Oct 13, 2021

China, Taiwan, and tension rising.

China's president Xi Jinping. Photo: Rwanda Embassy
China's president Xi Jinping. Photo: Rwanda Embassy

In the last two weeks, China has sent a record number of military planes into Taiwan's airspace.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”
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Today's read: 11 minutes.

We're covering Taiwan and China. We had a few newsletters teed up for this week, but I have to apologize: When I went to bed, Taiwan and China were winning this poll, so I spent my last hour or two awake reading about that issue. When I woke up, the 15% global corporate tax minimum had taken over, so that's what we'll cover as our main story tomorrow! We’re also skipping today’s reader question to give this story some extra attention.

Twitter poll
Poll from @Ike_Saul Twitter account

Quick hits.

  1. The Biden administration said it will reopen its land borders to non-essential travel from Canada and Mexico starting in November. Travelers will have to be fully vaccinated against Covid-19. (The new rules)
  2. John Yarmuth, the House Budget chair and Democrat from Kentucky, announced he will not seek re-election in 2022. (The announcement)
  3. Social security checks will increase by 5.9% in 2022, the largest cost of living adjustment in 39 years, and a reflection of rising inflation. (The raise)
  4. The House voted for a short-term increase to the debt limit, ensuring the U.S. government can pay its bills until at least December. (The new limit)
  5. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas ordered ICE to stop mass raids on immigrants' workplaces. (The order)

Today's topic.

Taiwan and China. In the last two weeks, China has conducted several consecutive days of military exercises over Taiwan, sending a record number of fighter jets into Taiwan's airspace. This included a four-day period when it flew 150 military planes through the airspace, which left the Taiwanese air force scrambling to respond. Taiwan's foreign defense minister Joseph Wu said "we are very concerned China is going to launch a war."

The history: China sees Taiwan as a rebellious province that broke away from its central rule. The two nations split in 1949, after a civil war, and Beijing refutes Taiwan's global independence. Like Hong Kong, Taiwan was offered a “one country, two systems rule” arrangement in the 1980s, but rejected it. Since the early 2000s, Taiwanese leaders have taken different approaches to China: some moved toward total independence while others moved toward strengthening economic relations with the mainland. Tsai Ing-wen, the current Taiwanese leader, wants to move toward independence. With China encroaching on Hong Kong of late, Taiwan expressed concern that what is unfolding there would be coming to them next, and the latest military exercises seem to confirm that fear.

Since the split, China has maintained that Taiwan — a democratically ruled nation of 24 million people, with a standing army of 300,000 active troops — is actually a Chinese territory that they can bring under control by force if needed. It has never recognized the island's government.

Google maps: A map of the region, featuring Taiwan, China, South Korea, North Korea and Japan.
A map of the region, featuring Taiwan, China, South Korea, North Korea and Japan.

On Monday, which was Taiwan's National Day, President Tsai Ing-wen delivered a defiant speech. She pledged that Taiwan would not bow to China's pressure, promising the island would not "act rashly" but assuring Taiwan's citizens it would bolster its defense to "ensure that nobody can force Taiwan to take the path China has laid out for us." China's President Xi Jinping, meanwhile, vowed there would be "complete reunification" of the motherland, and said Tsai's speech "incited confrontation." When Tsai ran for president, she won by a landslide, running explicitly on the promise to stand up to Beijing and maintain Taiwan's independence.

Meanwhile, the U.S. has taken a rather convoluted approach to the region: It has a "One China" policy in which it recognizes China and does not recognize Taiwan as an official, independent nation. However, it does have a strong "unofficial" relationship with Taiwan, including arms sales and the Taiwan Relations Act, which pledges U.S. support to Taiwan to defend itself. In 1996, for instance, when China tried to disrupt Taiwan's elections with missile tests, the U.S. sent aircraft carriers to the region to push them back. Earlier this month, The Wall Street Journal reported that a small presence of U.S. soldiers has been discreetly training local forces in Taiwan.

With tensions rising, commentators on the left and right have discussed what the United States' role should be in protecting Taiwan. Below, we'll take a look at those arguments, as well as some perspectives from abroad, then my take.

What the left is saying.

The left is fearful of any kind of war with China, but wants the U.S. to defend Taiwan with non-military means as best as it can.

The Washington Post editorial board said we can "deter China's threat in Taiwan."

“Whatever President Xi Jinping’s precise intention — to bully Taiwan and its allies, the United States included; to provoke them; or to inflame domestic nationalism — it is not benign,” the board said. “As Mr. Xi’s crushing of Hong Kong’s free institutions shows, the ‘peaceful’ reunification between his communist state and democratic Taiwan that he called for once again on Oct. 9 inherently threatens all 23 million people who live on the island. A hegemonic China would menace Japan, Australia and the Philippines, destabilizing the entire Indo-Pacific region.

“Since Mr. Biden became president, the United States has sold $750 million worth of artillery to Taiwan and continued a deployment of Marine trainers to the island begun under President Donald Trump,” the board wrote. “The troubling truth, however, is that in recent years Pentagon war games and other assessments have shown that U.S. capabilities, even in combination with those of its allies, might not be sufficient to defeat a Chinese invasion. Even as it encourages more effort from Taiwan, Japan and others in the region, the United States itself needs to invest more heavily in the hard-power assets — especially naval forces — required to back up its commitments in East Asia. The president, however, proposed a defense budget that barely kept up with inflation, albeit with $5.5 billion earmarked for deterrence in the Pacific. On a bipartisan basis, the House has approved a bigger spending plan, with money for 13 new ships. That might impress China more than even the sternest words.”

David Von Drehle asked if the key to China is not confrontation, but "managing its decline."

"Domestically, the CCP is flailing to defuse the demographic time bomb unleashed by the party’s foolhardy decision in 1979 to limit Chinese families to a single child. A preference for boys has created a nation of bachelors, which thwarts government efforts to reverse the damage," Von Drehle said. "Runaway health costs and declining growth are the likely consequences of an aging population. China’s Belt and Road Initiative to create a 21st-century infrastructure for eastern trade looks increasingly like a scheme to saddle weaker partners with debt while keeping China’s construction industry occupied. Meanwhile, the unmanageable domestic debt racked up to overbuild infrastructure at home has financial markets around the world quaking.

"China’s problems would be China’s province but for one important fact. Xi appears to be flirting with his worst decision yet, one likely to cause worldwide pain, or worse. In recent days, China has been filling the skies over Taiwan with warplanes, leading Taiwan’s defense minister to warn that Beijing may be preparing to exert control over the breakaway island by force," he wrote. "But as long as he is ruler, the United States and its allies must move carefully to limit global exposure to Chinese mismanagement and deploy every tool short of war to deter rash action by China against Taiwan. A whole new way of thinking is required. Western policy has long been shaped by China’s rapid ascent, but that could be child’s play compared with confronting a China in decline."

What the right is saying.

The right is also invested in defending Taiwan, but seems more willing to use military force if necessary.

In The Wall Street Journal, William Galston asked if we'll come to Taiwan's defense.

“For decades China’s leaders bided their time, knowing that a military confrontation with the U.S. would end badly,” Galston said. “But during the past quarter-century, China steadily ramped up its investment in the People’s Liberation Army. Between 2010 and 2020, spending rose by 76%, and the PLA’s war-fighting ability has vastly improved. In recent years, the Pentagon has staged multiple war games testing U.S. ability to defeat a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. The American team has lost nearly all of them... In this context, a once-unthinkable event—a successful Chinese invasion of Taiwan—has become possible, perhaps even likely.

“The disquieting outcome of the Pentagon’s war games has sparked another debate: If the U.S. lacks the military wherewithal to deter China from invading Taiwan, what should we do about it?” he asked. “If current trends continue, China’s navy will be more modern and significantly larger than America’s by 2030... No sane person wants war between China and the U.S., but a combination of clashing ambitions, strategic miscalculations and mutual misperceptions could land us in one, particularly if America doesn’t take the necessary steps to persuade Mr. Xi that we are not what he believes us to be—a declining power lacking the means and the will to defend our friends.”

In The New York Post, Richard Lowry said "it's time to arm Taiwan to the teeth."

"If China can successfully absorb Taiwan while limiting the military, economic and diplomatic costs, it would vindicate President Xi’s vision of an ascendant China undoing past humiliations, represent a milestone in China’s campaign to establish hegemony in the most important region of the world, and, perhaps, collapse the credibility and global position of the United States," Lowry said. "In other words, attention must be paid — the trajectory of the modern world is conceivably at stake.

"Nonetheless, invading and occupying Taiwan after launching a gigantic, logistically taxing amphibious operation across a 110-mile strait would be no small feat, to put it mildly," Lowry added. "We should be fortifying Taiwan and making it as difficult as possible for China to take. That means stockpiling food, energy, and munitions against a Chinese blockade. It means making its infrastructure more resilient and enhancing its cyber capabilities. It means increasing its capability to detect an early mustering of Chinese forces. It means more mines, anti-ship missiles, air-defense capabilities, and unmanned systems to frustrate a cross-strait invasion."

From abroad.

In The Taipei Times, an English-language Taiwanese news outlet, the editorial board said a "realistic threat assessment" was needed.

"Despite increasing signs of heightened cross-strait tensions, it is unclear how Taiwanese should react," the board said. "So far, Taiwan’s economy, including commercial airlines, have remained unaffected. Most people seem to care more about COVID-19 vaccines and the Quintuple Stimulus Vouchers. Few, if any, are talking about migrating, or even evacuating, in the face of China’s threats. It is as if Taiwan were split into two parallel worlds: one dominated by politicians’ warnings and media reports — about Chinese actions, how the US might respond and statements by foreign officials — and the other inhabited by people who pay limited attention to those issues.

"If the aircraft incursions are a sign of an impending Chinese invasion of Taiwan, why did their number not increase exponentially, but only gradually, with larger numbers crossing into the ADIZ around symbolic dates? Why did the incursions occur near the South China Sea, rather than closer to Taipei? Should Taiwan continue to place itself, or be placed, in the center of an international discourse about China’s military actions?" they said. "Asking these questions does not amount to downplaying China’s military threat to Taiwan. Beijing has never hidden its intention to annex the nation. However, to avoid seeing China’s deployments through a distorted lens, the focus of the discussion should be widened."

In The British newspaper The Observer, the editorial board expressed fear that China's slowing economy and the U.S. decline could create a new war.

"After decades of growth and expanding influence, Xi’s China is running out of gas, literally," the board said. "Its economy is slowing amid chronic energy shortages. State debt is spiraling, productivity is falling and the workforce is aging. Food insecurity is growing in an environmentally damaged land that is the world’s largest food importer. Meanwhile, China grows short of friends, thanks to Xi’s aggressive policies and 'wolf warrior' diplomacy.

"A China fearful its dreams of power and glory may be dashed. A divided America that doesn’t know its own mind. A defiant Taiwan symbolizing the global ideological struggle between democracy and authoritarianism," the board concluded. "These are the ingredients of disaster. Recognizing and addressing them now could prevent future catastrophe."

My take.

We need to avoid any kind of active war with China at all costs.

The United States just got done losing a war in Afghanistan that cost trillions of dollars and involved a far inferior, vastly underfunded enemy. Of course the contours of the war in Afghanistan — which involved warring cliques and nation-building — were far different than any war with China would be. But to believe that we could control or even win such a conflict requires a level of delusion I cannot fathom.

China wrapped its hands around the throat of Hong Kong with relative ease and very few repercussions, so there's no reason to believe it won't try Taipei, too. The worst thing we could do, though, would be to overreact. The flights into Taiwan airspace may have been record in number, but they were not unusual — it's the standard response from China anytime something happens in Taiwan they don't like (28 fighter planes cruised through Taiwan airspace in June two days after the G-7 coalition emphasized the “importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait." 40 planes hit the skies one of the last times a State Department official met with his Taiwanese colleagues.)

The most frightening thing for me has been to see cage-rattling from U.S. politicians and the media. Frightening headlines about the threat of China, paired with chest-thumping politicians who seem perpetually excited about war, are inducing a sea change in public opinion, which now has 52 percent of Americans supporting the use of U.S. troops if China invades Taiwan.

That doesn't mean we shouldn't defend Taiwan, and perhaps even spend some of our money bolstering their defense systems. I've conceded before that my views are akin to a "China hawk" without the war part: I believe the Chinese government is a grave threat to global freedoms, is committing human rights crimes on a tremendous scale, and has proven willing to destroy the economies of other nations in order to protect its reputation. The U.S. itself has a checkered past of war crimes, covert government overthrows, and plenty of civilian blood on its hands. But our own failures and atrocities are no reason to cede such an important region to a nation whose authoritarian government can't even seem to find its moral compass, let alone try to use it. We should defend Taiwan diplomatically, through alliances, through military support, through coalescing allies in the region. But we cannot and should not risk a military engagement with a force that could easily defeat our own.

Your questions, answered.

We're skipping today's reader question to account for some extra space we gave our main story. But if you want to ask a question, you can simply reply to this email and write in or fill out this Google form.

A story that matters.

More Americans are now getting booster shots than are getting their first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine. Some experts are worried that the priority should be on picking up vaccine holdouts, not boosting those who are already inoculated. 77% of the eligible population has now gotten at least one dose of the vaccine, according to the CDC, while only 4.6% have gotten a booster shot. Nearly 12 percent of people 65 and older have received the booster. Axios has the story.


  • $750 million. The cost of the first arms sale to Taiwan approved by the Biden administration.
  • $1.8 billion. The cost of the Trump administration's 2020 arms deal with Taiwan.
  • 2nd. Taiwan's level of freedom ranking among the free countries in Asia, after only Japan.
  • 11th. Taiwan's ranking on a list of "most democratic countries" in the world, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit.
  • 151st. China's ranking in that category, according to the same list.
  • 24 million. The estimated population of Taiwan, about the same population as Australia.

Have a nice day.

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