China and Taiwan Could Be Headed Towards a Showdown. What Should America Do?

James Holmes

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“Independence Support Spikes,” blared a headline this week in the Taipei Times, one of my favorite erstwhile publishing haunts. And blare it should. A Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation poll indicated that a striking 54 percent of respondents favor early independence from China, 23.4 percent back the cross-strait status quo, 12.5 percent favor early unification with China, and the remainder made no response or were unsure. Breaking down the numbers among those who prefer the status quo—who in effect are content to postpone settling the question indefinitely—the pollsters found that 64.4 percent of respondents support independence, now or later, while just 17.8 percent endorse unification across the Taiwan Strait.

The poll shattered longstanding patterns in popular opinion. Declared foundation chairman Michael You: “In my research on public surveys on these issues over the past 30 years, this is the highest rate of support among Taiwanese for independence,” not to mention “the lowest figure for people supporting unification with China.”

And indeed the breakdown is stunning. For many years opinion on the island was steady and predictable. Some small percentage, generally under 10 percent of the electorate, generally favored either immediate independence or immediate unification. The middle 80 percent or so were content to kick the can down the road in hopes of getting their wish sometime in the indefinite future, whether that wish was for unification or for independence. And why not? I used to spend a fair amount of time on Taiwan and found the status quo there pretty darned pleasant. Some large share of that 80 percent backed eventual independence while the remainder backed eventual unification. The proportions sidled gradually toward independence as demographics shifted. Youthful islanders defined themselves as Taiwanese while the elder generation, many of mainland origins, went to their reward. Events seem to have accelerated that trend—as You notes.

Why the sudden surge in pro-independence sentiment?

Depicting it as a “spike,” as the Times did, implies that this is a passing phase. After all, the curve tracing a spike ascends along a steep upgrade, reaches an apex, then plummets. Chairman You attributed the results mainly to the coronavirus pandemic, saying he could imagine no other “reasonable explanation for the results.” Doubtless there’s something to that. By most accounts President Tsai Ing-wen’s government in Taipei handled the pandemic well, helped by Taiwan’s island geography. The government could regulate the flow of people across its frontiers, keeping the infected out to contain the problem while simplifying the task of preserving public health within. Taipei would lose the authority to control the island’s borders should it be subsumed within China. Poll respondents, it appears, want to preserve their island’s de facto sovereignty in order to ensure the authorities can control its borders and ward off cross-border infection.

Plausible. Oddly, though, You ruled out the China factor when interpreting the survey results. If the pandemic is the only reasonable explanation, then everything else must be unreasonable. Right? But Taiwanese pay attention to their surroundings, which include far more than disease outbreaks. The coronavirus is neither the only threat to Taiwan; nor is it a mortal threat. The mainland does pose a mortal threat. Beijing doesn’t bother concealing its aims vis-à-vis the island, and it shows anew every day that it is prepared to use military might to get its way, from the East China Sea to the South China Sea to the frontier with India.

And then there’s Hong Kong. Taiwanese have long understood that Hong Kong’s fate today would be theirs tomorrow should they submit to unification. That fate has taken a dismal turn. Beijing has been constricting Hong Kong’s freedoms for many years. Just this week the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) enacted “national security” legislation fabricating vaguely defined crimes and granting officialdom sweeping police powers to punish them. In so doing Xi and his henchmen demolished the “one country, two systems” framework governing Hong Kong affairs, whereby the city was supposed to remain autonomous until around midcentury. That’s the same arrangement they have offered Taiwan to coax the islanders into accepting mainland rule. The situation in Hong Kong reminds anyone paying attention that Beijing regards no commitment as forever, no matter how solemn. All promises are perishable—and CCP magnates determine when one hits its expiration date.

Small wonder President Tsai has rejected overtures from the mainland under the guise of one country, two systems. No leader knowingly accepts a suicide pact. And that’s what it would be. If Taipei consented to unification under any formula, or if China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) launched a cross-strait offensive and won, the democratic government in Taipei would cease to exist. Taiwanese would lose their liberties over time, just as Hong Kong residents have. With apologies to You, it’s eminently reasonable for Taiwanese to endorse policies aimed at fending off such an apocalyptic destiny. If that’s what respondents are saying, the proper metaphor for the poll may not be a spike but a tectonic shift that permanently alters the public-opinion landscape. Pro-independence sentiment will endure even as the pandemic subsides.

Now, military preparations across the Taiwan Strait are nothing new. A standard talking point among officials in Taipei lists the number of ballistic missiles the PLA has emplaced on the mainland within striking range of the island. Though potent, however, missiles remain over the horizon and mostly out of public view within their launchers. They are abstract. Rocket forces have minimal emotional resonance with people not schooled in military technology, including most ordinary Taiwanese. But the Chinese Communist Party has stepped up its threats over the past year in in-your-face fashion. PLA warships now cruise around the island’s periphery as a matter of course while PLA warplanes routinely probe its airspace. These threats are readily intelligible to anyone, as though calculated to galvanize opinion among the islanders.

Hand it to CCP strongman Xi Jinping: he is a uniter. His bluster and saber-rattling may well unite Taiwanese behind the cause of independence.

So Michael You’s interpretation of the survey results makes sense but remains incomplete. He is correct that threats rally people. Self-preservation is an irresistible motive in human affairs. Self-help is a common remedy. Taiwanese may see independence as a way to help themselves in the face of both disease and cross-strait aggression—especially if they believe they could uphold their independence despite the military onslaught the mainland has vowed to undertake. (Beijing wrote its threat into law many years ago.) A majority may believe just that judging from the 55 percent of poll respondents who disclaim fears of attack—mirroring the proportion who espouse independence.

That self-confidence augurs well for coalition building and maintenance between Taiwan and the United States. Readers of these pixels know that one go-to passage in the strategic canon comes from Carl von Clausewitz, who observes that the value a society attaches to its “political object,” or goal, determines “the sacrifices to be made for it in magnitude and also in duration. Once the expenditure of effort exceeds the value of the political object, the object must be renounced and peace must follow.” Thinking about wartime costs and benefits resembles purchasing something on an installment plan. The magnitude of the effort is the amount paid out in each payment, measured in lives, national treasure, and military hardware. The duration is how many payments it takes to pay off the balance. Multiplying the two yields the total cost of some political aim.

In other words, a society has to prize something dearly to make steep payments over the long term.

Try a commercial analogy. If you prize a luxury car and can afford one, you might dig deep and purchase a BMW roadster. If you don’t care that much about bling or can’t afford a flashy ride, you settle for something less expensive—maybe even a used Ford. Is keeping Taiwan independent a BMW or a Ford for the United States? The value Americans assign to it—how much they treasure the island’s independence—dictates how much they’re willing to spend on it. Taipei needs to convince its ally that it is a BMW selling for a low, low price. It needs to show that an independent Taiwan is precious to Americans. In Clausewitzian parlance, the value of the object is high. And Taipei needs to show that the cost of protecting Taiwan is affordable for the United States, the cheaper the better. The magnitude and duration of the effort are bearable under Clausewitz’s formula.

Message: keeping Taiwan free is a bargain!

Public Opinion Foundation polling data should abet Taipei’s cause. Allies help those who help themselves. Much of Winston Churchill’s diplomacy during the dark days of 1939-1941 aimed at convincing a reluctant United States that Great Britain would stand against Nazism. And so it did—buoyed by inspired leadership and public fortitude. An apathetic Britain would have looked like a losing cause. A plucky Britain merited U.S. support. It was extraordinarily valuable to the United States and thus merited an effort of lavish magnitude and long duration. If a majority of Taiwanese both covet independence from China and are willing to fight for it, the leadership in Washington will find it easier to gather popular support on this side of the Pacific—and to order U.S. forces into action.

Succoring free peoples is an idea that resonates in American society, but Taiwanese must not kid themselves. Washington will not automatically honor its informal security commitment to Taiwan. Like Britain at the outset of World War II, Taiwan must show itself to be a worthy and affordable cause. For its part, Beijing will try to depreciate Taiwan’s value to Americans while convincing them they will have to pay BMW prices for a clunker—if they can afford the sticker price at all. Xi will try to turn Clausewitzian cost/benefit logic to strategic advantage. A fair number of doomsayers here in the West seem receptive to such messaging, writing off the island as not worth the effort or expense.

How will Washington come down in the cross-strait standoff? There are hopeful signs. The latest: recently the War Zone carried a story about soldiers from the U.S. Army’s 1st Special Forces Group, the famous Green Berets, training with their counterparts on Taiwan. Releasing such footage is rare. It signals to influential audiences, including Taipei and Beijing, that the U.S. leadership does believe Taiwan is a worthy cause and is prepared to come to its aid in times of strife. It signals that Washington has skin in the game of Taiwan’s independence and will be there for the islanders should war come. Putting American lives in harm’s way is as firm a commitment as there is. It could deter Beijing. And disclosing Green Beret operations signals that the U.S. and Taiwanese armed forces work together on practical matters. Armed forces fight the way they train. If two partners train together regularly, they’re apt to fight as one.

Will it be easy to defend Taiwan? No. But John F. Kennedy delivered a speech at Rice University in 1962 in which he asked rhetorically, “why does Rice play Texas?” (He was referring to the gridiron mismatch between the Texas universities.) JFK proclaimed that societies—whether it’s the beleaguered Rice football program or the American people—attempt great feats “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

Let’s get on with it.

James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and the author, most recently, of A Brief Guide to Maritime Strategy. The views voiced here are his alone.

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