Following the withdrawal of the U.S. forces from Afghanistan and the Taliban's abrupt takeover of Kabul, Chinese commentators rushed online to draw comparisons between Taiwan and Kabul on social media. Many questioned whether the United States could be a reliable ally in withstanding potential Chinese military efforts to ‘unify’ with Taiwan. But as some pointed out online, the analogy is misleading.
Taiwan became an autonomous state after the ruling party of the Republic of China (ROC), the Kuomintang, also known as the China National Party, fled the continent in 1949 upon its defeat in the Chinese Civil War. Despite Taiwan's autonomy, the People's Republic of China (PRC), under the leadership of the Chinese Community Party (CCP), has long upheld a ‘One China Policy’ which asserts that Taiwan and mainland China are inalienable parts of a single ‘China.’ In recent years, China has maintained that it will not rule out military operations to unify with Taiwan.
To withstand Beijing’s political pressure, Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen has reached out to other countries to build diplomatic alliances, citing the United States as a key ally. The United States has adopted a strategically ambiguous policy regarding Taiwan since 1979. However, former President Donald Trump's administration loosened restrictions on the official U.S.-Taiwan relationship. Over the last two years, the U.S. dispatched warships across the Taiwan Straits and recently landed U.S. military aircraft in Taipei, which many viewed as a signal that the U.S. wants to strengthen diplomatic ties with Taiwan.
Against such a background, criticisms about the messy withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan have stirred anxiety in Taiwan, as many have questioned whether the U.S. is still capable of protecting and supporting its allies.
Pro-China unification politician and the Chairman of Broadcasting Corp of China Jaw Shaw-kong was among the first to use the Taiwan-Afghanistan analogy to question Tsai’s diplomatic alliance with the U.S. on Facebook on August 15:
In Taiwan, very few have paid attention to the future of Afghanistan. Under the democratic progressive party’s paralyzing policy, the majority of Taiwanese are not aware that what has happened in Afghanistan may happen in Taiwan. […] The CCP is unpredictable, the U.S. is unreliable, we have to depend on ourselves. The right choice is peace rather than war. If we choose war, we have to get prepared. But is Taiwan well-prepared for the war? If Taiwan doesn't want to become Afghanistan, we have to think hard about the choice between peace and war. How to make peace? How to fight a war? We can’t just hang on to the U.S. for protection and expect we will be safe forever…
If Tsai wants a war, she has to restore the mandatory enlistment for military service […], turn all civilians into soldiers and equip Taiwan with more advanced weapons. Or how could we resist China? I want to ask Tsai Ing-wen, if you face a scenario like Afghanistan, you would choose to fight until the end or take a flight and flee so that the civilians don't have to face a war?
Jaw’s view spread widely on Facebook and Weibo, and within days many had weighed in on the comparison. For example, Taiwanese politician Lei Chien said, ‘Taiwan is less important than Afghanistan,’ implying the U.S. will abandon Taiwan if China launched a military attack. International relations scholar Huang Jie-jeng also questioned America's determination to back Taiwan in a hypothetical invasion from China.
In response to the discussion, Taiwan Premier Su Tseng-chang rebuked the comparison and slammed Jaw for ‘emboldening the enemies':
Taiwan has gone through authoritarian rule under the KMT. During the martial law period, we were not afraid of being imprisoned or slaughtered and we fought our way to democracy. Today, China threatens to annex Taiwan. Likewise, we are not afraid of being imprisoned or slaughtered, we have to protect our country and our land. Unlike those who keep emboldening the enemies and spreading self-defeating sentiments.
In mainland China, state-run news outlet Global Times used Jaw's analogy to warn Taiwan:
China’s Global Times warns Taiwan that the US will abandon it, like it did Aghanistan, “once war breaks out” (not “if”). “The island's defense will collapse in hours and the US military won't come to help.” https://t.co/645lYRBCYm
— Liz Sly (@LizSly) August 16, 2021
The Global Times further discredited U.S. credibility in overseas military interventions:
Many people cannot help but recall how the Vietnam War ended in 1975: The US abandoned its allies in South Vietnam; Saigon was taken over; then the US evacuated almost all its citizens in Saigon. And in 2019, US troops withdrew from northern Syria abruptly and abandoned their allies, the Kurds.
But Wang Hao, a Taiwanese writer on international affairs, invited others to read the news from a different angle:
Many people are talking about the U.S. abandoning China in 1949, abandoning Vietnam in 1975, and abandoning Afghanistan in 2021. But in 1949, Stalin did not anticipate China splitting up with the USSR 10 years later; in 1975, Mao Zedong did not anticipate the Sino-Vietnamese War 4 years later; what does Xi Jinping not foresee in 2021?
Independent journalist Melissa Chan countered the political analogy with views taken from law professor Donald Clarke and foreign relation expert Andrew Small:
… In my conversation with @ajwsmall (will post soon!), he also points out that Asia powers might even welcome US withdrawal because it means it can refocus on security in the Indo-Pacific.
— Melissa Chan (@melissakchan) August 16, 2021
More importantly, as pointed out by some Taiwanese journalists, the comparison is very misleading as it suggests that the U.S. still has troops based in Taiwan. However, the fact is — the U.S. withdrew all troops from Taiwan back in 1979, yet the country still stands independent today.