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Is Taiwan the First Harbinger of the New Order?

It might be, and feminist foreign policy has something to say about it.

Words: Valerie Hudson
Pictures: Tsaiwen Hsu

Imagine you are friends with a woman in a relationship with a partner who is increasingly belligerent toward her. The police say they can’t do anything until he actually harms her, but by then it will be too late. You’ve warned the man not to hurt her, but he laughs. He knows you aren’t going to stop him when it all goes down, because you didn’t the last time he hurt someone.

This situation bears some unnerving similarities to that of Taiwan today. And it may be worthwhile to ask if a gender lens might be important for third-party countries, such as the United States, to adopt in order to effectively address the threat.

The geopolitical predicament of Taiwan has grown more dire after Beijing’s imposition of a new National Security Law on Hong Kong, destroying the autonomy promised after its handover to the People’s Republic of China in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” model. While Hong Kong was always the proving ground for this model, it was developed with Taiwan in mind.

Indeed, Beijing has taken an especially hard line toward Taiwan since Tsai Ing-wen was first elected in 2016. Male leaders in patriarchal societies are especially disdainful of female leaders, often risking more than they otherwise would to ensure that they come out on top. After the US Congress rebuked China over its crackdown in Hong Kong, imposing sanctions on various groups and businesses, the Chinese government reacted strongly to what it considers foreign meddling in their “internal affairs,” just as domestic violence perpetrators invoke the privacy of the home for their crimes. Yet, just as with a domestic violence situation, no options are ideal. The international community can do little to halt the new law’s implementation, and American leadership has been anxious to avoid hurting Hong Kong’s economy more than Beijing’s — just as how in a domestic violence situation one must worry about collateral damage to the victim when trying to influence the perpetrator’s behavior.

The impotence of the international community in the face of the Hong Kong suppression only adds to the view already held by many in Beijing that the United States is a “paper tiger,” and that Beijing can increasingly act with impunity. Despite UN recognition of China as “the only legitimate representative of China to the UN,” the Taiwan case poses a different challenge for the international community. Taiwan is a de facto independent democratic nation where China has never held sovereignty. She has never been “his” — and she doesn’t want to be “his.” The multiple parallels to a domestic violence situation are striking.


Xi has promised violence if Taiwan attempts to leave what can only be considered a controlling, threatening relationship. In the first major policy address on Taiwan since 1979, Xi stated in 2019 that China will never allow Taiwan to declare independence. Instead, he declared the unification of China and Taiwan “the great trend of history” and an important part of his China Dream of national rejuvenation.

For decades Beijing has sought to woo Taiwan back into the fold, stressing “peaceful reunification.” But lately, Xi’s warnings that China reserves the option of using force have grown more frequent and have been accompanied by escalatory displays of force, such as flights across the centerline of the Strait and mock live-fire island assaults. China is also aggressively peeling away every last country that still recognizes Taiwan. In an ominous rhetorical shift, in May 2020, Xi even omitted the word “peaceful” from before the word “reunification” when discussing this “internal affair.” All over the world, women experiencing domestic threats know what that kind of talk from their partner portends.

There has been much speculation about when — not whether — Xi wants to move on Taiwan. Some believe sometime this very year is the most likely scenario, when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will celebrate its centenary. “Sometime around 2021,” Li Su of the hardline Modern Think-Tank Forum predicted: “we are definitely going to liberate Taiwan.” Li and like-minded Wolf Warriors or hard-liners in Beijing play down the reaction of Western nations to China’s new belligerence, saying, “America doesn’t even qualify to be China’s opponent… What are they going to do, fight a war over Hong Kong?”

Even if not in 2021, the clock seems to be ticking for Taiwan.


It is true that the Americans are not going to fight a war over Hong Kong, but the same question could be asked about Taiwan. Recent polls show only a minority of Americans (38% in 2019) would favor sending troops in the event that China invaded Taiwan, with only a third of Americans willing to sell Taiwan advanced weaponry that China opposes. And fewer than half of Taiwanese believe America would defend them. A 2020 CSIS poll finds that on a 10 point scale, the willingness of the American public to undertake “significant risks” should Taiwan be threatened by China hovers between 5 and 7; among the 18 to 30-year-olds who would presumably do the fighting in any resulting conflict, the average is the lowest of all age groups surveyed. By contrast, the percentages are highest for those over age 67; nevertheless, fewer than a quarter of seniors favor taking the highest level of risk.

These poll numbers have real-world consequences for deterrence. In a recent Foreign Affairs article, Michael Green and Evan Medeiros point out that China’s leaders will conclude from American inaction about Hong Kong that future aggression against Taiwan may likewise draw more heat than fire, just as President Vladimir Putin of Russia learned from US inaction in Georgia that Crimea could be taken unopposed. This is certainly why Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has stepped out with a hardline statement concerning Taiwan: “Our commitment to Taiwan is rock-solid.”

Tsai herself has signaled she is determined to defend her country, where a record 67% of the population now self-identifies as “Taiwanese,” developing robust asymmetrical capabilities and allocating the largest defense spending increase in more than a decade. As the author of the recent “Longer Telegram” makes clear, the United States is putting many important eggs in the Taiwan deterrence basket: if China launches an attack against Taiwan and the United States does not respond, “the United States needs to understand that at that point its general strategic credibility across Asia would evaporate [and] Beijing’s domestic and international political hubris over its Taiwan ‘success’ would become a new driving force in Chinese global behavior.” Just so.

Deterrence, however, will not hold. All of these measures delay the day when it will not hold, but do not avert it. Frankly, with only fourteen diplomatic allies, over 1600 Chinese missiles aimed at it, low American public support for fighting China over Taiwan, and a shifting regional and even international balance of power in favor of China, Taiwan is in a precarious security position. China’s military has grown exponentially, including new capabilities in anti-access/area denial (A2AD) to prevent the defense of Taiwan.

At some point, China will move on Taiwan, and the island will lose its sovereignty, proving that its alliance with the United States is weaker than China. What happens in Taiwan, therefore, will in large part determine the character of a new international order.

Despite new arms deals with the United States, Taiwan will forever be only 100 miles (and Taiwan’s Kinmen Island, 6 miles) from the shore of a rising superpower that claims it as a “rogue province.” Indeed, 60% of Taiwanese do not believe Taiwan can defend itself. Despite Blinken’s tough rhetoric, however, the election of Joe Biden has only deepened uncertainty, and scholars, such as Philip Zelikow and Robert Blackwill, openly wonder if Taiwan’s military is adequate to the task before it, and are “skeptical” that regional powers have coordinated a planned military response to a Taiwan confrontation.

While deterrence is Plan A, it cannot forever protect Taiwan. Despite the assertive bipartisan Congressional rhetoric and the idea that the United States should plan to defend Taiwan by deploying its own forces at the first indication of Chinese aggression, there is very little domestic public support for US soldiers to fight the Chinese over Taiwan. Furthermore, China’s veto will block any UN response. The conventional approach to deterrence that we see the United States undertaking today will one day cease to be effective. At some point, China will move on Taiwan, and the island will lose its sovereignty, proving that its alliance with the United States is weaker than China. What happens in Taiwan, therefore, will in large part determine the character of a new international order.


If deterrence does eventually fail, what security paradigm would be most helpful in this unnerving situation where one determined party is so much more powerful than its intended victim? None of the conventional security paradigms will be sufficient in planning for the Taiwan post-deterrence scenario. Rather, the ability to reason as a woman does in an insecure setting may well prove the difference between maintaining US objectives or forfeiting them in the world unfolding before us. In other words, it’s time to consider what feminist foreign policy might add to the conversation of US interests in Taiwan.

Imagine again that woman friend of yours, who you know is going to be a victim of domestic violence sooner or later. What can you do now to help her, and what can you do when he comes for her? If you are successful in your efforts, the era that follows will showcase the limits of his physical power to get what he wants. It will highlight his lack of impunity. It will be an era of adroit balancing on dimensions besides physical prowess instead of an era of predominance/decline gauged by military might alone. This would be a far better outcome for the US alliance.

What to do, then, for Taiwan? Sure, by all means, invest in deterrence; talk tough to the future perpetrator; arm the intended victim. But also consider that domestic violence research suggests victims cannot count on restraining orders or the police or weapons to prevent an attack, or even to save them once an attack begins. That is clearly the case for Taiwan: there is no cavalry coming to save Taiwan from China, and the “restraining orders” issued by the United States are losing deterrent efficacy as China’s military strength grows. For every weapon and every soldier the intended victim has, the future perpetrator has many more, and might strangle the island even without any direct invasion. In addition to a deterrence strategy which can only buy so much time, domestic violence researchers assert there must be strong contingency planning for the victim’s escape — a Plan B.

This Plan B centering on escape would also include non-physical means of hurting the perpetrator where it really counts — not as a means of deterring the attack, for domestic violence perpetrators are often undeterrable, but as a means of real punishment for the crime committed.


Is a Plan B for Taiwan already in place? If a post-deterrence Plan B is already in place, but is secret, then bravo and carry on. However, it is too often true that national security experts believe that post-deterrence planning undermines deterrence. This is a viewpoint informed by what might be characterized as a more conventional masculinist threat response, “fight or flight.” What matters is the deterrence itself; little value is placed on contingency plans for a failure of deterrence in this approach.

A feminist foreign policy views such a stance as counterproductive, both from a strategic and from a human security standpoint. That is because the more conventional female approach to threat is “tend and befriend,” which is geared primarily to strategies in the event of deterrence failure, since women are often unable to deter men who are intent on harming them. In that spirit, we openly ask about US planning for a post-deterrence scenario for Taiwan. If such planning is not in place, or if allied commitment has not been nailed down, the Biden administration would do well to swiftly develop those plans and get specific buy-ins, even if they cannot be made public. This is not to suggest the United States abandon Taiwan or that it’s not worth fighting for. But unless there is some unexpected black swan event, Taiwan — and its friends —  will need to strategize for the worst, for realists must admit that is where the trends are headed. Taiwan cannot continue as West Berlin, and for the sake of the world, it cannot be Crimea or Hong Kong.

A successful escape for the people of Taiwan will be vital in shaping a new order in the world. That is, strategically astute post-deterrence planning can actually vitiate any success obtained through aggression. Consider Dunkirk. Though certainly Dunkirk resulted from British weakness and successful German aggression, the sheer audacity of the successful evacuation operation became a point of pride for the British people, and became a beacon of hope to all those whom the Nazi regime would attempt to crush. And the Dunkirk escape certainly did not redound to either the glory or the power of the Nazis, for it was a potent symbol that resistance was not futile, and that all persons of good will could stand together and hope to out-maneuver a powerful nation threatening them. In domestic violence, the true victory is saving the intended victim, not ensuring she stays in her current living situation.

If deterrence fails, a good percentage of the 24 million people in Taiwan will want to leave rather than live under CCP rule. Have Taiwan’s diplomatic allies been canvassed to determine how many Taiwanese each nation will take? Has the US Department of Defense, in concert with regional friends and the Taiwan military, prepared extraordinary means of mass transport to make this possible? Have Taiwan’s friends developed an assimilation plan, complete with funding for housing and education, as well as regulations allowing for transference of credentials and access to work permits? Has Taiwan itself an emergency fund to facilitate such planning?

Has the Taiwan government made plans to spirit out of the country important historical documents or objects that would otherwise be destroyed if China takes over? Has the government made plans to ensure financial continuity if an escape were necessary?      For example, during the lead-up to World War II, several European monarchies shipped all their gold to the United Kingdom. What is the twenty-first-century equivalent? How will Taiwan save its globally significant semiconductor industry? Are there plans to ensure that symbolic leaders, such as the president herself, will be able to leave and reestablish a voice for Taiwan? Are there types of military equipment or strikes that would allow for safer transportation of those who wish to leave, without escalating to direct war between the United States and China?

And can any movement of persons and materiel be accomplished now, without fanfare?  Are there special measures that could be taken with regard to the future of the Taiwanese — that is, their children and young people — that would ensure most of them are able to escape or have already left when deterrence fails?

Escape must be married with effective punishment, as well, which should also be strategized now, not after the fact. Would ensuring the financial independence of nations that China openly seeks to bully, such as Australia, be part of a punitive package? Can we assist those countries in financial debt to China to successfully default on those debts? After the enormity of such an attack on Taiwan, would a far more robust collective security treaty organization in Asia become a real possibility?  Would a radical divestiture of foreign investment and operations in China be possible, a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) for China that would effectively dismantle, country by country, the One Belt, One Road initiative?  Would nations refuse to continue to train young Chinese researchers, hampering China’s technological progress?


The objective of this contingency planning is that while it may not be possible to deny China’s eventual control over Taiwanese territory, it is entirely possible — with planning — to deny China’s control over the Taiwanese people, and it may be possible to tangibly hurt Chinese power on many levels, both hard and soft, even in the wake of deterrence failure. The American people might support undertaking significant risks to help the people of Taiwan make their escape, even though they evince no ardor for doing the same to retain the island itself, given its geographic position. Xi should consider that a massive Dunkirk-like international response will galvanize a strong anti-China global alliance, will utterly shame his leadership, and might well lead to regime change in his country. This will not be the pulverizing king hit to that woman, Tsai, and her country Taiwan, that he was imagining.

In an ideal world, Taiwan should and would be secure. But realism, not idealism, must guide national security planning. It’s time for a Plan B post-deterrence realism rooted in feminist foreign policy and women’s experiences of how to counteract violence close to home. Taiwan will indeed be the harbinger of a new international order, but it need not be the one Xi is envisioning.

Valerie M. Hudson is a University Distinguished Professor in the Department of International Affairs at The Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, where she directs the Program on Women, Peace, and Security.

This essay was one of the seven essays that were selected as honorable mentions in New America Foundation’s “Reshaping US Security Policy for the COVID Era” essay contest.

Valerie Hudson

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