Chinese Decolonialization vs. Taiwanese Self-Determination

Understand the History

In China’s pre-Colonial imagination, formed over thousands of years of continual documented history and culture, China occupied the center of the world. It was justified. No other nation approached their size, sophistication, or riches. China’s name is literally translated “Center Kingdom,” 中国.

So it was a rude surprise when modern Europeans came knocking, and China found itself having fallen behind. As Europeans did in the rest of the world, they disrespected China. The period from 1839 to 1949 is known in China as the “hundred years of national humiliation”. China suffered multiple civil wars, a bloody invasion by Japan, and many violations of sovereignty by the West.

In 1949, the Chinese Communist Party emerged as strong victors who finally pulled China up from its bootstraps. But the CCP’s victory was incomplete. The United States intervened to stop the CCP from fully vanquishing the autocrat we had been supporting, Chiang Kai-shek. It was a final, parting shot at China by Western colonialists – leaving an open wound.

Chiang Kai-shek ruled as a dictator for 25 more years and continued to fight against his nemesis Mao Zedong. The US continued to protect Taiwan from invasion by mainland China, and the two sides never stopped lobbing artillery at each other.

Finally, in 1978, there was a shift. The US sold out Taiwan—which was still a dictatorship—in favor of trading with mainland China. It was a come-to-Jesus moment for Taiwan. Their government needed to become more sympathetic to their protectors in the West. By 1980, Taiwan became a democracy. Sort of a honeytrap for the US to keep on defending Taiwan.

Today, China is still pissed that Western colonialists (the US) stopped them from cleanly winning and ending their civil war 70 years ago. It’s not just the CCP that’s upset – 1.4 billion Chinese citizens are mad. For 70 years, they’ve been strengthening themselves as a society, so they won’t be subject to Western bullying. They’ve taken to heart the phrase, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”

With Hong Kong returned, Taiwan’s de facto independence is the largest remaining remnant of colonial influence in China. Taiwan is stuck in their craw.

Taiwan is not Ukraine

The situation in Taiwan/China/US has parallels with Ukraine/Russia/US, but all the aggressor’s arguments are stronger in the case of China.

Ukraine/Russia/US Taiwan/China/US
Russia ruled Ukraine under the guise of the USSR for 70 years and lost control when the USSR crumbled. It wasn’t taken away by the US. China ruled Taiwan for 200 years before it was taken by Japanese colonialism for 50 years, then separated by American neo-colonialism for the next 70 years.
Ukraine has been recognized by Russia and the West as independent for 30 years. China never gave up its claim to Taiwan since the end of Japanese rule and prevented the West from recognizing Taiwanese independence.
Russian is widely spoken in Ukraine but is not an official language. Chinese is the official language of both Taiwan and China.
Russia’s claim to Ukraine is led from the top. The people didn’t care much before the war. Their action could have been deterred. China’s population has cared intensely about taking Taiwan for a long time. They won’t be deterred long-term from their desire to take over Taiwan.
Russia’s military is corrupt and crumbling. China’s military is a newly built, high functioning, credible threat.
Russia has 3x Ukraine’s population and 9x its GDP. China has 60 times Taiwan’s population and 25x its GDP.
Trade between the West and Russia is asymmetric in favor of the West. Russia’s manufacturing capacity is poor. Trade between the West and China is roughly symmetric. China’s manufacturing capacity is amazing.
Russia has big expansionist aspirations. Letting them expand is a clear slippery slope. China’s main territorial aspiration is Taiwan. A slippery slope argument is unconvincing.
Russia has peers of similar (non-nuclear) military and economic power who might imitate their actions. China’s only military and economic peers are the US and EU.
Ukraine is Europe’s back yard so projecting power is easier there. Taiwan has fewer cultural links to the US, to the extent that we’re a historical European power. Projecting power is harder there.
The long-term outlook for Russia is bleak and immigration from Russia is inconsequential. China’s future looks bright, and it contributes a huge number of high-skilled immigrants to the US. There are benefits to good relations with China.

Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? is a book by Graham Allison warning that history suggests a war between the US and China is likely. It was written in 2017, and every day the book seems scarier and more correct.

The current war between Russia, Ukraine, and the West is horrific. Ukraine chose war over capitulation, and it was in the West’s strategic interest to help Ukraine stand up for itself. Our interests aligned.

Taiwan is an entirely different story. China will never be deterred from trying to take Taiwan, there is a stronger historical argument for Chinese rule of Taiwan, and defeating China militarily would incur unacceptable military and economic damage to the United States. It is no longer in the US interest to protect Taiwan militarily.

Rather than careen toward war, it is time for the US to support a planned transition to Chinese rule of Taiwan. It’s not a good outcome, but it’s the best outcome. :(

Apologies to anybody this offends, especially my friends from Taiwan.

Written on August 7, 2022