As the US is pulling out of Afghanistan, many Americans wonder what the war was all for. Seeing planes airlifting refugees out of Kabul brings back memories of planes flying into the Twin Towers in 2001.
In the weeks following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the US invaded Afghanistan. The US was grieving and wanted to get revenge.
Whether it got revenge is subjective. The objective truth is that the US got Osama bin Laden, a 20-year conflict and US$2.261 trillion in war debt.
Most Americans do not think that killing one terrorist mastermind was worth the US’ longest war. Therefore, the US will not be hunting another “Axis of Evil” any time soon. Those “crusades” are no longer relevant. Most people under 25 do not have visceral ties to the 2001 attacks. Today, a movie like Team America: World Police would not get made.
If the US is not Captain America anymore, how will it carry itself in the future? This question is especially poignant as the world is facing a clash of values in the Indo-Pacific region. These challenges are potentially far more dangerous than challenges from people who said: “You may have the clocks, but we have the time.”
With the largest standing military in the world, China has the proverbial clocks. It also smells uncertainty and wants the world synced on its time.
Recently, a Chinese state-affiliated tabloid said that Afghanistan “was abandoned by the US,” which proves that “the US is [patently] not reliable.”
The editorial further stated that Taiwan relies heavily on the US for protection.
Protection from whom? From the country that wrote the editorial, and with China’s military incursions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone on an almost daily basis, the association between US abandonment and Chinese aggression is rather chilling.
US President Joe Biden recently sought to reassure US allies that Washington still honors its defense commitments.
Even though it might have been a slip, Biden said that the US would provide defense for every NATO country in Asia, including Taiwan.
Taiwan is not a NATO country, and Biden’s statement has caused some to incorrectly lump Taiwan and Afghanistan into countries that do not deserve US protection.
However, Taiwan is fundamentally different from Afghanistan, and highly relevant to US political and economic interests.
The US invaded Afghanistan to prevent it from becoming a breeding ground for violent ideology. Taiwan, on the other hand, has become the model democracy that the US could only dream of building in the Middle East.
In Taiwan, a woman is president and girls are encouraged to become Olympic gold medalists in weightlifting. Nearly 70 percent of adults voted in the last national election. Taiwanese trust their elected officials enough to cooperate with disease prevention efforts. Daily COVID-19 cases dropped from more than 600 in May to zero within a few months.
Taiwan is an environment where extreme ideology cannot take hold. Taiwanese are too educated to be swayed by religious leaders touting bliss in the afterlife. On the contrary, Taiwanese believe that the free market will bring about prosperity in the here and now.
Some Taiwanese, for the right reason, are still concerned that all the talk about having like-minded ideals with the US will not affect military action. Maybe siding with China is the safer bet, especially as Biden moves in the direction of US self-interest.
However, the US acting in a self-centered manner is beneficial for Taiwan.
The US has a vested interest in Taiwan remaining an independent democracy that respects the free market for one simple reason: Semiconductors.
Last year, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co (TSMC) was the ninth-largest company in terms of market capitalization worldwide. This humble giant has snuck quietly into the iPhones that are in the hands of practically every American.
TSMC looks like it will keep leading the industry. In 2023, TSMC will have the smallest and most advanced chips on the market.
It is even providing parts to US semiconductor companies like Intel until they can catch up. TSMC’s products will keep showing up in everything from medical equipment to trucks found all over the world.
It is hard to overstate the importance of semiconductors in the current economy. A recent global supply shortage of semiconductors has highlighted this reality. Ford Motor Co’s profits plummeted by about 50 percent, or US$1 billion, in the second quarter, because of canceled production. Without these precious semiconductors, there is no longer a “brain” to control the nifty gadgets that get people to shell out serious coin on a new ride.
In response, TSMC has ramped up production of chips for vehicles by 60 percent. Many of them will end up in European and American vehicles. Every chip that ends up in a foreign auto plant serves to strengthen Taiwan’s ties to the global economy.
In this light, China’s comparison between Taiwan and Afghanistan is even more erroneous. Afghanistan’s main source of revenue is exporting opium. Taiwan is an integral part of the global supply chain, most notably in semiconductors, but also in industries such as electronics and medical equipment.
Needless to say, world leaders will not lament a collapse in the poppy trade because of turmoil in Afghanistan.
Of course, no one knows Washington’s reaction if China uses force against Taiwan, but if China were to invade, it would be more harmful than shooting itself in the foot.
Many of the semiconductor foundries that China relies on would be disrupted or destroyed. The economic costs would not be worth it vis-a-vis imperial ambitions or grand communist ideology.
My sympathies go out to all the Afghans caught in a power struggle between democracy and tyranny. It is possible to blame the Biden administration for pulling out quickly, but it is also true that, as Biden said, “there was never a good time.”
The lack of resources and opportunity in Afghanistan will always put it in a tenuous position, regardless of US support.
Fortunately, Taiwan does not have to be a pawn between two superpowers because of its strong economy and robust political intuitions.
Looking forward, Taiwan might not have to frame its political landscape in terms of relying on the US or relying on China for protection. Through ingenuity and innovation, Taiwan can rely on itself.
Or, more accurately, through ingenuity and innovation, the world is relying on Taiwan.
Theodore Leshnick is an English teacher living in Taipei.
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