It is often said that if China attacked Taiwan, the majority of Taiwanese would choose not to fight rather than defend their country from external aggression, the main argument being that the “mainlanders” in the Taiwanese military would be disinclined to turn their weapons on their “brothers.”
Such assumptions about Taiwan’s will to fight deserve further scrutiny, as their validity have serious ramifications for U.S. security assistance to Taiwan and stability within the region. To assess whether those assumptions do indeed reflect Taiwanese proclivities, it is essential to examine the factors that fuel such a line of argument.
The first and most often cited reason is that Taiwanese and Chinese are ultimately all Han Chinese, or, at a minimum, they share common ancestors. On the surface, Taiwanese and Chinese do look alike; most share a common language; they often prey to the same Gods; are both shaped by Confucian traditions; and Taiwanese ancestry often finds its roots in China.
This leads directly to the second oft-given factor, that conflict in the Taiwan Strait is but the continuation of the Chinese civil war that pitted Communist and Nationalist forces before, during, and after World War II, and which led to the exodus of about 2 million Nationalists to Taiwan after their defeat in 1949. While the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek may have had U.S. backing and the advantage in terms of military might, the balance of power has since shifted, so much so that consanguineous relatives in the Taiwanese military may have become loath to risk their lives for the “losing” side. After all, why fight if they are all Chinese and destined to inevitable “reunification” under “one China,” especially now that China is no longer truly communist? Many have also argued that this ethnic and cultural proximity has influenced threat perceptions within the Taiwanese military by blurring the lines between allies and enemies. Repeated cases of espionage, or the passing of classified military intelligence to China by members of Taiwan’s armed forces, tend to be explained along those lines, especially as the upper echelons of the military continue to be dominated by the Nationalists or their descendents — in other words, the Chinese who fled to Taiwan with Chiang.
However, the socio-ethnic similarities only go so far. While it is true that Taiwan became home to large numbers of Chinese from the 17th century onwards, with major waves in the late 1700s and again between 1947 and 1949; starting in prehistoric times the island was inhabited by aborigines who spoke Austranesian languages. Furthermore, it went through periods of Dutch and Spanish rule, and after 1895, became part of the Japanese empire. In other words, from a purely genetic perspective, Taiwanese differ markedly from the Chinese.
Ethnicity and genetics have little to do with this, though, and if one is to understand contemporary Taiwan, a racial-based view of the situation is not only misleading but in fact dangerous. Taiwanese nationalism, such as it is, is much more the result of social factors than biology. Its identity as an island-nation stems from the various waves of external rule that have shaped its people, along with the ability of Taiwanese to adopt and adapt various exogenous mores and practices to make them indigenous. Yes, Taiwanese share many cultural, social, and religious memes with the Chinese, but their identity is equally the result of their exposure to, and absorption of, aborigine, Dutch, Spanish, French, Japanese and Western influences, made all the more possible by the compactness of its geography and its physical separation from the Asian continent.
In the political sphere, unlike China, Taiwan shed one-party rule and authoritarianism, and developed into a vibrant, oftentimes rowdy, democracy, with freedom of the press and assembly. Such accomplishments were made not by “pure” Taiwanese alone, but also the millions of people on the island who identify as Chinese or “mainlander.” Aide from a very small minority who support unification with China, all 23 million people in Taiwan regard it as their home and would not, under any circumstances, turn back the clock on liberalization and democracy.
How, then, does this affect the will to fight among Taiwanese? Would the armed forces be a house divided, with those who identify as Taiwanese picking up arms while the “mainlanders” leave their positions, or perhaps even side with the Chinese? History shows us that in several instances, the ideological forces arising from one’s identification with country and nation will have precedence over ethnicity or religion.
No recent conflict highlights this reality better than the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988. In it, the leadership on both sides launched invasions of their neighbor on the assumption that groups there with which they shared ethnicity or religion would welcome them as liberators and side with invading forces. Before launching the invasion of Iran, for instance, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had banked on Khuzistani Arabs in Iran to side with him against Tehran; instead, Iraqi forces were met with spirited resistance from them. Similarly, once the fortunes of war had turned against Baghdad and Ayatollah Khomeini ordered an invasion of Iraq to unseat the Baathist regime, Tehran assumed that Iraqi Shias, who formed a majority in Iraq, would fight alongside their co-religionists against Baghdad’s Sunni minority. There again, nationalism trumped other considerations, and such support did not materialize (Tehran had better luck with the Kurds in northern Iraq).
While the Iran-Iraq War is an imperfect analogy for the situation in Taiwan, it nevertheless forces us to revisit the assumption that Taiwanese — especially those who identify as Nationalists or “mainlanders” — would not fight Chinese invaders. With few exceptions, almost every member of the armed forces today was born in Taiwan. The effect of one’s identification with land and nation cannot be ignored, even among those who are direct descendants of Chinese who fled across the Taiwan Strait in 1949. All, regardless of their “ethnic” identification, are the result of, and were shaped by, the idiosyncratic social forces that prevail in Taiwan, such as its culture and democratic way of life. Consequently, few are those who, when the abstracts of hostility are replaced by the harsh realities of war, would willingly abandon Taiwan, let alone refuse to fight for what makes it their home.
In the end, there is little doubt that once bombs and missiles, however precise, began raining down on Taiwan, killing family members, friends, and neighbors, most Taiwanese would rally round the flag. And that flag bears one white sun, not five yellow stars.