It is grand time that liberals recognized that the defense of Taiwan is a worthy liberal enterprise, not a relic of the Cold War that is kept on life support by conservatives.
Since the election of Donald J. Trump in November 2016, a number of books decrying the supposed decline of the West and the retreat from liberal-democratic values have scaled the bestseller lists. One in particular, described by Lawrence Summers as a “penetrating analysis,” makes it clear that the would-be defenders of Western liberal values have got it absolutely wrong when it comes to Taiwan.
The book in question, The Retreat of Western Liberalism, was written by Edward Luce, the chief U.S. columnist for the Financial Times. Like many purported voices of liberal reason, Luce writes about the existential threat that faces Taiwan in a way that suggests its defense is the remit and consequence of misguided, conservative — and ultimately dangerous — illiberal forces.
The irony, of course, is that helping democratic Taiwan defend itself against authoritarian aggression very much ought to be an enterprise that enjoys wholehearted support from the liberal camp. A rare example of peaceful democratization and by far the most vibrant democracy in the Asia Pacific today and enjoying the freest media environment in the region, Taiwan is a source of inspiration for several countries in Asia that strive for a modicum of freedom in their own political systems. Since 1996, when Taiwan held its first free presidential election, the island-nation has gone through three peaceful transitions of power and has consolidated its young democracy at a time of many reversals worldwide — including in a number of “mature” Western democracies.
Taiwan does not threaten its neighbors with military invasion. Despite its exclusion, it never abandoned its hopes of being a full participant in multilateral institutions (another darling of the liberals). And it stands as a shining example of resilience in the face of extraordinary odds.
And yet, according to Luce, its sovereign status and quest for self-determination (another liberal idea) are impediments to peace, relics of a Cold War that is kept artificially alive by mad illiberal leaders like Donald Trump.
For some reason, Luce gives the Taiwan Strait much greater attention than other potential hotspots such as Israel-Palestine, rogue states like North Korea, Iran, Syria and Pakistan, or even terrorism. What’s more, Taiwan’s case is inexplicably presented in an unfavorable light, as if it, rather than the expansionist giant that threatens it, were the culprit and the factor undermining American liberalism.
The very first reference to Taiwan occurs as part of a war scenario involving China and the U.S. in 2020. Luce immediately establishes a connection between what he calls a “plausible extrapolation” and, back in the present, Trump’s Taiwan policy. “Within days of defeating Hillary Clinton, President-Elect Trump threw down the gauntlet to China,” Luce writes. “Not only did he accept a congratulatory call from Taiwan’s president, in itself a provocative departure, he also threatened US recognition of Taiwanese independence as a bargaining chip in his coming trade showdown.”
“To be sure,” he continues, “Washington’s foreign policy experts instantly grasped how reckless this was.”
So much for Luce’s liberal credentials. The democratically elected president of a peaceful country and longstanding ally of the U.S. spends 10 minutes on the phone talking with the American president-elect and this is “provocative” and “reckless.” However, President Trump meets his Chinese counterpart, President Xi Jinping, who has unleashed one of the most vicious assaults on Chinese society in recent decades and whose foreign policies have thrown the region in turmoil, and Luce has no use for such adjectives. Engage a peaceful leader and you’re a troublemaker; cavort with a tyrant and it’s okay. Liberal indeed.
Luce then takes us back into his little fantasy. Trump “reluctantly” endorsed the “one China” policy, “but the genie was already out of the bottle.” As a result, four years later a U.S. destroyer lies “at the bottom of the South China Sea” and the U.S. has launched “large-scale” strikes against naval bases in China. The only reason hostilities over Taiwan do not turn into a global conflagration is Russian President Vladimir Putin, who acts as a broker between Beijing and Washington (Taipei, as always, is never mentioned as an independent participant in such scenarios).
The seeds of conflict, if I read Luce correctly, were sown in 1995-1996 during the missile crisis, when China bracketed Taiwan with missiles in response to then-president Lee Teng-hui’s visit to the U.S. and the holding of Taiwan’s first direct presidential election. U.S. President Clinton’s decision to deploy aircraft carrier groups near the Taiwan Strait to deter Beijing from continued aggression had the unintended consequences, according to Luce, of prompting a program of rapid military modernization by China, which now has its own aircraft carrier and Area-Denial/Anti Access (A2/AD) capabilities that, in his words, would make a Clinton maneuver “a far more dramatic bet today.” He then quotes Hugh White, a longtime proponent of abandonment (and not, as he claims, “Australia’s leading Sinologist”), to reinforce his claim that U.S. military support for Taiwan would be too risky (for my exchanges with Professor White, see here and here).
Later on, Luce argues that Taiwan is “the big prize” for China, and Washington “its biggest obstacle,” adding that “it is critical to try to see the dispute from China’s point of view.” Again, nothing is said about the 23.5 million people of Taiwan, nothing about their point of view or right to determine their own future. Also left unsaid is whose point of view in China Luce refers to: Does he mean the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), an increasingly repressive, authoritarian ruler that silences all criticism and political alternatives, or ordinary Chinese, who, if they were at full liberty to express their views on the matter, might not be so adamant that Taiwan belongs to them or that capturing it should be a top priority of their leadership? (Based on the nature of his argument so far, I suspect he means the former, which is deeply troubling given the purported aim of his book). Again, Luce, the defender of liberalism, argues that the liberal thing to do is to see the dispute from the CCP’s point of view. From the point of the most successful authoritarian regime in history. Hell, now that we’re at it, we should also have sought to see conflict in Cambodia from Pol Pot’s point of view, or in the Balkans from Milošević’s.
As many would-be liberals who regard Taiwan as a Cold War relic and catnip for the illiberal-minded, Luce also gets many of his facts wrong. “Taiwan was not only an historic part of China, but is recognised as such by the US and most of the rest of the world,” he writes, putting his misunderstanding of the U.S.’ (and many other countries’) “one China” policy in full display. As we know, their “one China” policy “takes note of” or “acknowledges” Beijing’s position that there is only one China; nowhere do they agree, as Luce avers (and Beijing maintains in its one China principle), that Taiwan is part of China. At the most, they adopt an agnostic position on the subject, one that provides the space and time for the eventual peaceful resolution to the problem. Even more stunning is Luce’s claim that Taiwan “split off from the mainland only in 1949, after the defeated Kuomintang fled there following the communist revolution.” Evidently Luce is no historian, as he would know that prior to 1945 Taiwan had been ruled by, and was part of, Japan for half a century. Interestingly, the omission of those formative 50 years in Taiwan’s history is something else that Luce has in common with CCP propaganda. Equally telling is the author’s whitewashing of the events leading to 1949: this was no revolution; it was a civil war.
Luce makes no reference whatsoever to the greatest impediment to unification, which is Taiwan’s desire for self-determination and liberal-democratic way of life, the very things that he purports to defend in his book.
After making the CCP’s case that the U.S. should respect a Chinese version of the Monroe Doctrine (“What would happen if China’s nuclear-equipped warships were spotted off the coast of Virginia? … [The U.S. would respond] Not calmly, it can be safely assumed”), Luce states that “Taiwan remains by far China’s largest item of unfinished business” — an assumption that again uncritically regurgitates communist propaganda — and adds that “Only the US stands in its way.” Frustratingly, Luce once more makes no reference whatsoever to the greatest impediment to unification, which is Taiwan’s desire for self-determination and liberal-democratic way of life, the very things that he purports to defend in his book. Luce denies all volition to the Taiwanese, and the security umbrella that over decades has allowed Taiwan’s democratic institutions and practices to prosper despite a growing threat from authoritarian China is, in his warped view of the world, the greatest threat to global liberalism. He does not seem to realize that the U.S. security umbrella exists because Taiwanese refuse to be absorbed by authoritarian China, not the other way around.
Equally absurd is Luce’s war scenario, in which Presidents Trump and Tsai Ing-wen are depicted as irresponsible partners who leave China no choice but to take action. “In 2019, things began to spiral out of control. Buoyed by his mid-term victory, and backed by the swelling America First movement,” Trump takes a series of actions — pulling the U.S. out of the WTO and launching a trade war — that lead to a nosedive in Sino-U.S. relations. “Emboldened by Trump’s aggression” (note the loaded term), “Taiwan’s President, Tsai Ing-Wen, announced in June that she would hold a referendum on independence in early 2020. Trump declared the US would stay neutral.” Chaos and war ensue, and Putin, the great liberal of our time, saves the day.
All of this is, of course, fantasy that could only be conjured up by someone who doesn’t have a firm grasp of the dynamics in the Taiwan Strait, let alone of how the Tsai administration operates. What’s even more amazing in all this is that both the U.S. and Taiwan, the two democracies in this scenario, are seen as the aggressors, leaving China no choice but to fight a defensive war, which is exactly how it characterizes its options in its propaganda. It is stunning that a book about the need to defend liberal values would so uncritically adopt CCP propaganda and make Beijing the responsible party in all this. Luce’s open antipathy for President Trump, moreover, blinds him to the fact that U.S. policy defending Taiwan has been continuous since 1979 under the Taiwan Relations Act, spanning several presidents, including some (Clinton and Obama) that no doubt he would describe as the antitheses of Trump. But this isn’t Luce’s bias alone. Liberal circles have also had a tendency to ridicule Trump no matter what he does, including his decision to accept a phone call from President Tsai on Dec. 2, 2016 (that same day a major U.S. newspaper invited me to write an op-ed on the subject, only to turn the piece down after I failed to properly chastise the president-elect for his terrible “foolishness”).
It is grand time that liberals recognized that the defense of Taiwan is a worthy liberal enterprise. That conservatives have tended to take the lead on the matter isn’t so much that support for Taiwan is an illiberal endeavor as the fact that liberals have tended to be missing in action. If Mr. Luce were serious about the need to re-energize liberalism worldwide, he would surely recognize that opposing revisionism and the territorial expansion of authoritarian regimes — not helping them by broadcasting their propaganda to an even wider audience — is the way to go about it. Sadly, by misrepresenting the situation in the Taiwan Strait and turning logic on its head, by turning the defense of democracy into an illiberal project, Luce fatally undermines his argument. So much so, in fact, that I am somewhat reluctant to read the rest of the book.