Can Taiwan Afford to be Neutral between the US and China?

This article first appeared in Taiwan’s Do Post.

In recent years, many friends have suggested that Taiwan could become the Switzerland of East Asia. This is an idea that comes with many risks of its own, and one that I do not believe Taiwan can afford.

Of course, on the base level, there is very little that Switzerland and Taiwan have in common. Switzerland is a landlocked nation at the heart of Western Europe, sharing borders with multiple major nations. Taiwan is an island nation, off China’s shore, looking out into the Pacific Ocean.

Proponents point to Switzerland’s experience with applying the law of neutrality, codified in the Hague Conventions of October 18, 1907. The law states that neutral countries must:

  • refrain from engaging in war

  • ensure its own defense

  • ensure equal treatment for belligerent states in respect of the exportation of war material

  • not supply mercenary troops to belligerent states

  • not allow belligerent states to use its territory

(From official Swiss government website:

In return, presumably enforced by other signatories to the conventions, Switzerland, and other neutral countries, sovereignty and way of life are assured against foreign aggression.

The romanticized notion of Switzerland’s successful escape from invasion during WWII typically points to the power of this international neutrality. In reality, very high mountain ranges and amoral (or immoral) dealings in international finance may have played a more decisive role.

There is nearly an endless list of reasons why Switzerland’s model of neutrality is not available to Taiwan. Practically, in order for the Law of Neutrality to apply, a nation must have universally recognized sovereignty. Switzerland does. Taiwan, unfortunately, does not. In fact, unlike Switzerland, where the distribution of power among neighbors was relatively balanced, Taiwan’s sovereignty is contested by the largest, and nearest, power in the region.

But the fatal blow to this idea is the grim reality that over the entire history of the People’s Republic of China, there is not a single instance of the state being restrained by any international convention from use of force against those deemed to be under its jurisdiction. There are many examples to the contrary. Bottom line: there is no piece of paper capable of protecting the people of Taiwan against Chinese attack, any more than the protections that failed the Tibetan people, the Uyghur people, and the demonstrators in Tiananmen Square.

Given these substantive realities, it is quite risky for Taiwan to even entertain the idea of some form of neutrality between a government intent on takeover and the only other government with sufficient potential to deter your aggressor. In 2019, more than any time in years, China is seen less as an economic opportunity but more so as exploitative and aggressive. Economic modernization has strengthened the authoritarian state rather than moderating and reforming the one-party state.

It is entirely understandable that Taiwan citizens would want to explore all possible options to try to escape having to live under such a persistent threat. The give and take of America’s diplomatic and democratic processes may also raise frustrations and concerns from time to time. But loose talk of neutrality between the US and China, especially at a time when US interests are perceived to be particularly threatened by China, runs the risk of undermining decades of work in building support for Taiwan’s freedom and ability to determine its own future. It is extremely unlikely that Japan would see the situation any differently.

Unfortunately, just the exploration of neutrality may leave Taiwan even more alone in having to come to terms with Beijing. I believe that prospect is something a very large majority of Taiwan’s people would want to avoid.