by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: Tsai Ing-wen/Facebook
COMMENTS BY US Senator Josh Hawley made at the Heritage Foundation last month linked Taiwan’s fate to that of Ukraine, though in the context of calling for the US to decrease support for Ukraine and increase support for Taiwan. Hawley’s comments prove revealing about current views among American Republicans, particularly those of the MAGA camp, about the geopolitical role played by the US with regard to Taiwan and Ukraine.
In particular, Hawley claimed that the US military is weaker than ever because of its overstretched capacities. Hawley stated that US “actions in Ukraine are directly affecting our ability to deter our most pressing adversary: that is China in the Pacific.” Hawley framed the US’ ability to defend Ukraine as directly draining resources from Taiwan,” stating that the more U.S. resources that we devote to Europe, the fewer things we have available to strengthen deterrence in the Pacific.”
To this extent, Hawley criticized US military officials for failing to take the threat of China seriously enough. Hawley lashed out at the argument that deterring Russia in Ukraine would also have a deterrent effect on China in the Asia Pacific and the argument in past decades that engagement with China would lead to democratization or liberalization. Hawley suggested that Democrats had, in past decades, downplayed the threat of China but that economic engagement with China instead led to the loss of American blue-collar jobs.
US Senator Josh Hawley speaking with Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick M. Shanahan in 2019. Photo credit: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff/CC BY 2.0
At the same time, Hawley discounted that he was calling for uncritical, unconditional support of Taiwan. Specifically, Hawley stated that he did not call for offering a “blank check” to Taiwan. Namely, as of late, there has been increased backlash from MAGA Republicans against the Biden administration’s support of Ukraine, which is articulated as simply offering a “blank check” for Ukraine. As such, Hawley called for aid to be provided to Taiwan on the condition that Taiwan adopt asymmetric means of warfare to defend itself from China and spend enough on its own defense.
The parallels between the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the threat Taiwan faces from China, of course, have not gone unnoticed–least of all by Ukrainians and Taiwanese themselves. But one notes that Taiwanese support for Ukraine has sometimes been with the intention of diplomatic signaling, in indicating alignment with western powers against Russia and China.
This phenomenon can also be observed regarding eastern European countries such as Lithuania or central European countries such as Czechia’s support for Taiwan. Seeing as the most direct geopolitical threat faced by these countries comes from Russia, support for Taiwan through diplomatic visits or vaccine donations from these countries at a time before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was likely intended to signal alignment with the US and western powers against Russia.
Yet one notes that MAGA Republicans are increasingly critical of how long the war in Ukraine has gone on and they have started arguing for strengthening support for Taiwan while decreasing support for Ukraine. The relation between the two, then, is framed as a zero-sum issue, in spite of the fact that Ukraine and Taiwan have very different defense needs and support for one does not necessarily mean decreasing support for the other.
As with Ukraine though, it is probable that MAGA Republicans and their political travelers would turn against Taiwan if there was the view that Taiwan does not do enough for its own defense and instead costs off of the US. Indeed, Taiwan has always faced the danger of the US considering it a “free rider” that fails to do enough to protect itself. And while the Tsai administration took the political risk of increasing the length of the military draft, it is unknown whether this will satisfy the US. Apart from the emphasis on asymmetric warfare, there may also be the demand for further increases in Taiwan’s military budget. Recent comments by Elbridge Colby, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, calling for sanctioning Taiwan for not doing enough for its own defense are illustrative–never mind the increase in the length of the draft.
It is probable, then, that the Tsai administration and hypothetical future pan-Green administrations will try and act so as to convince the US of the relative importance of Taiwan, as well as attempt to avoid the view of Taiwan as a free rider. One expects to see emphasis on civilian-led civil defense efforts, for example, as a sign of how Taiwan is taking steps to be prepared precisely because of the fact that they are self-organized by the public and do not require negotiations with government stakeholders. Otherwise, the Tsai administration or future pan-Green administrations are likely to try and elevate incentives for US economic development in Taiwan, having already taken politically risky moves such as lifting long-standing barriers on US pork imports and allowing for the construction of a TSMC fab in Arizona. In this sense, pressure is being applied to Taiwan to prove itself useful to the US’ interests.