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The Dartmouth
May 26, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Montalbano: NATO must support Taiwan

Luke Montalbano ’27 argues that NATO member nations must support Taiwan in the protection of its sovereignty.

On Jan. 13, Lai Ching-te of the Democratic Progressive Party won the Taiwanese presidential election, with citizens rebuking the more conciliatory tone of the Kuomintang regarding relations with the People’s Republic of China. 

Although the PRC’s response to Lai’s victory has been relatively restrained so far, before the election, Beijing repeatedly warned Taiwan that a DPP victory could lead to future conflict. I argue that with the possibility of a violent attempt at reunification on the horizon, and with Taiwan’s growing global prominence in trade and democratisation, NATO member states must make a concerted effort to protect Taiwan’s autonomy. 

We cannot forget that China is a burgeoning great power that, although certainly not a total peer of the U.S., has expanded its trade and diplomatic networks dramatically under incumbent President Xi Jinping. From 2021-22 alone, China increased its trade balance by 25%. We must not regard China as a secondary power that will be easily pressured via soft power alone (i.e., sanctions). Instead, NATO member states must be vigorous and firm in their defence of Taiwan; though we must prevent the expansion of a conflict, we must also ensure Taiwan’s independence from China.

Why should we put money into the defence of a small island a continent away? There are two very simple reasons: Firstly, the NATO Charter, although primarily created to defend the North Atlantic, is firm in its declaration that member states must protect “democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law.” We committed to a stable global order when NATO was founded 75 years ago, and we must not give up on these principles. Secondly, it makes economic sense to ensure Taiwan’s autonomy.

Promoting NATO’s “first principles” has not always ended successfully. Indeed, many interventions have often led to disaster — as was seen in the Iraq War and more recent conflicts in the Middle East more broadly. Though I believe in the “first principles” as a core of NATO policy, I recognize the limits on such action — unilateral state-building has proven unsuccessful. Luckily, Taiwan is fully self-governing, has a thriving democracy, a healthy economy and strong, albeit informal, relations with the West. Defending such a free state that rejects the grips of an authoritarian and expansionist government is an implicit commitment made by all states signing the NATO Charter. This is not to mention that Taiwan inherently acts as a necessary ally in the string of NATO-aligned states that make up the Western Pacific. If Taiwan’s autonomy is destroyed, a crucial brick in this “wall” will be removed. 

The economic argument, however, is even more compelling. Taiwan is home to the largest share of semiconductors of any nation in the world. Presently, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company captures approximately 55% of the global market for chip manufacturing, and Taiwan is credited with the development of the best chips on the market. At this point, virtually all of the global technology market depends on TSMC and Taiwan. Semiconductors are crucial to the basic function of the most common technology. Without them, basic products like our computers or phones could not be produced. 

Some have countered that if Taiwan were invaded and ultimately annexed, all the U.S. would need to do is evacuate Taiwanese scientists and manufacturers and establish or expand a local chip manufacturing industry. This argument, however, is absurd for a variety of reasons. Firstly, the U.S. only produces around 12% of the world’s chips — a sharp decline from 37% in 1990. To make up for the loss of an island that produces over 60% of the world’s chips and 90% of the highly advanced models would prove an enormous financial burden that neither the government nor private organisations would likely be willing to take up. A recent example of the substantial initial investment required is the well-over-budget Samsung chip plant in Texas that was projected to cost an initial investment of $17 billion but has now reached over $25 billion in expenditure. Unless some financial miracle occurs, there is no near future in which the U.S. can stand on solid ground in competition with Taiwanese chip manufacturing in a domestic or international market. Although I am not arguing against the production of chips in the U.S., it is necessary to recognize the reality of Taiwan’s long-term monopoly on the industry.

Practically speaking, I do not support the direct intervention by NATO forces in defending Taiwan, but an immediate effort must be made to support the navy and airforce of the island. Unlike the war in Ukraine, in which the army and airforce have proven to be most critical for both countries’ war efforts, the navy and airforce will be the primary means of defence in a war over Taiwan. If Taiwan has an abundance of modern naval technology and a strong defensive air force, a naval invasion could be staved off long enough. In a war of attrition, Taiwan would likely lose, but this provides more of a reason for a large initial provision of munitions. This would likely entail an expansion of the sale of naval vessels and fighters intended to expand the fairly meagre size of both branches of the military. Coastal defence and anti-aircraft weaponry must also be sent en masse for a defence of the island itself. We cannot act as if the war will be similar to that of Ukraine — it will not be. A prolonged war is highly unlikely. 

These factors considered, NATO member states and their allies must provide support to Taiwan as soon as possible to ensure that it is prepared for a possible future invasion. We cannot allow time to be the enemy. Taiwan is far too important in its strategic placement in the Western Pacific and for its monopoly on chip manufacturing — there is no alternative in these areas to its continued existence. Let us hope that our leaders make a concerted effort to act on this increasingly precarious situation. 

Luke Montalbano ’27 is President for British Columbia of the Youth Atlantic Treaty Association — NATO Canada. Opinion articles represent the views of their author(s), which are not necessarily those of The Dartmouth.