What Israel Can Teach TaiwanBoth Israel and Taiwan face existential threats. Can Taiwan learn anything from Israel’s approach to keeping its at bay? Veteran journalist Peter Enav weighs in
For all their compelling differences, there is one important area where Taiwan and Israel have much in common. Both face existential challenges from abroad. In Israel, the challenges are physical: Muslim forces like Hamas in the Gaza Strip or Hezbollah in southern Lebanon — not to mention nuclear wannabe Iran — are publicly committed to wiping the Jewish state off the map. In Taiwan, by contrast, the challenge is merely systemic. Based on its longstanding claim that the island-nation is part of its territory, China has made no secret of its intention to bring it under its control — by persuasion if possible, by force if necessary. This would necessarily involve replacing Taiwan’s highly cherished democratic institutions with its own authoritarian ones.
Israel knows quite a bit about keeping its existential challenges at bay. Since its establishment 67 years ago, it has fought three wars to safeguard its security (in 1948, 1967 and 1973) and a larger number of sparring matches (not all of them justified) to deter its enemies from attacking it with impunity. Beyond that, it has also created a highly mobilized social system that has largely succeeded in persuading the lion’s share of its people to make considerable sacrifices for the sake of the nation as a whole. Among these are numbingly high tax rates, near universal military service, and a reserve military commitment that obligates healthy men under the age of 50 to devote approximately 30 days annually to their country’s defense.
For the most part Israelis make these sacrifices willingly. They do this because a combination of recent history — particularly the murder of six million Jews by Nazi Germany during World War II — and a welter of credible Islamic threats has taught them that when it comes to their survival, they don’t have any choice. This is not to say that a more flexible brand of Israeli statecraft might well obviate the need for Israel’s leaders to be so militant. But only to a certain extent. Consider: for all the grating brittleness of the contemporary Israeli state (and anyone familiar with Israel’s serially heavy-handed treatment of West Bank and Gaza Strip Palestinians knows that it is very brittle indeed) it does actually inhabit a very threatening neighborhood. It cannot afford to be lax.
Compared to Israel, Taiwan has obvious disadvantages in mobilizing its citizens against its external threat. One relates to historical consciousness. As horrific as it was, the Nationalist massacre of Taiwanese sparked by the 228 Massacre 68 years ago cannot be compared with the Nazi Holocaust of European Jews during World War II. In consequence, Taiwanese still lack a defining historical moment. At the same time, it has only been since the late 1980s that Taiwanese have been able to speak publicly about the desirability of having formal independence. Previously, they were limited in their pronouncements (or lack thereof) to signing off on the official Nationalist canon that Taiwan is part of China. This obviously stifled the development of freewheeling Taiwanese nationalism — the Taiwanese version of Zionism.
Moreover, compared to the threats posed by Hamas and Hezbollah, the Chinese military challenge to Taiwan seems relatively mild — even allowing for the 1,500 or so conventional missiles the Chinese are directing at Taiwanese targets. It is also true that China’s military budget far outstrips that of Taiwan, but at the same time it has now been more than 50 years since the two sides engaged in direct military confrontation. This has lulled people into thinking that it will never happen again.
To be sure, important changes in Taiwan’s existential consciousness have recently taken place. Arguably the most important of all was the Sunflower Movement, which went a long way toward awakening millions of Taiwanese from a longstanding Nationalist-imposed torpor — a torpor which had convinced many of them that while not necessarily desirable, political union with China was nonetheless inevitable. Combined with the heavy-handed treatment of pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong in 2014, it helped alert many otherwise apolitical Taiwanese to the considerable dangers inherent in a Chinese takeover of their island home. That was a major improvement in their existential consciousness.
But alas, not major enough. Despite their rapidly changing perspectives on the dark essence of cross-strait relations, most Taiwanese are still resistant to making the kind of Israeli-style sacrifices that are necessary to protect themselves from China’s designs on them. A clear example of this is the abject failure of the Ministry of National Defense to attract sufficient numbers of recruits to make its volunteer military scheme a reality. Without doubt, much of this reflects serious problems within the military itself — the kind of problems that surfaced in the summer of 2013 following the death of recruit Hung Chung-chiu (洪仲丘).
But the Hung episode aside, there is still a big challenge facing any Taiwanese leader intent on preserving the island’s de facto independence. This is convincing large numbers of Taiwanese that real sacrifices have to be made to safeguard the island’s liberty. These include developing a strong enough military to convince the other side that any campaign to take over the island by force will exact a prohibitively heavy cost. Such a step will inevitably require higher taxes and much more manpower — not only volunteers, but also older reservists to buttress the armed forces it in the event of a national emergency.
Are Taiwanese now willing to make these sorts of sacrifices? The answer is almost certainly no. To get to that point they will almost certainly need to begin inculcating an Israeli approach to social mobilization. The best way to start doing this is through a Taiwan-centric educational system and a Taiwan-centric consciousness in the mass media. For far too long Taiwanese have been taught that they are either part of China or so bereft of resources that they soon will be, however much they oppose it. Change that message and you begin changing people’s perception of what is possible. Just ask Israelis, who over the past 67 years have leveraged their white-hot historical and nationalist consciousness to overcome the immense existential challenge facing them, and become by far the strongest state in the Middle East.
Peter Enav was the head of The Associated Press bureau in Taipei from 2005 to 2014. Prior to that he worked for the AP in Jerusalem.