Historical comparison can be a risky game, but it would be quite reasonable for Taiwanese to consider the plight of another island nation that successfully overcame one of history’s definitive existential challenges 70 years ago this summer.
By Aug. 20, 1940, former British prime minister Winston Churchill intoned: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
Churchill’s words signaled victory, though many more of the “few” would die in the coming air battles — the British Royal Air Force had succeeded not just in denying air superiority to Germany’s Luftwaffe, it had survived commander Hermann Goering’s initial onslaught to remain a viable fighting force. It was this fact that forced Nazi leader Adolf Hitler to abandon plans for invading England. While the Battle of Britain would move into other violent phases like the bombing of London in September 1940, this battle was largely decided before it began.
Since the mid-1930s, a few military leaders, like British Air Chief Marshall Sir Hugh Dowding, had perceived the coming storm and pressed the British leadership to fund an integrated air defense system that embraced an unproven information technology: radar. They were willing to press their aircraft engineers to push the state-of-the-art by investing in the Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire fighters, while remaining well-informed about Germany’s advancing aircraft technology. Britain also benefited from luck and timing: The Battle of France ended just in time to stem a hemorrhage of pilots and its effort to expand aircraft production and pilot training bore fruit just in time to make a decisive difference.
By June 1940, Hitler was widely perceived as unstoppable, having both united and rearmed Germany and committed it to vengeance and racial domination.
Germany’s unprecedented large-scale combination of armor, mechanized infantry and airpower laid waste to Poland, the Low Countries, Norway and France. However, since the beginning of his political career, Hitler had an affinity for England and when his forces arrived on the English Channel, he was half-expecting not to have to fight, a factor that resulted in a lack of focus leading to an air battle that played to Britain’s strengths. Hitler’s initial hesitancy was also well-justified. Britain’s political leadership was not unified in the desire for war with Germany, with plenty of politicians quietly urging negotiations. What Hitler could not anticipate was that Churchill would emerge from political obscurity to rally his nation and then use the Battle of Britain to help former US president Franklin Roosevelt end US neutrality.
Fast forward to this year on the Taiwan Strait, and there is much to remind Taiwanese of Britain’s plight. From China, Taiwan faces a still-growing military threat to its existence as a democracy despite its recent efforts to reach out and improve political and economic relations. Perhaps before 2005, a “Battle of Taiwan” would have turned on the contest of air forces, but since then, the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) massive missile, electronic, submarine and mine warfare capabilities might also prove decisive. However, by this year, it is also possible to see the PLA’s increased preparations for an actual invasion of Taiwan. What this means is that unlike Britain in 1940, Taiwan cannot afford to invest in a largely “defensive” war; a realistic future threat of invasion means it may not be able to favor its air force and navy over its army, or deny itself new “offensive” weapons, especially the missiles that could attack invasion forces.
Also, Taiwan cannot assume that China’s preparations for war against Taiwan will fall victim to internal contradictions. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has never wavered in its commitment to “recover” Taiwan and the PLA has had 60 years to consider this battle. Taiwan’s transition to full democracy makes it an even greater threat to the CCP’s monopoly of power and its preparations for war date back to the early-1990s. China’s economic and cultural offensives are intended to lull Taiwan, while hiding China’s growing preparations for war. China perceives these to have been successful enough to justify pressing Taiwan to move toward a peace treaty.
While President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has denied such is under consideration, a treaty might be welcome if China would accept a free Taiwan. However, the CCP’s abhorrence of the Democratic Progressive Party only highlights its hostility toward democracy, especially in Taiwan.
As with Britain in 1940, Taiwan’s future as a free nation rests on the ability of its “few” not only to resist an initial PLA attack, but to defeat its invasion forces. Only by ensuring China’s fear of failure can Taiwan deter war and thus ensure its continued survival. Here is where the US remains decisive. When Washington wavers in its willingness to sell adequate arms, as is now the case with new F-16 fighters and submarines, it undermines Taiwan’s security and emboldens China. Appeasing China will work no better for Washington than did former British prime minister Neville Chamberlain’s attempts to appease Hitler. Before the military balance shifts decisively in the Taiwan Strait, it is necessary for the US to reassess Taiwan’s long-term requirements to deter Chinese attack.
Richard Fisher, Jr is a senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
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