In the Munich Conference of September 1938, Great Britain and France threw Czechoslovakia to the wolves. In order to appease Adolf Hitler, the Western democracies forced the Czechs to give up the Sudetenland, a heavily fortified region on the border with Germany. This region contained millions of ethnic Germans which Hitler wanted to incorporate into his empire, and the German dictator claimed this would be his “last territorial demand.”
Of course, not long after his “last territorial demand” was satisfied, Hitler invaded and annexed the rest of the country (with the exception of a small Slovak rump state that became a German vassal), and then invaded Poland, starting the deadliest conflict in human history and resulting in at least 60 million deaths. The Western democracies easily could have stopped Hitler at Munich and prevented World War II—we now know that some of Hitler’s top generals were ready to arrest him if the negotiations failed—but instead, cowardice and appeasement won the day.
In the next few years, it is likely that America will find itself in the position that France and Britain were in during the Munich Conference, and we would do well to learn from their mistakes. Only this time, the country facing the threat of annexation will be Taiwan.
Like Czechoslovakia, Taiwan is a small nation, a prosperous democracy, and a balancing force against an aggressive, totalitarian neighbor: Communist China. And as with Czechoslovakia’s fate at Munich, allowing Taiwan to be gobbled up would only embolden China, leading to more aggression, more territorial claims, and, eventually, the outbreak of war.
At the end of the Chinese Civil War between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Kuomintang Nationalist Party in 1949, the Kuomintang fled to Taiwan and ceded mainland China to the Communists. Since then, Taiwan has become a model democracy and a close U.S. partner, though the CCP never gave up its dream of conquering Taiwan under the banner of “reunification.”
One need only to look at China’s recent statements and actions to see their growing belligerence. CCP rhetoric has been growing increasingly truculent: in a 2018 speech, Chinese President Xi Jinping threatened to “fight bloody battle” and refused to “cede a single inch of land” with regard to Taiwan and Hong Kong; in January, 2019, he stated that China “makes no promise to renounce the use of force” against Taiwan; and in May 2020, China vowed to “resolutely smash” any Taiwanese attempt to declare formal independence from China.
The CCP’s words are not just empty rhetoric, and are amply backed by its actions. In the past few years, China has launched a series of military reforms to hone its People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and transform it into a force capable of conducting sustained overseas operations. Beyond that, China has also been consistently provoking Taiwan by violating its airspace with military flyovers, and sailing its ships in the Taiwan Strait.
But why is all of this happening now? After all, China’s dispute with Taiwan goes back decades, and the PLA has previously attacked minor islands around Taiwan without launching a full invasion. So why are the next few years dangerously ripe for another Munich moment?
The CCP hopes to conquer Taiwan soon in order to boost its flagging legitimacy. The Communist Party has traditionally portrayed itself as a guardian of stability and prosperity, both of which have been negatively impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.
Regarding stability: the CCP easily could have stopped the incipient pandemic, but its mismanagement, lies, and silencing of whistleblowers guaranteed that the coronavirus would go global. Their malfeasance has hurt both their international image and their domestic reputation as guardians of stability, and some Chinese citizens are beginning to see through the lies of their regime.
Regarding the economy: earlier this year, the Chinese economy shrunk for the first time in a half century of near constant growth, and though the economy rebounded after the coronavirus-induced panic, its long term prospects still don’t look promising.
With these two pillars of the CCP’s legitimacy severely weakened, the Communists now will likely turn to foreign conquest to bolster their domestic image. Just as Hitler’s conquests were popular in Germany, allowing him to portray himself as the “protector” of Germans living abroad, so does Xi Jinping wish to portray himself as a great “re-unifier” who finally brought Taiwan back into the fold.
The United States should take all of these factors into consideration when it comes to our strategic competition with China. President Donald Trump has been wise so far not to enter into any pointless and harmful foreign conflicts that have no bearing on American national security. He has withdrawn American troops from Syria and Afghanistan, while still effectively safeguarding our national interests: in the past few years and without starting new foreign entanglements, he has managed to eliminate the leader of ISIS, take out Iran’s top terrorist mastermind , and restore U.S. deterrence after the years Obama spent eroding it.
It is in America’s national interest to defend Taiwan because Taiwan will not be China’s “last territorial demand.” The CCP, illegally, has been building and militarizing islands in the South China Sea, has grown increasingly belligerent in territorial disputes with surrounding nations, and repeatedly has coerced many of its neighbors in economic matters. If China takes Taiwan, not only will it gain a territory of great strategic importance, it will also be emboldened to continue in its trajectory of bullying its neighbors and continuously pressing for more and more territorial claims.
But this worst-case scenario doesn’t need to happen. Taiwan is a highly defensible island with a patriotic populace and an advanced, well-motivated, powerful military. It would not be able to survive in a protracted conflict against the Chinese juggernaut, but it would be able to hold out long enough for America to come to its defense.
That is why America must now make clear that any Chinese attack on Taiwan will be met with overwhelming military force, a stance that has never been stated outright by U.S. officials, but only implied. The Taiwan Relations Act which maintains the U.S.-Taiwan relationship only states that America will “maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion” against Taiwan, without committing the United States in any concrete way. When Chinese military officials in 1995 asked Joseph Nye, a high-ranking Defense Department official, about the U.S. reaction to a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan, he responded: “We don’t know and you don’t know; it would depend on the circumstances.”
That answer isn’t good enough, but fortunately there are already more promising signs that Trump is moving to a closer relationship with Taiwan. Trump called Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen in 2016 shortly after his election—the first president or president-elect to do so in decades. Trump also sent his Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar on the highest-level visit to Taiwan in years, has taken strong steps to improve U.S. military readiness, and has been sounding the alarm bell about China for years.
Trump should continue along this path and make it clear that America will defend Taiwan. Any ambiguity will only make the CCP think they can get away with anything, increasing Chinese belligerence and the risk of invasion.
Like Taiwan, Czechoslovakia was also a small nation that could punch above its weight. Czechoslovakia had a ring of fortresses on the border with Germany, the large industrial conglomerate of the Skoda Works, and an efficient military. Had the Czechs decided to fight with French and British support, it’s almost certain Hitler would have lost (if he had not been arrested or assassinated by his generals first). Instead, France and Britain left Czechoslovakia to its fate, hoping the crocodile would eat them last.
Before the Munich Conference, Winston Churchill stated that “the idea that safety can be purchased by throwing a small state to the wolves is a fatal delusion.” China will not stop with Taiwan, and it won’t stop until it becomes the next global hegemon. The only way to prevent Chinese ascendancy and a potential war is to make it clear that we will not accept their bullying.