On Taiwan, Hard Choices, and Determinism

Should they just give up?Image Credit: Ministry of National Defense, ROC
Should they stop avoiding the inevitable and just give up? Image Credit: Ministry of National Defense, ROC

Update: read J. Michael Cole’s rebuttal of Hugh White in The National Interest: Don’t Let China Swallow Taiwan.

Every now and then, there is an editorial or essay that takes on issues pertaining to Taiwan that just get pretty much everything wrong. Hugh White’s (who is a Professor of Strategic Studies at the ANU) piece for Singapore-based The Strait Times is the most recent example. It is an unfortunate exercise of a bland kind of realism that does not offer much more than the simplistic view of international politics where the weak are meat the strong do eat. Michael Turton​ who runs The View from Taiwan blog (which everyone should be reading) responded accordingly. Turton’s rebuttal is worth reading from the beginning to the end (including witty sarcasm), but I’d like to point out this part:

Pieces like White’s which advocate that Taiwan sell out to China are often presented with a kind of wistful this-hurts-me-more-than-you regret. The writer presents himself (always a male, of course, females seem to be less afflicted with such testosterone delusions) as making the tough choice, the manly choice, the hard choice. Because, as we all know, the greatness of a realpolitik policy is measured by the number of one’s friends its betrays.

The “hard” choice appeals to one’s sense of one’s own toughness. “Hey, I can make the tough call! Look how manly I am! I can betray millions of my own friends and allies!” The reality is that the sell-out is the easy choice. The hard choice is the quiet, long-term effort at alliance building, at awareness raising, at humble day-to-day slogging on behalf of a worthy ally. At changing the world, one mind at a time, one policy at a time, one administration at a time.

Resistance is the real hard choice, Hugh.

No further comment needed on the above. However, I will add two observations of my own.

Firstly, White inevitably addresses the issue of potential U.S. military assistance to Taiwan in the case of Chinese attack:

Even more worryingly, this reality does not yet seem to have sunk in in Washington, where leaders still talk boldly about their willingness to stand by Taiwan without seriously considering what that might mean in practice. Any US effort to support Taiwan militarily against China would be almost certain to escalate into a full-scale US-China war and quite possibly a nuclear exchange. That would be a disaster for everyone, including, of course, the people of Taiwan itself – far worse than reunification, in fact.

The last sentence is just horrible. It could very well read like this: “Please, everyone who just happen to be subject of territorial desire of a stronger state, do us good and surrender already, obviously it is better for you anyway. Sincerely yours, concerned third party.” Now somehow I can’t understand why White’s compatriots were so stubbornly rejecting to become part of the glorious Japanese empire more than 60 years ago. It must be some exception from the rule, I suppose.

That is not what puzzles me though. Instead it is the other claim. Why so many people assume that potential conflict between China and the U.S. has nuclear potential? For one, I do not think it does. Neither territory of the two nuclear weapon-armed actors would be subject to an invasion from the other side, nor would either of them face total defeat threatening the very existence of one’s statehood. Granted, losing would be hard hit for either of the two (and Taiwan), but it would not be as nearly as bad as mutual nuclear holocaust. Live to fight another day is in this scenario always better option, Taiwan’s importance notwithstanding.

Secondly, and related to previous one, White argues:

China is simply too important economically, and too powerful militarily, for anyone to confront it on Taiwan’s behalf, especially when everyone knows how determined China is to achieve reunification eventually.

Maybe it is just me nitpicking, but academics, renowned or not, should really avoid sentences that contains “everyone knows,” because is this what everyone knows? Everyone takes it for granted, that I’d agree with. But what do we really know? How do we know what importance do Chinese people from bottom echelons of the society to the top leadership assign to Taiwan? What evidence do we have that Chinese politics is so driven by incorporating Taiwan that failure to do otherwise would instantly discard achievements elsewhere. Is Taiwan really that important that no Chinese goes sleep without shedding a tear over unfinished unification? Publicly, no Chinese official would claim otherwise, nor should we expect him or her to. The same applies to a regular citizen. I do not mean to discard the claim altogether. It may very well be true. However, we ought to engage it critically and not take the official propaganda at face value.

Bonus plead: please, please, can we avoid offering superficial assertions of ‘I strong, you weak, I win, you lose’ type? It comes across as intellectually lazy and empirically untrue. It makes realism look bad (unless its ambition is to convince casual reader of [insert your local tabloid media]) and it really pollutes informed debate on international politics, the nature of power, and the dynamic role that smaller-than-great actors play.

Last but not least, can we stop making claims on the supposedly inevitable fate that Taiwan needs to face? There is nothing inevitable in politics, it is even less valid assumption in international politics domain that more often than not takes very unexpected turns. Just think of a sudden collapse of the Soviet empire, attacks of 9/11, or the folly of unlikelihood of a conventional inter-state conflict in Europe that most of us thought is a matter of past mere 18 months ago. There is no place for determinism in a serious debate.


  1. Concerning the use of nuclear weapons: according to Ambassador Thomas Graham Jr., the use of nuclear weapons would not likely occur following engagement of ground troops (why go all in when you’ve already expended your military force to capture strategic/resource bases?) Furthermore, would it not be counterproductive for China to nuke Taiwan in an armed conflict when, from the perspective of Machiavelli, Beijing wants to successfully control through colonization and use the island strategically and for resources?
    Therefore, I rule out that there would be use of nuclear weapons in this particular conflict. To a greater extent, I also argue that although Beijing regularly updates its strategy for invading Taiwan, China’s top officials know its an undeniably worthless way of reuniting “the two shores” hence the reason why that method hasn’t been implemented for the last 60+ years–even during Taiwan’s most politically and militarily vulnerable moments, China has pushed this strategy aside.

  2. “China’s top officials know its an undeniably worthless way of reuniting “the two shores” hence the reason why that method hasn’t been implemented for the last 60+ years–even during Taiwan’s most politically and militarily vulnerable moments, China has pushed this strategy aside.”

    Intentions notwithstanding, China has never had the capability to stage an amphibious invasion, not after it has not seized the initiative and has not followed KMT to Taiwan right away. Then there was US military presence between 1954 and 1979. So really vulnerable part was the early to mid 1980s when Taiwan looked bad as military dictatorship and China was rapidly improving its image. But then, it still did not have the capability to launch an invasion. It does not have it to this date, although it is improving fast in that area and that is what is changing. This is not to say that it is a good idea to consider for the Chinese. Just saying that Chinese failure to go for that option during last almost 60 years is also testimony to capability gap.

  3. “writer presents himself (always a male, of course, females seem to be less afflicted with such testosterone delusions) as making the tough choice, the manly choice, the hard choice.”

    What a shameful man shaming. If he’d have said something similar about women all voices would have risen against him. But we encourage this gender self flagellation now

    How is one wraps a coward’s choice in such unmanly cloth?

  4. In History the fates of smaller countries were often decided by the stroger powers. Poland in ww2 is agood example . We also have the South America example where Spain and Portugal did not clash.
    I know the US is the greatest superpower in history. China need not physically take ove r the island. Shd the Taiwanese be naïve to try to declare independence with the connivance of the US,China will just destroy the island.This is no idle threat .Would the US try to stop China?
    Its akin to a man cutting off his arm to save his body.

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