International tourism was probably the worst hit industry by the COVID-19 pandemic. But one type of tourism has unexpectedly flourished over the past two years: political visits to and from Taiwan. Politicians from all over the “free world” – ranging from those important positions to those retired after political defeats and little-known politicians without much influence – have concluded that Taiwan needs to be supported against the “communist” menace across the Taiwan Strait and the best way they can do this is through… a visit.
Taiwanese politicians, not really used to but aching for intense diplomatic activity and international recognition, have welcomed them with open arms and engaged in return visits of their own.
Unfortunately, many of these visits aren’t really about Taiwan, but about the visitors and their position toward China. It shouldn’t be surprising that interest in Taiwan has risen in tandem with greater criticism and opposition to Beijing over the past few years, especially since the pandemic began.
This wouldn’t be a problem, if it were helpful to Taiwan. But that’s not the case, as these visits increase the risk of precisely the threat they are supposed to somehow counter: a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) invasion.
Political visits to Taiwan are based on the argument that such political and diplomatic engagement will deter China from an invasion, because they show that Taiwan has the firm backing of Western allies. They are supposed to convey the assurance that any Chinese invasion will lead to devastating sanctions, a flood of military aid to Taiwan, or even direct military intervention by countries such as the United States.
But that’s not how things are perceived in Beijing. To China’s leaders, instead of a deterrent, such visits are seen as humiliating slights and provocative attempts to change the status quo, by integrating Taiwan into the international community as a normal, sovereign country and Western ally. Academically, it might matter whether this interpretation is or isn’t correct, but in the practice of foreign policy, the only thing that matters is that some powerful people see things this way.
Viewed from Beijing, Taiwan has become more active in international affairs and more daring in its political behavior. It also matters that Beijing sees Taiwan engaging with what it considers to be “small countries.” Chinese leaders, many of whom believe there is an international hierarchy of power, are used to ordinary slights from the world’s hegemon and their primary adversary, the United States. They are less inclined to accept disrespect from “small countries,” which should “know their place” in this order. It’s one thing to be bullied by the well-built school bully and another to be bullied by school kids half your age.
Therefore, instead of deterring China by raising the costs of an invasion, such visits in fact increase this risk, because they create a nefarious incentive for it. The more frequent and high-level the visits and the more active Taiwan becomes in international affairs, the thornier and more pressing the “Taiwan issue” becomes for Beijing. While China might not have a very clear timeline in mind for taking over Taiwan, it largely can afford to wait because Taiwan isn’t a pressing problem and time is perceived to be on China’s side. If, on the other hand, Beijing believes that Taiwan is increasing its international space and inching closer to being a normal country, even without a formal declaration of independence, it will have an incentive to strike earlier, before the perceived status quo changes completely.
If Chinese leaders feel that Taiwan is getting out of their hands and causing them headaches, they might be more likely to act aggressively earlier, instead of waiting longer. And over the past two years, it’s been pretty clear that Beijing is increasingly annoyed by Taiwan and its engagement with the West, which only complicates the already dangerous situation Taiwan finds itself in.
This is why the trend of flashy visits to Taiwan isn’t just unhelpful, but counterproductive and dangerous, and, thus, needs to stop. What Taiwan needs are better defenses, not more frequent handshakes and warmer hugs. In the meantime, China’s military modernization and expansion continue apace, as do its military activities around Taiwan. This is what the West should be focusing on, instead of political tourism.
Taiwan’s most important problem isn’t that it is not recognized as a normal, independent, sovereign country. Ukraine is widely recognized as an independent country, and it has been invaded. Kyiv has become a mecca for foreign politicians over the past six months, yet hundreds of Ukrainians, soldiers, and civilians, are still being killed by Russian forces every day. Taiwan’s problem is that it too might be invaded, and political meetings or international rhetorical support will not deter that.
Visits to Taiwan won’t strengthen deterrence because they cannot convince Chinese leaders of U.S. resolve to fight for Taiwan’s defense regardless of costs. This is a problem often ignored in the debate about U.S. commitment, like arguments to abandon “strategic ambiguity.” Let’s get past the fact that Chinese leaders believe Washington will come to Taiwan’s defense. But how do you convince Beijing that the democratic U.S. is willing to weather devastating economic costs and sacrifice tens of thousands of Americans in a war for a faraway place, a war which might even reach the nuclear threshold? That is the real dilemma, and it’s more difficult than simply signaling an interest to intervene, through limited military engagement.
The fact that some politicians today express commitment for Taiwan through visits means nothing when nobody knows whether a future U.S. president will believe – as Donald Trump reportedly did – that Taiwan is like the tip of a Sharpie compared to China as the Resolute Desk.
Countless European and American leaders have trekked to Kyiv over the past few months, but there are no Western troops on Ukrainian soil. Leaders in Europe and the U.S. are afraid of a direct confrontation with a nuclear-armed great power.
And the idea that knowledge of commitment automatically leads to restraint is also flawed. True, Russian leaders probably misjudged the West’s commitment to Ukraine when they decided to invade, in February. But that commitment became crystal clear in just a few days, yet Russian troops are still fighting on Ukrainian soil, six months after the Kremlin clearly understood just how committed the West is. Regardless of numerous opportunities to end the war, it still goes on, showing just how much Western commitment, expressed through visits, aid, or sanctions, matters to nationalistic, authoritarian leaders with territorial ambitions and an appetite for vengeance for perceived past slights and disrespect against them and their country.
When it comes to preventing an invasion, visits don’t help because Beijing’s calculus is based on other factors, ranging from the military balance of power, to the balance of commitment for Taiwan between China and the United States, or public perceptions regarding intervention in foreign wars in the United States and its Western allies. The fact that some Westerners profess their friendship toward Taiwan simply does not figure in this calculus, in the sense of enhancing deterrence. On the other hand, the perception that Taiwan is being used by “foreign hostile forces” to contain China’s rise likely plays a role in Beijing’s calculus.
But there is a simple counterargument to the proposal of toning down visits to Taiwan: We cannot let authoritarian bullies tell us what to do, because that would show weakness and weakness invites aggression. We can’t placate Beijing, but must stand up to the aggressor, by traveling to Taiwan, if that’s what we want to do.
Yet the argument that “we can’t let a bully tell us where we can’t go” doesn’t make much sense. If you ever hear it from somebody, take that person to a beach with a big “Danger: Shark zone” sign and ask them if they will let a bullying shark decide where they can or can’t swim. If everybody lived by the maxim “I do whatever I want, regardless of risks or costs,” there would be far fewer people on planet Earth. This isn’t about appeasement, or fear, or weakness, but about sensibly avoiding needlessly dangerous situations, while focusing on what is important.
The irony is that, in the end, it won’t be Western politicians who will get bitten if they swim in shark-infested waters. Foreign politicians might come to Taiwan, but they will, inevitably, always leave. It is the 23 million people who call Taiwan home, who do not have either the opportunity nor the desire to leave, who will have to suffer the consequences of an enraged Beijing, not necessarily now, but in the future. It won’t be foreign politicians fighting on the beaches if PLA troops one day land.
If it were true that such foreign visits will undeniably instill of sense of fear and dread in the hearts and minds of Chinese leaders, they would be worth it. But it might be nice, for once, to imagine that Chinese leaders are actual human beings, driven by emotions, just as much as reason. They feel things like humiliation, pride, anger, hatred, and a desire to avenge or punish perceived disrespect. And for people as arrogant as some in the halls of power in Beijing are, it is profoundly humiliating that all ranks of Western politicians, from the obscure to the obsolete, have, over the past two years, descended upon Taipei, successfully showcasing Beijing’s impotence as it proved unable to prevent these visits. Each delegation, from Lithuanian to American politicians, brought more perceived shame for some in the Beijing leadership.
These visits don’t bring any increase in security or welfare for Taiwan, but do increase risks. They do not strengthen deterrence, but might provoke aggressiveness. After all, Chinese President Xi Jinping once claimed that “in the West you have the notion that if somebody hits you on the left cheek, you turn the other cheek. In our culture, we punch back.”
But there are other actions that can really help Taiwan and reduce the risk of invasion. For example, because Taiwan’s budget is quite limited and, therefore, there are only so many weapons it can buy, billions of dollars in foreign aid would help Taipei redirect some money from domestic needs toward its military budget and defense industry. This sort of spending would also be far less provocative, because the West would provide money for schools and hospitals, not submarines and rockets.
If, one day, Beijing decides to invade Taiwan, it should be obvious that the PLA will not be stopped by rousing speeches or firm handshakes. It will be stopped on and beneath the sea, in the air, on the beaches, in the cities, by brave soldiers, from Taiwan or maybe from the U.S., Japan, or other countries, fighting a tragic, deadly war. But Taiwan’s friends must do anything they can to avoid such a scenario. Taiwan could never “win” a war with China, but only survive it, at immeasurable costs.
Instead of visiting Taipei, Western politicians can play a far more important role by visiting their own constituents and spending countless hours explaining to them, so they won’t fall prey to propaganda, where Taiwan is, what Taiwan is, the intricacies of the cross-strait situation and why Taiwan matters. Leaders should try to convince voters affected by the high cost of living, sometimes driven by feelings of isolationism or nationalism or simply lack of knowledge about faraway issues, that Taiwan is worth spending dozens of billions to defend, whether in direct aid or in the costs of sanctions – or that Taiwan will even be worth the sacrifices of American lives.
Sure, this is a more difficult task than taking a free trip. It is also politically far riskier (and more courageous) to propose and vote for bills that appropriate billions in aid for a highly developed society in a time of persistently high inflation and recessionary worries at home. But this will be far more useful than political visits, which do nothing to strengthen deterrence or Taiwan’s defenses.
The West must always remember that the greatest problem isn’t that Taiwan doesn’t have many embassies abroad, that Taiwan isn’t a member of the WHO, or that Taiwanese athletes need to compete under the “Chinese Taipei” banner. That problem is that one day Taiwan might be invaded and conquered, with incalculable human suffering, by the second most powerful, or maybe by then the most powerful, military in the world. That is the problem that needs to be addressed, and visits will never solve it. On the contrary, they needless complicate it by attracting Beijing’s anger.
The risk of these political visits is twofold. The first, most obvious risk is that these visits will bring forward the timeline when Beijing will judge it has no other option than military means and that solving the “Taiwan issue” sooner involves fewer costs, including political, emotional, honor, and status costs, than delaying action to wait for a more favorable balance of power. The second risk is that the West will bask in its belief that it is clearly signaling commitment to Taiwan and thus strengthening deterrence, and avoid the hard choices and costly actions that are necessary in order to really enhance Taiwan’s security. Those will take political hard work at home, not trips abroad.
Taiwan will not be defended and China will not be deterred though visits, handshakes, smiling photos and inspirational speeches, but by reducing the great and growing gap in the balance of power across the Taiwan Strait. Unless the West understands this, Taiwan will remain mostly on its own, falling behind a China dead set on achieving its territorial and nationalistic goals.