Chinese officials have started directing citizens to stock up on food amid rising vegetable, egg, and pork prices. Encouraging people to become preppers could just be how the Chinese government expresses concern about cold snaps and potential future COVID-19 lockdowns. But some fear it’s a more sinister sign, indicating that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) wants people to prepare for the growing threat of war.
For years, tensions between China and Taiwan remained at a simmer. But in October, China sent a record number of warplanes, 149, into the Taiwanese air defense identification zone while conducting military exercises in a province directly across the water from Taiwan.
“The current situation is the most challenging since I joined the army four decades ago,” wrote Taiwan’s defense minister, Chiu Kuo-Cheng, in The Wall Street Journal, gravely noting that “Taiwan is no match for China in resources, manpower and military technologies.” The island, which is less than 0.5 percent the mainland’s size, is dwarfed by China in both area and population.
China’s complicated relationship with Taiwan began in 1684, when the Qing dynasty seized the island after Admiral Shi Lang wrote of its abundance: “Fish and salt spout forth from the sea; the mountains are filled with dense forests of tall trees and thick bamboo; there are sulfur, rattan, sugarcane, deerskins, and all that is needed for daily living. Nothing is lacking.” At the end of the 19th century, Chinese rulers, facing a humiliating war defeat, gave Taiwan to Japan; following Japan’s loss in World War II, it was returned to the mainland. But just a few years later, civil war split the country apart. The Chinese Nationalist Party (or “Kuomintang”) was exiled to Taiwan and would go on to exercise martial law there for nearly 40 years.
Despite this messy backstory, democracy and pluralism have flourished in Taiwan since the end of the Kuomintang’s dictatorial reign in 1987. As in Singapore, Hong Kong, and South Korea, the rapid industrialization of the 1960s has produced lasting economic strength for Taiwan. Toward the end of the 20th century, robust political freedoms and civil society institutions also took root on the island.
Fourteen U.N. members recognize Taiwan’s independence, and much of the world views its autonomy as legitimate or worth defending. But today’s CCP regards Taiwan as a territory gone rogue. Many Taiwanese people, led by democratically elected President Tsai Ing-wen, believe the mainland has no claim over the island. Many also think any attempt by China to annex it ought to be met with military might. Although some wish they weren’t cut off from mainland economic activity, most are acutely aware of how much they stand to lose if they are brought under totalitarian CCP rule.
From America’s perspective, Taiwan remains in limbo. The U.S. maintains an embassy-by-another-name there and has soldiers on the ground to assist the Taiwanese military. But the U.S. government officially recognizes the government in Beijing, not Taipei. That tenuous balance is predicated on the assumption that China will continue to behave peacefully in the Taiwan Strait.
During a CNN town hall in October, President Joe Biden vowed to protect Taiwan, saying somewhat controversially that “we have a commitment” to come to Taiwan’s defense if China attacks—the same position that then-President George W. Bush took two decades before. But it’s not true that the U.S. is obligated to defend the island; the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 just says that an attempt to take Taiwan by military means would be of “grave concern” to the United States. The concern is made more grave by Taiwan’s role in the global electronics market.
Taiwan does indeed provide “all that is needed for daily living,” but not due to the fishes and salt spouting forth from the sea. The chips produced by Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. are essential parts of your smartphone, laptop, and car. Without them, factories around the globe would face difficulties in producing the world’s electronics.
“China’s intention,” Chiu worries, “is to take Taiwan quickly and deny third parties the chance to intervene.” If Taiwan became embroiled in a protracted military engagement with China, global supply-chain turmoil would ensue. What we don’t know is how the U.S. would respond to the CCP’s totalitarian flexing or what the collateral damage might be. While China may stand to gain, pretty much everyone else stands to lose.
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