Whenever a major international crisis or cross-strait situation occurs, someone inevitably takes it as an opportunity to say that Taiwan should not provoke China and that it cannot rely on the US for support.
Following this line of thinking would lead to the conclusion that Taiwan should just accept China’s conditions and acknowledge that it is “a part of China.” Such arguments are rooted in nationalism, defeatism and capitulation, pure and simple — but where does the US skepticism come from?
With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, some in the pan-blue camp have called President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and her administration naive for their assurances that the US, Japan and other friendly countries would come to Taiwan’s aid in a Chinese attack, and saying that the Taiwan Strait is a formidable barrier able to prevent an invasion.
There are also those who warn that, irrespective of the geopolitical realities, trusting the US is unwise. They point to South Korean president-elect Yoon Suk-yeol’s announcement that the country plans to host a second US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, saying that the anti-missile system would only provoke Beijing and bring trouble to South Korea.
To understand this mistrust, look at the Chinese Civil War.
Prior to 1949, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) relied heavily on the US, but Washington had long before this lost any appetite for supporting the KMT due to its corruption and the way in which Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) governed the country. The KMT blamed the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for the disaster that befell China and was angry at the US for not sufficiently supporting it.
When World War II ended, fighting between the KMT and the CCP resumed, and the US wanted to mediate between Chiang and Mao Zedong (毛澤東). The KMT expected the US to side with it, but Washington was more interested in a resolution that would allow for the peaceful reconstruction of China. Joseph Stalin threw his weight behind Mao, and the US eventually withdrew its support for Chiang, which contributed to the KMT’s defeat at the hands of the CCP.
When Chiang and the KMT forces retreated to Taiwan, Chiang and the US continued their love-hate relationship.
In the post-Chiang era, the KMT’s party-state rule disintegrated, giving way to a two-party system. Meanwhile, the KMT was forced to watch its sworn enemy across the Strait go from strength to strength, while it conceded to the so-called “1992 consensus.”
From this point on, the KMT and the US became increasingly estranged.
Last year, amid the US’ controversial withdrawal from Afghanistan, questions were raised about the value of Washington’s assurances to its allies. Even though US President Joe Biden and White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan reiterated the US’ promises to Taiwan, members of the pan-blue camp jumped at the chance to say that Taiwan would be foolish to trust the US.
Prominent pan-blue camp figures still find it difficult to forget how the US pulled out of Vietnam and the South China Sea, and how, in their minds, it let down the Republic of China.
They remember how the China UN seat was taken from the KMT government and handed to the People’s Republic of China in 1971, the Shanghai Communique former US president Richard Nixon signed in 1972 and the US’ establishment of diplomatic ties with China in 1979.
They also blame the US for failing to support Chiang in his wish to “retake the mainland,” which ultimately led to a political revolution that ended with the fragmentation of the KMT party-state.
These geopolitical changes resulting from choices the US made left KMT figures that lived through them feeling abandoned and traumatized. Since then, when any major event happens, they relive this trauma.
Therefore, in addition to the nationalism, defeatism and capitulation, the pan-blue camp’s attitude toward the US also drives its view on cross-strait issues. On a profound level the pan-blue camp believes that since the KMT’s relocation from Nanjing to Taipei, it has become increasingly diminished, suffering ever more difficulties, mainly as a result of the US turning its back on it.
The US’ policy toward Taiwan has always been aimed at protecting the nation, not the KMT party-state. Understanding that point, makes everything clear. Former president Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) was a pragmatist, and he understood this.
The pan-blue camp’s suspicious attitude toward the US has long permeated Taiwanese society. With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Biden has — presumably due to global strategic considerations — supported Ukraine through arms shipments and sanctions, while making it clear that he would not send in US troops to engage Russian armed forces in Ukraine. Despite his clarity, the message became confused in Taiwan.
There are sections of Taiwan’s society that have a kind of Stockholm syndrome, believing Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) assurances that Chinese and Taiwanese are all part of “one family across the Strait.” They warn Taiwanese against buying into the “fantasy” that someone will be coming to their aid. When talking about this “someone,” they say: “You eat their toxic pork, you buy their weapons, and yet you were not placed high on their priority list when it came to distribution of COVID-19 vaccinations. Surely this says it all.”
With China and Russia apparently on the same page over the war in Ukraine, there has been an incessant barrage of commentary from overseas about what the situation means for Taiwan.
Giving evidence at a US Senate Armed Forces Committee meeting only a few weeks ago, US Indo-Pacific Commander Admiral John Aquilino said that the situation in Ukraine was a wake-up call, and showed that an invasion of Taiwan could happen.
What would happen if China managed to deny Taiwan access to the US, and Washington was unable to intervene in an attack? Even if it managed to provide support, and even if Taiwan ultimately only secured a Pyrrhic victory, the invaders would still have achieved their objective: the annihilation of Taiwan, and of its place in the global supply chain.
A minority of Taiwanese are confused about where their loyalties should lie, and it is this internal contradiction that the nation should work to resolve. They largely derive their US-skepticism from their perception that it turned its back on Taiwan and the KMT’s party-state.
There are also a large number of Taiwanese that do not understand why the US, after all these years, has yet to recognize Taiwan as a sovereign country, and why it insists on adhering to a policy of “strategic ambiguity” that keeps Beijing coveting Taiwan.
The Ukraine war over the past month is just the precursor to a wider conflict between authoritarian states and democracies, and democratic countries must stick together if they are to prevail.
The Biden administration has sent two delegations to Taiwan, one in April last year and another earlier this month, reiterating its promises to Taiwan as an important partner in the Indo-Pacific region. This was all to reinforce feelings of trust in Taiwan and dispel suspicions of the US’ intent.
Washington has informed its allies in NATO and Asia that Beijing has already, at Moscow’s request, agreed to provide Russia with military and economic support. International peace is facing global and complex challenges, and the US is looking to assist Taiwan in its overall self-defense to counter this.
Translated by Paul Cooper
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