The scenes from the tragic events unfolding in Afghanistan are heart-wrenching. One would have hoped that the withdrawal by the US and its allies could have been planned such that it would be taking place in a more orderly fashion. Many an analysis will be written on this topic.
For now it is essential that all efforts focus on helping all those who want to leave, including the Afghans who worked with Western forces as interpreters and guides, and who fear retribution by the Taliban. The West has a moral obligation to help them.
However, the focus of this article is to examine the fundamental differences between the situations in Taiwan and Afghanistan.
A brief scan of the Internet shows that Beijing’s propaganda machine is already hard at work capitalizing on the moment by publishing a number of articles implying that Taiwan could befall the same fate as Afghanistan.
On Monday, Beijing’s mouthpiece the Global Times had three such articles, with headlines such as: “Afghan abandonment a lesson for Taiwan’s DPP,” and “Taiwan fears becoming the next chess piece that the US casts away.”
It is thus essential to point out how the situations in Taiwan and Afghanistan are fundamentally different.
The first difference is the origin of the threat. In Afghanistan, the threat was internal. The Taliban finds its supporters primarily among the Pashtun, which at 42 percent is Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group.
In Taiwan, the threat is external — a communist regime from across the Taiwan Strait that intends to snuff out the existence of a free and democratic nation at its doorstep, as it is an example of what China could be under a different political system.
The second difference is the nature of the threat. The Taliban was able to hide among and behind the civilian population, and thus gradually infiltrate and undermine pro-government forces. China’s military would need to cross the Taiwan Strait — a 180km stretch of often rough water — with ships and aircraft that would be relatively easy targets for the defending forces.
Additionally, Taiwan’s coast is generally rough terrain, with few beaches, making it more defensible.
A third difference relates to the nature of the government supported by the US and its allies. In Afghanistan, “nation building” was an extremely difficult task.
The government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was widely regarded as corrupt and inefficient, while elections were flawed at best. In Taiwan, the Democratic Progressive Party government of President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has shown itself to be efficient and effective, while elections in Taiwan are lauded as fully free, fair and open.
Taiwan is a vibrant democracy; Afghanistan, hardly so.
A fourth difference, which relates to the second and third points, is that Afghan government soldiers were well trained by the US, but the corruption in the government and higher military circles often evaporated their salaries, which were not paid for months. The soldiers were often assigned to locations far from their homes, giving them little incentive, as it was not their home territory they were defending.
Taiwan, to the contrary, is small, and its military has a strong incentive to fight, serving in a place they consider to be home.
A fifth difference relates to US commitments. In Afghanistan, the US arrived to fight terrorism. After 20 years of involvement costing billions of dollars, the US and its allies withdrew. In the case of Taiwan, the US is committed to its regional strategic imperative of maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, and helping Taiwan preserve its hard-fought freedom and democracy. For these reasons, the US has intensified and deepened its engagement, coordination and cooperation with Taiwan.
A sixth difference relates to global economic importance. Internationally, Afghanistan only plays a minor role in the world’s economy and has few significant exports.
However, Taiwan is punching far above its size and weight: It is the EU’s seventh-largest Asian trading partner, with two-way trade in 2018 totaling 50.5 billion euros (US$59 billion) — more than twice that of Indonesia and more than three times as the Philippines. Taiwan is the US’ 10th-largest trading partner, with two-way trade in 2019 totaling US$85.5 billion.
Additionally, more than 50 percent of the advanced chips used in the world’s cars and computers are manufactured by one company, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. Taiwan is a key player in the global high-tech supply chain and any disruptions will be immediately felt around the world.
A seventh difference relates to strategic importance. Located astride the major East Asian shipping lanes, a free and open Taiwan is essential for the economic lifelines of South Korea, Japan and Southeast Asian nations. If China were to gain control of Taiwan, it would not hesitate to use its influence to impose its political will on those nations and strangle these lifelines. Taiwan’s continued existence as a free and democratic nation is a prerequisite for the continuation of the rules-based international order in the Indo-Pacific region.
The Chinese side will continue its bluster and intimidation, attempting to capitalize on Afghanistan’s fall and painting the US as a declining power. Yes, the US is reducing its footprint in the Middle East, but the stated purpose is specifically to focus better on new threats posed by state actors such as China and Russia.
If anything, more attention and resources can be expected to be allocated to the Far East, not less.
Taiwanese have fought long and hard to achieve their vibrant democracy. The regime in Beijing has shown that it does not respect human rights: It has sent millions of Uighurs to the equivalent of concentration camps; it has destroyed thousands of Buddhist temples in Tibet and is progressing to erase Tibetan culture; and it has gradually eradicated freedoms in Hong Kong through the passage of the National Security Law, basically snuffing out the “one country, two systems” experiment there.
Taiwanese have watched these developments closely and are convinced that they do not want to undergo a similar fate.
Gerrit van der Wees is a former Dutch diplomat. From 1980 through 2016, he served as chief editor of the Taiwan Communique. He teaches Taiwanese history at George Mason University and current issues in East Asia at George Washington University.
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