By Nicholas Whelan
An octopus almost prevented me from existing— at least indirectly. My grandmother, Kuei-Mei, frequently shares the story of her near-death encounter with the octopus, offering a glimpse into her childhood in Taiwan. My grandmother was scavenging for food along the shore outside her home, doing everything she could to feed a family of nine. Gazing into the ocean in search of sustenance, she noticed a large octopus that could feed her family for days. This was not my grandmother’s first octopus hunt— she expertly wielded a sharp stick and swam out to slay the beast. Unexpectedly, the menacing mollusk attacked her first, pulling her underwater by the leg. She was able to stab it with the stick and wrestle free, barely making it back to shore alive.
My grandmother grew up on a small island among the Penghu Islands, which lies in the Taiwan Strait. She was the middle child in a large family that constantly struggled for what little they had. Whether walking miles to school across bridges spanning the ocean, eating little more than rice for weeks, or battling the elements like monsoons and raging winds daily, my grandma did not have an easy childhood. I love the story of the octopus not only for its thrilling nature but also because it can be seen as a metaphor for the current state of Taiwan. Taiwan, like my grandmother on that beach, is fighting for its survival against difficult odds. China, like the octopus, attempts to drag Taiwan into the sea.
History of Chinese, Taiwanese, and United States Relations
Why does the relationship between Taiwan and China matter so much? Taiwan has a population of 33 million people. It is a democratic, Westernized society that is a productive economic partner for the United States and much of the rest of the world. Taiwan is also a symbol of a larger struggle playing out all over the world: a free and democratic country being threatened by an authoritarian giant. If you have no personal connection to Taiwan, it is easy to shrug off their issues as irrelevant. Many Americans do not know the difference between Taiwan and Thailand. However, with the recent Russian attacks on Ukraine, the similarities between the two situations are striking. Both Russia and China are global superpowers with huge militaries that have a history of bullying smaller countries.
The tension between the People’s Republic of China (China) and the Republic of China (Taiwan) came to a head in the 1950s during the Taiwan Straits Crises. Taiwan safeguarded escaped officials from the former Chinese government on islands in the Taiwan Strait that have close geographic proximity to China. Taiwan, with the support of the United States military, battled China for the Strait until 1955 when China stood down. The United States began to take steps to support the Republic of China, such as the creation of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), which had the objective of uniting the region against the anticipated Communist threat. However, in 1958, as the United States focused its attention elsewhere, China resumed its attacks on the Taiwan Strait. President Eisenhower feared that if the islands were taken, it would be a “precursor to the Communist conquest of Taiwan”. The United States decided to re-supply Taiwanese garrisons on the islands of Jinmen and Mazu. This led to an abrupt end to the attacks and eased the crisis.
Modern Relationship Between China, Taiwan, and the United States
The United States’ current position towards Taiwan is reflected in the Six Assurances. These assurances were agreed upon in 1982 under the Reagan administration. The Six Assurances affirm that the U.S. will continue to sell arms to Taiwan and that the U.S. will not recognize Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan. The United States has continued to stand in solidarity with Taiwan’s participation in international organizations like the World Trade Organization (WTO), the United Nations (UN), and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). Under the Trump administration, the United States increased economic ties with Taiwan despite Chinese objections. This included selling more than $18 billion worth of arms to the Taiwanese military and revealing a $250 million complex for its de facto embassy in Taipei. The Biden administration appears to be following this example, with Biden being the first U.S. president to invite Tawainese representatives to the presidential inauguration. However, the United States must keep Taiwan at a distance so as not to upset Chinese-United States diplomatic agreements. This means that the United States must carefully negotiate deals and treaties with Taiwan that do not violate existing agreements with China.
China has recently made efforts to intimidate Taiwan, leading many experts to believe a conflict could arise between the two. These efforts include increased frequency and scale of patrols of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) bombers, fighter jets, and surveillance aircraft over and around Taiwan. China has also increasingly directed its warships and aircraft carriers through the Taiwan Strait to display its military might. Meanwhile, Taiwan has reported that China has launched daily cyber attacks against their government, with the amount increasing 39 times from 2018 to 2020. These attacks, along with other more indirect techniques, are all an effort to wear down the Taiwanese people and intimidate them into believing that unification with the mainland is the optimal option.
Most Taiwanese people support maintaining the current situation, with only a small minority supporting complete independence. Even fewer people support reunification with China, with many of these people being members of the older generation. According to a survey done by National Chengchi University, 64 percent of the island’s citizens consider themselves strictly Taiwanese. A decade earlier, 40 percent of the island’s residents identified as both Taiwanese and Chinese, a figure that has decreased to 30 percent today. With this in mind, what does the future look like for this tense situation?
There are three possible scenarios that seem likely to occur between China and Taiwan. The first and most violent is an all-out, boots-on-the-ground, Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Experts state that it could take the Chinese less than 100 hours to take Taiwan. The United States and other Taiwanese allies would simply not have enough time to mobilize and combat an attack like this. The second and most likely scenario is similar to what China has done with Hong Kong— waging a slow takeover of Taiwan through political agreements, manipulation, and intimidation. The third and non-violent scenario is that Taiwan and China reach a peace treaty granting Taiwan the independence it desires. This is the most unlikely scenario because of China’s desire to keep Taiwan close as an economic hub and strategic location. China is also motivated to attain full ownership of Taiwan because they see it as part of their rightful empire. Although these scenarios seem distant, the recent conflict between Russia and Ukraine should serve as a warning of the violence a large country can inflict on a smaller one in a short period of time. The United States’ fight for democracy begins with defending smaller countries like Taiwan and Ukraine against larger, authoritarian countries.
The current leader of Russia, Vladimir Putin, invaded Ukraine in part because he did not want it to join NATO. It is possible that the tipping point of China deciding to invade Taiwan could be if the United States and Japan strike a treaty that guarantees Taiwan’s safety with the United States military. This is why the United States has always approached the Taiwan situation delicately.
It is easy to measure a country’s character by the degree to which it stands up for its friends. During Woodrow Wilson’s administration a century ago, U.S. foreign policy was tested when it had to decide who its friends were in World War I. As a country, the United States shares values like democracy and liberty with countries like Ukraine and Taiwan. So that raises the question: what kind of friend will the United States choose to be? If the United States and its people do not care enough to protect Taiwan, it is a sign to countries around the world that the United States will desert them as well in their time of need. Taiwan will never be strong enough alone to withstand a full-on attack from China. The United States must continue to balance supporting Taiwan while refraining from upsetting China. The U.S. is falling short in its agreements with Taiwan by not intervening with Chinese intimidation. While it is never wise to accept greater tension with China, Taiwan is worth fighting for. If the United States continues its current position while China slowly absorbs Taiwan, it will prove to the world that the U.S. never truly cared about Taiwan’s freedom. It is up to the United States to make the effort to stand with Taiwan and make China think twice. Will we be the ally who comes to the aid of another that we see trapped in a tidepool by an octopus? Or will we stand and watch from the beach, worried only about ourselves?
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