Crisis on Schrödinger’s Island
As the world realigns for Cold War II, Taiwan is the sleepy backwater where it can all go hot
Sometimes it can seem like Taiwan kinda forgot about the threat of a Chinese invasion. We’ve just been under the sword of Damocles for so long. When Trump came along and handed out diplomatic favors like candy, the Taiwanese cheered. When COVID-19 came along and our world-beating pandemic response got us international kudos, it burnished our burgeoning Taiwanese pride. When China tried to bully us by banning Taiwanese pineapple imports, our winsome president made #freedompineapples go viral and it just seemed like another PR coup.
In stark contrast with China’s dour and belligerent wolf warrior diplomats, our government officials nicknamed themselves “cat warriors” and began resourcefully looking for diplomatic space. Not gonna lie, we totally kill it on twitter.
Unlike the unpredictable Chen Shui-bian, the first Taiwanese president from the pro-independence DPP, Tsai Ing-wen seems both canny and mild. The consensus is she would never step over the red line and outright declare independence. Nevertheless, a new Taiwanese consciousness that is fundamentally independent is emerging under her watch. And the Ministry of Foreign Affairs regularly tweets out Declarations of Independence that makes me wonder if they missed the memo about the thousands of missiles aimed at Taiwan from our neighbor to the west.
But guess who hasn’t forgot about a possible a possible invasion of Taiwan? China. China never forgot. And if we don’t think they at least have a plan and the military wherewithal to make it happen, we’re sadly deluded. But will they execute on the plan? That’s a separate question.
China doesn’t want to invade Taiwan if it doesn’t have to invade Taiwan. But an independent Taiwan will be intolerable to China, triggering invasion. Similarly, Taiwan as a part of China is intolerable to both Taiwan and the United States. These are not normative statements, these are positive facts. The only way for peace to prevail was for Taiwan to become Schrodinger’s Island…Chinese and not Chinese, independent and not independent. The status quo of Taiwan is to remain flickering in uncertainty. And as tempting as it is for all sides…we mustn’t open the box, for now.
Rewind the tape:
The US held out for 25 years from recognizing Mao’s government in China. When Nixon went to China in 1972 but it was seven long years before relations were actually normalized in 1979. The sticking point? Taiwan, Taiwan, Taiwan. The Chinese were insistent and the US essentially caved. As outlined in the Three Communiques, it would shift recognition to Beijing, abrogate its defense pact with the KMT, and promise only ever to have informal relations with Taiwan. Let’s call it a a commitment to the “One China” framework.
Just as it seem as if all is lost, Congress throws Taiwan a lifeline, the Taiwan Relations Act, a piece of congressional legislation that declared the US will continue to provide for Taiwan’s self defense and that any use of force to address the Taiwan Issue would be “a matter of great concern.” Reagan further consolidated Taiwan’s position with an internal memo nicknamed the Six Assurances reaffirming the Taiwan Relations Act. These document fall short of a defense treaty as the executive branch is not bound by them. But they exist.
Finally, in 1992, two semi-governmental organizations, one from China, one from Taiwan met in Hong Kong and came up with a truly daft-sounding compromise. If China thinks it owns Taiwan, and Taiwan (well, the KMT) think it owns China, this means both sides AGREE that there’s One China! Great. Now we can do business. This later became codified as the 92 consensus: “One China, differently interpreted.”
The Three Communiques. The Taiwan Relations Act. The 92 Consensus. Think of them each as a diplomatic sausage each made under great duress, by parties with extreme disagreements, and often riven with contradictions and ambiguities. But made they were and their existence is the foundation of the decades of peace Taiwan has enjoyed up to the present day.
The problem is, none of the three parties could resist snacking off the diplomatic sausage that needs to exist in order for peace to prevail. Slice a sliver off the salami, you’ve still got the same salami, more or less. But as every dieter knows, if everybody does it all the time, eventually the salami doesn’t exist anymore. The Chinese salami-sliced when they moved the goalposts of the 92 Consensus from “One China, differently interpreted” to mean something more like “One Country, Two Systems.” The US salami-sliced on the Three Communiques when they allowed former Taiwanese president Lee Teng-hui to visit the states. Taiwan salami-sliced when President Tsai stopped referring to the 92 Consensus altogether.
Then along came Trump, and whole chunks started flying off the salami. Tsai called Trump before he took office. Trump took the call. That was the beginning of diplomatic upgrade after diplomatic upgrade, culminating in Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lifting restrictions on contact between US officials and their Taiwanese counterparts at the very end of Trump’s one-term presidency. The Taiwanese ate this up. After decades of the American cold-shoulder being an international orphan, here was an American president who was truly pro-Taiwan.
Again, Trump said “Taiwan is like two feet from China. We’re 8,000 miles away. If they invade, there isn’t a f***ing thing we can do about it.” Matters not. His Taiwanese fans remained stalwart. So much so that Taiwan was basically rooting for Trump in the 2020 presidential elections. Insane, considering this is a man that would sell them down the river without a second thought.
As tension rises in the Taiwan Straits yet again, some in Washington think it’s time to drop the strategic ambiguity and openly support Taiwan. It sounds like the right thing to do, but it would also be dumb. China’s military leveled up their hardware big time after the Kosovo embassy bombing and the Taiwan Straits crisis during the Clinton years. In short, dropping strategic ambiguity would be calling Beijing’s bluff, and you don’t call someone’s bluff if the odds are not in your favor.
The answer, as unsatisfying as it may be, is to continue to embrace the ambiguity of the status quo and keep kicking the can of resolution down that road.
The good news is that, contrary to the prevailing wisdom, Beijing is not in fact looking for excuses or an opportunity to attack Taiwan: it is looking for reasons not to do so. The danger is that Chinese leaders currently do not perceive Washington and Taipei to be providing those reasons.
I don’t want to get into any arguments about how China is the baddie here. Sometimes it’s not about whether something is right or wrong, but whether it’s relevant. It’s not about what should China do, but what could China do and what would China do.
I believe it is fair to assume that China can successfully invade Taiwan. I also believe that China would, if it sees that Taiwan is slipping out of its grasp into independence. People are far too blithe about the possibility of invasion in Taiwan. “In a move likely to anger China…” became a running joke. And maybe they’re right. China is bluffing. China’s got too much on its plate. But we can’t know that and there is a non-zero and likely quite substantial that China has got a plan and we’ll be oblivious to it until it’s put in place.
Taiwan has been living in a dream world. No more dancing around the red lines. National security needs to be top of mind: there is a dire need to acquire more asymmetric weapons that can hit China where it hurts from Taiwan. We also need to solve our energy problem, essential to survive a blockade. Minimize the provocations. Maximize the armaments.
As the DPP loves to point out, Taiwan is already de facto independent. If we would like to go on enjoying that de facto independence, would it not be worth it for the official twitter of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to refrain from owning the Chinese Government on Twitter? Look, I’ll do it for you guys.
The US needs to ratchet down the superficial belligerence and while gathering the allies. This task has been made far simpler by China’s recent Wolf Warrior Antics. Now more and more countries see China as a threat, and rightly so. The question is whether the world can get it together in time to counter that threat.
Together, they must exerting economic and political pressure on China and make it clear that the cost of invading Taiwan will be high and ever mounting.
Let it not be war, at least not before we’re ready. Because if war came today, I really don’t see a scenario where Taiwan does not eventually become a bloodier Hong Kong. And the whole world will become a much more dangerous place.