The case for Taiwan’s statehood

When Russia invaded Ukraine a few short weeks ago, some people began to worry that China might try to do the same thing with Taiwan. I didn’t worry about this myself, as China is mostly a paper tiger, but also because the US has close military ties with Taiwan. Taiwan has close economic relationships with several wealthy democratic states in East Asia, too. Contrast this geopolitical context with Ukraine, and the parallels, while tempting, do not add up.

The whole debate and worry over Taiwan got me thinking again about federation as a libertarian foreign policy. Why shouldn’t Taiwan just join the United States? Here are the most common objections to such a federation:

Geography. This is probably one of the strongest cases against Taiwan joining the US, since it’s so far away from not only the mainland but Hawaii, too. Aaaand it’s just off the coast of China, which would likely cause friction with the regional power were Beijing to suddenly find itself neighboring a transoceanic republic.

This is all much ado about nothing. A plane ride from Dallas to Taipei is 14 hours if you take out the layovers. Somebody living in Kaohsiung could send me an email after reading this essay and I could access it within minutes. Geography still matters, but its not an insurmountable barrier to a freer, more open world via the federative principles of the United States constitution.

Culture. A big complaint I see about adding “states” to the American republic is “culture.” Fellow Notewriter Edwin does this all the time, and it can make sense, on the surface, in some cases, but not in Taiwan’s, and not in the Indo-Pacific more generally.

Look at Taiwan’s 2020 presidential election results:

Look familiar? There’s only two colors. It’s a contest between a left-wing and right-wing, and both wings are committed to, and bound by, liberty and democracy. There are no “ethnic” parties, no “religious” parties, and no radical parties, mostly because Taiwan has the same electoral system as the US does: a “first-past-the post” one. So the cultural angle is even weaker than first imagined. Taiwan started out as a nationalist holdout against the Communist Party, but today nationalism doesn’t carry a whole lot of weight. Adding Taiwan to the republic would be like adding another California or Hawaii, albeit with more conservative votes. It’s plausible that adding Taiwan would give Democrats two more reliable seats in the senate, but this is merely cause to invite a polity that would reliably vote Republican to also join the United States.

Self-determination / cultural autonomy. There’s an argument in some circles that joining the US would be akin to losing self-determination and even cultural autonomy. I don’t see how any of this could be true. Even today, people in American states retain a “state-centric” identity when it comes to thinking about their place in the US. That Taiwanese would be able to add “American” to a plethora of other identities already at their disposal could only be a good thing.

China. Would China fight a war against the US over Taiwan statehood? Maybe, but given Russia’s poor showing in Ukraine, the war would end quickly, at least from a Taiwanese statehood perspective. The CCP’s military has no fighting experience, unproven tech, unproven hardware, and…no fighting experience. The worst that would happen, I think, is that the CCP threatens war, maybe sends some warships to the strait, maybe fires some rockets over the island and flies some fighter jets over the island, but that’s about it. The CCP just doesn’t have the muster to fight a war against the United States over Taiwan.

These four objections are so common that I can’t help but be exasperated by their banality, especially given the rich tradition of republican security theory and federalist thought over the past three or four thousand years. There are two reasons for Americans, and especially libertarians, to support Taiwan’s federation with the US:

The free riding problem. The first thing that all libertarians complain about when it comes to “foreign policy” is the free riding problem. This is a problem in political economy where agents will enjoy the benefits of a policy at the expense of other agents who are required to bear the costs. Libertarians aren’t wrong to complain about the free riding problem. It’s a big problem. Think of a Russian attack on NATO ally Lithuania.

Taiwan has a fairly hard guarantee of US military support were the Communist Party of China to attack it. This, the argument goes, allows Taiwan to be a bit more reckless than it otherwise would be when dealing with Beijing. Therefore, according to non-interventionists, the US should simply stop guaranteeing Taiwan’s military security and just trade with the people of the island instead. It would be an awful scenario to face were Taiwan to goad China into attacking it and thus draw the US into a war with China.

Federating would end the free riding problem once and for all. Taiwan’s citizens would be American citizens. They would benefit, and pay the costs, associated with such citizenship.

Sovereignty. Taiwan is not a sovereign nation-state, as China has blocked all of the island’s attempts to become so, and it never will be so long as nation-state status depends upon recognition by large states such as Russia and China (as well as the US). This actually makes it easier for Taiwan to join the republic. The American senate is a tool of international diplomacy that was utilized to bind independent states together in a federal union by trading their sovereignty for seats in a powerful upper house of Congress. Taiwan wouldn’t have to go through the arduous process of debating whether or not its sovereignty is worth the price of admission into a North American federal order, because its status as a Westphalian sovereign nation-state is non-existent.

By incorporating Taiwan into its federal order, the US could revamp the liberal world order, and it could do so by adhering to the principles which made it a beacon for liberty in the first place.

17 thoughts on “The case for Taiwan’s statehood

  1. Ahem, the legal sovereign government of Taiwan (name of the island) is the Republic of China, that was around since 1911 when it rebelled and toppled the Manchurian Dynasty, is alreaady independent. ROC was also allied with US and other western countries during WW2 and even WW1. Some treaties still exist. Please do your legal research/due diligence. Just because of economic and political factors, which caused ROC and ChiangKaiChek to leave their UN seat, doesn’t mean ROC is not a sovereign government.

  2. Republic of China (ROC) is a federalist government somewhat modeled on the United States. Before the Chinese Civil War, it governed numerous provinces of China, one of which was Taiwan. After being defeated by Stalin supported Communist forces, ROC and its Nationalist Party lost all provinces but one – Taiwan, ROC then retreated and moved the seat of government from Nanking to Taipei, Taiwan; the last stronghold of this democratic republic. A rough hypothetical example would be if during the US Civil War, the Northern Union forces after series of defeat lost all of its states to the Southern Confederacy with the exception of the remote state of Maine. The question then becomes not whether Maine could become independent, but rather US, which remains a sovereign government, could reclaim the lost states. Thus, our issue is not whether the province of Taiwan could be independent, but whether the legitimate Republic of China could survive and bring other lost provinces on the mainland back to its fold in the future.

  3. In short, the reason for Chi-com’s persistent aggression against the island of Taiwan/Formosa and its government ROC, is much deeper than mere uniting all the provinces under its red banner or breaking the island chain for its coast bound Navy to reach deeper into the Pacific Ocean… It is the continued existence of the free Republic of China, which the Chi-coms failed to totally vanquish during the Civil War, and the fact that it poses a grave existential threat to the Chinese Communist Party; ROC remains a democratic Chinese government with a longer history, greater legitimacy, and stronger bond with Western nations than the People’s Republic on the mainland. It is a free democratic Chinese alternative to the communist dictatorship. As soon as the Chinese people becomes disillusioned with the communist party and vote for ROC again in the future, potentially it would be back in a jiffy.

  4. As for your notion of statehood for the island of Taiwan/Formosa, it is as fantastical as hoping for a unicorn to shart rainbows and cotton candy gumdrops on Hillary and Michelle. It is also a grave disrespect to a long time ally of ours – the Republic of China. It would not only give Chi-coms a CASUS BELLI, but turn a democratic ally and people against US as well. It would feed the propaganda of all our global enemies proving once and for all that US is indeed an evil imperialist power. Good job.

  5. In the end I leave you with a good humored jest – a quote from an incredible thinker:

    “It’s better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than open it and remove all doubt”

    ― Mark Twain

  6. Woah, LWC, tone it down a bit, would you?

    Federating with Taiwan is not the same thing as annexing it. There’s no imperial aggression here, only cooperation.

    Your point about the old republic is a good one, but that dream — a quaint one from the get-go – died when Nixon made peace with Mao. Small states don’t have sovereignty without recognition from big states.

    • All of us, and particularly LWC, need to deal in reality here. The “Republic of China” as a living, breathing alternative to the CCP on mainland China is a very dead letter, whatever the documentary residue as elucidated by LWC. In 2022 there is no significant lobby for this on Taiwan. By the same token, however, US statehood is indeed annexation by a sovereign federation. US states are not sovereign entities entitled to seats in the UN. To me the best argument for Taiwanese statehood is exactly the same strategic argument that carried the day for Hawaiian statehood: acting on the lesson of Pearl Harbor, thus to confront would-be aggressors against Taiwan with the certainty that an attack on Taiwan would literally be an attack on the United States. Therefore our military would act reasonably to deter such a thing by fortifying our Western frontier, i.e.,Taiwan, as we fortified Hawaii post-World War II. Of course the people of Taiwan would have to signify their agreement with all this by approving statehood–which they might well be less inclined to do, simply by reasoning that if it ain’t broke don’t fix it, if they assess the likelihood of a CCP effort to conquer Taiwan as low. But that’s not realistic; the reality is that Xi is as determined to conquer Taiwan as Putin is to conquer Ukraine; that it’s a really bad idea isn’t going to prevent Xi from trying any more than it prevented Putin. Taiwan and the US need to proceed in light of that certainty.

  7. One of the dumbest articles I ever read and to juxtapose it with libertarianism is just insulting, you are a true blue neoconservative.

    • Lots of name-calling, but no substance. Please, explain your argument.

  8. Brandon with all due respect, your so called “old” republic is alive and well, its demise is much exaggerated. ROC is a functioning “recognized” democracy. It receives military arms from US, Netherlands, France, Germany, and others. Many countries changed the name of their embassies there to “cultural Centers” due to legal loopholes and to avoid losing the large market in mainland China by incurring the wrath of the commie regime there. However, for all intents and purposes, they are embassies. Most importantly, please be more informed and sophisticated by distinguishing the governmental entity the Republic of China from the geographic name or province of Taiwan/Formosa. Both the commie and the democratic governments of China see Taiwan as a province. For US to grant it statehood would be an ignorant disaster. First of all our Constitution requires the residents to vote first. Good luck getting the Chinese/Taiwanese to vote their democracy out of existence in order to become Americans. Again, please be more informed, this article is filled with errors. See Samuel’s Quote supra.

    • I disagree. You’re living in a past that no longer exists, LWC. Taiwan is not a sovereign state, hence the cultural centers. Western states gave money to al-Qaeda in the 1980s, but you wouldn’t call it a sovereign state, would you? Federating with the US would give the people of Taiwan an institutional bulwark to protect themselves against CCP aggression and the fickle American political scene (what happens when another populist is voted into power?). Reminiscing about the past and a republic that no longer exists just isn’t helpful.

  9. BTW, UN is like an old boys club…it does not have the authority to determine if a nation or government is sovereign or not. For a democratic republic like ours or ROC, it is its citizens, not even other nation-states who decide its fate. If you care to look back on our founding , at the beginning not a lot of global powers recognize or even respect our new nation, so we are not independent or sovereign – and our founding fathers should line up at the British gallows since according to your misguided logic without British French or others nation’s approval our Constitution and democracy is just a dream??!! Nonsense.

    • I agree that the UN is an old boys club.

      Powerful polities decide the fate of less powerful polities all the time. That’s why republics had so much trouble taking root up until the advent of the compound republic. The whole point of the war against the British was to force the empire to recognize American sovereignty, and the whole point of the federal republic was to ensure that European states continued to recognize American sovereignty.

      Sovereignty by its very definition requires recognition from outside parties.

  10. The fact that this idea is a political non-starter for both Taiwan and the US is really the end of the discussion — if either country were in fact discussing it, which they’re not.

    But the idea that Taiwan isn’t sovereign — how could you possibly have derived it? Aren’t you aware it’s a nation with its own army, navy and air force? Its own constitutive documents? That it prints its own money, issues its own passports? That it has done all this since before the birth of the Communist Party’s state project, the Chinese Soviet Republic (later renamed the PRC)?

    Taiwan’s people, via their legislature, are the sole authority under God on their own islands, taking orders from no foreign power.

    You cannot get more sovereign than that.

    • The fact that this idea is a political non-starter for both Taiwan and the US is really the end of the discussion

      On the contrary, my friend, this is exactly why more discussion needs to happen.

      It’s true that Taiwan is a de facto state. It’s also true that it’s not a de jure state. That is to say, it’s not a recognized nation-state. It’s why Taiwan doesn’t have an embassy in most (if not all) of the world’s capital cities.

      Taiwan will likely never become a de jure state unless it joins the Philadelphian federal order. This, of course, will mean Taiwan is not sovereign (as it will exchange that sovereignty for seats in the Senate and votes for President) but it will be a de jure state, much in the same way that Utah is a de jure state.

    • Jack,

      Here’s what I wrote:

      It’s plausible that adding Taiwan would give Democrats two more reliable seats in the senate, but this is merely cause to invite a polity that would reliably vote Republican to also join the United States.

Please keep it civil

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s