The U.S., China, and Taiwan

There is no getting around the fact that the United States’ primary strategic competitor for global leadership is the People’s Republic of China, which continues to extend its diplomatic, economic, and military influence internationally. Quite apart from China becoming the world’s second largest economy and its leading trading nation, policy makers increasingly describe its military buildup as a threat to U.S. and allied interests in the Indo-Pacific.

Put simply, the Pentagon considers China it most serious competition. Taiwan may be the issue with the greatest potential to turn competition into direct confrontation. Many military analysts note that after two decades of counterinsurgency wars, the U.S. can no longer be certain of its ability to uphold a favorable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific.

By contrast, China has the military strength, and in particular the long-range missile capability, to overwhelm the U.S. in the Indo-Pacific region according to the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. China is now an adversary that is also a military peer. It is in the enviable position of being able to use limited force to achieve a fait accompli victory over Taiwan before the U.S. could respond.

This is not unthinkable, since the Chinese Communist Party regards Taiwan as an inalienable part of China.  The U.S. needs to defend Taiwan effectively against a Chinese invasion or blockade, because it is important to frustrating China’s strategy to achieve regional hegemony.  For many countries in the region, it is the canary in the coal mine — a strong indicator of how far the U.S. would go to defend them against China.

The two million strong People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is the primary concern of U.S. defense experts.  According to a 2020 Department of Defense report, the PLA has “already achieved parity with—or even exceeded—the US” in several areas in which it has focused its military modernization efforts in the Indo-Pacific region where China certainly has the home court advantage.

The PLA’s modernization program has been supported by China’s rapidly growing economy and augmented by the purchase and alleged theft of militarily useful technologies. In 1996, China was deeply embarrassed and humiliated in the Taiwan Strait Crisis when the U.S. responded to Chinese missile threats meant to intimidate Taiwan with a massive show of force.

Two U.S. aircraft carrier groups emerged in the strait and exposed the weakness of the PLA’s Navy compared to the U.S. fleet.  In response, China’s defense budget rose by about 900 percent between 1996 and 2018 and is now the world’s second largest behind the U.S.

For context, it should be acknowledged that the threats along China’s vast frontier should not be discounted.  With a 13,743-mile land border, it counts 14 sovereign states as neighbors.  It also shares maritime borders with Brunei, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Taiwan.

It should come as no surprise that among China’s grand ambitions is to extend its influence along its frontiers through means such as building and militarizing islands to gain exclusive control over the South China Sea through which about three $3 trillion of trade, or a third of the world’s cargo transport, flows each year.

Failure to respond to the growing threat China poses to its Indo-Pacific neighbors would raise questions about the U.S.’s willingness and capacity to act as a security guarantor in the region.  Essentially, the U.S. needs support from allies and partners in the region to deter Chinese adventurism, including a potential attack on Taiwan.

The stakes could not be higher in this contest.  As historian Niall Ferguson recently wrote: “Perhaps Taiwan will turn out to be to the American Empire what Suez was to the British Empire in 1956: the moment when the imperial lion is exposed as a paper tiger.  Losing Taiwan would be seen all over Asia as the end of American predominance.”

The First Amendment and free speech

While many national constitutions come and go every few decades, the U.S. Constitution has served the purpose for which it was intended for more than two centuries. The United States is proud of its tradition of freedom of speech that was established in the First Amendment to the Constitution.

It allows for public criticism of the government. Without it, such behavior could land you in prison – just ask Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Still, there were many times in American history when this principle was traduced.

For example, some of the same people who ratified the Bill of Rights voted in Congress in 1798, during the presidency of John Adams, to pass the Alien and Sedition Acts that made it a crime to utter “false, scandalous, or malicious” speech against the government or the president.

The first 10 amendments to the constitution are known as the Bill of Rights.  They were proposed by Congress in September 1789 and ratified by the states in December 1791.

Freedom of speech isn’t the only freedom protected by the First Amendment.  It reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceable to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Freedom of speech is considered a fundamental bedrock of liberty, allowing citizens to express their ideas and bring about changes that reflect the needs of its people.  It gives voice to conflicting or dissenting opinions that promote healthy debate that moves society closer to realizing America’s founding ideals.

The Civil Rights Movement is a perfect example of free speech in action.  During the 1950s and 1960s, activists such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used free speech as a tool to force change in society.  Exercising their voice, these activists were able to outlaw racial discrimination that plagued the country.

But freedom of speech is not an unlimited right. The First Amendment only protects individuals’ speech from U.S. governmental oppression, control, and censorship; it does not extend to private entities. Companies have significant leeway to set their own standards and policies regarding employee conduct.

There is nothing illegal about a private firm censoring people on its platform.  For example, Facebook banning former President Trump indefinitely from its platform and Twitter permanently banning him were within the companies’ legal rights in the aftermath of the Capital incursion on January 6.

The nation has long grappled with which types of speech should be protected and which should not.  Interpreting the broad guarantees of free speech in the First Amendment has not been an easy task.  Over time, the Supreme Court has spilled barrels of ink defining the freedom of speech.  It has upheld people’s right to critique the government and hold political protests, but hasn’t extended protection to those who incite action that might cause harm.

But what constitutes harm is still a matter of debate.  For some, it is limited to physical harm as in the case of falsely shouting “fire” in a crowded movie theater.  For others, harm encompassed a compromise to the dignity of others, as in the case of hate speech.  Another recent argument is that free speech should be curtailed if it causes offense and the speaker makes you feel disrespected. This argument may be setting a lower bar for limiting free speech. But that is a story for another day.

In today’s politically charged climate, some people believe government should restrict certain speech.  But thankfully, the First Amendment protects everything from car commercials to fiery protests.

While it may be unfashionable to quote America’s first President, it merits recalling what he said about free speech: “If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”

Naturally, everyone has their own interpretation of those comments.