Taiwan Must Depend Upon Itself

Many years ago, shortly after the 1975 collapse of Saigon and during the surge of South Vietnamese boat people trying to flee from the communists, I visited the Penghu Island refugee center established by the government of the Republic of China on Taiwan. I had the opportunity to interview many of the refugees and heard horrific stories about their efforts to survive on crowded boats stranded on reefs in the South China Sea, before being rescued by the ROC Navy. 

At the entrance to the camp, just outside the small guard house manning the gate, was a simple sign written in Vietnamese, Chinese, and English setting forth the lessons from the defeat of South Vietnam. One lesson has stood out in my mind for all these years: “Never depend upon other countries for your survival as a nation.” I am reminded now in 2021 of that lesson as I watch Afghanistan fall into the hands of the Taliban and the frantic evacuation of thousands of Americans, Westerners, and Afghans seeking to escape Taliban rule. Once again, after many years of American support, efforts at establishing a democracy failed. The Americans left, the Afghan government fled, and thousands of people who had believed in the American dream and trusted the U.S. commitment were left helpless.

I am placing all of this in the context of Taiwan’s dependency on the United States for its security against the persistent efforts by Beijing to bring the island under the control of the Chinese Communist Party. 

First of all, it must be acknowledged that the United States is not morally or legally obligated to protect Taiwan forever. Kingdoms rise and fall, and perceptions of national interests change over time. Since the Korean War and persisting until today under conditions of Sino-American strategic rivalry, it has been in U.S. interests to ensure that Taiwan is not militarily subjugated by mainland China. That fundamental interest will likely continue as long as the United States has the ability to implement its supportive policy within the boundaries of acceptable costs and benefits. Just as larger political units have historically sought to ally with and support smaller political units in pursuit of common security interests, so too have smaller political units sought such alliances with larger political units. It remains a persistent characteristic of the international system today. However, each alliance has a lifespan of its own; few if any alliances exist beyond their periods of usefulness to the participants.

For Taiwan, the lesson of history ought to be clear: the island’s security cannot be guaranteed forever by an American umbrella. And, for the United States, the lesson is also clear: it may not be able to protect Taiwan forever under shifting geopolitical factors. Taiwan’s security, therefore, has to be found through other means, even though America’s protection appears to be strong at present. With these observations in mind, the question then becomes what can Taiwan do to better ensure its own safety?

One way to look at this is from the perspective of nature and how different species have learned to protect themselves from predators. These techniques have evolved over millions of years, and they can be used as defensive models for nations like Taiwan needing to protect itself from territorial ambitions of countries like the PRC. 

Eleven of these defensive models can be easily identified. They include: (1) spines, such as used by porcupines, which make themselves extremely painful for predators to penetrate; (2) camouflage and masquerade, such as used by flounder, which skillfully blend in with the environment; (3) speed and maneuverability, as shown by deer, which quickly move to escape attack; (4) armor, such as used by turtles, to make themselves so hardened as to be virtually impossible to penetrate; (5) burrowing or staying out of sight, such as employed by rabbits, to hide themselves from capture; (6) distraction or decoys, used by some birds, to draw the attacker’s attention away from their intended target; (7) mimicry, such as used by many insects, which fools the attacker by appearing to be something other than what is being looked for; (8) safety in numbers, as used by herds and flocks, to disguise and confuse the attacker by concealing individuals; (9) fighting back communally, such as used by the muskoxen, in which every member of the group opposes the aggressor in a coordinated and aggressive manner; (10) avoiding predation, used by many species, to escape the attention of predators; and (11) forming symbiotic relationships, such as pilot fish with sharks, by performing useful services for stronger species who in turn protect the weaker from harm.

What these and similar strategies demonstrate is that nature provides many models for how smaller nations can protect themselves without becoming overly dependent on alliances. Although Taiwan’s security is at present greatly strengthened by its close relationship with the United States, Taiwan can increase its odds for survival by exploring other means to defend itself in case the U.S. commitment to the island’s defense is one day withdrawn. It is important to note that developing many of these additional security capabilities depend on Taiwan itself coordinating efforts between the government and the people. Anything less than a whole-of-society effort for self-defense would greatly reduce Taiwan’s chances of survival should it ever need to stand alone against the PRC.