Pieter van Wingerden
When Dictators Speak, We Should Listen
Image via Washington Post
Winston Churchill once said, “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” In Taiwan, there’s a clear lesson to be learned from the likes of Vladimir Putin and Adolf Hitler: take careful heed of what authoritarian dictators say.
In July 2021, Putin penned “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.” He opined that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people,” challenging the legitimacy of Ukraine’s sovereignty. Responses were mixed, with some figures, to their credit, calling on the West to double down its support for Kyiv. But such calls were largely brushed aside until seven months later when the first barrage of missiles struck Ukraine. By then, it was too late.
Some 80 years ago, U.K. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain signed the Munich Agreement, allowing Hitler to annex Sudetenland. Chamberlain hoped that Hitler would stop there. The Prime Minister's naiveté needs no further explanation.
With both Putin and Hitler, there were indicators of forthcoming aggression but little action was taken. In Ukraine, satellite imagery showed the Russians building field hospitals and deploying helicopters near its border with Ukraine. And in Germany, Hitler promised Chamberlain that Sudetenland was his “last territorial demand,” yet ordered his generals to plan for “the liquidation of the remainder of Czechoslovakia.”
Now, more than 5,000 miles from Europe, Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping’s rhetoric rhymes with Hitler's and Putin's. On the 100th birthday of the Chinese Communist Party two years ago, Xi vowed “resolute action to utterly defeat any attempt toward ‘Taiwan independence’” and called for “China’s complete reunification.”
More recently, at the 20th Party Congress, Xi described “reunification” as a “historic mission and an unshakeable commitment” to the Party. “The wheels of history are rolling on towards China’s "reunification" and the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” he said at the October congress, “Complete reunification of our country must be realized.”
And if that isn’t enough, Xi completely eliminated rival factions from his Politburo and stacked the Central Military Commission – China’s highest national defense organ – with loyalists, including General He Weidong, who led the command tasked with military operations against Taiwan from 2019 to 2022.
We don’t know what is to come. We don’t know what Xi’s cost-benefit analysis of an invasion scenario looks like. And we don’t know whether he will use force to "reunify" Taiwan.
Still, we know the People’s Liberation Army is accelerating its suite of capabilities, including continued military modernization, the transition to a blue water navy, and breakthroughs in hypersonic missile technology. We know that U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Michael Gilday said that an invasion scenario in the next few years couldn’t be ruled out. And we know that Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that Xi is operating on a “much faster timeline” than expected in regard to "reunification."
So, we should listen to Xi when he says he wants to “reunify” Taiwan. We must make adequate preparations before it is too late. Preparing for and preventing war costs much less than fighting a war.
First, the U.S. should place long-range missiles in Taiwan, the Philippines, and the Pacific Islands. In the words of Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wisc.), doing so will create an anti-navy capability in light of the U.S. entering the "window of maximum danger." Taiwan cannot compete ship-for-ship or airplane-for-airplane with China. As such, the U.S. should deploy asymmetric systems and platforms – small, lethal, and mobile – to deny PLA control of the Taiwan Strait. Doing so would best position Taiwan to become the proverbial porcupine – difficult to attack and conquer – to which strategists frequently refer.
Next, the U.S. should streamline the arms sales process with Taiwan. More than $19 billion dollars of weapons and equipment has yet to be delivered to Taiwan. This includes a 2019 $8 billion purchase of 66 F-16 fighter jets and asymmetric weapons such as Stinger missiles and HIMARS, long-range rocket systems that have proven critical to the Ukrainians in their war against Russia.
Finally, the U.S. must continue engaging its allies and partners in the region to convince Xi that a forceful “reunification” would carry consequences too grave to bear. Japan, Australia, and others are critical to creating a strategic environment that deters China and ensures that an attempt at forceful unification would fail. Japan, for example, has pledged to double its defense spending from 1 percent of GDP to 2 percent of GDP, and plans to acquire counter-strike capabilities for the first time. The Philippines, building on the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, announced in early February that it will provide the U.S. access to four additional military bases.
Taiwan’s stability has implications not only for the Indo-Pacific but for the security and prosperity of the entire world. 88 percent of the world’s largest container ships passed through the Taiwan Strait in 2022, and more than 90 percent of advanced semiconductors are made in Taiwan. Not to mention Taiwan’s thriving democracy is in every way antithetical to the CCP’s authoritarianism. Xi’s desire to "reunify" Taiwan is no secret, and neither is the U.S.'s desire to support the democratically self-ruled island.
Now that Xi is ruler for life, he is looking to add the "reunification" of Taiwan to his legacy. Let’s learn from history’s dictators and listen to Xi. Only then could we prevent a catastrophic conflict in the Taiwan Strait.