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Afghanistan’s Collapse: The View From Taiwan

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Afghanistan’s Collapse: The View From Taiwan

How are Taiwan’s various political players interpreting the U.S. withdrawal, and the subsequent fall of Kabul?

Afghanistan’s Collapse: The View From Taiwan
Credit: Facebook/ Tsai Ing-wen

The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, followed by the fall of much of the country to the Taliban, led to strong responses in Taiwan. The pan-Blue and pan-Green camps have fought over the meaning of the withdrawal for Taiwan along the lines of their respective political agendas. The Kuomintang (KMT) or Nationalist Party, currently in opposition, is the major party in the Blue camp, while the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) of the Green bloc holds the presidency and a majority in the Legislative Yuan.

Media personality Jaw Shaw-kong, who is viewed as an ideological hardliner, was among the more strident of prominent KMT members. Jaw cast doubt on the likelihood of the U.S. defending Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion, emphasizing that the U.S. is not a reliable ally. In comments on Facebook, Jaw cited past statements by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken affirming the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan, suggesting that the United States similarly could not be trusted when it came to its statements on Taiwan.

Other comments by prominent KMT leaders have raised historical comparisons. Johnny Chiang, who is currently campaigning for reelection as KMT party chair, brought up the United States’ withdrawal of troops from Taiwan in the 1970s, following the U.S. switching recognition from the Republic of China (the formal name of Taiwan) to the People’s Republic of China. While he stated that he did not see the ROC as being the same as Afghanistan, Chiang likely intended to suggest the fundamental unreliability of the United States through this comparison.

Former New Taipei mayor Eric Chu, who is Chiang’s major opponent in the upcoming KMT chair elections and a former party chair, rejected comparisons between the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the KMT’s withdrawal to Taiwan from China. Chu stated that without the KMT’s actions in 1949, there would be no Taiwan, probably also hoping to drive home the point that the KMT could be counted on to protect Taiwan – unlike the United States.

In this sense, one can understand the strong emphasis by KMT leaders such as Jaw, Chiang, and Chu on commemorating the August 23 anniversary of the start of the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1958. Through this historical commemoration, the KMT is hoping to tout its record of defending Taiwan, in light of concerns about Taiwan’s national security following events in Afghanistan.

Interestingly, in the past, both Chiang and Chu were originally seen as more moderate party leaders – and, in fact, more pro-American ones. Chiang became the youngest party chair in KMT history in March 2020, claiming that he would change the party’s image to win back the support of young people alienated by the KMT’s pro-China leanings. He even proposed dropping support for the 1992 Consensus.

Chiang later reversed course after internal resistance in the party, with the party reaffirming support for the 1992 Consensus at its September 2020 party congress. Yet under Chiang, the KMT legislative caucus nonetheless surprised in October 2020 with a proposal to seek formal relations between the ROC and the U.S., which the DPP signed onto in a rare show of bipartisanship. Similarly, while competing for the KMT’s presidential nomination for the 2020 elections, Chu had attacked competitors such as Terry Gou for being too reliant on China.

That being said, the KMT’s views have hardened in the last few years, with the party leaning hard into ROC nationalism during the course of Han Kuo-yu’s 2020 presidential run. Han’s campaign emphasized the claim that the DPP intended to do away with the ROC through a push for Taiwanese independence. With this shift, Chiang and Chu have been pushed toward more hardline views as well, including more openly expressing skepticism of the United States. Following the Afghanistan withdrawal, the KMT is now calling for a return to the 1992 Consensus to maintain stable cross-strait relations with China, given that the U.S. cannot be counted on.

The DPP and pan-Green camp, then, have sought to drive home the point that Taiwan and Afghanistan cannot be compared. Likewise, members of the pan-Green bloc have reacted against the KMT’s historical narrative of the party as having always been a steadfast defender of Taiwan, in consideration of the killings conducted by the KMT during the decades-long White Terror period. Independent city councilor Lin Yin-meng, a youth activist turned politician who was elected into office following the 2014 Sunflower Movement, was among those who lashed out at the KMT by asserting that the party viewed itself as the proud conqueror of Taiwan.

Legislator Liu Shih-fang, the director of the DPP’s legislative caucus, criticized the KMT’s comparison of Taiwan and Afghanistan as politically motivated in seeking to sabotage Taiwan-U.S. relations. DPP legislative caucus secretary-general Lo Chih-cheng similarly accused the KMT of seeking to create the misleading perception internationally that the Taiwanese public is universally skeptical of the U.S. following events in Afghanistan.

On the other hand, President Tsai Ing-wen and Premier Su Tseng-chang have sought to reassure that Taiwan and Afghanistan are different, with the Tsai administration broadly seeking to assure the public of the strength of Taiwan-U.S. ties. An article in The Diplomat by Vincent Chao, the former director of the Political Division of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the U.S., can be seen as another salvo in the discursive war regarding the issue. Chao called for Taiwan’s participation in the upcoming Summit for Democracy to indicate the importance of the United States’ relation with Taiwan.

Significantly, Tsai and Su both emphasized the need for Taiwan to pursue self-reliance as, at the end of the day, only Taiwan can be counted on to defend itself. This was used to criticize the KMT, with the argument that the party sought to lower the morale of Taiwanese so that they would not be motivated to defend themselves against China. It’s worth noting that Tsai also referenced the Second Taiwan Straits Crisis in her comments. Tsai framed the series of events around the 1958 crisis as an example of Taiwanese people standing up to defend themselves from China, rather than the KMT-led ROC accomplishing this.

Surprisingly enough, Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je, too, has called for greater self-reliance as the lesson that Taiwan should take from Afghanistan. Ko is the leader of the Taiwan People’s Party, which slants pan-Blue in terms of recruiting former members of pan-Blue parties including the KMT and New Party, but rhetorically claims to be beyond pan-Blue and pan-Green distinctions. In practice, this means that the party is “lighter Blue” than the KMT, as the party is more moderate but can still be considered part of the pan-Blue camp

In this sense, both pan-Blue and pan-Green politicians alike have at least rhetorically called for self-reliance, though for the KMT this is phrased as self-reliance by the ROC, and the DPP has phrased this as self-reliance by Taiwan. Calls for self-reliance by the DPP and KMT likely mean very different things but may indicate something about current political trends in Taiwan.