"The ultimate determinant in war is a man on the scene with a gun."
—J.C. Wylie, Military Strategy: A General Theory of Power Control
Some excellent comments were written in response to last week's post "Taiwan's Past Matters Less Than Taiwan's Present." Two of these comments were particularly excellent, and I am saddened to see them languish in a little read comment thread. As we can't let that happen, I will post them here for the benefit of the wider readership.
The first is by commentator writing under the name "J":
I am Taiwanese, by birth and by blood. My father's side is 外省人 [TG: someone who retreated to Taiwan with the KMT], my mother's side is 本省人 [someone whose ancestors have lived in Taiwan for generations, and whose mother tongue would likely be Taiwanese Hokkien]. This is not an academic distinction, my maternal grandfather went to college in Japan and served in the Japanese Imperial Army as an NCO. He was later involved in the Taiwanese independence movement. Many of his friends disappeared during the White Terror. His personal journal was written completely in Japanese. His last overseas trip was a college reunion. His last gift to me was a book by a Japanese right-wing author. My paternal grandfather was a mid-level officer in the Nationalist forces. After the retreat to Taiwan, he served in the KMT civilian administration. Every new year, we called his brothers in China. His ashes are interred in Taiwan, but his wishes are to be buried, alongside his parents, at the ancestral plot in Shandong. Let's just say my parents didn't have the easiest time getting married.
The Taiwanese affinity for Japan is real, but in recent decades, has also been politicized and weaponized. Taiwanese nationalists recognize its usefulness as a cultural wedge, and there has been a romanticization of the Japanese colonial era, and, of course, corresponding counter-narrative. In the battleground for the minds of the young, Japan is winning by a landslide. As a Taiwanese (who also speaks Japanese), it's a bit embarrassing, honestly. The Japanese national conversation hardly recognizes Taiwan, and only the ultra-rightwing WWII-apologists in Japan bother to acknowledge Taiwanese goodwill, mostly as a weapon in their domestic political disputes. The revival of Taiwanese-dialect culture maps to the same political dynamics.
However, Taiwan is also deeply demoralized. Successive governments have all but given up on the idea of national defense, the conscription term has been cut to almost nothing. What was originally a national rite-of-passage - universal male conscription - is now basically a joke. The military is a pension farm, and thoroughly compromised by Chinese intelligence. Taiwanese industry is very dependent on Chinese markets and labor, and the business elite of Taiwan have all named their price. Similarly, Mandarin Taiwanese pop culture is integrated with China, and must toe the line. At the university level, administrations are dependent on Mainland Chinese students, who, by and large, are more disciplined, more focused, and more ambitious than the native Taiwanese student.
Unsurprisingly, intermarriage between Taiwanese and Mainland Chinese is also ticking up, both at the college-educated level, and at the mail-order bride level. Taiwanese tourism heavily relies on Chinese visitors. As with all of the former Asian Tigers, birth rates are far below replacement nationally, and they are catastrophically low in Taipei.
Even as Taiwanese culture grows (partially by DPP policy) more defiantly differentiated from China, the actual capability to resist Chinese coercion, either economically or militarily, continues to wane. The CCP doesn't need to do anything, except keep their mouths shut and allow current trends to continue. The Taiwanese attitude towards China appears to be an exercise in denial and wishful thinking. And that takes a toll on the national psyche. The younger generations may have Netflix and sub-titled Japanese TV shows, eating at gourmet restaurants and taking trips to Sapporo, Singapore, and Sydney. They may laugh at the gawking Chinese that are too poor to visit Europe, and visit Sun Moon Lake instead, but these bumpkin Chinese have what they don't have - a comprehensive vision of the future, and a deep belief that they are standing on the solid rock of history, and that they aren't going anywhere. Whereas for Taiwan and the Taiwanese, everything is contingent.
So take another trip to the wine countries of France, forget about having kids, and try to enjoy the moment.
In an alternate universe, Taiwan would be like Israel or South Korea - ferociously devoted to defense, fiercely determined to resist coercion. Or, for a more realistic example, to be at least as devoted as our ethnic cousins in Singapore. But perhaps that is only possible with the iron-fisted rule of a LKW for four decades. It would take herculean effort to shake Taiwan out of it's current complacent stupor. J's observations largely track my own experience in Taiwan (long termers will remember I was in Taipei for most of 2015-2016; my experiences there produced one or two blogposts of note). The "Japaneseness" of Taiwan is real and is readily apparent to anyone who has had experience with people from all three countries. In a way that is difficult to quantify or even articulate, Taiwan simply feels like the child of both of these cultures. This is true even in the north, where KMT resettlement was strongest. J is also correct to note that these differences have been overly politicized. Consequently, they are often exaggerated. But they are real, and folks like J are living evidence of their reality.
From a mainland perspective these differences mean nothing. Taiwanese tend to forget the astounding cultural diversity within China proper. The culture and lifeways of Han Chinese living in Ningxia and in Guangxi are more different from each other than anything that separates Taipei from Shanghai. As different as Taiwan may be, it has more cultural affinity with inner China than Tibet or Xinjiang does, and rare is the Han Chinese willing to entertain the independence of either of those regions.
However, one of the most significant cultural differences I observed when I moved from Taipei to Beijing had nothing to do with cultural heritage. J is right: the people of Taiwan are demoralized. There are benefits to this: Taipei is a less pretentious city than Beijing is. People are less concerned with putting on airs; the wealthy are less gaudy and hedonistic; nobody schemes of dirty, treacherous, or lecherous ways to get ahead. But that is exactly the trouble with the young of Taipei: none of them seem to believe that they can get ahead. Track down a student at Bei-Da and one at Tai-Da and you will find a world of difference. The Beida kid will not be any smarter than the Taida kid, but he will be infinitely more ambitious. Beijing is a city of dreamers and schemers. Chinese travel thousands of miles to live in that smog-choked, traffic-clogged wasteland of a city. Why? Because they earnestly believe that it is the place where they will rise above their origins. That kid from Beida starts high and aims higher. He earnestly believes that he personally is going to change the world. The kid from Taida? He doesn't even believe he can change Taiwan.
The exception to this is politics. In the realm of politics, it is the young Beijingers who drift as their apathy guides them. The opposite was true in Taiwan—politics was the one place young Taiwanese thought they might make an impact. But that was in 2015. Disillusionment with Tsai Yingwen seems to have dampened that spirit a bit.
I am more optimistic about the military situation. In terms of military culture, J is absolutely correct. Taiwan does not have one. I blame this situation largely on the ROC military itself. One could write a series of essays on the public relations and human resources mistakes the ROC military has made over the last two decades. Their mismanagement of the conscription system—which under normal circumstances would be the ideal vehicle for instilling such a culture—is criminal. The whining rhetoric that emanates from the Ministry of National Defense is also unhelpful. Taiwanese military figures do not shy from emphasizing the weakness of Taiwan's position, presumably in an attempt to get Washington to care more about their plight. However, by highlighting Taiwanese weakness all they (and their American supporters who make similar arguments) are doing is reinforcing the narrative spun by the PLA: Taiwan is doomed, too weak to be worth fighting for.
The shame in all this is that it is hardly true. This topic deserves its own post, so I won't delve deeply into it here. I'll simply share this thought: the same technological trends which make it so difficult for the United States Navy and Air Force to operate near Chinese waters make it equally difficult for the PLA to operate on the wrong side of the strait. The same cost ratios are at play as well. A long range SSM costs far less than any ship it might hit in a U.S. Carrier Strike Group. But the same is true for missiles launched from Taiwan (or, for that matter, Vietnam or the Philippines). We are quickly moving into a weapons regime that strongly favors the defender. Add this to the incredible difficulties inherit in organizing the largest amphibious invasion of human history, the unique hurdles posed by the geography and weather of Taiwan, and the general lack of training and experience on the part of the PLA forces that will be doing the invading. The potential for failure is high in the best of circumstances. With minimal military investment the Taiwanese can ensure it would be the worst of circumstances. 
This brings me to the other stellar comment in the thread, this one posted by long-time reader L.C. Rees:
The ROC exists because:
1. the US doesn't want the PRC to have it
2. the PRC doesn't have the strength to take it in the face of American resistance
Until that 1-2 dynamic changes, or some alternative correlation of power (thermonuclear ROC, PLA soldiers who can walk on water, Neo-Imperial Japan with giant robots with friggin' laser beams, etc.) arises, all the fine parsing of ancient sources will not amount to Jack Diddley except if it manages to sway gullible Americans. Americans can be gullible: TPM Barnett infamously thought that, if you bought low on Chinese power c. 2010, you could lock in American preferences of how the world should be into a hypothetical 2050 where the PRC dominated the world and the price would be too high.
I doubt Barnett's option contract would have any more persuasive power in and of itself in a world where the PRC held sway any more than the VOC's claim on Formosa c. 1650 has power in and of itself to sway Washington or Peking today. If the VOC still dominated the Strait of Taiwan, then such a piece of paper might have kinetic force. The Dutch Navy sailing up the Yangtze and burning the PLA Navy at anchor would be as amusing as it is unlikely. However, the VOC is long gone and His Majesty's government in the Netherlands shows no sign of reviving it. Dutch naval power in the Pacific has been nil since 1942.
On the subject of the inception of the Korean War, I've encountered a thesis I was unfamiliar with: Stalin pushed the war by letting his sock puppet Kim off the leash in order to drive a wedge between the PRC and the West, leaving the PRC reliant on the USSR for modernization. The Korean War was intentionally started to divert Mao's military resources away from Taiwan (Mao was pestering Stalin for help with Formosa) into an alternative theater Stalin had more control over. If this alternative scenario is accurate, it largely succeeded: Stalin's option contract here, festooned with the legal authority of T-34s and MiGs, is a better example for how to buy into PRC power while the price is low or property titles are being accepted. Rees is correct. The debate over whether the legal status of Taiwan was decided by the Cairo Declaration or the Treaty of San Fransisco irks because it is irrelevant. At the end of the day, the freedom of Taiwan depends on two things only:
- Are there men and women willing to die to keep Taiwan free?
- Do the Chinese understand how committed they are?
That is it. All of that other stuff about blood brotherhood and historical claims is irrelevant. What matters is who can get their man to stand on the scene with a gun.
But here is where I part ways with Rees, who—if I understand him correctly—seems to think that only American men and American guns matter. U.S. military support is a necessary, but not sufficient, precondition for Taiwanese autonomy. Much depends on the Taiwanese themselves. The United States will not stop Taiwan from seeking reunification, if that is what Taiwanese voters ask for. But more importantly, the American military is tethered to the American public, and if that public has lost faith in Taiwan, they will not be willing to see American soldiers die for it. The whole structure rests on the Taiwanese people. If they are willing to sacrifice what must be sacrificed to maintain a credible deterrent, then their autonomy will be preserved. If they are not, no number of American fleets can save them.
 Those interested in exploring this topic further ought to read two books (well, one study and one book): Andrew Krepenvich's Maritime Competition in a Mature Precision Strike Regime and Ian Easton's The China Invasion Threat: The Defense of Taiwan and American Strategy in East Asia
 Comment by "LCRees" on Tanner Greer, "Taiwan's Past Matters Less than Taiwan's Present," Scholar's Stage, 14 August 2018.