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Taiwan: An Actual ‘Munich Moment’

On Taiwan, traditional opposition to American engagement doesn’t hold up against the U.S.’s most powerful foe since the Founding.

Chinese president Xi Jinping (Kaliva/Shutterstock) and Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen (Glen Photo/Shutterstock).

Rightly, it’s become a meme for those who hold that the last 20 years were a mistake.

The “Munich moment,”  referring to Britain’s eventually pointless appeasement of Hitler, has been invoked so often in politics, particularly by noxious neoconservatives, as to lose almost all meaning in an era where supermajorities of Americans correctly hold the Iraq war to have been a mistake, as well as thinking more or less the same of its kindred conflict in Afghanistan.

But you remember that fable about the boy and the wolf? Eventually there was a wolf.

Unfortunately, the United States—fatigued, cynical, jaded, and broke—faces just such an unfortunate turn of events now in Taipei, after 20 years of cry-wolf intellectual hand-wringing. “Trade freely with China, and time is on our side,” then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush said in 2000. It would be the only threat the 43rd president wouldn’t inflate. On brand for America’s worst president, he sadly got it wrong again. 

Ross Douthat reviewed Elbridge Colby’s new book, The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict, last month for the Times, and lent some color and history on Washington, D.C., after 9/11

Everything in my profession revolved around the War on Terror. And everyone I knew who was even the least bit conservative (a category that included many Democrats) was ready to invade Iraq — and probably Syria and Iran for good measure. Everyone except one college friend, Elbridge Colby, then newly planted at the State Department.

Douthat details how Colby, consigliere to Senator Josh Hawley, thinks that Taiwan is worth defending, and has the credibility of having been right before:

Only China threatens American interests in a profound way, through a consolidation of economic power in Asia that imperils our prosperity and a military defeat that could shatter our alliance system. Therefore American policy should be organized to deny Beijing regional hegemony and deter any military adventurism — first and foremost through a stronger commitment to defending the island of Taiwan.” 

Colby is simpatico with arch-realists like John J. Mearsheimer, and with yours truly, in the belief that China is different. I remember having dinner with Mearsheimer a few years ago, when he predicted that the China debate had the worrying potential to split the realist and restraint coalitions. 

Zooming in on one side… Still very much unified, for better or worse, around former President Donald Trump, the American right has split in recent years on the question of China, and whether Taiwan should be fed to the Communists in Beijing. Those who have been mistreated by cancel culture, such as prominent former Trump speechwriter Darren J. Beattie, see little worth preserving under the current “American regime” and the tone of Beattie’s muckracking Revolver News startup matches that view. If there is to be a showdown, it is a civil, not international one, seems to be the party line. 

But what if that’s wrong?

America has been a rowdy, disunited place before. Ethnic tension isn’t exactly unique to the 21st century; different flavors of European ethnic groups used to kill each other in American streets. German propaganda in both World Wars held that Americans were too heterogeneous and hateful to mount a fighting force. To be sure, the fraternal hatred was real, but the conflicts ironically produced the opposite result, especially after Berlin’s final defeat in 1945: defeat of the enemy, and a more united, cohesive America that had bled and borne the battle together. 

Today, the Chinese economy is on par with America’s, that is, twice the relative size the Nazi economy ever was, to say nothing of the Soviet economy, which was never more than 44 percent of U.S. production. Even if China is in trouble economically, and signs suggest it is, comparisons to the Japan scare of the 1980’s fall flat: China is far more populous, far more militant, and far more openly anti-Western than the titans in Tokyo ever were. In fact, if things are bound to turn bad in Beijing, that’s actually an argument that Beijing will act rashly and concerningly sooner rather than later. And if so, America will have a belligerent foe on its hands that is an actual peer competitor for the first time since the British Empire and the ages of Jefferson and Lincoln (which were not short on parallel civil strife).

In this sense, Taiwan is the crucible. 

Projections on how it would be done range from a People’s Liberation Army amphibious landing to a bombing campaign. It’s true, Taiwan is neither militarized nor young enough to conjure up a legitimate picture of an insurgency in the Iraq style. Some on the right essentially make the case that the country’s paltry birthrate and embrace of LGBTQ values means Taipei should be fed to Beijing. 

That’s rich stuff: parroting the party line of the state that brought the world the “One Child” policy and forced abortion.

Which is to say nothing of building common cause with charmless American voices that hold that the Founding, an astonishing act of human liberation, was inherently evil. Witness Chinese officials, utterly shamelessly, lecturing American leaders in Anchorage this past spring. And anyone who knows Taiwanese politics will report: What young people there are in Taiwan, they overwhelmingly favor remaining a separate country, hence the rise to dominance of the  pro-American Democratic People’s Party (DPP).

The Chinese arguments for annexation are as frankly spurious as Adolf Hitler’s once were. Take it from a country that is running concentration camps in 2021.

The Taiwanese population is not a willing partner, and Taiwan hasn’t been ruled by the Chinese state in some time: It was a Japanese dominion up until the end of World War II, as anyone who has seen the imperial architecture in Taipei can attest. America can’t be everywhere, all the time—and shouldn’t be—but if the Chinese are allowed to rain bombs over Taipei, with the whole shebang recorded on smartphones, and the world does nothing?

The hopeful truth is this is unlikely to happen.

Beijing may act because they rightly intuit that Biden is the most dovish president on China they’re likely to ever get again (contra the online right, the appetite for China dovishness among ambitious Republican politicians is exactly null). But the PLA would also be acting, in part, because they read and believed American thinktankers who wailed that getting out of Afghanistan presaged abandoning Taiwan. 

If anything, given the stakes for Biden and the United States of America, the opposite will be proved true. And rightly so.

about the author

Curt Mills is a contributing editor at The American Conservative, where he previously served as senior reporter. He specializes in foreign policy and campaign coverage and has worked at The National Interest, U.S. News and World Report, Washington Examiner, and the Spectator, and his work has appeared in UnHerd and Newsweek. He was a 2018-2019 Robert Novak Journalism fellow.

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