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Taiwan’s Fighting Spirit: ‘Rational Assessment Does Not Favor Beijing’

  • Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the U.S. response have raised questions concerning Taiwan’s military preparedness in the event of an invasion from the People’s Republic of China.
  • Just as Ukraine appears to be demonstrating with its ongoing defense against Russia, the fighting spirit of the Taiwanese may be a critical factor in a future conflict, according to Steve Yates, chair of the China Policy Initiative, who spoke with the Daily Caller News Foundation.
  • An unsuccessful attack on Taiwan would pose a potentially existential threat to the rule of the Chinese Communist Party, according to Rupert Hammond-Chambers, president of the U.S.-Taiwan Business Council, who also spoke with the DCNF.

Taiwan’s indomitable fighting spirit would pose a serious challenge to Beijing’s military ambitions in the event of an invasion, experts told the Daily Caller News Foundation.

“The starting position of any substantive and rational assessment does not favor Beijing if its goal is to invade, occupy, and sustain control over Taiwan,” Steve Yates, senior fellow and chair of the China Policy Initiative, told the DCNF.

Taiwan’s military preparedness and will to fight has received renewed attention, following what some outlets, such as The New York Times, have called Ukraine’s “tenacious” defense against Russian aggression.

“Support for sovereign Taiwan has grown and shifted over the last three or four decades, mostly as a function of the fact that the people who support unification with China are older people with a stronger, more direct connection with the Chinese people that came over with Chiang Kai-shek in the late 1940s when the Civil War was coming to an end,” Rupert Hammond-Chambers, president of the U.S.-Taiwan Business Council, told the DCNF. “Now you’ve got a younger base who passionately support and believe in a sovereign Taiwan and that speaks to the view that they would fight for their country.”

Yates also believes the Taiwanese possess a formidable fighting spirit, citing the island nation’s unique history as a source.

“The Taiwanese people endured 50 years of Japanese colonialism and emerged with their own identity. They endured 38 years of martial law under Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang government, emerged with their own identity, and rapidly transformed into a strong, resilient democracy from the grassroots up,” Yates said. “While Beijing may have the ability to impose pain and destruction, it will meet with resistance it has never experienced and is unlikely to be able to hold any gains over time.”

Just as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has enjoyed wide praise for his wartime leadership, Hammond-Chambers also believes Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen would perform under fire.

“I believe she would be there with a hard helmet, rallying her people,” Hammond-Chambers said. “Tsai demonstrates some aspects of Margaret Thatcher: she’s principled, she’s tough, and she’s a strong leader.”

Yet, a fighting spirit isn’t everything, according to Yates. The U.S. and its allies also play a central role in ensuring Taiwan’s national security.

“The key questions are how seriously Taiwan’s government and civilians are about preparing to supply and mobilize in advance of a crisis and how serious Japan, the U.S., and others are about ensuring Taiwan is neither limited by ‘free world’ risk aversion in advance of a crisis, nor abandoned to fight alone should Beijing attack,” said Yates.

But Beijing is skeptical the U.S. would defend Taiwan. A 2021 military report from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) explicitly called into question Washington’s “commitment” to the island nation, basing their assessment on what the PLA deemed to be a “rushed” American military withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The West’s response to Russia’s hostilities have further complicated matters, being taken as a sign by some outlets, such as South China Morning Post, that Taiwan may fight alone if Beijing attacks.

“The fact that the U.S. and NATO were cautious about military support for Ukraine and imposition of crippling sanctions prior to invasion could signal to Beijing that the U.S. and its QUAD partners — Japan, Australia, and India — would demonstrate similar risk aversion in advance of an attack on Taiwan,” said Yates.

However, while Hammond-Chambers believes Taipei may have felt “concern” following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, he doesn’t believe it has ultimately changed Taiwan’s fundamental trust in the U.S.

“Taiwan is not Afghanistan,” Hammond-Chambers said. “The Taiwan Relations Act that encompasses and surrounds U.S. policy towards Taiwan is very different from our 20 year relationship with that iteration of the Afghan government.”

Meanwhile, the PRC increased “provocative and destabilizing actions in and around the Taiwan Strait” throughout 2020, including “repeated flights into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone,” according to a 2021 Department of Defense (DOD) report.

The daily incursions into Taiwan’s airspace typically feature one fighter, but have included as many as 56 craft, according to Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense.

“China’s repeated incursions into Taiwan’s [Air Defense Identification Zone] are a form of psychological warfare, but also operationally test limits and measure reactions,” Yates said.

However, the PRC’s aerial incursions may actually be backfiring, according to Yates.

“If done with impunity they have the potential to demoralize Taiwan’s military and civilians,” said Yates, “but to date, they seem to motivate Taiwan’s supporters to increase freedom of navigation exercises through the Taiwan Strait and provide greater self-defense capabilities to Taiwan.”

As with Ukraine, Taiwan’s self-defense capabilities have urgent need for international support, according to the DOD report, which estimates that Beijing’s defense budget is over 10 times greater than Taiwan’s, with Beijing also capable of fielding ground forces 10 times as numerous.

Taiwan acknowledges “a significant difference of defense resources between [itself] and mainland China,” with “conventional warfare” not being seen as “viable,” according to Taiwan’s defense report.

To bridge the defense gap, the U.S. has supplied Taiwan with “more than $23 billion in arms sales” since 2010, according to the DOD report.

Despite the cost, Yates believes U.S. support of Taiwan is justifiable, both practically and morally.

“The U.S. and the free world have more at stake in Taiwan than most leaders and citizens realize,” said Yates, noting both the strategic military value of Taiwan, as well as its role in the production of semiconductor chips.

The Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company produces 90% of global output, according to a Reuters report.

“Allowing the Chinese Communist Party to expand its ethno-nationalist authoritarianism over Taiwan would lead to increasingly aggressive use of its ethnically Chinese compatriots abroad as tools for manipulation and co-optation,” said Yates. “Far better to recognize Taiwan’s value now and empower this responsible global stakeholder to defend itself and together deter Chinese aggression.”

As for how to forestall a PRC attack, Hammond-Chambers believes Beijing’s dreams of winning control of Taiwan are tempered by serious fears of losing everything.

“Losing isn’t just losing the opportunity to take Taiwan,” said Hammond-Chambers. “It could ultimately represent the end of Chinese Communist Party rule in China.”

Thus, Hammond-Chambers believes this presents the U.S. with a clear objective.

“Communists crave power above and beyond anything else. Anything that jeopardizes that will give the party pause,” Hammond-Chambers said. “So, it’s our job to continue to give them pause, to continue to complicate the way in which PLA planners think about attacking the islands.”

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