Taiwan is increasingly in the news lately. More frequent mainland Chinese military threats to the island, Communist Chinese aircraft violating Taiwan’s airspace, and tough talk toward the United States have made it an increasing topic of conversation, even in U.S. politics.
As the Chinese Communist Party sets Xi Jinping up for an extraordinary third term, they’re working on a re-write of recent Chinese history. They’ve said that Mao Zedong unified China, or stood it back up on its feet, while Deng made it rich. Now, they say, Xi Jinping has made it strong.
How a government defines “strength” can tell you a lot about its mindset. For Xi Jinping and the Communist Party, strength comes from force. Strong police to control the people, a strong military to control their neighbors, and other forms of control have greatly expanded under Xi’s reign. Force and fear have become the glue that holds the People’s Republic together. Now they’re switching the glue out for superglue.
This shows us that the Chinese regime doesn’t trust its own people. Or anyone. No one other than the CCP is entrusted with so much as a meaningful vote, freedom of speech, or other basic human rights (let alone gun rights) that democratic countries value. If anyone dares to speaks out or step out of line, the CCP comes down hard to assert control.
Taiwan used to be much like communist China — a dictatorship that didn’t trust its people with human rights. But in recent decades, they’ve taken a far different path. Military dictatorship and martial law have been replaced with democracy and increasing respect for human rights. To get there required placing trust in Taiwan’s people.
As Xi moves to cement “strength” that’s built upon distrust and oppression, Taiwan has a great opportunity to best Beijing with real strength that’s based on trust and democracy. To do that fully, they need to trust their own people with the right to keep and bear arms.
A Neglected Military Struggles With Its Image In A Newly Democratic Society
In theory, Taiwan not only has a military force of approximately 165,000 professionals, but 1.7 million reservists and a further 1 million non-combat civil defense volunteers. Combined, those are impressive numbers that rival or exceed most militaries globally. But numbers without context can be deceiving.
To get an understanding of that context, we must explore the history of distrust between Taiwan’s military and its people.
When Japan was defeated in World War II, the island was handed over to American control, but this was after 50 years as Japanese territory. During that time, a fusion of Chinese, Japanese, and indigenous cultures had developed in Taiwan (often by Imperial Japanese force). At war’s end, the island was surrendered to allied control, and eventually placed under the authority of Chinese nationalist generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek.
The defeat of the Japanese also eliminated the common enemy nationalist and communist leaders had, allowing civil war to resume. Ultimately, the nationalists lost, and retreated to the island.
Like many American allies over the decades, the nationalists were chosen out of expediency, not on moral grounds. Chiang’s government wasn’t communist, but it also wasn’t a force for freedom. It was a brutal dictatorship that had no real respect for human rights, and even engaged in mass murder on occasion.
The period from the late 1940s to the late 1980s, was known as the White Terror. Martial law, massacres of protesters, imprisonment of political dissidents on smaller islands, the conscription of child soldiers, control of journalists, and at least one assassination in California were all part of the nationalist dictatorship’s efforts to stay in control.
People who came to Taiwan with Chiang (known as “the foreign born” or waishengren) were heavily favored over Chinese families who had come hundreds of years before, as well as indigeneous islanders (the “native born”, or benshengren). Often, policies of forced assimilation and the use of the Mandarin language instead of Taiwanese were brutally enforced.
Given Taiwan’s record, it’s no surprise that democratic governments were willing to switch their recognition to the Communist government in Beijing. The communists were brutal left-wing authoritarians, but the competing Taiwanese government was run by a brutal right-wing authoritarian that wasn’t much better (and this oppression continued after his death in 1975).
China’s economic reforms in the 1970s gave western governments incentive to extend diplomatic recognition to the Chinese Communist Party. Foreign political leaders also didn’t want to see a bloody war continue, so measures were taken to maintain military aid to Taiwan to preserve the status quo. This allowed democratic governments the economic benefits of trade with China while still ostensibly containing communism (the policy of the time).
Taiwan was also beginning to reform around this time. With the death of Chiang Kai-shek, it became possible to put more native-born Taiwanese (as opposed to people who fled from the mainland in the 1940s) in government positions. As Taiwan’s middle class grew, more people felt comfortable agitating for democratic reforms, but this resulted in the 1979 Kaohsiung Incident, a deadly crackdown that galvanized the pro-democracy movement.
Chiang’s son, Chiang Ching-kuo, saw the writing on the wall, and slowly allowed more and more democratic reforms during the 1980s. He eventually declared that family succession of governmental power would end with him, and that free and open elections would follow. He finally ended martial law in 1987. After Chiang Ching-kuo’s death, reforms continued and the first direct presidential elections occurred in 1996.
While Taiwan’s populace has rejected Chiang Kai-shek’s legacy (memorial parks and even the island’s main airport, once named for him, have been renamed, but not removed entirely like Confederate monuments in the U.S.), mainland China has actually been rehabilitating his image. In some ways, Chiang’s reign in Taiwan looks a lot like what Xi aspires to today — brutal dictatorship with more relative economic freedom.
The military’s status as an arm of Chiang Kai-shek’s political party (the Kuomintang or KMT) didn’t end so quickly, though. Unlike the military in most democracies, Taiwan’s military was like that of the People’s Republic of China — controlled by the leading political party and not the state itself. The KMT’s equivalent to the Nazi Gestapo, the Taiwan Garrison Command, was finally disbanded in 1992, but party control of the military didn’t end until 2002, when further military reforms went into effect.
This repressive history left a lasting legacy of mistrust of the Taiwanese military. While the military was sorely needed to protect from potential invasion from the mainland, the likelihood of war seemed smaller with time as relations with the CCP improved, and reliance on the deterrent power of the United States took a larger role.
The Taiwanese army spent American money on flashy weapons systems (tanks, fighter jets, etc.) while infantry and ground forces languished.
Mandatory service in the armed forces was largely seen as a waste of time by a public who didn’t think Taiwan’s military was really an effective institution that could protect the island from the PLA. The military itself also seemed to have the same attitude of distrust toward reserve troops, reducing training requirements to nearly nothing. It relegated them to performing menial tasks like painting or cooking during “training” days and only having reservists fire a few dozen rounds during initial training.
The end result is a military and reserves that appear to have great strength on paper, but are severely lacking in terms of working equipment, training, and even ammunition. It has gotten to the point where military units have been forced to purchase components on Amazon using their own pay to try to keep at least some of their combat vehicles running.
“Their underlying thinking, based on my observation of the policies, is that China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has grown to be too strong for us to fight militarily anyway. They think Taiwan should just focus on putting up a good show of being tough, buy enough U.S. weapons for display, and pray that Americans come to our rescue when the Chinese call our bluff, which hopefully wouldn’t happen,” a retired navy captain told Foreign Policy.
Recent Events Remind Taiwan Of the Need for a Functional Military
China’s actions in Hong Kong have changed the playing field. Despite lots of saber rattling over the decades, the Communist Party has long held that they’d prefer to accomplish unification with Taiwan peacefully. To facilitate support for this in Taiwan, they’ve floated using the same “one country, two systems” approach that seemed to work in Hong Kong and Macau.
Chiang Kai-shek’s political party, the KMT, is still committed to eventual reunification with the mainland. While they’ve given up on wild dreams to “retake the mainland”, they’ve worked to expand ties between the island and the mainland, hoping that a peaceful reunification would one day be possible.
The last seven years of Communist Party action in Hong Kong has shown that they can’t be trusted. In 2014, CCP officials said that they considered the 1984 transfer treaty with Britain spent, and that they have no further obligations under it. United Kingdom officials disagreed, but are powerless to demand compliance as Beijing eroded key provisions of Hong Kong law protecting individual rights and elected government.
A new “national security” law criminalized many basic actions of political speech, and a subsequent restructuring of the legislature reduced the number of seats chosen by election to a meaningless portion of the overall chambers.
Given its complete lack of respect for “one country, two systems” in Hong Kong, the possibility of a peaceful unification with Taiwan has been made impossible by the Chinese Communist Party. Under Chinese doctrine, the lack of a peaceful reunification means war is not only justified, but required.
Beijing has been ratcheting up pressure up on Taiwan in 1021. Increasing numbers of military planes have encroached in Taiwanese airspace almost daily, and CCP officials have been making greater and greater threats. Military exercises meant to show the PLA’s capability to invade have increased in frequency as well.
Officials generally don’t think an invasion is imminent (a recent estimate is that any attempt would be at least 6-24 months away), but given the lost opportunity for peaceful reunification, it’s looking like an invasion by the mainland is inevitable unless the CCP can somehow be discouraged from taking such action.