Taiwan’s presidential offices are located in a sprawling, stately complex built by the Japanese colonial administration in the early 20th century—a reminder that, for all the belligerent rhetoric coming from the Chinese Communist Party, Taiwan has not been firmly under Beijing’s control for well over 100 years. When I arrived at the offices in September for an interview with President Tsai Ing-wen, it occurred to me that the large tower rising above the entrance might become a target in the event of an invasion.
Now in her sixth year in power, Tsai is Taiwan’s first female president. We met in a cavernous room decorated with orchids and a grandfather clock. When she entered, she was trailed by a retinue of aides—mostly men. Tsai was brisk, friendly, and businesslike. There was little small talk as we sat across from each other in armchairs. Tsai projected a reserved assurance. I told her that I wanted to know what it was like to face a mounting threat, particularly after the brutal invasion of Ukraine by Russian President Vladimir Putin—Chinese President Xi Jinping’s self-proclaimed “best friend” on the world stage. Tsai or some future Taiwanese leader could soon have the dubious distinction of playing the role of Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky to Xi’s Putin.
“It’s real that this thing could happen to us,” Tsai said. “So we need to get ourselves ready.” At another point, she emphasized: “There is a genuine threat out there. It’s not hype.”
Fate has placed Taiwan and Ukraine in similar positions. Both have giant neighbors who once ruled them as imperial possessions. Both have undergone democratic transformations and have thus become an ideological danger to the autocrats who covet their territory. Just as Putin has made the erasure of Ukraine’s sovereignty central to his political project, Xi has vowed to unify China and Taiwan, by force if necessary. Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned in October that China may be working on a “much faster timeline” for dealing—somehow—with Taiwan. U.S. military and intelligence leaders have pointed to 2027 as a potential time frame for an invasion, believing that China’s military modernization will have advanced sufficiently by then.
The situation requires Tsai to perform a careful balancing act: preparing for war while seeking to avoid it.
Tsai is the youngest of 11 children born to the owner of an auto-repair store. She speaks English with a faint trace of a British accent—she did postgraduate work at the London School of Economics. Tsai chooses her words carefully and appears at peace with the role that history has assigned her. She is well aware of the stakes. Taiwan’s 24 million people have developed their own distinctive and open culture, their own democratic institutions. Her position toward China and the People’s Liberation Army is defiant: She made clear to me that the Taiwanese will not be bullied, and that Beijing should not misjudge their resolve. “If the PLA wants to do something drastic, Xi has to weigh the costs,” Tsai said. “He has to think twice.”
Of course, a war with China would be enormously lopsided. Tsai noted that the Taiwan legislature recently passed a double-digit increase in the defense budget; Taiwan is now on pace to spend more than $19 billion on defense in 2023. But China spends more than $200 billion a year. This has prompted calls for a shift in Taiwan’s defense priorities. Instead of building large, conventional hardware (airplanes, tanks, submarines), military experts have urged Taiwan to focus on so-called asymmetric capabilities (anti-ship weapons, surface-to-air missiles, stockpiles of small arms and ammunition), which have served Ukraine well in repelling a larger invader. That, combined with a bigger force of civilian reserves, could make the cost of an invasion too high for China. This approach has earned a nickname in global defense circles: “the porcupine strategy.”
From Tsai’s perspective, it is important to remain low-key and unrattled, but also to build up the capacity for Taiwan to defend itself. During China’s particularly aggressive military exercises in August—mounted in response to U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island—Tsai maintained what appeared to be a normal schedule, attending a cultural festival but also visiting with troops. She described to me a resilient calm among younger people. They want to get trained, she said. “They’re not trying to escape.”
China’s threatening behavior, meanwhile, has only escalated. Chinese officials have repeatedly expressed the view that the entirety of the Taiwan Strait already belongs to China. Chinese warplanes regularly violate Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone. During the military exercises conducted after Pelosi’s visit, China shot missiles over Taiwan and encircled it with warships in a maneuver that hinted at a future blockade—no small concern for an island that imports nearly all of its energy.
War is never inevitable, but if it comes, it would have world-changing consequences. A thriving democracy could be extinguished. The Chinese Communist Party could be either emboldened or destabilized. Given Taiwan’s dominance of the semiconductor industry and the disruption of U.S.-China trade, the global economy could suffer a shock far greater than the one caused by the war in Ukraine. And the United States could be drawn into its first direct military conflict with a nuclear-armed superpower.
Taiwan’s formal status has been unresolved for decades. Neither independent nor part of the People’s Republic of China, the citizens of Taiwan have lived within a tenuous status quo constructed by diplomats. Essentially, the arrangement has worked like this: Taiwan doesn’t declare independence, China doesn’t invade, and the U.S. doesn’t say definitively whether it would enter a conflict should one occur.
The type of support that Taiwan now needs—to deter a conflict or to defend itself if conflict comes—is a subject of growing debate in Taipei and Washington. The last time there was a military crisis in the Taiwan Strait was in 1995, ahead of Taiwan’s first democratic presidential election. China test-fired ballistic missiles and conducted rehearsals for an amphibious invasion. The U.S. countered by sending an aircraft-carrier group and other naval assets to the region, demonstrating its overwhelming military advantage. Things have changed since then. China now has the world’s largest navy, with more than 350 ships and submarines. Its rocket force maintains the world’s largest arsenal of land-based missiles, which would feature in any war with Taiwan.
Admiral Lee Hsi-ming, who was chief of Taiwan’s General Staff from 2017 to 2019, has championed the shift to asymmetric capabilities and has emerged as a Cassandra-like figure in his warnings that Taiwan is not preparing fast enough. His rigid military manner is animated by a blunt sense of urgency. Like officials I spoke with who are still in government, Lee saw the Chinese response to the Pelosi visit as another step in Beijing’s pursuit of a “new normal.” On more than one occasion China has pushed beyond the median line in the waters between Taiwan and China. Its flights into Taiwan’s air-defense zone have escalated. China is eating away at Taiwan’s sovereignty, de facto claiming its airspace and waters. Several analysts have used the phrase boiling the frog to describe Beijing’s Taiwan strategy.
This new normal presents challenges to both Taiwan and the United States. China’s conventional firepower could overwhelm Taiwan’s air and naval defenses—its capacity to keep the enemy at a distance. China could also move quickly to deny the U.S. access to the island, cutting it off from the outside world by sea and air. Politically, Lee said, the message from China to the U.S. and Taiwan is simple: “I can do whatever I want in Taiwan, and there’s nothing the U.S. can do about it.” This message came across unequivocally in a white paper that Beijing released in August. The Cliffs Notes version of this lengthy document can be surmised from the first three section headings: “I. Taiwan Is Part of China—This Is an Indisputable Fact,” “II. Resolute Efforts of the CPC to Realize China’s Complete Reunification,” and “III. China’s Complete Reunification Is a Process That Cannot Be Halted.”
Lee points to two possible scenarios. The first is a coercive approach in which China encircles and pressures Taiwan—perhaps even seizing outlying islands and engaging in missile strikes. The second is a full-scale invasion. Given that China would likely suffer the same international consequences for conducting a war of attrition as it would for mounting an outright invasion, Lee worries that Beijing might decide the invasion scenario makes more sense. Lee has grown frustrated by Taiwan’s continued procurement of large weapons systems, such as airplanes and ships. He argues that it is not worth trying to keep up with China’s conventional superiority. To take just one example: In the event of a war, Chinese missiles could destroy Taiwan’s runways, rendering expensive fighter jets useless.
You may not be able to stop an invasion, Lee says, but you can stop China from subjugating Taiwan. This entails denying China the ability to control the battle space. The Chinese haven’t fought a war in several decades, and Taiwan has geographic advantages—including ample mountains and few beaches suitable for amphibious operations. Anti-ship missiles, anti-tank weapons, shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, drones, long-range artillery, and small arms could wreak havoc on an invading force, and disrupt the supply chains necessary to sustain an occupation. Lee also argues that Taiwan’s civilian population should be organized into a trained Territorial Defense Force, so that any attempted occupation would be met by the broadest possible resistance. “As long as China fails, Taiwan wins the war,” Lee explained.
The utility of this approach has become clearer after Russia’s calamitous “special military operation” in Ukraine. “The purpose is to make China believe that if you want to invade Taiwan, you will suffer huge losses,” Lee said. “And if you still invade Taiwan, you will not be able to succeed.” This will require a continued shift in Taiwan’s own defense doctrine. That shift has been encouraged by the Biden administration and was evident in September’s $1.1 billion U.S. arms sale to Taiwan, which included a substantial number of anti-ship Harpoon missiles and Sidewinder surface-to-air and air-to-air missiles. But as Lee sees it, the pace must quicken. “Taiwan needs a strategic paradigm shift,” he told me.
In her own deliberate and incremental fashion, Tsai has directed some defense spending in this direction and expressed support for training civilians in nonmilitary skills such as “community defense, first aid, and information awareness.” Given that Taiwan’s largest destination for trade and investment is China, Tsai is also working to diversify Taiwan’s economy to make it less reliant on that market, launching new trade talks with the United States and pursuing trade and investment in Southeast Asia. She has created a Ministry of Digital Affairs and bolstered cyberdefenses to respond to constant Chinese hacking and disinformation campaigns. As a pointed reminder, she speaks openly about the island’s dominance in advanced semiconductors—Taiwan manufactures 90 percent of them—which she calls a “silicon shield.” A war that curbed supply could prove highly disruptive for Beijing—perhaps too disruptive. Tsai’s foreign policy has also courted other democracies, seeking friends with similar values.
How did we get to this point? The origin story of Taiwan most familiar to Americans begins in 1949, when Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist forces, locked for years in a civil war with Mao Zedong’s Communists, were defeated. Along with much of his remaining army, Chiang fled to Taiwan and set up a government-in-exile called the Republic of China. That government was recognized by the United States. But within a few years of Richard Nixon’s 1972 Cold War opening to Beijing, the U.S. formally switched diplomatic recognition to the People’s Republic. Ever since, Taiwan’s status has been cloaked in ambiguity. The U.S. acknowledges Beijing’s claim to Taiwan without recognizing its sovereignty over the island. To help deter a Chinese effort to seize Taiwan by force, the U.S. has pledged to provide Taiwan with the means to defend itself.
That origin story explains Taiwan’s curious geopolitical status, but it leaves a lot out. When Chiang fled to Taiwan—with roughly 2 million Chinese from the mainland—there were some 6 million people already living on an island that was just emerging from 50 years of Japanese rule. Most of the people living on the island when Chiang arrived could claim roots in Taiwan going back hundreds of years. They had their own languages and culture. So too did the island’s many Indigenous groups, such as the Amis, the Atayal, and the Paiwan. To subjugate the island, Chiang killed and imprisoned tens of thousands over decades—a period known as the White Terror. He set up a military dictatorship under the leadership of his Chinese nationalist Kuomintang Party (KMT) and, from this offshore platform, vowed to reclaim mainland China.
Taiwan is different now. With its broad boulevards, glass towers, military monuments, narrow side streets, night markets, and ample signs in English, Taipei today presents an ambience of blended cultures: Chinese, Japanese, Western, and distinctly Taiwanese. Bubble tea, a Taiwanese invention, is everywhere. But consider what it was like to grow up in the shadow of Taiwan’s postwar history, and you can better understand the profound ways in which younger generations have been remaking the island’s politics and identity.
Emily Y. Wu is a professional podcaster who blends a focus on youth culture with an urgent concern for Taiwan’s political present. (One of her shows is called Metalhead Politics.) She is among dozens of Taiwanese I spoke with during the past year, first on Zoom, then in person in Taipei. Wu was born under KMT martial law in 1984. Her family did not come over with Chiang; they had lived in Taiwan for generations. “Chiang Kai-shek brought China over,” she told me. “I grew up always knowing that there was this alternate history: It was Taiwanese history, which was not taught in school.” Students were taught Chinese history and geography under the presumption that the KMT would one day govern China again. Mandarin was spoken in class, and speaking Taiwanese was discouraged. Wu recalled Lesson 9 of her childhood textbook: “ ‘Hello teachers, hello students, we are Chinese!’ ”
But a movement for democracy was building. “We grew up hearing these names, knowing that there was a group of activists, scholars, lawyers that tried to imagine a free Taiwan,” Wu explained. Many of those people were members of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which currently governs Taiwan. In 1987, the KMT lifted nearly 40 years of martial law. Wu’s political consciousness was shaped by the protests, marches, and hunger strikes that led to Taiwan’s first true presidential election, in 1996.
By the beginning of the 21st century, Taiwan was becoming ever more democratic—and ever more Taiwanese. The school curriculum changed: Taiwan’s distinct history was taught, as were Taiwanese languages. Taiwan also began to celebrate its Indigenous population. After the election of President Ma Ying-jeou, in 2008, links of trade, investment, and travel helped reduce tensions with China. Ma was from the KMT, and the party’s Chinese heritage and its ties to Taiwan’s business elite eased the way to détente with Beijing. But many Taiwanese, particularly the young, feared that forging too close a connection could ultimately give Beijing leverage over Taiwan. In 2014, in what became known as “the Sunflower Movement,” named for the flower that served as a symbol of hope, students occupied the Taiwan legislature to oppose a free-trade agreement with China. After a tense standoff, they succeeded in stopping the deal. They also helped propel a political wave that in 2016 brought the election of the DPP’s Tsai Ing-wen as president.
As Taiwan was becoming more democratic, China was becoming more autocratic. And as Taiwan was becoming more Taiwanese, China was becoming more fervently nationalist. After the ascent of Xi Jinping to the head of the Communist Party, in 2012, Beijing shifted from incentives to coercion. Xi’s government proved adept at bullying companies and entire countries to stop doing business in Taiwan and to recognize China’s narrative of sovereignty. Xi also began escalating crackdowns on China’s periphery—in Xinjiang province and in Hong Kong.
When Xi first took power, Emily Wu was living in Beijing. “I felt the tightening of the space that Taiwan was allowed to navigate,” she recalled. “It was all around me—every move that Xi Jinping was making. You’re sitting in China and I’m like, How can I sit here while looking at what is happening and not being able to do anything about it? ” Wu moved back to Taiwan and started a company named Ghost Island Media, picking up on a bit of local black humor that captures Taiwan’s ambiguous status. Through podcasts in Mandarin and English, Ghost Island offers a window into the perilous irony of Taiwan’s existence: The more successful the Taiwanese are in building their own democracy, the more endangered they are by a China that feels this ghost island eluding its grasp.
During one of our conversations, I used the term status quo, and Wu asked me what I thought it meant. “You are not independent, but China has not invaded your country,” I replied. Wu paused for a moment, and then said, “I always thought the idea of status quo is really interesting, because in the American context that is what it means. But the idea of it here is: There is no need to declare independence, because we are already independent. This country functions like an independent nation, but someone else says it is not.” Recent polling suggests that fewer than 5 percent of people in Taiwan identify as “only Chinese.”
For decades, China and Taiwan have conducted intermittent negotiations. From China’s perspective, the starting point for any dialogue must be the so-called 1992 Consensus. This refers to the outcome of meetings between Chinese and KMT officials 30 years ago, an outcome that represents anything but consensus. To the Chinese Communist Party, the consensus is that there is one China, and the government in Beijing is the sole legitimate authority. To the KMT, the consensus is that there is one China, but the Republic of China in Taiwan is the legitimate government. To the DPP, there is no consensus, only a fraught political reality to be managed. Past Chinese leaders tolerated differing interpretations, but that changed with Xi. Any negotiations, Xi insists, can only address the terms under which Taiwan submits to the sovereignty of the People’s Republic. Tsai has not been willing to enter negotiations on those terms.
China proposes a “one country, two systems” regime, in which Taiwan becomes a formal part of China but maintains an autonomous political system. There is one big problem with this proposal: Hong Kong. In 1997, in accordance with a formal agreement between the United Kingdom and China, Hong Kong was returned to Chinese sovereignty under a similar one-country-two-systems formula. The agreement stipulated that Hong Kong would be able to maintain its own distinct political, economic, and legal framework for 50 years. The deal seemed to work at first. But as China became more powerful and prosperous, it encroached upon life in Hong Kong. Media outlets started to be bought up by Chinese tycoons. Economic advancement became contingent on not crossing political lines. Large numbers of Mandarin speakers from the mainland started moving into Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong. The school curriculum shifted in the direction of the Communist Party’s point of view. It was precisely the kind of outcome that the Sunflower Movement had resisted in Taiwan.
In 2019, Hong Kong authorities sought to appease Beijing by introducing a law that allowed residents of Hong Kong to be extradited to mainland China—removing a guardrail around the city’s legal status. Protests exploded and continued for months. Then, in 2020, several “national-security laws” were passed giving the authorities broad powers to crush dissent. Activists were rounded up. Independent media were shut down. One country, two systems was dead. The fate of Hong Kong has had a profound impact on Taiwan. “When China moves in, the freedom is gone,” President Tsai told me. “People in Taiwan got a very strong message.”
Min-yen Chiang certainly got the message. As a high-school student in Taiwan, he joined the Sunflower Movement. When he went to Hong Kong for university, he embraced the 2014 “Umbrella Movement,” whose members occupied Hong Kong’s central business district for 79 days, demanding free and fair elections. In 2019, after graduation, Chiang joined the protests in Hong Kong. He learned firsthand what happened next.
I met with Chiang at the Taipei office of Flow HK, a magazine that focuses on Hong Kong’s movement for democracy. It was a hot day, soupy with humidity, but Chiang switched on a small air conditioner only after we were settled in a spartan conference room. On one wall was a poster that read, in Chinese characters, “Protect Taiwan, Resist China, Support Hong Kong.” Chiang spoke softly but with assurance as he described his efforts to change Taiwan’s laws in order to better protect refugees. “When we are supporting Hong Kong,” he said, “we are thinking about how to resist China.”
In swallowing Hong Kong, Xi may have made it impossible to repeat the same playbook with Taiwan. But the fate of Ukraine has shown that a bullying neighbor has more extreme options. At the beginning of Russia’s war, Chiang organized a press conference with the small Ukrainian population in Taipei. “They always tell me that we have prepared for this war for at least eight years, since 2014,” he said, referring to the initial Russian invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine. “I don’t think Taiwanese young people can confidently say that.” But more and more leaders in civic organizations and the press are learning how to speak English so they can communicate better with the outside world. “Ukraine inspired the Taiwanese society a lot, including how Zelensky told their story,” Chiang said. He was almost matter-of-fact when he told me, “I would say war between China and Taiwan will definitely happen. We want to win.”
The best outcome for Taiwan would be avoiding a war and maintaining the ambiguous status quo. That requires immense discipline, both in presidential statements and in ordinary interactions with the wider world.
When I landed in Taipei, people in spacesuit-style medical uniforms directed bleary-eyed travelers to a series of stations that had to be navigated before entering the country. Early in the pandemic, Chinese propaganda constantly attacked Tsai’s response. Mocking the island’s reliance on America, Chinese memes suggested that the U.S. was vaccinating pets before offering shots to Taiwan. I scanned a QR code to access my preflight forms and was notified that I needed a Taiwanese phone so the police could ensure I maintained three days of quarantine. At a series of tables, young health workers explained the process of inserting SIM cards into phones. An American next to me became frustrated. But the Taiwanese woman behind the counter was patient and kind, explaining—again and again—how it was done.
This was a snapshot of Taiwan’s self-control. To permit widespread COVID infections would validate Beijing’s brutal information war against Taiwan—despite the fact that Beijing’s stubborn “zero COVID” policy has backfired on its own economy and society. To be anything less than unfailingly polite to visitors could undermine the relationships that Taiwan is relentlessly trying to build. I was reminded of a comment that Hsiao Bi-khim, Taiwan’s representative in Washington, made to me: “We have to be the perfect student in the class to protect ourselves from bullying and help us make friends.”
President Tsai plays that part well. She was born to humble circumstances, and her family has deep roots in Taiwan. Indeed, her paternal grandmother is descended from one of the island’s Indigenous tribes, the Paiwan. Tsai earned a law degree and was a law-school professor for a time. Entering public life, she served in a variety of government posts on trade and relations with China before joining the DPP in 2004. She steadied the party after corruption scandals and led it to victory following a narrow loss in the 2012 presidential election. Her campaigns have featured her two cats, Think Think and Ah Tsai.
Tsai met with me after receiving yet another U.S. congressional delegation—Taiwan is becoming a must-stop for members of both parties trying to assert their national-security bona fides. A DPP administration makes for an enigmatic interlocutor. In some ways, the party is more comfortable with Republican China hawks than with Democrats wary of projecting American power. Yet the party is also progressive. Tsai formally apologized to Indigenous groups for centuries of mistreatment; she pledged to have their languages taught in schools and to honor Indigenous cultures. Tsai’s government was the first in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage. Announcing her support for marriage equality, Tsai said, “Let everyone be able to freely love and pursue happiness.” Whether American visitors represent the right or left, every delegation gets presidential attention.
In our conversation, Tsai talked about what she had learned from Ukraine. One lesson is simply the need for international support—to defend itself or, better, to avoid a war in the first place. “The Western countries, particularly the U.S., are helping Ukraine. What we see from the Ukraine war is Western countries get together and help Ukraine to fight.” Because Taiwan is an island, it will be difficult to resupply in the event of hostilities; Taiwan needs support now. Even though the U.S. didn’t enter the war after Russia’s invasion, it did offer Ukraine essential weapons, supplies, and budgetary assistance. “These people do help others,” Tsai said, referring to the West as if speaking to her own citizens.
Another lesson of Ukraine is the importance of national character. Outside support, Tsai emphasized, depends on qualities only Taiwan can provide. “You need to have good leadership,” she said, “but more important is the people’s determination to defend themselves, and the Ukrainian people showed that.”
Such determination is essential to the kind of paradigm shift Admiral Lee has advocated. It is a daunting prospect. The more you plan to resist an invasion, the more you risk panicking the population and the more challenges you realize you’ll have to face. Small- and mobile-weapons systems have to be secured against attack by Chinese missiles. Plans must be put in place to ensure that the government can communicate with its people if standard forms of communication are disrupted. The government must also prioritize crucial infrastructure, defend against cyberattacks, stockpile food and water, and decentralize the electricity grid. Instead of creating a Territorial Defense Force, thus far the Tsai administration has opted to bolster its reserve forces; the military has issued a survival handbook on civil defense in case of war.
Taiwan has term limits, preventing President Tsai from running again. Taiwan’s voters will have an important decision to make in 2024. The opposition KMT party is staking out its position with care. The party’s representative to the United States, an amiable academic and veteran diplomat named Alex Huang, told me that the KMT was more oriented to the U.S. relationship than it had been at times in the past, but it still supports dialogue with China. Instead of the ambitious trade agreements of the Ma Ying-jeou years, Huang said engagement should focus on threat reduction and crisis management. Implicit in his argument was the notion that inflaming China by severing ties and fully embracing the United States could put Taiwan’s very existence at risk—extinguishing both the DPP’s vision of a de facto independent Taiwan and the KMT’s hope for some future conciliation with a changed China. For their part, members of the DPP—and many young Taiwanese—worry that the KMT might turn Taiwan into a second Hong Kong.
Hanging over all of this is the role of the United States. As one Taiwanese expert pointedly asked me: “We can make ourselves a porcupine, but what are you going to do?”
On four separate occasions, President Joe Biden has said that the U.S. would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion. Each time, the White House put out a follow-up statement saying that U.S. policy had not in fact changed.
This U.S. policy is known as “strategic ambiguity.” The U.S. has no mutual defense treaty with Taiwan, as it does with NATO allies and countries like Japan and South Korea. For decades, there has been bipartisan consensus that declaring a commitment to defend Taiwan could make a war more likely: Taiwan could trigger a conflict by declaring independence, or China could feel compelled to enforce its “One China” red line. By remaining inscrutable, Washington forces China to consider the likelihood of the U.S. coming to Taiwan’s defense, even as Washington accepts the current status quo. Biden’s statements, however, have not been ambiguous and stand in contrast to his statements before the Russian invasion of Ukraine that the U.S. would not intervene directly.
The Biden administration has been more cautious in practice than in rhetoric. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee recently advanced the bipartisan Taiwan Policy Act, which goes beyond authorizing arms sales to financing arms sales with money from American taxpayers. But the administration quietly lobbied to remove provisions that would have been seen by Beijing as moving in the direction of diplomatic recognition—such as making the position of the senior American diplomat in Taipei a job that requires Senate confirmation, as ambassadorships do. The administration has also resisted the Taiwan Policy Act’s call to ramp up training and joint military exercises.
Like President Tsai, the Biden administration is trying to walk a line, better preparing Taiwan while not unnecessarily provoking China. That requires some guesswork about what lessons China may have drawn from Ukraine. Will Xi see Ukraine’s military success as a warning against invading a neighbor that is building up asymmetric capabilities? Or will he decide he has to invade before Taiwan is sufficiently armed and trained?
American politics has its own anti-China momentum. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave a speech earlier this year in Taipei arguing that the U.S. should formally recognize Taiwan as a nation-state. But performative rhetoric and symbolic gestures that play well to domestic political constituencies suggest a clarity that does not exist. Would the U.S. risk the biggest naval battle since World War II to break a Chinese blockade? Would the U.S. attack an invading Chinese force knowing that U.S. military personnel in Japan, Guam, and possibly Hawaii are within range of Chinese rockets? Would the American people really support a war with the world’s most populous country in order to defend Taiwan?
Perhaps for this reason, everyone I spoke with in Taiwan focused more on how the U.S. can help prepare Taiwan than on what the U.S. would do in a conflict. As war has grown more likely, Taiwanese attitudes have shifted too. A poll taken after the invasion of Ukraine showed that the number of people in Taiwan who expect the U.S. to send troops in the event of war fell from 57 to 40 percent, while 73 percent said they would fight to defend themselves. Seeing the difference that eight years of training made for Ukraine, many believe that increased training should be quietly pursued. Given that the U.S. does have a formal agreement to help prepare Taiwan to defend itself, training the Taiwanese would be a logical response and consistent with existing U.S. commitments. In contrast, joint military exercises would suggest a role for the U.S. military that extends beyond preparing Taiwan to defend itself.
The U.S. can also take nonmilitary steps. It should make every effort to deepen and regularize diplomatic openings with China on Taiwan—to avoid an incident that could escalate, and to manage tensions. The U.S. can also expand its trade relationship with Taiwan to make it less vulnerable to Chinese coercion and more embedded in secure supply chains. As the U.S. fosters its own semiconductor industry, it can partner with Taipei to avoid undercutting Taiwan’s. The U.S. can work diplomatically to increase Taiwan’s cooperation with other democracies, including on practical issues where Taiwan has expertise—public health, cybersecurity, and combatting disinformation. The U.S. and other democracies can also specify to China the far-reaching economic consequences—including sanctions—that would be triggered by any effort to take Taiwan by force.
Much of this is already on the agenda for Biden and the Tsai administration. Foreign Minister Joseph Wu, in particular, has articulated the need for Taiwan to counter its diplomatic isolation by emphasizing democracy. He has made inroads in Europe, where some countries have shown a willingness to step up engagement with Taiwan. “This is especially so for Central and Eastern European countries,” he told me. “They were ruled by Communists and understand the difficulties of the threat from an authoritarian country.” Lithuania, for instance, weathered a furious Chinese response after it allowed Taiwan to open an office in its capital, Vilnius. This may seem like a small step, but it boosts morale in Taiwan. As Hsiao Bi-khim told me, “If you tell people on the streets of Taiwan that you are Lithuanian, you will be treated with great admiration.”
Still, these small victories only point up the scale of the challenge. Wu himself has used the term cognitive warfare to describe the comprehensive nature of China’s pressure on Taiwan. “They use missiles, air, ships, disinformation, cyberattacks, and economic coercion,” he told me. As a warning sign, China has banned hundreds of exported products from Taiwan. “They claimed that our mangoes tested positive for COVID,” Wu said. “I don’t think you can give a mango a PCR.” Thanks to Chinese pressure, the number of countries that have diplomatic relations with Taiwan has fallen to a new low of 14. In the 2019 trailer for Top Gun: Maverick, the Taiwanese flag that was on Tom Cruise’s flight jacket in the first film was removed to suit Chinese tastes. (It was later restored; the movie was never released in China.)
I asked Wu, who was educated at Ohio State, how he would make the case to a bunch of college-football fans at a tailgate for why they should care about Taiwan. After declaring himself a Buckeye, he paused, sensing the import of the exercise. First, he noted, “if there’s a Chinese invasion, the economic impact is going to be more serious than Ukraine.”
More existential, though, is what could happen after a Chinese invasion. If China takes Taiwan, Wu suggested that the Chinese Communist Party’s ambitions could extend to the East China Sea, threatening Japan; to the South China Sea, where China has built militarized islands and claims an entire body of water bordering several nations; to the Indian Ocean, where China is expanding influence and could establish military bases; and to the Pacific Ocean, where China is working to establish security pacts with island nations. In a world with nationalist-strongman politics ascendant on nearly every continent, Wu’s presentation was at once a dire and plausible picture of the stakes for geopolitics as well as human freedom. “If we allow China to continue to expand,” Wu told me, “then democracies will be in danger.”
On one of my last nights in Taipei, I met with a woman in her early 30s named Billion Lee who helps run Cofacts, an organization that fact-checks disinformation and promotes digital literacy. Relying on a crowdsourced network of more than 2,000 volunteers, Cofacts has done nearly 90,000 fact-checks, mostly in the ubiquitous Taiwanese social-media platform Line. I asked her about Beijing-driven narratives that accompanied the invasion of Ukraine, and they sounded conspicuously similar to those emanating from Moscow. As bombs began falling on Ukraine, the people of Taiwan were bombarded by Chinese-fueled disinformation campaigns: The U.S. was developing biological weapons in Ukraine. Taiwan will be next if they keep buying weapons from America. These overlapped with narratives I’d heard about from other Taiwanese: Afghanistan showed that Americans don’t keep their promises. The Americans won’t send troops to defend white people in Ukraine, so they will never send them to defend you. Lee noted that her generation had developed antibodies to such campaigns, but China was focusing on younger demographics as well—teenagers and preteens—through Chinese apps like TikTok.
After a quick dinner of soba noodles, we walked a short distance to a small alley off a bustling main boulevard and met Johnson Liang, a young man with shoulder-length hair and round glasses that made him look like a Taiwanese John Lennon. Liang took out a large metal key to open the door to a shared workspace. We removed our shoes and walked into a back conference room. Lee passed out moon cakes and Liang connected his laptop to a projector that showed his screen on a bare wall.
The two of them explained that they were developing a tool that could enable fact-checkers to compare shared images and transcripts with similar content online, thus making it easier to do the painstaking work of sorting fact from falsehood. As they went about their work, I scrolled through the latest fact-checks. One involved a lengthy speech that was alleged to have been transcribed from a private recording of French President Emmanuel Macron speaking with diplomats in Paris and blaming the U.S. for all of the trouble in the world. “We must admit that China and Russia have achieved great success over the years under different leadership styles,” Macron supposedly said. (The speech was labeled a falsehood.) Another post, also flagged as false, talked about how the U.S. has been trying to turn “blue” (the KMT) and “green” (the DPP) against each other: “The ultimate goal is to ask Taiwan to die to the last man.”
I sat there reading message after message, all posted in closed chat rooms, meant to bend Taiwanese minds to Beijing’s worldview. The meanings of buzzwords like cognitive warfare and resilience came into sharper focus. Facing the seemingly bottomless resources of a massive totalitarian state, here were two young people working for free on a Wednesday night, quietly insisting on the notion that there is indeed such a thing as objective reality.
I walked out into Taipei streets filled with people and a pulsing array of advertising. Commuters who’d worked late streamed onto the elevated metro. Packs of teenagers laughed on street corners. All totally ordinary. And yet, to preserve this, Taiwan has to find some mix of the approaches that I’d heard about: preparing for a war while avoiding it; talking to China without being coerced by it; drawing closer to the U.S. without being reduced to a chess piece on the board of a great game; tending to a young democracy without letting divisions weaken it; asserting a unique identity without becoming an independent country.
When I got back to my hotel, I had to descend four levels into the parking garage to enter—the remnant of a COVID protocol—and was reminded of something that Emily Wu had told me. Taiwan conducts annual air-raid drills. They were suspended for the past few years, owing to the pandemic, but resumed this summer. And now, Wu said, people take them more seriously. Underground parking garages were seen as ideal places to take shelter. I looked at the largely deserted expanse of parking spaces around me, a familiar sight now cast in a different light.
“What I want to achieve is to make Taiwan more resilient in economic and military terms,” Tsai had told me. It’s possible to look at this kind of gradual marshaling of society with trepidation. Coupled with the lack of a diplomatic opening to China, there’s a momentum that risks pulling in the direction of conflict. But in Tsai’s attitude, I sensed that resilience serves many purposes. A society that embeds digital literacy and emergency preparedness among its citizens is stronger, just as an economy that isn’t overly reliant on the giant market next door will grow on a broader foundation. Even the effort to build a more progressive democracy comes into play, both in terms of investing domestic constituencies in the government and in forging friendships with democracies abroad.
In the end, Tsai’s agenda is born of necessity. “When we’re strong, resilient, trustworthy, and a good partner,” Tsai said, “people will see our values. That makes us worthy of support.”
The last question I asked President Tsai was whether she had ever wished to govern a normal country with normal problems. She appeared to consider the notion, but allowed herself to betray no emotion. “We may be unfortunate to have a big neighbor next door,” she said. “But that makes us stronger.”
This article appears in the December 2022 print edition with the headline “Taiwan Prepares to Be Invaded.”