Conflict in the Taiwan Strait Is No Mere ‘Family Struggle’—It’s Part of Something Much Greater.
“Whether he likes it or not, Taiwan is in the frontline of an ongoing battle—and it is heating up—to determine the kind of world we and our children will live in for years to come.”
In his latest article for the National Interest , Lyle J. Goldstein, a research professor in the China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) at the United States Naval War College, builds upon a theme he explored in his 2015 book Meeting China Halfway and counters his critic, Gordon Chang, with a series of arguments that simply do not stand the test of scrutiny.
The gist of Goldstein’s argument is that the United States should not risk the lives of tens of thousands of its servicemen and women in the defense of Taiwan should the democratic island-nation of twenty-three million people come under military assault from the People’s Republic of China (PRC). One of the reasons why the United States should avoid doing so, he avers, is that conflict in the Taiwan Strait is little more than a “family quarrel,” unfinished business from the Chinese Civil War that led to the defeat of the Kuomintang (KMT), which at the time ruled over the Republic of China (ROC), at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which after evicting the KMT in 1949 established the PRC.
To buttress his argument that the PRC’s claim on Taiwan today is merely a continuation of the battle for primacy between the CCP and the KMT, Goldstein uses two pieces of “evidence” that, while convenient to the CCP and Beijing’s apologists, are simply irrelevant. First, he argues that the Cairo Declaration, made in 1943 when World War II was still ongoing—states that “all territories conquered by Japan should be returned to China—including explicitly the island of Taiwan (then called Formosa).” Besides misrepresenting what the declaration actually says—“all the territories Japan has stolen from the Chinese, such as Manchuria, Formosa, and The Pescadores, shall be restored to the Republic of China”—Goldstein presents this as if this were the instrument of surrender and legal document that would determine Taiwan’s future. In reality, it is the Treaty of San Francisco of September 8, 1951, which inexplicably goes unmentioned in his article, that served to officially end Japan’s position as an imperial power. As John Foster Dulles, U.S. Secretary of State and co-author of San Francisco Peace Treaty, later admitted, Japan “merely renounced sovereignty over Taiwan” as per the Treaty, which furthermore did not state to which country Taiwan was to be ceded to. Knowing this, and added to the fact that neither the ROC nor the PRC were among the forty-eight nations that signed the Treaty, the notion that this is just a “family quarrel” is preposterous. It is an international matter, unfinished business from how the international community settled, or in this case failed to settle, the question of defeated Japan’s relinquishing control over Taiwan, which it had ruled for half a century. It would also be nice if Goldstein asked the Taiwanese themselves whether they agree with his contention. If he did (and so far his track record on allowing for Taiwanese agency is somewhat lacking) he might not like the answers he gets. His claim that this is merely a “family struggle” flies in the face of self-determination, of the great achievements that Taiwanese of all hues have made together over decades, and of the right to not be annexed and ruled by an authoritarian power. It is, frankly, quite insulting toward a people whom I have come to respect deeply in my thirteen years in Taiwan.
Since he likes analogies, let me lob one back at him: would Goldstein describe the battle for American self-determination from British rule a “family struggle,” or would he perhaps concede that this desire for independence, for a life deemed more just, stemmed from something deeper, motives more noble?
As mentioned above, the Cairo Declaration clearly stated that Taiwan should be returned to the ROC. It could not have meant the return of Taiwan to the PRC, as that particular iteration of “mainland China” would not come into existence for another six years. Since then, the PRC has claimed it is a successor regime and that after 1949 the ROC, which had transplanted itself on Taiwan and would impose its own ruthless authoritarianism for decades, had ceased to exist (obviously most countries did not agree with this contention, given that they retained official diplomatic ties with the ROC in Taipei for many years afterwards).
Goldstein then argues that the idea that this is not a “family quarrel” is nonsensical by stating that “to the present day, ‘ . . . Taipei formally maintains it is the legitimate government of China.’” That statement is patently untrue. President Tsai Ing-wen has repeatedly stated her view that Taiwan=ROC and the ROC=Taiwan, and since becoming president in May 2016 she has repeatedly stated that Taiwan, whose official name is the ROC, is limited to the territory of Taiwan proper and the Pescadores. Goldstein seems to fail to realize that the ROC Constitution, which presumably he uses to make his argument about this claim, and which indeed states a claim to represent all of China, was written in 1947 and, just like the KMT, was imposed on the Taiwanese. Nobody today claims that Taipei, or the ROC, rules all of China. That is not how the government operates, and that is certainly not how the people live their lives, irrespective of their political preferences. The Taiwanese, furthermore, do not deny the existence and legitimacy of the PRC; the same cannot be said of Beijing’s views on Taiwan/ROC. One could then ask, Since Taiwan/ROC no longer claims to represent all of China, then why aren’t they amending the 1947 Constitution or writing a new one altogether? The answer to this is simple: any such move would be construed back in Beijing as a declaration of de jure independence and therefore legitimize use of force against Taiwan. The Taiwanese are therefore held hostage at gunpoint. Being pragmatic and certainly not suicidal, they would rather maintain the “status quo” of de facto independence than test Beijing’s commitment to the “Anti-Secession Act” of 2005.
Goldstein then lambastes Chang for resorting to “the usual platitudes about supporting democracy,” as if the assault on democracy by revisionist regimes were not a challenge of global magnitude. The case of Taiwan does not exist in a vacuum; rather, it is inextricably related to the kind of world order we want for ourselves. The same holds for Taiwan’s position in the geopolitical architecture in East Asia and the challenge that an expansionist PRC represents for that order. The “loss” of Taiwan, whether by force or via some negotiated (though inherently skewed) settlement, would have serious consequences for regional stability. And the logic of imperialism being what it is, it is highly unlikely that Beijing would content itself with having acquired/annexed Taiwan; for one thing, the need to defend this newly acquired piece of real estate would itself compel China, whose foreign policy since Mao has been driven by a deep sense of insecurity and paranoia, to seek even more territory. What would be next? Okinawa, which some Chinese ultra-nationalists already claim should be reincorporated into China? Something else beyond the First Island Chain? Where do we draw the line? Would Americans be willing to sacrifice the lives of their sons and daughters in the defense of Okinawa? What is certain is that the “loss” of Taiwan as a democratic and responsible member of the international community would have grave repercussions for Japan’s sense of security and could escalate tensions between the two Asian powers. It is difficult to imagine how such an outcome would be in the U.S. interest, which after all is what Goldstein purports to defend with his line argument.
The fact of the matter is, use of force in the Taiwan Strait, possibly drawing in the United States and costing tens of thousands of lives, would signify a failure by all. The key is to never reach this point. And the best way to reduce the risks of such a scenario coming to pass is to bolster Taiwan’s deterrence. Reducing that deterrent, by “abandoning” Taiwan or explicitly stating that the United States would not come to its assistance should it be attacked by the China, is an invitation for the CCP to conclude that it can quickly achieve its objectives, at minimum cost, through use of force. Thus, I and others have argued that Washington’s “strategic ambiguity” in the Taiwan Strait has outlived its utility, and that a clearer stance on what kind of action would trigger a U.S. military response is now necessary to avoid Chinese miscalculation and military adventurism. Goldstein and I agree that some “red line” needs to be drawn somewhere. We part when he posits that this line ought not to be drawn in the Taiwan Strait. I would argue that this is the best place to draw it. Yes, this would be “escalatory,” and yes there would be risks involved. But the geopolitics of a rising revisionist power with territorial ambitions will always give rise to risk—avoidance cannot be the prescribed response (Goldstein’s reference to Chinese use of nuclear weapons oddly fails to take into account the overwhelming, and utterly ruinous for the instigator, nuclear retaliation by the United States should Beijing use such weapons).
Lastly, as he did in his book, Goldstein maintains that the best approach to resolving the Taiwan “issue” would be via “de-escalation spirals.” He rightly points out that a “peace process is, almost by definition, imperfect, as it necessarily involves compromises.” What he does not seem to recognize is the fact that most, if not all, of the necessary compromises would have to be made by the Taiwanese side, chief among them the loss of the de factoindependence they have enjoyed. He then proposes that the “one country, two systems” formula, an “impressively pragmatic framework,” would be the best mechanism by which to achieve some sort of balance. This is where Goldstein enters the realm of fantasy or amnesia—I don’t know which. The Hong Kong experience has made it very clear that the formula was a smokescreen, and that the political system that has existed in the Special Administrative Region is rapidly coming under the control of the central government in Beijing. For a while the world believed that Beijing meant it when it committed to respecting the way of life and system of Hong Kong; in reality, it never masked its real intentions to control it fully, as residents of the SAR are now realizing, what with the threatened ban on “separatist” political parties, the jailing of young pro-democracy activists, loss of control of immigration and a marked erosion of press freedoms, to name just a few of the more salient recent developments. To argue that this formula is “impressively pragmatic” or that it is suited for Taiwan is naive at best, and more likely disingenuous. It rests on a fantasy, on the failed notion that an increasingly paranoid CCP under Xi Jinping would willingly relinquish power and countenance the existence, within the PRC, of a political system at variance with the CCP worldview. That is why the idea of a negotiated settlement, as he proposes, is such a remote possibility: on Taiwan, Beijing will not genuinely negotiate—it would conquer, vanquish, pacify, and then move on.
If the Hong Kong debacle isn’t enough, developments across China, the manner in which dissidents, activists, lawyers, Christians, Buddhists, homosexuals, journalists, academics, Muslims and others have been treated, should be enough to disabuse any Taiwanese of the notion that their way of life under “one country, two systems” would be vouchsafed. Goldstein’s papering over this litany of ills and neglect of the CCP’s terrible track record on human rights is simply astonishing. No party in his right mind would dream of negotiating with a regime that has now proven itself capable of turning an entire region into a virtual (and quite Orwellian) concentration camp, which is what Xinjiang is rapidly turning into, according to several reputable accounts.
I have no doubt that Goldstein is making his case with the United States’ best interests at heart and that he means well. I also have great respect for his accomplishments as an analyst of the Chinese military and have turned to him in the past for insights. Unfortunately, I do not think that the U.S. interest is best served by ignoring, as he does, the true nature of the CCP, or by downplaying the importance of defending allied democracies. Whether he likes it or not, Taiwan is in the frontline of an ongoing battle—and it is heating up—to determine the kind of world we and our children will live in for years to come.
- Michael Cole is a senior non-resident fellow for the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham, UK.