Leave No Democracy Behind: In Defense of Taiwan

By RDI Guest Contributor Alec Medine


Pourquoi mourir pour Dantzig?

“Why die for Danzig?”

France, 1939: in the heady days of late summer, these four words felt inescapable. They were on the lips of people in the cafes, printed in the newspaper headlines, voiced by intellectuals in lecture halls and on the radio, and announced by leading politicians in the General Assembly. All the while, Nazi Germany was preparing for another invasion. “Why die for Danzig?” Why sacrifice French lives at the altar of defending a foreign land?

Much had changed over the past six years since Hitler seized power over Germany. Western Europe had assumed that each additional conquest would be the last, and that Germany would finally be satisfied. The Rhineland had been reoccupied, Austria had vanished from off the map, Czechoslovakia had suddenly fallen to the Reich, and Spain became fascist.

Now, the Nazi regime was claiming that it had to liberate the Germans of the Baltic city of Danzig (Polish: Gdańsk). Danzig’s protector, Poland, stood uneasily, facing imminent invasion by the German Panzers. Meanwhile, its ally’s countrymen questioned the need to fight even a genocidal regime like Germany. A year prior, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had assured his constituents and allies at the Munich Conference that war could be avoided, promising “peace in our time.” With war now looming over Danzig, Chamberlain’s words rang hollow.

Taiwan: The Next Battlefield?

Pivoting to the present day, half a world away, we find ourselves living in a similarly precarious moment in geopolitical history, this time concerning a small island country in East Asia. Over the past several weeks, America’s top foreign policy publications have run a series of articles on the growing tensions between China and Taiwan. In Foreign Affairs, George Washington University political scientist Charles Glaser called for the United States to seriously reconsider our partnership with Taiwan, essentially advocating for the U.S. to abandon the East Asian island democracy. Of course, this is not ideal, but Glaser posits that it is a lesser evil compared to the alternative: deteriorating relations with Beijing and a hot war between Beijing and Taipei that could involve American armed forces. 

In the same vein, The Economist printed a headline article giving Taiwan the dubious honor of being “The Most Dangerous Place on Earth.” The accompanying cover image depicts Taiwan sitting in the center of a radar scope, with American and Chinese naval forces converging on the island. 

Credit: The Economist/Justin Metz

Why are American policy thinkers suddenly turning against Taiwan? Largely, their shift is the result of growing tensions between the Chinese mainland (often referred to as the People’s Republic of China, or PRC) and Taiwan.

Taiwan, and China’s Growing Empire

The conflict between the PRC and Taiwan is over 70 years old, and stems directly from the conclusion of the Chinese Civil War in 1949. After the end of World War II and following liberation from the Japanese Empire in 1945, China split into two political factions that vied for control over the nation. On one side was the nationalist Kuomintang, led by the Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. On the other was the Communists, led by the charismatic Mao Zedong. China was soon engulfed in civil war and became a Cold War battlefield, with the Americans backing Chiang’s Nationalists and the Soviets supplying Mao’s Communists. In 1949, the Communists successfully occupied Beijing. They forced Chiang and his Kuomintang military and administration to flee to the island of Taiwan. American warships protected the Nationalist retreat, preventing Mao’s forces from reaching the large island off the Chinese coast. The Nationalist government, now reconstituted in Taiwan, has continued to style itself as the Republic of China (ROC) and still claims authority over the entirety of the Chinese mainland. 

The PRC, for their part, has never given up on the idea of unifying Taiwan with their political system. Under Xi Jinping’s chairmanship, Beijing has initiated a sweeping policy of national renewal, Chinese nationalism, and political consolidation that it has dubbed the “One China Policy.” It involves the removal of special political exemptions for certain areas such as Hong Kong and Macau, as well as the full annexation of Taiwan into the PRC. Beijing has since achieved the first part of the plan, brutally crushing the nascent pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong and asserting its control over the semi-autonomous city-state. 

What happened to Hong Kong exemplifies what may happen if China seizes Taiwan. Prior to 2019, Hong Kong had been an anomaly in the Chinese political system. In 1997, the British government agreed to hand over its former colony to the PRC on the condition that Hong Kong would maintain democratic rights and freedoms as an autonomous government independent from Beijing. Over time, however, the Chinese mainland government has moved to revoke Hong Kong’s special status. It has done so by backing pro-Beijing political parties in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council and by imposing economic and even military pressure on the city-state. The 2019-2020 pro-democracy protests thus served as the culmination of growing resentments against China, fueled by a pervasive feeling that Beijing was establishing political, legal, and even cultural and linguistic control over Hong Kong. 

Furthermore, the PRC has also worked to impose Han Chinese cultural and political power on its remote provinces. Most readers should know well by now that the PRC has aggressively persecuted the Tibetans since 1951, a process which has only accelerated over the previous two decades. Meanwhile, the PRC has also begun suppressing the Mongolian language in schools in the province of Inner-Mongolia, a move that infringes on the culture and traditions of the native Mongols. For context, there are more ethnic Mongols in Chinese Mongolia than there are in the Republic of Mongolia itself, making the future of Mongolian culture appear especially dire in light of the PRC’s cultural policies. 

Perhaps the most egregious example of China’s human rights abuses towards ethnic minorities is its violent suppression of the culture and religion of the Uyghur people, which the U.S. has declared a genocide. Under the pretense that the predominantly-Muslim Uyghurs are committing acts of Islamic terrorism against the Chinese, Beijing has aggressively colonized the Uyghur-populated Xinjiang region with Han Chinese. Disturbingly, it has subjected the Uyghurs to massive surveillance, thrown Uyghur dissidents into concentration camps involving torture and forced labor, and sterilized Uyghur women. It appears that the PRC aims to completely eradicate the ancient culture of the Uyghurs. 

Now, just as the Nazis had eyed Czechoslovakia in the last year prior to World War II, China has set its sights on Taiwan. 

Democracies Besieged

Like Taiwan, Czechoslovakia was a miraculous democracy thriving within a politically tumultuous region. In Czechoslovakia’s case, it was the sole democracy amidst a series of dictatorships following the collapse of the Habsburg Empire in 1918. Its neighbors, Hungary and Poland, had regressed into conservative authoritarianism, and asserted revanchist claims on Czechoslovak land. More broadly, a pall of anti-Soviet fear justified nationalist and militaristic tendencies throughout the region, which sometimes resembled the fascism of Italy and Germany. Nonetheless, despite having a highly diverse population (Czechs and Slovaks lived together with Germans, Poles, Carpathian Ruthenians, Hungarians, and Jews) and facing threats from its hostile neighbors, Czechoslovakia continued to remain fairly democratic. The First Czechoslovak Republic was far from a perfect, tolerant democracy, but it was significantly better than its peers.

Taiwan is a similar democratic marvel, especially miraculous because it stemmed from an accident of history. As I highlighted in a previous “Democracy Examined” article, the Nationalist government in Taipei was initially highly authoritarian, obsessed with violently suppressing possible Communists on the island. However, following the death of Chiang Kai-shek, the Generalissimo’s successors pursued a policy of gradual democratization between 1986 and 1996. Taiwan’s leadership expanded personal rights and freedoms, and began allowing free elections. Thus, while The Economist has dubbed Taiwan the “Most Dangerous Place on Earth,” the publication has also called the nation the most democratic country in East Asia in its 2020 Democracy Index. The Index even ranked Taiwan the 11th most democratic country in the world, only trailing behind the Scandinavian countries, Canada, the Netherlands, Ireland, and New Zealand. Taiwan even beat out the U.S. (rank 25) by a wide margin.

The nationalist and expansionist parallels between Germany in the 1930s and the modern PRC, meanwhile, are too obvious to ignore. German foreign policy between 1933 and 1939 was almost single-mindedly focused on unifying the German nation under the banner of the Third Reich. In March of 1938, after the Nazis had compelled the Austrian government to call a referendum on whether Austria should unite with Germany, Hitler campaigned on the slogan of “One People, One Nation, One Leader.” The Nazi regime was also fixated on avenging the shame that the global Great Powers had imposed onto Germany with the Treaty of Versailles following the end of World War I. Finally, as Germany expanded, it attempted to make the nation more ethnically homogenous for gentile Germans by expelling and persecuting the Jews and Roma.

These actions have ominous analogues in China’s behaviors today. Beijing’s quest to annex Taiwan represents its desire to unify Chinese nation. China is determined to avenge not the Treaty of Versailles but the “Century of Humiliation,” when the European powers imposed colonial control over China between the 19th century and the end of World War II. Finally, China has also committed genocide and ethnic cleansing in an effort to achieve cultural homogeneity; in many ways, the Jews, Roma, and Slavs have become the Uyghurs, Mongols, and Tibetans. A country which behaves as Nazi Germany did is a country which should not be trusted in good faith.

Peace Badly Won: The Munich Conference and Its Consequences

In 1938, with German foreign policy still directed at unifying ethnic Germans, the Reich threatened to invade Czechoslovakia to support the Germans living in the Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia’s westernmost territory. If this war were to occur, Britain and France would be obligated as allies to defend Czechoslovakia. In order to prevent the impending war, Britain and France’s prime ministers, Neville Chamberlain and Édouard Daladier, agreed to meet Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini in the German city of Munich. Tellingly, the Czechoslovak government was not invited to attend the Munich Conference. 

Still hoping to avoid the bloodshed of war, Chamberlain and Daladier chose to continue their policy of appeasement towards Germany at the Munich summit. Appeasement entailed acquiescing to German demands under the auspices of avoiding an armed conflict between Germany and the Allied powers. Faced with such timid opposition, Hitler was allowed to take the Sudetenland at the conference. Prague was thus handed a fait accompli by both its former allies and Germany, demanding that the young republic surrender the Sudetenland immediately. This decision was disastrous for the Czechs: the Sudetenland was highly industrialized and rich in natural resources, and the mountainous terrain served as a natural barrier against Germany. 

Britain and France’s leaders thought (wishfully) that once Hitler got the Sudetenland, his conquests would conclude. Tragically, they were mistaken. Six months after the annexation of the Sudetenland, Germany ordered the invasion of the remainder of Czechoslovakia and fully conquered the Republic. Germany took Czechoslovakia’s military armaments, including its tanks and artillery, and integrated them into the German military, which then took aim at Hitler’s next target: Poland. Alarmed, Britain and France only then decided to reconsider their policies towards Germany, and promised Poland that they would come to the Poles’ aid if the Germans were to attack. The Polish government had little faith that Britain and France would honor that promise. 

Ultimately, although the Allied powers had been so motivated to prevent another world war, the decision to surrender the Sudetenland merely postponed the war and put Germany in a stronger position ahead of the invasions of Poland and France. Delaying the conflict also allowed the Nazis to fortify their armies, guaranteeing a protracted global war rather than a short-term regional punitive conflict against a more ill-prepared Germany. Some historians even argue that the Sudetenland Crisis would have been the ideal point to halt German expansionism. The Czechoslovak Army was exceptionally well-equipped and in an excellent position to hold off the German military if the French attacked Germany from the west. Furthermore, a group of officers in the German military was planning to launch a coup against Hitler if he started a war against Czechoslovakia in what historians have dubbed the “Oster Conspiracy,” after the coup’s mastermind, Lieutenant-Colonel Hans Oster. Yet Hitler took over the Sudetenland without a shot fired, and the German Führer ascended to the height of his power and popularity, which emboldened him to keep pressing the Allies for yet more land. 

Nonetheless, after watching all that Germany had done up to that point, the Anglo-French public still asked themselves, “Why die for Danzig?” As the next six years would reveal, there were endless reasons to die for Danzig, to die to stop Germany. 

Will we need to die for Taipei? Certainly, we hope not: our vow to protect Taiwan is, in and of itself, our deterrence against Chinese attack. War with America is simply too high a price to pay for Taiwan, for two reasons in particular. First, the Chinese and American economies are still mutually dependent on one another, and the economic effects of suddenly severing such a connection would be extreme. Second, the possibility of nuclear conflict is so destructive that the U.S. and China will be reluctant to trade blows that could result in a tragic miscalculation or first-use strike (this is known as the M.A.D., or “Mutual Assured Destruction” principle). The best that the PRC can hope for is to pry the U.S. off Taiwan through anti-Taiwan propaganda and saber-rattling against the island nation. 

The tragedies of the Munich Conference and the fall of Czechoslovakia thus offers a stark warning for our times. Just as Britain and France were protectors of Czechoslovakia’s democracy, the United States is the protector of Taiwan’s, as America ought to be the protector of democracy everywhere.

Towards a New American Foreign Policy

When the American public elected Joe Biden to the U.S. Presidency, it signaled a desire to revamp America’s foreign policy away from Trump’s “America First” paradigm, which significantly eroded America’s diplomatic soft power. This administration should strive to refute the negative image of this country created by the “America First” approach by posing itself as a more generous, magnanimous, and just leader of the international community. Authoritarianism is spreading around the world, much of it under the auspices of the PRC. The only way to halt the growth of dictatorship is to uphold democracy wherever and whenever it is threatened, as well as to model effective democracy ourselves. The freedom of the people of Taiwan depends on whether we will fulfill our vow to protect them. 

Some commentators argue that abandoning Taiwan would be a shrewd strategic move, allowing the U.S. to focus on protecting other regional allies like South Korea and Japan. However, they are mistaken: forsaking Taiwan would undermine these relationships in the name of protecting them. 

The decision could have diplomatic consequences which ripple far beyond the East Asian sphere, especially because it would likely confirm suspicions that the U.S. is still pursuing a self-centered “America First” foreign policy. The loss of trust following the abandonment of Taiwan will make America’s diplomacy more challenging to execute, and it may cause some countries to start looking for other allies (perhaps even China), damaging American global leadership. America’s strategic strength lies in its vast network of partner countries around the world; abandoning one partner could set off a chain of desertions, creating holes in our defensive system and risking making yet more enemies. 

Finally, surrendering Taiwan to China would also signal to the world that America is in decline, and that it can no longer maintain the strength to defend all of its democratic partners. In much the same way, when Britain and France abandoned Czechoslovakia in the 1930s, these desertions were seen as confirmations of their waning influence. Even as early as 1936, when Hitler sent the German army to reoccupy the Rhineland, his soldiers marched under the barrels of French guns and could have been obliterated at any moment, as the Treaty of Versailles had threatened. Yet, the guns remained silent. Hitler called the Entente powers’ bluff. From then on, Hitler knew they would capitulate to his every demand. For the U.S., Taiwan serves as a similar litmus test: surrendering the island country would show our allies that we cannot protect them, and  would indicate to our enemies that we are willing to give in to any future demands they make of us. 

Ultimately, America must do what is morally right for the world, not what is expedient at the moment. It must continue to protect Taiwan and its precious democracy. Our standing among the community of nations and our respect on the global stage counts on it.


Title Image Credit: Paresh Nath/Cagle Cartoons

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