Historical, economic case for why Communist China should not invade Taiwan

During a recent interview with the “Fox News Rundown” podcast in April this year, US Representative Dusty Johnson of South Dakota remarked that “Taiwan is, indeed, its own country and that bullies like the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) don’t get to take what they want through military force”. Johnson’s remarks reflected a view shared by many in the West and in Taiwan that the island is an independent democratic country which has never been ruled by the CCP, despite the latter’s claims over it. 

In contrast, the communist regime of Beijing has for years maintained its expansionist rhetoric claiming sovereignty over Taiwan, with Chinese leader Xi Jinping indicating several times that, if necessary, China would use military force to invade Taiwan to reunite it with the mainland.  Moreover, Xi has long trumpeted that Taiwan’s people, most of them who have ancestral ties to the mainland, are Chinese and are going against their past by clinging on to the notion of independence. 

Nonetheless, locals on Taiwan’s main island told Yahoo News that they saw themselves as living in a sovereign nation with a unique identity defined by democratic ideals.

“I was born in Taiwan and I live in Taiwan so I am Taiwanese,” said Taipei’s Jing-Mei White Terror Memorial Park Museum worker, Angela Hung, 50. “It’s a free and peaceful place… I hope to continue our current way of living.”

History student Rick Lai related to AFP how the longstanding threat of a military incursion from Beijing has only boosted Taiwan’s separate and unique identity. “This sense of insecurity is making Taiwanese more and more aware of who they are,” he said. 

“The constant threat has made Taiwanese ask themselves ‘who are we, what are we, what are we defending?’”

Certainly, Lai is spot-on in pointing out the significance of Taiwan’s history, a major topic essential to understanding why this island has been embroiled in political saber rattling and threats from the communist mainland. 

Also, with China’s pugilism drawing Taiwan further into the US orbit, a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would drag another superpower, the US, into the fray, resulting in devastating consequences for the world at large.

Notably, the bedrock of the West’s defense of Taiwan, otherwise known as the policy of “strategic ambiguity”, hinges on another legal gray area; Taiwan’s status in international law. Ascertaining the island’s international status based on its history with the mainland is key to addressing the question of whether China is legally entitled to restore control over Taiwan by force.

Scant evidence of Ming rule in Taiwan

In 1624, the Dutch East India Company arriving in Taiwan (that was then called Formosa) found scant vestiges of rule or administration by China’s Ming Dynasty, which ruled China from 1368 through 1644. Based on historical sources, the Emperor Ming Tianqi reportedly told the Dutch that they should “go beyond our territory”. In turn, the Dutch moved to Formosa and ruled the island for 38 years, setting up an administrative structure on Taiwan. 

In 1683, China’s Kangxi Emperor purportedly stated that “Taiwan is outside our empire and of no great consequence”.

Taiwan rebels under Qing Rule, given to Japan in perpetuity 

Admittedly, with the new Manchu rulers of the Qing dynasty, Taiwan was indirectly governed primarily as part of Fujian province. Based on some Taiwanese historians, a total of over 100 recorded rebellions were recorded under Qing rule, in a situation characterized by “every three years an uprising, every five years a rebellion.” 

Further contesting the CCP’s claims over Taiwan would be the Qing rulers’ decision to cede Formosa to Japan in perpetuity under the Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895. 

KMT and CCP support Taiwanese independence from Japan

During the 1920s and 1930s, when Chiang Kai-shek of Kuomintang (KMT), and Mao Zedong were fighting for dominance as well as against the Japanese in China, both men were reported to have voiced their approval of Taiwanese independence from Japan.  Although the Soviets attempted to infiltrate KMT, Chiang saw through their plots and deported many Soviet agents from China. 

1940s: CCP’s first claim on Taiwan’s “return” to China 

As time went on, Taiwan became even more of a pawn amidst the bitter rivalry between Chiang’s KMT and the CCP. Before the November 1943 Cairo Conference, Chiang famously asserted that Taiwan should be “returned to China” and Allied powers subsequently agreed that Taiwan would be returned to the Republic of China. The CCP, in an apparent attempt to keep up with Chiang’s statement, staged its first claim over Taiwan as their own.

“In reality, it’s not a pre-eminent matter of manifest destiny,” argued Peter Hartcher, author of Red Zone: China’s Challenge and Australia’s Future. “There are few things so common in world affairs. There are some 150 current such disputes around the world… What distinguishes countries is not whether they have such disputes, but how they handle them. Whether they respect international law, or whether they force their will onto others.”

In a move that would complicate things for years to come, Chiang’s KMT also adopted the stance that Taiwan had been “returned” to China on Retrocession Day on October 25, 1945, a claim that the CCP would leverage to promote its expansionist agenda. Taiwan’s official title as the Republic of China (ROC) also did not help in clarifying the island’s status during those tumultuous postwar years. 

Eventually, in 1949, the CCP emerged victorious in China’s civil war and declared the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as the successor to Chiang’s ROC. Not wanting to admit its loss of the mainland, the KMT retreated to Taiwan, and claimed the ROC to be the single legal “state” and government of all of China. Thus, in Chiang’s eyes, Taiwan belonged to the ROC, whereas the CCP viewed the island as part of the PRC. Japan’s renunciation of Taiwan under the 1951 San Francisco Peace Trinity added to the existing disputes over the island’s future sovereignty as well. 

Even though Taiwan was one of the founding members of the United Nations (UN) in 1945 as the ROC, it lost its seat at the National Security Council to the PRC in 1971, in light of the UN adopting the so-called “one China” policy, acknowledging only the PRC government.

No explicit superpower recognition of Taiwan as Chinese territory

Evidently, America did not acknowledge Taiwan’s “return” to China both during and after the Second World War. In his book “At Cross Purposes: U.S.-Taiwan Relations Since 1942” exploring the history of US-Taiwan ties, author Richard C. Bush asserted that Taiwan was officially regarded as “occupied by the ROC (Republic of China) on behalf of the Allied Forces” from 1945-1949. 

Also, in the postwar years, renowned American military general Douglas MacArthur had rallied for a referendum pertaining to Taiwan under the auspices of the UN. After the Chinese communists became involved in the Korean conflict in 1950, MacArthur also advocated for hiring ROC forces to deal with the Chinese and Korean communists. However, MacArthur’s cause failed to materialize as President Harry Truman controversially sacked the top general from his post. 

US communists’ role in facilitating a CCP victory in China 

Little, if any, attention has been given to the role of American communists and Soviet sympathizers within the US establishment in contributing to the CCP’s ultimate triumph over the KMT in China’s civil war.  

One such friend of communist authoritarian leader Mao Zedong was General Joseph Stilwell, deployed by then president Franklin Roosevelt and Army Chief of Staff George Marshall to spearhead efforts in China against Japan. Stilwell’s role in ensuring the triumph of communism in China was so crucial that in 1946, the Daily Worker, an official Communist Party newspaper in the US, printed a letter that Stilwell had written, which stated “It makes me itch to throw down my shovel and get over there and shoulder a rifle with Chu Teh (commander in chief of the Chinese Communist army).”

Patrick Hurley, Roosevelt’s ambassador to China, openly evaluated Stilwell’s key contributions to the CCP’s eventual victory in China: “The record of General Stilwell in China is irrevocably coupled in history with the conspiracy to overthrow the Nationalist Government of China, and to set up in its place a communist regime – and all this movement was part of, and cannot be separated from, the Communist cell or apparatus that existed at the time in the Government in Washington.” Similarly, Chiang himself accused Stilwell of being “in conspiracy with the communists to overthrow the government.”

Additionally, Dean Acheson, who had represented Soviet interests in America and became Assistant Secretary of State in 1941, filled the US State Department’s Far Eastern Division with communists and pro-communists elements such as Owen Lattimore, nominated American adviser to Chiang but singled out as a communist by ex-communists Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley, as well as Alger Hiss, who was later exposed as a Soviet spy who represented America in crafting the Yalta agreement that boosted the CCP in China. 

As Hurley testified, “American diplomats surrendered the territorial integrity and the political independence of China … and wrote the blueprint for the Communist conquest of China in secret agreement at Yalta.” 

Likewise, Democrat John Kennedy, also told the House of Representatives in 1949 that “the responsibility for the failure of our foreign policy in the Far East rests squarely with the White House and the Department of State.” Elaborating, Kennedy stated later, “What our young men had saved, our diplomats and our President have frittered away.”

To add fuel to the fire, the pro-communist American press had for years been lauding the CCP for their alleged devotion to “democracy and the unity of China.” On the other hand, Chiang, these media sources claimed, was in cahoots with the Japanese, whereas the Chinese communists were “heroically carrying on alone.” For instance, the year 1928 witnessed Foreign Affairs, an American foreign policy journal, publishing its first article villainizing Chiang. 

Adversely impacted by Japan’s invasion, the KMT had to rely on paper currency amid soaring inflation in China. While Chiang requested a loan of American gold that Roosevelt approved, Assistant Treasury Secretary Harry Dexter White, long since proven to be a Soviet agent, delayed the gold shipments, triggering a collapse of China’s currency and fueling massive unrest. 

Partially owing to the American government’s betrayal of Chiang, China presently is governed by the CCP that has been increasing its draconian grip on power, particularly since Xi assumed power. Taiwan has emerged as a democratically-governed island, and developed its distinct identity. Some pro-independence Taiwanese have insisted that if Taiwan were to come under CCP rule, the island would meet a destiny similar to that of contemporary Hong Kong, with the looming presence of Beijing’s security forces, political system and judiciary. 

Economic consequences of a Chinese invasion

History aside, a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would prove to be economically disastrous for China, Taiwan as well as global trade. China’s increasing live-fire war games around Taiwan, especially after the then US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s August 2022 visit to the island, have been mounting pressure on global supply chains by undermining trade routes and commercial travel in East Asia, prompting vessels to reroute away from the 110-mile-wide Taiwan Strait, a major trade route for vessels transporting goods between key economies in northeast Asia and the rest of world.

“There is potential for substantial disruption to trade in the region,” said Peter Williams, a trade flow analyst at London-based shipping consultancy VesselsValue. 

Barricading trade routes around Taiwan, even temporarily, “raises concerns about whether China might successfully do this again, and what this could mean not just for future trade, travel and economic patterns, but potentially defensive and security scenarios as well,” opined Nick Marro, lead analyst for global trade at the Economist Intelligence Unit.

As Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company is the world’s largest chipmaker, comprising an estimated 90 percent of the market for advanced processors, Robert O’Brien, former security advisor in the Trump administration, told Semafor in March 2023 that the US “and its allies are never going to let those (Taiwanese semiconductor) factories fall into Chinese hands”. Therefore, it is likely that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would worsen the global lack of computer chips, threatening electronic, missile and overall technological production and advancements. 

O’Brien likened America’s possible destruction of Taiwanese semiconductor factories to the then British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s destruction of France’s naval fleet after France surrendered to Germany in the Second World War. O’Brien was not the first to suggest destroying Taiwan’s factories if China invades. In 2021, two US scholars, Peter Harris and Jared McKinney, broached this idea in a paper published by the US Army War College.

“To start, the United States and Taiwan should lay plans for a targeted scorched-earth strategy that would render Taiwan not just unattractive if ever seized by force, but positively costly to maintain,” the paper read. “This could be done most effectively by threatening to destroy facilities belonging to the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, the most important chipmaker in the world and China’s most important supplier.”

A Chinese invasion of Taiwan “would be the biggest impact we’ve seen to the global economy — possibly ever,” Glenn O’Donnell, the vice president and research director at Forrester, said to Insider, highlighting that the economic fallout of such an invasion could be worse than the 1929 stock market crash. 

Final thoughts

As shown above, there are compelling historical and economic reasons against a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Nonetheless, the terrible consequences of such a scenario do not guarantee that China would not try to stage military action. 

For one, if Taiwan’s allies like the US go out of their way to provoke China’s Xi into action, just as Roosevelt had tried to provoke Nazi Germany into war by freezing Nazi assets, deploying 50 destroyers to Britain, depth-charging U-boats, as well as going to war with Japan, Nazi Germany’s ally, a full-blown Sino-US conflict could erupt. 

Likewise, if the CCP thinks that Taiwan’s allies are not serious in defending the island, it could try its luck and stage an invasion that could secure Beijing a Pyrrhic territorial victory.

Photo credit: iStock/ Tanaonte

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