War for Taiwan? It Would Be Our Craziest War Ever

            America and the West have begun promoting the idea of a war against China over Taiwan. If China invades Taiwan, President Biden has said, the U.S. would go further than it has in Ukraine, sending American ground troops as well as weapons. 37% of American voters agree with Biden. But how do you go to war to defend a country from invading itself?

            According to the U.S., the U.N. and most of the world—including Taiwan itself—Taiwan is part of China.

Can the U.S. invade Ohio?

            Like many other nations places, Taiwan is in a tough spot caused by decisions made by U.S. policymakers many years ago.

            Until 1945 Taiwan was a Japanese colony. The birth certificate of my former father-in-law, an ethnic Taiwanese, read “Taipei, Japan.” The end of World War II brought a breather. Occupation forces withdrew. The Taiwanese expected independence as part of postwar decolonization. But America had other plans.

Across the Taiwan Strait, the Chinese civil war was drawing to a close. Mao Tse-Tung’s Communists were beating the far-right Nationalists (KMT) led by Chiang Kai-shek. The Nationalists, looting everything they could carry including China’s gold reserves, jumped aboard U.S. ships helpfully provided by President Harry Truman and fled to Taiwan. The exiled KMT took over, purged and murdered Taiwanese intellectuals and independence advocates and established a vicious authoritarian dictatorship of the type propped up by the U.S. around the globe during the Cold War. There was a remarkably calm transition to democracy following Chiang’s death.

            “When,” my father-in-law would ask me during one of our long political discussions, “will the United States give independence to Taiwan?”

            “Whether it’s the U.S. splitting from Britain, or East Timor,” I replied, “independence is taken, not given. You declare independence.” 1,400 Timorese died after declaring independence from Indonesia.

“We can’t do that,” he’d say. “China will invade. Many people will be killed.”

“Maybe they’d invade,” I’d replied. “Maybe not. But there’s no other way.”

            The Taiwanese people are unwilling to die. So Taiwan has never declared independence. Since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, the island of Taiwan­—whose legal name is the Republic of China—and mainland China have agreed on the legal fiction that Taiwan and China are part of the same country. Beijing calls Taiwan “a renegade province” it wants back in its fold; Taipei’s government, heir to the defeated Nationalist troops who fled to exile across the Taiwan Strait when the Communists seized power in 1949, officially maintains the ridiculous position that someday it will reconquer the mainland.

Mouse eats cat.

Like Kurdistan, Palestine and Pakistani Kashmir, Taiwan lingers in diplomatic purgatory, its people semi-stateless. It enjoys robust economic growth and de facto independence. But it’s not really a country. It has no seat at the U.N. Only 13 nations, most of the tiny—Belize, Haiti, Vatican City, Honduras, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Paraguay, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Tuvalu and Guatemala—recognize Taiwan as a country. Even its primary benefactor, the U.S., does not recognize it.

Yet Taiwan is different. Always on the periphery, the Chinese empire’s control of the island waxed and waned in proportion to its political stability and military strength, allowing the Taiwanese as well as the ethnic Han Chinese who migrated there from the mainland, to develop their own arts, food, and political and economic cultures. Seventy years of diplomatic limbo and de facto independence—their own coins, stamps, military—have accelerated those trends and made them feel permanent. They don’t want to be absorbed into the Borg, like Hong Kong.

            It isn’t hard to see why Taiwan’s people embrace the strategic ambiguity of diplomatic limbo. Life is good and getting better, money is rolling in, and—bluster aside—China seems unwilling to risk the chaos and economic cost of reclaiming an island it hasn’t had under direct control since the 19th century. Why fix the unbroken?

            Except—it is a broken situation. You can’t have national pride until you’re a nation. You can’t demand respect unless your people demonstrate courage. Most of all, there’s the question of what the future holds: President Xi Jinping seems smart enough not to try to put the band back together again, at least not via hard (military) power. What about his successor or his successor’s successor?

            Every now and then some Taiwanese political theorist gins up a farfetched workaround that promises to deliver independence without the risk of Chinese tanks rolling through Taipei. The 51 Club, founded in 1994 with 51 members, is a Taiwanese organization dedicated to the goal of turning the island into the 51st state of the United States. Presto! War with Taiwan is war against the United States—something the Chinese would never want.

The idea hasn’t exactly caught fire. “All the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] has to do is lob a few missiles over, and people will be swarming to us,” founder David Choi predicted in 1994. No missiles yet.

            Annette Lu, former vice president of Taiwan under the KMT, promotes One Zhonghua, a scheme under which Taiwan and China would form an economic commonwealth like the European Union, with economic integration and political independence. Neither the Chinese nor the Taiwanese are on board.

            There’s also a theory that the U.S. is, under international law, has been—and still is—the administrator of Taiwan since World War II. In 1945, the U.S. appointed Chiang’s Republic of China (KMT) to administer Taiwan—think of it like a sublet. The San Francisco Peace Treaty didn’t go into effect until seven years later, in 1952. “The treaty never mentioned who would receive Taiwan. Japan surrendered its former colony, but it never said to whom,” writes The Taipei Times. So who gets it? “Regarding Taiwan, the official U.S. position was, is and continues to be that it is ‘undecided.’” Biden may be hanging his hat on this bit of unfinished business.

            From a domestic U.S. political perspective, however, whatever enthusiasm Americans have for defending Taiwan would vanish as soon as they learn that we would be risking World War III over a “country” that isn’t even a country—and doesn’t claim to be. The United States has gotten itself into a lot of stupid wars, but this would be the craziest one ever.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, co-hosts the left-vs-right DMZ America podcast with fellow cartoonist Scott Stantis. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)