Could the US Realistically Use Taiwan to Fight a Proxy War with China?

Interview with antiwar writer John Walsh

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

John V. Walsh (@JohnWal97469920) is an antiwar writer who is well versed on China. Recently, he wrote an article titled “Arming Taiwan is an Insane Provocation.” Insane, yes, but it is also a blazing sign of desperation. A plethora of American words and actions touching on mainland China reveal a jittery seat of empire — nervous because the empire seems to be tottering. Meanwhile, China’s prominence continues to rise. But China doesn’t want an empire; it doesn’t aspire to a number one ranking as a powerful nation because it doesn’t deal with nation states according to some ranking. What matters for China is building a relationship based on all sides coming out winners. Nations are flocking toward the self-effacing China which does not foist its ideology on others or mess around in their domestic affairs. Thus, the Belt and Road Initiative, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, and BRICS have several potential members knocking on the door, and many of these door-knockers have already started de-dollarizing.

So what does a faltering hegemon that is desperate to hang on to its self-described status as a full-spectrum dominant, above-the-law, exceptional, indispensable beacon-on-the-hill do? Flex its military muscle by surrounding a perceived challenger with military bases and finding nearby allies to arm against up-and-comers. Sanction the perceived challenger, demonize it and its leader in media, accuse the challenger of the crimes that it commits (e.g., genocide, human rights abuses, interference in other countries’ elections, espionage, cyber crimes, predatory lending).

A potent card in the imperial hegemon’s pocket is to get the foot soldiers of vassal states to fight the hegemon’s wars.

Walsh considers whether the US can recruit the Republic of China (Taiwan) to fight a proxy war, an internecine war, against the People’s Republic of China (mainland China). Note: both the ROC and PRC claim to encompass the other. I agree with Walsh that willingly resorting to or courting war is insane. Below is an interview, conducted by email, exploring Walsh’s consideration of a US push for a proxy war fought through Taiwan against its brethren across the Taiwan Strait.

Kim Petersen: Actions speak louder than words is an oft-heard aphorism. After American government actions with Republic of China (ROC) separatists, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) will often respond with strident language denouncing the provocation and follow that up with military manoeuvres around Taiwan. Whether right or wrong, it seems obvious to this outside observer that condemnations by the mainland Chinese side and showcasing of its military might have had negligible effect in curbing American or Taiwanese separatist provocations. Do you see the Chinese response as effective in deterring American interference in China’s domestic affairs?

John Walsh: Thank you, Kim, for opening up a discussion. This is certainly a very important topic.

Let me preface my answers to your questions with a remark on what motivated me to write the article that prompted this discussion. The purpose of my piece was, first, simply to provide a primer on the importance of Taiwan island in the First Island Chain strategy of the US. Second, and more importantly, the purpose was to raise the danger of arming Taiwan for those in the US anti-interventionist movement who have paid insufficient attention to it. Up to now there has been little challenge to the idea that the US is simply helping out a beleaguered country with armaments whereas the arms in fact are a provocation to China. Arming Taiwan is something that peace activists in the US should raise and seek to end. Arms are pavement on the road to war.

Your first question is excellent.

I don’t know how effective the Chinese response has been. A major question is whether it is effective in deterring the separatist forces on Taiwan Island. So far, the polling shows that the overwhelming sentiment in Taiwan is for sticking with the status quo. And it makes sense for the Taiwanese to feel that way. I am sure that they have heard some version of the African aphorism, “When elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled.” And although the circumstances are different, the Taiwanese must know that Ukraine is being destroyed because it has become a battleground for the conflict between the US and Russia with the US cynically and cruelly employing Ukrainians as cannon fodder. That is the key similarity between Ukraine and Taiwan.

And then there is the question of whether there is sufficient democracy in Taiwan to allow the people to choose their path. Here again Ukraine is instructive. In the 2014 coup there, the US and neo-Nazi elements installed a regime which was prowar, overthrowing a duly elected president who wished to get along with Russia. And after that, in 2019, the Ukrainians elected Zelensky who ran as a peace candidate; but once in office he turned into a hawk. Was he a fake all along? Or was he “turned” by US forces which included Neo-Nazi elements?

Could martial law be established in Taiwan if the people there proved resistant to fighting as proxies for the US? What control does the US have over the Taiwanese military after all the years of interaction? When I read reports about the buildup of “civil defense forces” on Taiwan and polls claiming 75% of Taiwanese are willing to fight Mainland forces, I wonder how intense and hawkish the anti-Mainland propaganda on Taiwan Island has become. And how suicidal? These are all questions for which I have no answer; but I fear the worst.

KP: You use the US response to a rumored Chinese listening post in Cuba, because of its proximity to the US mainland, as a useful analogy to the situation between Taiwan and mainland China. I submit another apt analogy would be if the PRC started funding and arming Hawaiian separatists or Puerto Rican separatists. This would be especially revelatory since these territories were annexed through US militarism against the Indigenous populations (as was the entirety of the mainland US landmass) while in the PRC-ROC case there is no annexation and Han Chinese are the predominant population on both sides, each claiming to belong to the entirety of China. Besides, how would the US respond if Chinese ships entered Hawaiian or Puerto Rican harbors without US-government approval, unloaded their weapons and military equipment, and then stationed Chinese soldiers there? Would the US respond only with heated condemnations? Would the Chinese ships even be able to dock? Never mind the US permitting the Chinese military to be stationed there. My suspicion is that there would be an emphatic difference in the Chinese and American responses.

JW: I agree with you. I think that Hawaii and Puerto Rico are very useful analogies for the reasons you give. Cuba came to my mind when I wrote about this, because it has been in the news recently on just this question.

I shudder to think what the US response to China’s putting troops in Hawaii or Puerto Rico would be. China can afford to be restrained because it is a rising power and time is on its side.  Its history and culture also offer a striking contrast with the colonizing, aggressive West. For many reasons, I believe that China’s statements that it wishes to settle the Taiwan question peacefully is sincere.

With China’s peaceful rise, the US sees its colossal ambition of total global hegemony, an aspiration since 1940, slipping away. As a result, the US may well be tempted to do something desperate or rash. Stephen Wertheim’s book, Tomorrow the World, gives an account of the birth of US aspiration for global hegemony which goes way beyond any previous ambitions of Empire, save perhaps for the Thousand Year Reich. Its most recent expression in US foreign policy is the Wolfowitz Doctrine.

I would say this is an entirely new stage of imperialism. The Chinese Foreign Ministry properly labels it Hegemony. This US goal explains its gargantuan military expenditures, larger than those of the next 10 most powerful militaries combined.

KP: As for the polling from 2022, it is carried out by a body called Election Study Center at National Chengchi University. One can surmise that because this body is collecting data on democracy (however that is defined) that it tends to align with the separatist Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and against reintegration with the PRC. Furthermore, the Election Study Center was formalized in 1989 during the tenure of Taiwanese president Lee Teng-hui who, albeit a Guomindang (KMT) member, is considered the “Godfather of Taiwan secessionism” on the mainland. The polling results may be accurate, but the polling takes place under a ROC government, one backed by the US that is at ideological loggerheads with the PRC to which it is losing ground for economic supremacy. The polling results indicate that substantial upticks occurred from 12.8% for “maintain status quo, move toward independence” in 2018 to 25.2% in June 2022. A look at the polling date from 1996 to June 2022 indicates that while there has been an overall uptick that the largest uptick occurs during the terms of US presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden, both of who engaged in anti-China rhetoric and began militarizing Taiwan. Do you consider that such polls have validity given that they take place in a Chinese province that has long been separated from the mainland by Japanese and US imperialism?

JW: You raise excellent points about polling which is always affected by the mainstream media and the other institutions for manufacturing consent.  These institutions are certainly highly influenced by the US. For example, Karl Gershman, until recently head of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), tells us that the NED has been active in Taiwan for 29 years now. And we can be confident that the NED is only the tip of the US iceberg.

Although the category of “maintain status quo, move toward independence” has shown an uptick in polls, as you point out, the category calling for immediate independence remains small at ~5%. Maintaining the status quo, no matter the qualification about what comes later, is all that the Mainland appears to be asking for.

Conversely, a declaration of independence or secession right now, immediately, is the red line that it is dangerous to cross. If the people of Taiwan retain sufficient agency, then it seems this red line will not be crossed. But many things could happen to deprive the Taiwanese of agency, for example a false flag operation designed to make the Taiwanese feel that war was inevitable and that they must do as the US asks and offer themselves up as cannon fodder. Let’s hope that does not happen. Better, let us in the US act to get our government to back off from its provocations that move us closer to that war.

KP: You wrote that “a secessionist Taiwan, as an armed ally of the U.S., represents to China a return to the ‘Century of Humiliation’ at the hands of the colonial West.” I understand that China is patient, strategically astute, and seeks peace as the way forward, but how does it appear when China does not control which country’s ships dock in its territory? Rather than a “return to the ‘Century of Humiliation’ at the hands of the colonial West,” might it not be more accurate to call it a continuance of a Century-plus of Humiliation at the hands of the colonial West and Japan? Assuredly, China wants Taiwan back unscathed, so is China playing it smart by biding its time?

JW: I certainly feel that China is playing it smart by biding its time and sticking to peaceful reunification. That approach preserves peace; so everyone should welcome it. The problem, as I am sure the Chinese recognize, is that Chinese restraint might lead some other countries to perceive China as a “paper tiger” and lead them to take a more belligerent attitude toward China. That in turn could lead to more strife and perhaps war.

But I would hope instead that other countries would respect China for its peaceful restraint even though it possesses enormous power. That restraint should make other countries feel that they can live in peace with China and that they do not need the help of outside forces to side with them in whatever disagreements with China may arise.

KP: Agreed. You write, “It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the U.S. is trying to gin up a proxy war that would engulf East Asia, damaging not only China but other U.S. economic competitors like Japan and South Korea.” Except, it seems that this would not be a proxy war as is being waged by the US-NATO via Ukraine. China is much better situated to regulate shipping (as Russia seems now to be doing in the Black Sea) and aircraft that may enter Taiwan. Thus, the PRC is able to intercept weaponry destined for the island province. I submit, therefore, that using Taiwan in a proxy war would be extremely difficult. Also, depending on the timetable, since the US (and its European vassals) admit to being out of artillery to supply to Ukraine at present, how is it supposed to carry out proxy wars on two fronts?

JW: I agree with you that using Taiwan as a proxy in a conflict with China presents the US with great difficulties if victory is the goal of the US. But even if the US “loses” such a war, it will engulf East Asia in conflict which will set back the region’s development considerably and leave it at the mercy of the West.

Here again we can take the Ukraine crisis as an example. Both Russia and the EU, with Germany at its heart, are competitors of the US. So far, the West’s sanctions have damaged both the EU, especially Germany, and Russia although Russia has proven unexpectedly resilient. As Alexander Mercouris observes, even the Russians were a bit surprised at how well they have done. Of course, that has been possible because Russia has decisively “turned to the East,” that is toward China. China offers an economic alternative to those who are bullied by the US. Similarly, the dynamic economies of East Asia, not simply China, are competitors with the US. A conflict between China and her neighbors would damage both – and the US would profit.

Now, can this imperial divide and conquer strategy work? This scenario is essentially a replay of WWII, WWII redux; and WWII was a great boon for the US. But the ability to forestall WWII redux depends on China, its neighbors and on us here in the US. The countries of the EU have succumbed to this self-destructive approach and bought into the US proxy war on Russia – at least for the moment. The countries of East Asia seem less inclined to do the same and treat China as an enemy. But what they do in the end remains to be seen.

As I see it, the bottom line is that the US has set out to pursue this strategy. Whether it is able to do so successfully is quite another matter as you correctly point out. But if the US does go ahead, great damage will be done. For that reason we in the US must win the people to opposing it.

KP: You proffer, “So, we in the U.S. must stop our government from arming Taiwan. And we need to get our military out of East Asia. It is an ocean away, and no power there is threatening the U.S.” No argument with this. I appreciate how you dispel the falsity of the threat of China. The genuine threat is adduced by the ring of US military bases around China. Why is it so difficult to realize what should be readily apparent from looking at a map of China surrounded by several US military bases while China has none in the western hemisphere? Is it the propagandizing of the western mass media or is it simply an appeal to patriotism?

JW: A good question. Part of the reason is that such a map of US bases is rarely seen in the mainstream media. In fact, recently the political comedian Jimmy Dore has shown such a map on his YouTube channel in a way that suggests it is news to his audience which is by and large anti-interventionist. That level of ignorance even with an audience like Jimmy Dore’s is a tribute to the power of the msm.

I am not sure that patriotism has much to do with it. It is due to fear of China that is relentlessly stoked in the body politic. Certainly, the relentless demonization of China and the repeated characterization of it as an aggressive, threatening power with evil leaders takes an enormous toll on the American psyche. Countering the lies about China will not be easy. But we have to work at it – otherwise the human race may not survive.

Kim Petersen is an independent writer. He can be emailed at: kimohp at Read other articles by Kim.