Will Taiwan Defend Itself From a Chinese Attack?

December 16, 2021 Updated: December 17, 2021


At last week’s global Summit on Democracy, Washington managed to offend both Taipei and Beijing in a rare instance of unity between the two.

Of course, the reasons for the unity of criticism were quite different.

Beijing views Taiwan as a renegade province of the homeland and not as an independent, democratic country. It was offended by the very fact of the invitation to Taiwan to participate as if it were, in fact, a separate country. Given Washington’s long-standing commitment to a “one-China policy” that recognizes Taiwan as being part of China, the Beijing view is not without some degree of justification.

Taipei was upset because the U.S. team running the conference deleted from the Taiwanese delegate’s presentation a map of Taiwan colored differently from the map of China. The coloring, of course, hinted that Taiwan is no longer part of China, which is, in fact, the belief of the present Taiwanese government. Allowing it to be presented, however, could have been interpreted by Beijing as meaning that Washington was openly discarding the very core of its long-running policy.

By trying to mollify Beijing’s hurt feelings over not being invited to participate in the conference, Washington irritated its quasi allies in Taipei. As the situation evolved, it became what Star Trek fans would instantly recognize as a “no win” situation. But the situation was unnecessarily precipitated by the rather undiplomatic move of the Taiwanese delegate, who almost certainly knew that coloring Taiwan differently from mainland China would cause raised eyebrows and thereby become a bit of an insult to his host, the U.S. government, which had already ruffled Beijing’s feathers by the mere act of inviting Taiwan to participate, along with governments that are widely recognized to be sovereigns.

This whole incident should serve to remind people in Taiwan and its friends and supporters around the world of the hard facts of Taiwan’s present life and the tenuousness of its situation.

It should be clear to all observers that China’s maximum leader Xi Jinping cannot, in his own mind, claim the rejuvenation of the “great Chinese nation” without the inclusion of Taiwan in the mainland fold. Combine this with the fact that, for the first time in its history, Beijing now has the military power potentially to carry out an invasion of the island even in the face of U.S. intervention. In 1997, President Bill Clinton could halt threatening mainland China actions merely by sending two aircraft carriers through the Taiwan Strait. Today, those carriers would be sitting ducks for Beijing’s advanced anti-ship missiles. Indeed, in recent Pentagon war games in which the scenario is an amphibious mainland invasion of Taiwan, the U.S. team is reported to lose more often than it wins.

What makes Taiwan’s situation even more precarious is the fact that it is not a formal ally of the United States. There is no mutual defense treaty such as the United States has with Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, and Australia. The Taiwan Relations Act that governs U.S. ties with Taiwan does not commit Washington to defend Taiwan. It commits the United States to support Taiwan with sales of “defensive” weapons and to encourage Taiwan to establish its own defense forces, installations, and survival tactics.

Epoch Times Photo
Four upgraded US-made F-16 V fighters fly during a demonstration at a ceremony at the Chiayi Air Force in southern Taiwan on Nov. 18, 2021. (Sam Yeh/AFP via Getty Images)

Of course, it is also true that America’s interest is to keep Taiwan out of the control of Beijing for both military and commercial reasons. Occupation of Taiwan by Beijing’s forces would be a major blow not only to the United States, but even more so to its allies in the region in national security, commercial, and technological terms. Because of this, Washington is beefing up its forces in the region while also creating new alliances such as the Quad (India, Australia, the United States, and Japan), AUKUS (Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom) and strengthening present alliances with the Philippines, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand, and, informally, Vietnam.

But Taiwan must understand that there is no guarantee of U.S. or allied intervention in the event of a mainland China invasion of Taiwan; nor is there a guarantee of victory if they do intervene. This is particularly true because Taiwan itself has done little to organize its own defense.

In World War II, Germany was tempted to invade Switzerland and had plans to do so. Keep in mind that Switzerland was isolated with no allies, surrounded by Germany; Germany controlled Austria and France, and Germany allied Italy on all sides. Yet the Nazi war machine never made a move on Switzerland. Why not?

Because the Swiss made themselves into a national porcupine. They mined their own roads, built bunkers and artillery emplacements in every mountain pass, compelled all men between the ages of 18 and 55 to train one month a year and to ready for permanent call up at any moment. No doubt, Adolf Hitler’s armies could eventually have occupied Switzerland, but the cost would have been out of all proportion to the benefit. Thus, the Nazis never invaded.

Taiwan does not compel any of its citizens to do national military service, nor has it constructed obstacles all over its terrain to an invasion. It has rugged terrain and should be able to make invasion very costly indeed. But to date, it has not done so. Before attending more international conferences and provocatively hinting at declarations of Taiwanese independence, Taipei would be wise to study Switzerland and to make itself into an Asian version of the Swiss porcupine.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Clyde Prestowitz is an Asia and globalization expert, a veteran U.S. trade negotiator, and presidential adviser. He was the leader of the first U.S. trade mission to China in 1982 and has served as an adviser to Presidents Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, and Obama. As counselor to the secretary of commerce in the Reagan administration, Prestowitz headed negotiations with Japan, South Korea, and China. His newest book is "The World Turned Upside Down: America, China, and the Struggle for Global Leadership," which was published in January 2021.