When British prime minister Neville Chamberlain sought to appease Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler by standing aside while Hitler's armies invaded Czechoslovakia in 1938, he justified his decision in a radio address saying it was horrible that Britain should consider going to war "because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing."
Today, history may be repeating itself, with China threatening to use force to conquer Taiwan.
US support for far-away Taipei is dwindling, making it possible that Washington might not help defend Taiwan against China.
Consider the subtle change in US President George W. Bush's stance. Shortly after he took office in 2001, the president told a TV interviewer that the US would do "whatever it takes" to protect Taiwan.
"Our nation will help Taiwan to defend itself," he declared.
In an address in Prague last month, the president praised Taiwan and South Korea for marching toward democracy. But he said not a word about the US helping to defend Taiwan against a China that has repeatedly said it will use force if Taiwan does not submit peacefully.
This turnabout has been several years in the making.
Three years ago, Ted Galen Carpenter of the Cato Institute in Washington wrote an assessment that is increasingly heard today in an echo of Chamberlain:
"No reasonable American would be happy about the possibility of a democratic Taiwan being forcibly absorbed by an authoritarian China, but preserving Taiwan's de facto independence is not worth risking war with a nuclear-armed power capable of striking the United States," he wrote.
Those who doubt the willingness of the US to defend Taiwan point to blood and funds spent in the unpopular war in Iraq. Even though the US could confront China with naval and air power, they argue, polls indicate that political support would be lacking.
Further, they point to China's rise as a political and military power that must be reckoned with, and the fear of China in other Asian countries. They point to the economic intertwining of the US and China. Last year China was the second-largest exporter to the US after Canada, and the fourth-largest market for US exports after Canada, Mexico and Japan.
Political leaders in Taiwan, notably President Chen Shui-bian (
While the application would be blocked by China, an affirmative vote on the referendum would underscore Taiwan's drive for independence and erode China's claim over Taiwan.
The US State Department immediately reflected Bush's displeasure: "The US opposes any initiative that appears designed to change Taiwan's status unilaterally," the department asserted.
"Such a move would appear to run counter to President Chen's repeated commitments to President Bush" not to press for independence, it said.
Taiwan has also lost US support by appearing to be unwilling to defend itself. Taipei has dithered over the purchase of a large arms package that Bush offered in 2001 and US officers have said that Taiwan's forces, while showing signs of improvement, have been slow to modernize.
The consequences of US failure to defend Taiwan would be profound.
An experienced China watcher said: "There is no upside to this."
The US' reputation as a reliable ally would be damaged, and possibly destroyed, in the eyes of treaty partners in South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Thailand and Australia. The same would be true of friends in Singapore, Indonesia and India.
Acquiescing in China's takeover of Taiwan would jeopardize US naval supremacy in the western Pacific and to give China control of the northern entrance of the South China Sea, through which more shipping passes than through the Suez and Panama canals combined.
To abandon a fledgling democracy would undercut the ability of any administration in Washington, whether Republican or Democratic, to persuade other countries to undertake democratic reforms.
Moreover, there is no guarantee that China would be satisfied with conquering Taiwan. Beijing is acquiring the capability to project power beyond Taiwan into the rest of Asia and the Pacific.
This analogy, too, is rooted in history.
After Chamberlain's address in 1938, Winston Churchill, who was to become Britain's wartime leader, muttered: "The government had to choose between shame and war. They choose shame and they will get war."
Richard Halloran is a writer based in Hawaii.
Late last month, Beijing introduced changes to school curricula in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, requiring certain subjects to be taught in Mandarin rather than Mongolian. What is Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) seeking to gain from sending this message of pernicious intent? It is possible that he is attempting cultural genocide in Inner Mongolia, but does Xi also have the same plan for the democratic, independent nation of Mongolia? The controversy emerged with the announcement by the Inner Mongolia Education Bureau on Aug. 26 that first-grade elementary-school and junior-high students would in certain subjects start learning with Chinese-language textbooks, as
There are worrying signs that China is on the brink of a major food shortage, which might trigger a strategic contest over food security and push Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), already under intense pressure, toward drastic measures, potentially spelling trouble for Taiwan and the rest of the world. China has encountered a perfect storm of disasters this year. On top of disruption due to the COVID-19 pandemic, torrential rains have caused catastrophic flooding in the Yangtze River basin, China’s largest agricultural region. Floodwaters are estimated to have already destroyed the crops on 6 million hectares of farmland. The situation has been
The restructuring of supply chains, particularly in the semiconductor industry, was an essential part of discussions last week between Taiwan and a US delegation led by US Undersecretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy and the Environment Keith Krach. It took precedent over the highly anticipated subject of bilateral trade partnerships, and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co (TSMC) founder Morris Chang’s (張忠謀) appearance on Friday at a dinner hosted by President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) for Krach was a subtle indicator of this. Chang was in photographs posted by Tsai on Facebook after the dinner, but no details about their discussions were disclosed. With
On Sept. 8, at the high-profile Ketagalan security forum, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) urged countries to deal with the China challenge. She said: “It is time for like-minded countries, and democratic friends in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond, to discuss a framework to generate sustained and concerted efforts to maintain a strategic order that deters unilateral aggressive actions.” The “Taiwan model” to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic provides an alternative to China’s authoritarian way of handling it. Taiwan’s response to the health crisis has made it evident that countries across the world have much to learn from Taiwan’s best practices and if