Taiwanese reject China's 'Afghanistan today, Taiwan tomorrow' narrative, explained

They say Taiwan is theirs to defend.

Kayla Wong | August 20, 2021, 03:34 AM

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The United States has pulled out of Afghanistan, resulting in the Taliban militant group taking hold of all major cities, including the capital Kabul, in a matter of days.

International headlines and social media have been flooded with graphic images and footage of local Afghans trying to flee the country, clinging onto airplanes that were leaving the airport runway, with disastrous consequence -- at least two persons had reportedly fallen to their deaths after the plane took off.

The decision to leave wasn't new.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump had raised the idea several times before.

And while U.S. President Joe Biden's administration wasn't the one that ordered an invasion of the war-torn state in the first place, his decision to leave without putting in place contingency plans that allow for safe evacuations has been criticised as a failure.

Defending his decision, Biden said in a Monday speech (Aug. 16) that the U.S.' "true strategic competitors, China and Russia, would love nothing more than the U.S. to continue to funnel billions of dollars in resources and attention into stabilising Afghanistan indefinitely".

Taiwan compared to Afghanistan after U.S. pullout

China has used the chance to comment on what they saw as a lack of American credibility towards its allies, such as Ukraine, Japan, and South Korea.

In addition, China has cast doubt on the U.S.' commitment to Taiwan, which it sees as an inalienable part of its territory.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying, speaking at a regular press conference on Aug. 17, said the Afghanistan war shows that the U.S. shouldn't "interfere in other countries' internal affairs".

The language used here is the same as what Beijing has frequently used when referring to the Taiwan issue.

Hawkish Chinese media outlet Global Times (GT) has further added to Beijing's rhetoric, writing in an op-ed that the situation in Afghanistan has "worried some in the island of Taiwan and sounded a warning bell to secessionists there, as it's not the first time the U.S. has abandoned its allies and the so-called alliances".

"Is this some kind of omen of Taiwan's future fate?" GT wrote in another op-ed. "This has dealt a heavy blow to the credibility and reliability of the U.S."

Following these spate of editorials, Beijing stepped up its military exercises around Taiwan, carrying out assault drills near the island on Aug. 17, which sent a signal to both the U.S. and Taiwan.

Besides warning Taiwan, Beijing's purpose is to use Afghanistan as "a tool" to further strengthen "U.S.-in-decline narratives" in order to "elicit confidence" in China, especially at a time when the regional environment has become "less favourable to China's interests", The Japan Times reported Stephen Nagy, a senior associate professor at Tokyo-based International Christian University, as saying.

Such comparisons were made by several Western commentators and U.S. politicians as well, including Republican congressman Michael Waltz, who tweeted that he would be "terrified" should he be in Taiwan right now.

Taiwan says it mustn't rely on external powers to defend itself

Taiwan, however, had soundly rejected such a comparison.

In response to the comparison, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen took to Facebook on Aug. 18 to express the importance of not relying on any external power for its own defence.

"Taiwan’s only choice is to make itself stronger, more united, more resolved to defend itself," she said.

This view was shared by many Taiwanese social media users, who agreed that they have to be the ones to defend the island.

Kolas Yotaka, spokesperson of Taiwan's presidential office, further said the comparison is "lazy", and ignores the "realities of both countries".

Speaking out on the matter as well is Taiwanese Premier Su Tseng-chang, who said Taiwan wouldn't collapse like Afghanistan in the event of an attack, Reuters reported.

When asked if Tsai or himself would flee if "the enemy was at the gates" like in Afghanistan, Su said the Taiwanese people had feared neither arrest nor death when Taiwan was a dictatorship under martial law.

He further rejected the notion that Taiwan's defence is highly reliant on the U.S., saying, "What happened in Afghanistan showed that if a country is in internal chaos, no outside help would make a difference, and Taiwanese have to believe in their land and that they can defend it."

The view that Taiwan has to defend itself is found across the political spectrum too.

Chairman of opposition party Kuomintang (KMT) Johnny Chiang took to Facebook to say that any government which crawls to others and lacks preparedness risks being overthrown, adding that the KMT will not let Taiwan follow in Afghanistan's footsteps if it's in charge of Taiwan.

The U.S., like many other countries, does not have formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan, but is its largest international supporter and arms supplier.

While it hasn't made any promises to defend Taiwan in the event of an armed conflict, it's expected to help strengthen Taiwan's self-defence capabilities under the Taiwan Relations Act.

Still, its ambiguity about defending Taiwan has contributed to lasting doubts among the Taiwanese on whether the U.S. would come to the island's aid in the event of a Chinese attack.

Taiwanese who reject the comparison

Taiwanese social media users have voiced their opinions on the matter too.

Despite many Taiwanese who truly feared that Taiwan could become the "next Afghanistan", several others expressed the opposite, voicing out against what they thought was a highly flawed comparison between two entities that are vastly different.

Commenting that the two are "not even alike in any manner", a Taiwanese Twitter user said, "Which part of the present Taiwanese government resembles the Afghan government? Are there American troops in Taiwan?"

Another said that those who buy easily into the narrative that "Today's Afghanistan is tomorrow's Taiwan" are defeatists:

"I don't wish to comment anymore on 'Taiwan is the next Afghanistan' as most people who believe in this are defeatists, and if I may say, they mostly consist of those from the Kuomintang (KMT). Since 1949, they've kept whining that the U.S. had abandoned them, and when the U.S. broke formal diplomatic ties with the Republic of China during the KMT's rule, those who escaped to the U.S. were also from the KMT.

For the last 30 years, the Taiwanese people have built and established democracy by themselves, and it was never because of such a sense of defeatism."

Foreign pundits weigh in

American analysts and pundits have weighed in on the issue too, with many flat-out rejecting the comparison.

Stephen Young, former director at the Taipei Office of the American Institute in Taiwan -- the U.S.' de facto embassy -- told Central News Agency that both places have "significant differences".

He pointed out that while there is bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress to remain committed to Taiwan, such consensus on Afghanistan could not be found.

Dubbed the "endless war", the U.S.' occupation of Afghanistan had contributed to the deaths of thousands of Americans, as well as local Afghan civilians.

It is highly unpopular among the American public, and there is bipartisan consensus on the U.S. withdrawal.

Bonnie Glaser, an analyst at the German Marshall Fund of the U.S., echoed the same sentiment, saying that Taiwan and Afghanistan "could not be more different".

She added that if any comparison is to be made, it's that "the U.S. is likely to devote at least as much blood and treasure to Taiwan, if not more".

Nevertheless, some analysts believe that there are real lessons for Taiwan to be learnt from what happened with Afghanistan.

Chen Dingding, a professor of international relations at Guangzhou-based Jinan University, opined that the implications for Taiwan are "real" as the U.S. withdrawal showed that it "will abandon its ally when its national interests are no longer served by the ally".

U.S. vows to remain committed to Taiwan

In response to Chinese assertions that the U.S. would abandon Taiwan to safeguard itself, the U.S. has vowed to remain committed to Taiwan.

National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said on Aug. 17 that the situations in both Afghanistan and Taiwan are different, adding that the U.S.' commitments to its allies are "sacrosanct", Bloomberg reported.

"We believe our commitment to Taiwan and to Israel remains as strong as it's ever been," he said.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki also reiterated that the U.S. stands by its partners around the world "who are subject to this kind of propaganda that Russia and China are projecting", adding that they will "deliver on those words with actions".

Top image via Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images & Tsai Ing-wen/Facebook

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