Why the United States cares so much about Taiwan

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In recent months, international newspapers have often talked about Taiwan. A lot has been done this week, when US President Joe Biden said the United States is ready to use force to defend Taiwan from a possible Chinese invasion, and more generally in these months of war in Europe, when many observers they made a comparison between the situation in Ukraine, a small country attacked by the great Russian power, and that of Taiwan, a small country that could be attacked by the great Chinese power.

In reality, the comparison was rather criticized, but Biden’s words on the defense of Taiwan started precisely from a comparison with the Ukrainian situation. At a press conference, a reporter asked Biden: “You didn’t want to get involved in the Ukrainian conflict for obvious reasons, but would you be willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan, should such a thing happen?” He replied, without hesitation: «Yes», ​​adding then: «this is the commitment we have made».

The United States has no formal defense commitment to the Taiwanese government, but Biden’s response shows that, as analysts have long known, the United States would be more likely to engage militarily in the defense of Taiwan than in the defense of Taiwan. ‘Ukraine. It means, in fact, that in order to defend Taiwan they would be ready to go to war with China.

In reality, analysts are quite divided on how much this will will really materialize when it is needed, and that is whether the United States will really be ready to intervene militarily against China if and when it invades Taiwan. However, the hypothesis remains remote: at the moment there are no concrete indications that China could invade Taiwan, and no one expects that there will be in the coming years. But as he wrote a year ago theEconomistTaiwan is “the most dangerous place in the world”, or one of the: the hypothesis is that if a war between great powers breaks out, it will break out for Taiwan, an island of 23 million inhabitants off the Chinese coast.

There are various reasons why the United States is ready to risk a war with China to defend Taiwan. Most are strategic, historical, economic and military: among other things, if China conquers Taiwan it would greatly increase its military influence in the Pacific Ocean. It would encompass what is currently the world’s 22nd economy and take over Taiwan’s pivotal microprocessor industry, which is unique in the world and strategic for global technological development.

To these more concrete reasons we add one linked to ideology. It is certainly not the most important, nor the one that can shift decisions for or against a military intervention, but it is one of the most interesting and peculiar.

The fact is that Taiwan is not only “the most dangerous place in the world”, as theEconomist, but also, according to various researches, the most democratic and free place in all of Asia. This fact has a considerable weight in the reasoning of American (and partly Western) politicians and experts, who have played a fundamental role in encouraging democracy in Taiwan and transforming it into a model of success as opposed to Chinese state authoritarianism. .

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If the United States intervenes militarily, it will not do so solely for a disinterested defense of democratic values. But the fact that Taiwan is a democracy – and how it has become one – has some weight. As you wrote in an essay on Foreign Affairs Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, if Taiwan were to fall “it would mean that in today’s global competition of values, authoritarianism would have an advantage over democracy.” Biden too has often defined the political and economic competition between the United States and China as a clash between democracy and authoritarianism.

A brief history of Taiwan
The island of Taiwan is not a story of democracy and freedom: considered for centuries a remote and peripheral part of the Chinese empire, conquered by Japan at the beginning of the twentieth century, Taiwan assumed a fundamental importance in international politics in 1949.

In that year, the Communist Party of China won the civil war against the Kuomintang, the nationalist administration that had ruled China up to that point. The leader of the Kuomintang, Chiang Kai-shek, pursued by the Communist army took refuge in Taiwan with what was left of his army and his administration, as well as many civilians. In Chiang Kai-shek’s plans, the stay in Taiwan should have been temporary: the nationalists would have stopped on the island in time to recover their strength and plan the reconquest of all of China. Of course it didn’t, and Chiang’s and his gods’ stay in Taiwan became permanent.

In 1949, over two million Chinese – mostly members of the army and Kuomintang administration, with their families – fled mainland China to Taiwan, and began building a new state. Chiang Kai-shek established his government in Taipei and presented him to the world as the legitimate government of all of China, albeit in exile on the island of Taiwan.

Chiang Kai-shek nel 1950 circa (Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The United States, allies of Chiang, and most of the countries of the world recognized the government as such, and a peculiar situation arose in which the authority of the small Taiwanese government was recognized over the hundreds of millions of inhabitants of mainland China, even if in fact Chiang ruled over only a handful of millions of people in Taiwan. At the UN it was the Taiwanese government that was recognized and held a permanent seat on the Security Council, while the Chinese Communist government had relations exclusively with the countries of the Soviet area.

By settling in Taiwan, Chiang and the two million Chinese refugees imposed a bloody and racist dictatorship: only the members of the Kuomintang – and only those who fled with Chiang, therefore not the people born in Taiwan – could obtain public and government positions, while the large minorities who lived on the island before the arrival of the Chinese were brutally repressed.

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The Taiwanese regime kept martial law active from 1949 to 1987, and used it to suppress all forms of dissent, cancel political and civil rights and create a reactionary and immobile regime, in which protests and demonstrations were often dispersed with the violence. Since the regime never abandoned the claim that his stay in Taiwan was temporary, and that he would soon return to rule over all of China, between 1949 and 1991 the Parliament was never renewed: to renew it, it was the reasoning, yes elections should have been held all over China, where the Communists ruled.

However, the Taiwanese regime retained the support of the United States, which saw the Kuomintang and Chiang as an important ally in the struggle against communism in the Cold War. Taiwan’s strategic position, a few tens of kilometers from the Chinese coast, made the island very interesting for Americans. Also thanks to the help of the United States, Taiwan’s economy grew to exceptional levels, making the island one of the richest and most prosperous countries in Asia.

Chiang Kai-shek died in 1975 and was succeeded by his son, Chiang Ching-kuo. Despite having had a career as chief of the secret police, and having been the perpetrator of violent repression and arbitrary arrests, Chiang Ching-kuo realized that the world around him was changing.

By the early 1970s, the United States had moved closer to the Communist government of mainland China, and in 1971 the UN General Assembly voted to remove Taiwan from the United Nations and recognize Communist China in its place. Taiwan lost access to the UN and all international agencies, as well as obviously the permanent seat on the Security Council, which went to China. In those same years, more or less all the countries that recognized Taiwan as China’s legitimate government broke off diplomatic relations with Taiwan and began to establish them with China.

Today Taiwan is an unrecognized state that maintains diplomatic relations with a small group of small countries.

While the United States did not completely abandon its old ally (in 1979, Congress passed a law requiring the United States to maintain informal diplomatic relations and supply defensive weapons to the island), within a few years Taiwan was she found completely isolated and vulnerable. Chiang Ching-kuo realized that his father’s fossilized regime had no future, and he began to pass gradual political reforms. Taiwan’s government began to become more open at first, allowing people born on the island and not just Chiang Kai-shek’s old comrades to take up prominent positions, and then gradually more liberal and democratic.

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It was a long and difficult process, full of hitches and problems: in some cases the regime retraced its steps and committed violent and repressive acts, in others it allowed great openings. But the democratization process always remained constant and all in all peaceful, especially if we compare it to what in the meantime was happening for example in South Korea, where many people died fighting for democracy.

In 1996, the first free elections in Taiwan’s history were held.

The protection of rights has continued to strengthen over the years, and today Taiwan is the most democratic and free country in Asia, and one of the most notable cases in the world of success of liberal democracies. According to an annual ranking made byEconomistTaiwan is the eleventh most democratic country in the world, more than Japan, which is twenty-first, and South Korea, which is twenty-third (Italy is twenty-ninth, while China is at position 151 out of 167).

In Taiwan, not only are elections free and pluralistic and political life is participated with extreme passion (so much so that fistfights are relatively common in parliament). The media are the freest in Asia and ethnic minorities, after decades of repression, are now respected and protected, even if there is still work to be done.

In 2019 Taiwan became the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriages. It is still the only one.

Same-sex marriage approval celebrations in Taipei in 2019 (Carl Court / Getty Images)

According to various experts, Taiwan’s liberal and democratic reforms played a role in the survival of the island’s autonomy.

At the end of the 1970s, while Taiwan was abandoned by almost all the governments of the world, many speculated that the island would soon be re-annexed by China, which has never stopped claiming that Taiwan is only a rebel province. . But as Shelley Rigger, a professor at Davidson College in the United States, wrote, Taiwan managed to “survive as an autonomous political entity in a world that no longer recognized its sovereignty” mainly for three reasons: its great economic development, the relationships of the all interrupted with the United States and the reforms that transformed it into a democratic country.

These reasons are interrelated: if Taiwan had remained an authoritarian and immobile regime, it would hardly have been able to maintain the support of the United States especially after the end of the Cold War, when the need to use the island as an outpost against communism had arisen. less.

Today, in the unlikely event that China decides to invade Taiwan, the fact that it is the freest democracy in Asia could become an element of pressure from Western public opinion on governments in favor of defensive intervention. It will certainly not be the only factor, nor the first, but it could be relevant. In fact, even if not fully and consciously, the Taiwan leadership has used democratization as a defense tool.