Global Indifference and Why Taiwan Needs a Strong DeterrentThe best insurance against Taipei turning into the next Gaza is for Taiwan to invest in proper military deterrence, and not to count on international goodwill
As I write this, as many as 775 Palestinians, most of them civilians and many of them children, have been slain by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in the 17-day campaign in Gaza. The war, which has sparked international condemnation, has also resulted in the death of two Israeli civilians and 32 soldiers. As a fellow journalist and occasional contributor to Thinking Taiwan who is now covering the latest conflagration in the Middle East wrote a few days ago, the place is “hopeless.” Both sides, embittered by decades of pain, broken promises and hatred, seem condemned to eternal cycles of violence. Both sides have legitimate claims, and both are equally wrong. Both peoples, their welfare held hostage by politicians and the seemingly invincible forces of “history,” have a right to security, dignity, and to a state.
Yet, as with many wars waged by the IDF since 1948, the death ratio has been largely in Israel’s favor. In the Six Day War of June 1967, the casualty ratio was 25 to 1; about 800 Israelis died, against approximately 15,000 Egyptians, 700 Jordanians, and 450 Syrians. One thing that has gradually changed since that war, during which Israel often found itself at loggerheads with the Lyndon B. Johnson administration, is the number of civilian casualties. More and more, Palestinian (and Lebanese) civilians are killed in IDF operations against Hamas, Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other radical organizations, not to mention the demolition of entire neighborhoods, which has created new generations of displaced individuals and refugees, and thus new cycles of hatred and violence.
Israel has an undeniable right to defend itself against aggression, terror attacks, and rocket launches, but in doing so it should never abandon the rules of proportionality. That it has done so repeatedly stems from the backing that the Israeli leadership has received from the U.S. and global indifference to the suffering of an inconvenient people. Increasingly driven by the ultra-religious right, and relying on a powerful lobby in the West, the Israeli government has been given carte blanche to commit what in many instances constitutes nothing less than war crimes. U.S. officials call for ceasefires, the U.N. waxes indignant, Western capitals holler with indignation, and human rights organizations publish condemnatory reports, but in the end, Israel gets away with murder. Gone are the days when a U.S. president like LBJ could berate Israeli officials without fear that doing so would cost him (or her) re-election. As a result, over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the West — even mature, peace-loving democracies — has lost the moral high ground. One need only take a look at the latest propaganda by B’nai Brith Canada, or Canadian Prime Minster Stephen Harper’s response, to see how bad things have gotten.
Readers who have made it this far would be entitled to ask what this has to do with Taiwan. The answer is as simple as it is terrifying: Taiwanese, like Palestinians, are an inconvenient people. It’s often been said that Taiwan is the “Israel of the Far East,” a comparison that doesn’t stand scrutiny. In reality, Taiwan is much more like Palestine, a nation that isn’t fully recognized and whose existence stands in the way of vested interests — in Palestine’s case, a military-religious complex in Washington, D.C. that backs Israel to the hilt; in Taiwan’s case, an equally religious belief, also supported by powerful lobbies, that China is an indispensable security and economic ally.
Where am I going with this? Simply put: In a world of great power politics, multi-million-dollar lobbies, vested interests — and yes, nuclear weapons — morality goes out the window. This is a lesson that Palestinians learned years ago and that a new generation of victims, from Georgians to Ukrainians, the hapless passengers of flight MH17 to Syrian citizens, are learning the hard way — and one that Taiwanese should keep in mind as they look to the future, especially a future in which the U.S. is a weakened power. Inconvenient peoples should never make the mistake of assuming that great, “enlightened” powers will do the right thing should they, the former, be threatened. Yes, under the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, the U.S. would ostensibly come to Taiwan’s assistance should China attack it unprovoked. But can Washington really be counted on to do so, given what we know about the Chinese lobby in the U.S. capital and the tremendous pull that the PRC economy has on the West? Yes, on paper, Taiwan is David against the Chinese Goliath, the small democratic victim of aggression by an authoritarian giant, which in theory should awaken the spirit of moral rectitude in the West and lead to intervention. But would it?
Rather than test that theory, Taiwan would have every advantage in making sure that China is not tempted into using force against it. In other words, it cannot afford to show the same kind of weakness that makes it possible for bullies like China and Russia — and to some extent Israel — to feel that they can engage in aggression with impunity. The key therefore lies in a military that would promise a prohibitive cost to Chinese adventurism in the Taiwan Strait. By no means should this constitute an arms race or an escalation of tensions with Beijing; in fact, dialogue and the normalization of relations remains the preferred course of action by far. But a stronger military deterrent, based on offensive defense and hardened capabilities on Taiwan proper, would be a wise hedging strategy. It would close the door on the war option should diplomacy fail to deliver stability, which is not entirely impossible, given continued Taiwanese unwillingness to bow to Chinese pressure on the unification issue, and the possibility that Beijing could one day run out of patience.
A bloodbath in Taiwan with the international community looking on is too grim a prospect to imagine, but it is not inconceivable, as the sad developments in Gaza and elsewhere have demonstrated. Taiwan cannot assume, as it often does, that it can piggyback on the U.S. military or Washington’s goodwill. Or that the international community wouldn’t allow Beijing, in turn, to get away with war crimes. It’s too risky a gamble. Better, therefore, to prepare for the worse and to make sure that Taipei doesn’t become the next Gaza, or Beirut.
J. Michael Cole is editor in chief of Thinking Taiwan, a senior non-resident fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, and an Associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei. He is the author of the just-published Officially Unofficial: Confessions of a journalist in Taiwan.