid, prevent commercial transactions, degrade the military and potentially place the entire population at the mercy of mainland China. Depending on the U.S. response, there would then also be the possibility of a cyber war with China with localized or major national effects on the U.S. homeland.

Our well-intentioned and justifiable efforts to support democracy in far-off locations since World War II might be compared by a future historian to the struggles of Rome in its last centuries of dominance as it fought extremely difficult, sometimes dubious, wars on its distant frontiers. Our military, similar to the legions of Rome, is probably second to none in training and technology. Yet we have found that this superiority did not overwhelm our unsophisticated enemies in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan despite the heroic, often Herculean efforts, of many brave American men and women. Belligerent armchair strategists and politicians must acknowledge that our technological edge does not guarantee victory and that China certainly is not as unsophisticated as some of our previous opponents.

It appears clear that the U.S. will have to make a decision fairly soon on how to proceed if Taiwan is seriously threatened. Taiwanese Presidential elections will be held on Jan. 13, 2024, and the leading candidate in the polls, Vice President Lai Ching-te, is a strong believer in Taiwanese independence. Reflecting the mood of many who grew up free of the mainland, and raising major concerns in Beijing, he recently stated “Taiwan is already a sovereign, independent country called the Republic of China … It is not part of the People’s Republic of China.” Chinese President Xi Jinping, on the other hand, has purged opposition in his Party Congress, defined reunification as a “requirement” for the proposed “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” and is expected to have his military ready for invasion no later than 2027.

One would think that, on its face, serious negotiation would be the only logical way out of this predicament. Until recently, this is the course the author and probably others would have strongly recommended. However, the public needs to know that Hong Kong’s experience under Chinese rule has tremendously undermined any faith in the People’s Republic of China, or PRC, as a trustworthy partner. As Secretary Blinken stated in March 2023, “The [PRC] continues to erode Hong Kong’s judicial independence and the rule of law. This past year, PRC and Hong Kong authorities have further criminalized dissent, undermining the human rights and fundamental freedoms of people in Hong Kong and dismantling the city’s promised autonomy.” 

Reluctantly, one must conclude that as of today, the only way forward is to arm Taiwan with extremely effective weapons and even train its army for possible guerilla warfare in anticipation that the PRC leadership may determine that the costs of invasion will be so high that its own government could be threatened from within. This is not a great solution but appears preferable to any politician committing the U.S. to a disastrous war in the Pacific through militant statements on the 2024 campaign trail. We do not want to agitate or be locked into such an action, but rather need to be calm and extend this issue in the hope that, with time, different regimes in the PRC will be ready to accept a more just outcome.

Professor Ronald Sievert is an Associate Professor of the Practice and Director of the Certificate in Advanced International Affairs Program at the Bush School of Government and Public Service and contributed this piece to The Battalion.
 

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