Ian Easton on Taiwan: why Taiwan matters in the war of ideas between the US and the PRC

In a recent statement, the new European Union Ambassador to the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Jorge Toledo Albinana, said the EU believes Taiwan is part of China. He said Europe supports Taiwan’s peaceful unification with the PRC, not Taiwan independence.

The PRC is ruled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), an atheist Marxist-Leninist regime that exercises complete control over all aspects of state and society in China. Taiwan is a fully independent and sovereign country that has never been part of the territory ruled by Beijing authorities. Unlike PRC nationals, Taiwanese citizens exercise popular sovereignty and have the right to self-determination. In official settings, Taiwan is referred to as the Republic of China (ROC, Taiwan).

Ambassador Albinana’s remarks were notable because the term he used, “peaceful unification,” is a CCP euphemism that refers to the subversion and forced annexation of Taiwan’s ROC government. It’s a seemingly benign phrase that, in reality, describes the destruction of a nation-state ranked among the top ten democracies in the world.

The PRC claims all of Taiwan and is waging a global campaign to isolate and weaken the country, laying the groundwork for a future takeover that would likely involve a mix of covert operations and overt military attacks.

Experts say Taipei is unlikely to capitulate to Beijing’s demands, a view supported by polling data. On March 15, 2022, a Taiwanese public opinion poll found that 70.2% of respondents were willing to go to war to defend Taiwan.

Another poll found that more than 60 percent of Taiwanese between the ages of 20 and 39 said they were ready to “go to the battlefield” if China attacked. The same poll showed that 72% of respondents aged 40-49 said they would fight.

The PRC is engaged in the largest peacetime military build-up undertaken by any country in more than a century. Beijing now has the largest army, navy and theater missile force in the world, as well as a rapidly growing nuclear arsenal capable of intercontinental strikes. Chinese military officers writing in authoritative documents describe the United States as their main enemy and describe the conquest of Taiwan as their number one mission.

China’s leader, President Xi Jinping (習近平), has said his government aims to export its totalitarian model overseas and achieve what he calls “world socialism” and “international communism”. World socialism is a concept that envisions the overthrow of all liberal democratic governments and the formation of an integrated system of one-party dictatorships under the control of Beijing. Xi calls this process “building a community of common destiny for all mankind” and “building a shared future for all mankind.”

According to Xi, the violent socialist phase of mankind’s political development would be followed by a borderless utopia: international communism. Since 2020, new textbooks have been published by the CPC Central Party School and the Central Propaganda Department on Xi Jinping’s personal ideology. Some texts suggest that Xi thinks his goals could be achieved within the next three decades.

Analysts cannot measure the degree to which Xi and other CCP elites believe in the radical ideas they publicly embrace. Chinese officials may view ideology as an instrument to increase state control and international power. But in their own words, the Chinese ruling class is driven by an irrational and regressive dogma that rejects science, reason, humanism and universal values.

The US and the PRC are locked in a war of ideas, and the outcome will depend, in part, on Taiwan’s future. However, the US government continues to support the legitimacy of the PRC (China), while consciously undermining the legitimacy of the ROC (Taiwan). An example of this could be seen on July 21, 2022, when President Joe Biden publicly discouraged House Speaker Nancy Pelosi from taking a long-planned trip to visit Taiwan. President Biden said, “The military thinks it’s not a good idea right now.”

In October 2021, more than 150 Chinese warplanes, including a significant number of nuclear-capable bombers, conducted a menacing drill inside Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone. President Biden refrained from calling President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) to express his support and solidarity. Instead, he requested a call with President Xi, and the two held a 3.5-hour virtual summit.

To date, President Biden has not called, met, or emailed the President of Taiwan. While the Biden administration has hailed the bilateral relationship as “rock-solid,” little progress has been made in making headway in strengthening US-Taiwanese relations.

In the absence of real policy changes in Washington, Chinese military operations could fundamentally transform the security situation in the Taiwan Strait. As such, the United States and Taiwan should consider integrating their forces in future joint training and operational readiness exercises. Both sides need to consider how to safely conduct coalition operations, which they are currently unprepared to do without a significant risk of friendly fire.

The U.S. government should pay particular attention to the benefits of establishing a significant presence of special operations forces and marines in Taiwan for training, advising, and liaison missions. They could serve as a strategic trigger, signaling American resolve in the face of military coercion.

Ship visits, joint Taiwan Strait patrols, and regular delegations of senior Washington leaders to Taiwan are additional low-cost, high-impact options that are available to deter CCP aggression, bolster Taiwan’s defense and improve the prospects for peace.

Although sometimes overlooked, the survival and success of Taiwanese democracy is vitally important to US efforts to stop the spread of illiberal forces around the world.

Ian Easton is Senior Director of the Project 2049 Institute.

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