Do you remember where you were last year at this time? Do you remember what it was like?
Here in the leafy suburbs of Washington, D.C., we were in lock-down mode. The streets were bleak and empty. Schools, offices, malls, theaters, churches … all were closed.
The essentials were in short supply. Grocery stores rationed the good stuff. Signs read: “One jumbo pack of toilet paper, two cartoons of eggs per family please!” Some days those signs mocked us from barren shelves.
It was a lonely and anti-social time. Families and friends had to weigh the rewards of gathering together to celebrate Christmas against the risks that doing so might put loved ones in the grave by Valentine’s Day.
The pandemic was out of control. Unhappy news was everywhere. We were all in the presence of an invisible, lethal, confounding enemy. At times, it seemed like there was no end in sight. But, of course, that was a false impression.
Look at where we are this year. A new and wonderful scene has emerged. We now have a virtually limitless supply of safe, effective, and free vaccines in the United States. We even have a massive surplus. This allows us to send hundreds of millions of free shots to our friends around the world, with no political strings attached.
Schools are open again. Movie theaters are back. Christmas party invites are hitting our inboxes. Month-by-month, life is steadily returning to normal.
The story of this year is the story of a deepening global appreciation for public health. It’s also the story of a renewal of friendships between fellow democracies. And, miraculously, it’s the story of a blossoming relationship between the US and Taiwan.
We have come far. There was a time not long ago when vanishingly few Americans had ever even heard of Taiwan. No one could find it on the map. Today, almost everyone everywhere is talking about Taiwan — and not with words of pity.
Taiwan’s stellar performance amid the pandemic has earned it universal acclaim and admiration. Taiwan’s benevolent and responsible dominance of chip supply chains has garnered respect. Taiwan’s coolness in the face of threats from the Chinese Communist Party has made it the envy of patriotic peoples everywhere who wish their own national leaders had such courage.
At long last, the US government is working to elevate Taiwan’s diplomatic status and fighting for it to have a voice at the United Nations. President Joe Biden has said in recent weeks that Taiwan is independent, and America will defend Taiwan if China attacks.
While the process of diplomatic normalization probably should have started decades ago when Taiwan first became a liberal democracy, it’s never too late to do what is good and right.
The People’s Liberation Army appears to be preparing for a war of conquest against Taiwan. It is unknowable when Xi Jinping (習近平) and the CCP Politburo might order an attack. But the warning signs are there and they are flashing. Conflict could be looming on the horizon.
Political warfare against Taiwan is another growing threat. It seems unlikely, but is still possible, that a pro-Beijing candidate could be elected president of Taiwan in 2024 or 2028. If that were to happen, it is not clear how Taiwan could avoid Hong Kong’s grim fate.
Xi Jinping and his close comrades are all hardliners. They would not have to change tone to be rhetorically provocative and threatening. Given their well-established track records, we should expect terrible things from these men. Their Marxist-Leninist ideology allows for war and genocide.
We are now entering a season of dark timetables. Already America’s generals and admirals are deliberating and debating when the war to defend Taiwan will begin. They are worried that US power could fail to scare Beijing away from its Taiwan invasion plans. And, if that happens, they are worried that they could lose the war.
Chiu Kuo-cheng (邱國正), Taiwan’s defense minister, has gone on record saying the situation is the worst he’s seen in his 40-year military career. Tensions are higher today than during the 1995-1996 missile crisis. Most experts can’t see how this ends well.
This year the Pentagon has organized and sponsored numerous wargames, workshops, and conferences on the defense of Taiwan. Reportedly, the talks are almost always frustrating and the outcomes rarely hopeful. The legacy of Washington’s troubled Taiwan policy makes it difficult for the US government and military to get ready to defend Taiwan. By not treating Taiwan like the country that it actually is, we’ve shot ourselves in the foot. And maybe worse.
America is now going in the right direction, but the slow pace of change remains a cause for concern. Reforms are needed across the board, and they are needed yesterday. There’s no time to lose. Yet while greater vigilance is needed, there is no reason whatsoever for panic or despair.
Winston Churchill’s books have a way of putting things in perspective and reducing our modern problems to their appropriate proportions. His volumes on World War One and World War Two repeatedly recount the story of an old man in his twilight, reflecting on his life story. The old man concluded, “My life has been full of troubles, most of which never happened.”
So, too, it is with the story of nations. Sometimes, it is the things that don’t happen that matter the most. Sometimes, it is the scenarios — the things we dread will happen, but never actually do — that have the biggest impact on our lives and our world.
Sometimes, the grandest victories happen when our leaders imagine what they really don’t want to see happen, and then strain every nerve, every muscle, and every brain cell to ensure that we get something else entirely.
Whatever our troubles may be (real or imagined), and whatever the future may bring us, this year we have so much to be thankful for. On balance, 2021 was a year of miracles.
Ian Easton is a senior director at the Project 2049 Institute and author of The Chinese Invasion Threat: Taiwan’s Defense and American Strategy in Asia.
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