Turbulence and Militarization in the Taiwan Strait

This is an edited translation of an article that first appeared in Mandarin on International Socialist Forwards’ website (you can read it here)

In a national Security Council meeting on December 27, 2022, Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen administration finalized the decision to reinstate a one-year military service. Since then, the public discourse surrounding the Taiwan Strait conflict has escalated once again. 

The worrying signs of militarization in the Taiwan Strait are not limited to the expansion of the military service but also include a proposed amendment to the All-out Defense Mobilization Readiness Act by Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense on February 21, which received huge backlash by the public.

On the other hand, with less than 300 days left until the 2024 presidential election, Taiwan’s national question has once again been tied to the race for the presidency for the next four years. In fact, the sharpening of the conflict between China and the United States has pushed Taiwan (and its 2024 presidential election) to the forefront of international geopolitics. The upcoming election is bound to become a battleground between China and the US and will be interpreted as a “test of the will” of the Taiwanese people.

We should analyze the Taiwan Strait situation and the process of militarization proposed by the Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration from a left-wing perspective based on objective facts.

Service extension and the Mobilization Act

As the conflict between China and the US intensifies, the US strategy to contain China in the areas of economy, technology, and geopolitics becomes increasingly apparent. As emphasized in many previous articles that we produced, Taiwan plays an important role in this conflict in terms of its strategic location and its vital role in the technology supply chain (due to its leading position in the microchip industry – Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, TSMC, is of the most crucial importance to the production of the most advanced semiconductors at present).

Taiwan’s history, combined with the policies of the DPP, has made it a “natural” US ally. For the US, Taiwan’s ’loyalty’ is undoubtedly one of the most important assets in its anti-China strategy, especially in the tech war. The US must maintain a firm monopoly on Taiwan’s chip manufacturing capability and other critical technologies. Therefore, the Biden administration attaches great importance to Taiwan’s pro-Americanism.

However, when Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in August of last year, her actual purpose was to accelerate the transfer of Taiwan’s chip manufacturing capacity to the US [1], which had far-reaching implications across the Taiwan Strait. 

After China’s large-scale military exercises in response to Pelosi’s visit, there is a much more tangible fear and concern for war among the Taiwanese people. 

Thus, for example, the DPP’s defeat in last year’s local elections [2] can be at least partly attributed to the widespread concern among the Taiwanese people of the possibility of war. The extension of military service and the implementation of the Mobilization Act are the best evidence of the DPP government’s concern about the outbreak of war.

However, all this does is to further erode Taiwan’s democracy. The amendment to the infamous Mobilization Readiness Act not only gives the government power to implement authoritarian rule, but also authorizes it to control the press. 

The amendment even revived parts of the now dead Digital Intermediary Service Act that holds internet platforms liable for user-published speeches, but was withheld after both the digital platforms and the public protested its potential danger to freedom of speech. Following the public backlash, Premier Chen Chien-Jen said he would “listen to people’s opinions and make the amendment more comprehensive”, but he also expressed the intention to continue pushing for it.

Despite the data showing nearly 70% of public support for the extension of military service, there has also been another survey that shows over half of the respondents don’t support themselves or family members going to war. 

This contradiction clearly underlines that the support for the extension of the military service is not founded on warmongering. Among other things it can be interpreted as an expression of conservative social beliefs that a year in the military is required for young men to acquire “manhood”. 

It’s also important to note that young people aged 20 to 24, the most likely soldiers in a potential war, expressed a stronger backlash against the extension.

Young Taiwanese people should struggle so they don’t become cannon fodder for the imperialist conflict between the US and China. 

But we must also point out that preparation for war only serves the strategic interests of US imperialism.We must clearly oppose the extension of military service and the Mobilization Readiness Act. In fact, these policies not only fail to protect Taiwan from China’s military intimidation, but also give the DPP government the legal basis to suppress anti-war movements and implement authoritarian policies. The example of Ukraine also shows how years of preparation for war only accelerated the onset of it and made it bloodier. Likewise, military preparations cannot prevent a conflict in the Taiwan Strait.

At the same time, we do not think that the basic perspective is that the Chinese Communist Party will launch a full out war in the Taiwan Strait, as it will likely find itself in a quagmire at best, and endanger its domestic rule at worst. CCP’s ambition to compete with the US for global hegemony is its primary concern, and the Taiwan issue is only one –yet important– factor. This is why Hu Xijin, the former editor-in-chief of the Global Times (the mouthpiece of the hawkish anti-Americanism in China) pointed out that the CCP must “keep calm” regarding the Taiwan issue, saying that a premature war is a trap set up by the US. This is also why Xi Jinping emphasizes “peaceful reunification” repeatedly when he mentions Taiwan. 

The discourse around war preparation and war prevention

After experiencing the suppression of Hong Kong’s democracy movement by the Chinese dictatorship from 2019 to 2020, those who support Taiwan’s independence have become increasingly distrustful of the Chinese regime, the “1992 Consensus”, and the supposed “One Country, Two Systems” principle. Especially with the sharpening US-China conflict, the authoritarian nationalism pushed by Xi’s ruling circle is constantly threatening the national self-determination of the Taiwanese people. Therefore, we understand that those seeking national self-determination in Taiwan tend to be “pro-US”. But we must point out thatseeking closer ties with US imperialism cannot protect Taiwan’s democracy as the pro-independence camp hopes. Taiwan’s value to the US is based on its need for chip production and the hope of “Ukrainizing” Taiwan to undermine China’s strength. The recent statement by U.S. Congressman Seth Moulton that 

“…the U.S. should make it very clear to the Chinese that if you invade Taiwan, we’re going to blow up TSMC” 

is quite telling about how the US hawks see Taiwan- an expendable ally.

While “preparing for war to prevent war” may seem a reasonable argument, in reality countless examples from history have shown that military buildups do not help to ensure peace but indeed have the effect of exacerbating tensions. The piling up of weapons actually pushes for their use.

We therefore call for the reallocation of military budgets into social welfare programs and labor protection (such as to prevent the bankruptcy of the Labor Insurance program and increasing pensions), for a robust welfare system for workers and their families.

Of course, by raising such a demand we do not mean that the people of Taiwan have no choice but to be at the mercy of empires and their conflicting interests. 

As we have emphasized in the past, in order to prevent a war, a powerful anti-war movement is needed. More precisely, an anti-war movement not limited to Taiwan, but linked with the workers and youth in China and the US to establish an international opposition to the war. 

Let’s be clear: in the context of the US-China conflict, it’s impossible for Taiwan to rely on its own strength for self-preservation, and even if such self-preservation could succeed, it is extremely vulnerable to subsequent imperialist conflicts. That’s why the Taiwanese people need to seek alliances to peoples and movements all over the world.

Pro-US or Pro-China Diplomacy

Recently, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen visited Taiwan’s allies in Latin America and met with the US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. Meanwhile, in late March, former President Ma Ying-jeou, from the conservative Kuomintang (KMT) party, visited China under the pretext of ancestral worship. The visits by the two officials are not only seen as the latest development in the US-China-Taiwan relationship, but also as a clash between Taiwan’s pro-US and pro-China camps.

In fact, the intensification of the diplomatic struggle between the pro-US and pro-China camps had already started last month. On March 15th, six members of the US House Committee on Appropriations arrived in Taiwan to discuss Taiwan-US economic, trade, and security issues. In contrast, on March 26th, Honduras officially severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan, marking a new episode in the diplomatic battle between China and the US.

Also on March 15th, the President of Honduras had already prepared to establish diplomatic relations with China. A report pointed out that Taiwan’s loss of diplomatic ties with Honduras at this time may have been connected to Tsai’s planned visit to Taiwan’s allies in Central America and the US.

The Tsai-McCarthy meeting was held on April 5. It is the first time a Taiwanese president meets with the third highest official of the US, on US soil. However, the Democratic Party somewhat kept its distance, indicating that the Biden administration wanted to keep a low profile regarding Tsai’s visit. As for the meeting itself, the agreement reached by both sides included continuing arms sales to Taiwan; strengthening trade, economic, and other cooperation; and promoting “shared values”. 

The most critical and important element is the US arms sales to Taiwan. As analyzed above, this meeting took place essentially to ensure that US arms sales to Taiwan continue to flow and to push the DPP government to commit to the US strategy. 

The “special joint patrol” in the Taiwan Strait launched by China after the meeting is obviously a tacitly understood compromise between China and the US, with a scale and deployment far smaller than last Augusts’ exercises. 

In contrast to Tsai’s visit, Ma Ying-jeou‘s visit to China was quite different. One commentator claimed that the key objectives of Ma Ying-jeou‘s visit to China are twofold: first, to reduce the risk of a military conflict; and second, to prepare for the KMT’s election campaign next year. We believe that such comments are not groundless, as they are not only related to the KMT’s presidential campaign for 2024, but also to the CCP’s means of achieving “peaceful reunification” [3]. 

Since the 2022 election, the KMT has already put forward a slogan equating support for the DPP to sending young people to war. While the DPP government stayed committed to US foreign policy and implemented a series of militarization measures, the KMT has crafted an election strategy of calling for cooperation (or peace and mutual trust) with China.

For an independent anti-war movement

The 2024 presidential election in Taiwan is increasingly being framed as a choice between “resistance against China” and “peace with China”. In the discourse of KMT supporters, the overseas visits of Tsai Ing-wen and Ma Ying-jeou have become a “struggle between war and peace.” In contrast, among DPP supporters, these visits are framed as a “struggle between democracy and dictatorship.”

However, regardless of which party gains the majority in the elections, the people of Taiwan will not enjoy true peace or democracy. As we have discussed before, if the KMT wins the election, then a shift towards a diplomatic balance between China and the US becomes more likely. However, whatever the new balance will be, the US and China will not stop their conflict on the island, as their interests are too big to leave them aside because the people of Taiwan elected this or the other government. 

On the other hand, even if the DPP wins the election, the overall strategic direction of the US to hollow out Taiwan’s industry will not change. In the future, as the US-China conflict continues to intensify, Taiwan will still find itself under the threat of war. Even the so-called “white camp” of Ko Wen-Je and his Taiwan People’s Party, when faced with the issue of militarization, either remains silent or parrots the mantra “prepare for war to prevent war“, as he did last year.

All of the above indicate that the international anti-war movement that we seek to build should not only be rooted in grassroots communities but also be independent of the major political parties. Especially from the KMT, which is eager to use the fear of war to brand themselves as advocates of peace. However, the corrupt history of the KMT is well-known. If the KMT wins, their corrupt nature is likely to cause more social conflicts, and it will allow the DPP and US to regain their influence over Taiwan’s politics at a later stage. Based on these facts, Taiwan’s progressive youth and workers should go beyond the major political parties and work to establish an independent anti-war movement and a left-wing alternative.

Our demands:

  • Military buildups do not prevent wars. Build an international movement in opposition to the war. The anti-war movement needs to be rooted in the grassroots workers of China, the US and Taiwan.
  • The goal of the anti-war movement should go beyond Taiwan’s preservation, and should challenge Chinese and US imperialism
  • Reallocate military spending for labor protection and social welfares
  • Build a left-wing alternative to challenge capitalism, which is the source of disasters and wars 

[1]  See our past analysis.

[2]  The 2022 Taiwanese local elections, or the “Nine-in-One” election because it elects all the local officials in nine different jurisdictions, is an important election that happened two years after the current president assumes office, and is therefore analogous to the mid-term election in the US in terms of its political implication. See our analysis here 

[3] In particular, if China wants to govern Taiwan effectively, it must try to annex it peacefully. Otherwise, civil unrest and resistance will make effective rule difficult.

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