People ask, “Is Taiwan the new Ukraine?” The ramifications of Hamas’s barbarous mass murders only reinforce the question. Last week, I went to Taiwan to find the answer.
To avoid reader disappointment, I should at once admit failure. I take comfort from the view of the highest US military experts that anyone who thinks he knows the answer does not understand the situation.
Famously, America’s approach to Taiwan is one of “strategic ambiguity”. Not only America feels that way. Taiwan is itself an ambiguity. It has the attributes of a free and independent nation – democracy, with established political parties and the rule of law; the world’s 16th largest trading economy; armed forces; sophisticated contacts with the outside world. Polls show a burgeoning sense of Taiwanese identity.
I visited Hsinchu Science Park, 30 minutes by high-speed train from Taipei. With my hosts, we ascended to the citadel of “fabs” belonging to TSMC (Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company). These vast, grey buildings, whose sparse windows resemble mediaeval arrow-slits, survey the land below, impenetrable fortresses of modern industrial success.
From TSMC’s massive R &D centre runs an air-bridge to a fab: you can literally see the passage from ideas to production.
TSMC is the biggest company, by market capitalisation (roughly $460 billion), in Asia. Taiwan (population: 23 million) furnishes 90 per cent of the world’s high-end semiconductors.
The last exhibit in TSMC’s Museum of Innovation is a line of twisted wires on a bare wall, apparently random. But when these are illuminated by a bright light their shadow forms, in Chinese characters, words of the firm’s founder, Morris Chang: “Beyond formidable obstacles, a bright future shines.”
My impression is that most Taiwanese people today live and work in that spirit – guided out of the tangle of the past by the light of innovation. In this sense, they resemble Ukrainians, increasingly defining themselves against their unwelcome neighbour, believing in Western civilisation’s linkage between freedom, prosperity and scientific knowledge. They are proving phenomenally successful – more so than the West itself. Margaret Thatcher visited Taiwan in 1996, when its democracy was still fledgling. “You are teaching us back the lesson which we once taught,” she commented. Truer now than ever.
But the big, unfriendly neighbour has the brute power. Before invading in February last year, Putin wrote publicly that Ukraine only really exists as part of Russia. Xi Jinping’s pronouncements about Taiwan are comparable: Taiwan is not a legitimate political entity, but part of his “One China”. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) calls this a “principle”, not a “policy” – a non-negotiable belief.
Ukraine won recognition as an independent nation in 1991. Taiwan lacks such protection. It has no seat at the UN. Thanks to China’s efforts, it is excluded from other global bodies, such as the World Health Organisation. On the IMF’s website, it is described as “Taiwan, Province of China”.
For Xi, therefore, and probably for many countries in hock to Beijing, a forcible Chinese “reunification” of Taiwan seems legitimate. The West can support and arm Ukraine as a sovereign country defending its own territory. The Taiwanese case is different.
That is partly why the United States retains “strategic ambiguity”: it has never advanced a formal argument that Communist China has no sovereignty over Taiwan, although the islands have always evaded CCP capture.
While I was in Taipei, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin were chumming up in Beijing, attending (with the equally chummy UN Secretary-General, Antonio Gutteres) the Forum of the Belt and Road Initiative, Xi’s imperial plan to control the trade routes of the world. Putin, Chinese state media reported, “reiterated Russia’s adherence to the One-China principle, saying that Moscow firmly supports Bejing in safeguarding its national sovereignty.” “Yes, Taiwan is yours,” Vlad was in effect reassuring Xi, “If you want to invade it, go right ahead.”
What is to stop Xi? Not any rational recognition that Taiwan is fine as it is. Before the end of the British lease in 1997, I attended meetings about Hong Kong’s future under China. Pragmatists argued Beijing would not want to addle the golden egg. They put faith in Deng Xiaoping’s proposal of “One Country: Two Systems”: China’s sovereignty would be recognised but Hong Kong’s free way of life would continue for 50 years. Thus the handover took place.
But the pragmatists’ optimism was confounded. One Country, Two Systems proved anathema to a dictator obsessed with control. Xi killed it off with his repressive National Security Law of 2020. China originally conceived One Country, Two Systems as its solution for Taiwan, but Xi lacks Deng’s patience. If he took it over, he would crack the golden egg within weeks.
America will defend Taiwan, President Biden has four times confirmed, though officials have tried to “walk back” his remarks. The stakes could scarcely be higher. If China won Taiwan, it would threaten South Korea and Japan and wrest control of the Pacific from a humiliated United States. Xi would be within touch of his “China dream” – becoming the world’s sole superpower before 2049, the CCP’s revolutionary centenary.
So America is training Taiwan’s armed services, selling them its weapons, sharing intelligence. But what would actually happen, ask many Taiwanese, if China, avoiding the massive military risk of a conventional amphibious landing, were to blockade the main island’s food and energy supplies and disrupt its communications?
Putin’s Ukraine venture foundered immediately because President Zelensky defied his attempt to decapitate the Kyiv leadership. Might Xi not study Russia’s mistakes and decapitate more successfully in Taipei? He would probably have enough Taiwanese stooges to help him. What could America – and Japan, already seriously alarmed - do then? Could they prevail if Taiwan were unready or unwilling to defend itself?
In Taipei, I asked everyone how optimistic they felt. They split roughly 60:40 in favour of hope. But when I asked how China’s attitude had recently changed, all agreed it had got worse.
Changes include: a massive increase in cyber-attacks (not unlike the sudden cyber onslaught by Russia on Ukraine five months before the invasion), now running at 10,000 a year; “grey zone” operations including disinformation campaigns often on apparently unpolitical subjects; almost daily air incursions over the “median line” of the Taiwan Strait; firing live missiles over Taiwan after the visit of Nancy Pelosi last year. Taiwan’s remedies include tripling the period of conscription, raising the defence budget to 2.5 per cent of GDP (the same as Britain’s, so not vast) and building a submarine.
Not nearly enough, in the view of Admiral Lee Hsi-min, the former chief of Taiwan’s defence staff, and chief proponent of the “asymmetric warfare” which Ukraine uses so effectively against Russian mass. “China [ital]is preparing an invasion,” he told me, “It’s just a question of when.” The word is that, militarily, the perfect “when” is from 2027: China will then have full-scale invasion capacity. But there are political reasons – Taiwanese and American elections next year and the current world disorder – why an earlier attack might succeed.
No one knows how well Taiwan would fight. There is growing patriotism but little martial tradition and 20 per cent too few combat troops. Because of their country’s ambiguous status, Taiwanese people veer between the need to deter and the fear of provoking. They say they want “no surprises”. That is understandable, but will Xi Jinping respect that rule? “We remember he is mortal and we wait,” is a formulation I heard more than once. But he is an old man in a hurry. Again, the Ukraine comparison may help. Putin signalled his intentions before acting, but we weren’t quite listening. Are we listening to Xi?