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Comparing Cuba and Taiwan: Lessons for National Security

Updated: Oct 22, 2021

Apart from their island status, on the surface, there seems to be little link between Communist Cuba and democratically run Taiwan. However, if we dive only slightly deeper, the similarities, at least situationally, are immense. Both lay in close proximity to a superpower. Both avow substantial ideological and political differences with their larger neighbors. Both possess significant economic asymmetries between them and these superpowers. Both are politically dependent on geographically distant neighbors - Taiwan is dependent on the US, and Cuba was once reliant on the Soviet Union, an ally over 6,000 miles away. Two countries half a world apart, with some deep similarities.

By understanding these countries (their values, terrain, economic and political history, etc.), we can glean powerful insight, which, in turn, can inform our National Security policies and practices. Rather than give a history lesson on these countries, my goal in this blog is to discuss issues surrounding Taiwan and Cuba today, with the intention of provoking thought and understanding implications of various national security strategies.

Let’s start the discussion with Taiwan. When Mao Zedong’s communist party defeated the nationalists in 1949, Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the nationalists, was forced to retreat to the island of Taiwan.Shortly thereafter, in 1955, the United States and China signed a defense pact called the Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty, which would prevent China from taking over Taiwan and allowed the US to maintain a relationship with the small island. However, one year after the US established diplomatic relations with China in 1979, President Jimmy Carter annulled the Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty replacing it with the Taiwan Relations Act. This new act maintained de facto relations through unofficial government representation and diplomatic relations. In other words, this policy, which is still maintained today, could be considered nothing less than "strategic ambiguity. "We do not have any formal diplomacy with Taiwan but we work through informal and nonprofits established in Washington DC. We sell defense weapons but there is no longer any formal agreement to defend Taiwan militarily, leaving the decision to use military force in Taiwan’s defense up to congress and the President.

Taiwan therefore is vulnerable to China and its influences. If China took over Taiwan, it would gain a major economic, scientific, and technological advantage as well as acquire strategic regional dominance both politically, physically and psychologically. Yet, while China benefits from Taiwan’s resources, the 25 million people currently residing in free Taiwan, would be subjected to China’s repression.

Just as all of you are patriots and aim to spread democratic principles globally, I too, have fought for those same values across the globe. Nothing has produced more equal opportunity, justice, freedom, and innovation than democratic institutions. Therefore, to “hand over” Taiwan to the Chinese would be a grave mistake. We must defend Taiwan for the sake of the 25 million Taiwanese and for the benefit of our overall Great Power Competition strategy. To understand why we must defend Taiwan, we should consider a similar country for comparison. This brings us to Cuba.

Less than ten years after Chang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan, in a small island country a half a world away, Fidel Castro was preparing to overthrow the corrupt and decadent Cuban leader, Fulgencio Batisita.Castro was a lawyer and Marxist/Leninist who was disgusted with Batista’s rule of rampant corruption, greed, and brutality. By engaging in class warfare and promising a brighter future for all, Castro led a military revolt with angry, disenchanted young rebels. The first coup failed and landed Castro in jail. But before long, Castro was out and at it again. In 1959, his bloody uprising was successful and Fidel Castro installed himself as the Cuban leader.

Cubans went from one corrupt government to another – this time to a communist state. Soon all business and private property was seized and government control was established over the country. The government now had dominion over education, medical care, and the press. Freedoms were revoked, and most of the rebel forces who were now in command became military or police officers to enforce the new governmental rule and to prevent citizen uprising. Understandably, the US was not happy with a country less than 100 miles off the coast of Florida falling to communism in the height of the cold war. This reached a dangerous crescendo during the Cuban Missile Crisis where two competing super powers (the US and the USSR) used Cuba as a test for how far to push in each hemisphere.

For the next 60 years, Cuba’s economy continued to decline. The rise of inflation, as well as the lack of food and medical supplies threw the Cuban people into severe poverty. This dire state fueled anger leading to broad protests in July of 2021. This is noteworthy since protesting in Cuba is dangerous and therefore, rare. As we watched the protests and heard the calls for freedom our hearts went out and implored some of us to put the “kit” on and bring freedom to suffering neighbors a mere 91 miles off the coast of Florida.

We should have seen this coming. Since the 1960s, the US has put in place measures to ensure that Cuba is economically isolated. US blockades to Cuba have not succeeded in destroying the communist government. There are always pros and cons when looking at embargos. The US would probably gain economically by removing the embargo yet at the same time that is the only leverage to protest communist regime that blatantly oppresses its people. Cuba’s medical, agricultural and economic issues that affect their people are not because of the embargo (they are large trading partners with the EU, many countries in central America and Canada). The failure that causes suffering to the people is solely because of the communist government. This brings us back to Taiwan.

During these Cuban protests, I had been speaking to other military and government groups about the May 2021 anti-China protests in Taiwan. The Taiwanese were feeling pressured by China from trade agreements, military exercises, and finally statements that brought fear of a possible takeover of the country.This is when I started to think about the comparison between these two island nations.Can what happened in Cuba, happen in Taiwan?If so, how can we reasonably help prevent it?

There are four possible scenarios for Taiwan’s future, (1) China can recognize and accept Taiwan’s sovereign status, (2) the two countries can continue the painful and tenuous status quo, (3) China can exploit the economic relationship with Taiwan to create political advantage, or (4) China can use force to reunite Taiwan with the homeland. It is widely regarded that scenario four is the most likely. In this case, would the US use all military force necessary to prevent China from taking Taiwan?

If the answer is yes then the US could consider the following:

  1. Build a robust deception plan that enables not only offense, defense, special operation actions but also creates the first strike options that will cripple mainland China defense capabilities or dual use capabilities.

  2. Pre-sell to the American people the need to defend Taiwan and gain the will to act, thus enabling the next step that might prevent war which is Deterrence.

  3. Create deterrence and the first step is by notifying China that for certain actions we will respond with lethal force and that the US is willing to carry out full wartime activities to prevent China’s spread by forceful means. Gaining allied responses will also help in the verbal and written notification to China of what actions against Taiwan would mean. The lack of directly telling China what the US is willing to do is the number one reason ambiguity might lead China to take an action that it miscalculates.

  4. Prepare for economic sanctions and establish cash flow, trade and identify critical items (such as prescription drugs, personal protection products etc.) that the US must have an alternate supply of or manufacturing capability.

  5. Build a unified defense pact with other countries to conduct counter exercises that are intentional and also send a message about strength and unity.

  6. Let China know that to prevent Taiwan being taken there will be strikes inside Mainland China and there will be a cost both short term and long term.

  7. Realize that both sides will be injured. While the side that prevails will dictate the terms, fights rarely have a clear winner and loser. More often both parties are wounded in the fight.

  8. Build a unified case with Congress and the American people that create the “WILL” to defend and take all measures necessary to defend Taiwan.

If the answer is NO then the US could consider the following:

  1. Weigh the pros and cons of providing strategic weaponry and the consequences of doing so (weapon captured, negotiations with China, will this cause a greater destruction when China attacks).

  2. Plan for post independent Taiwan - What is the plan now that China is in control of Hong Kong economy and not Taiwan economy? What technological advances do they now have in production of semiconductors?

  3. Estimate the tech from the chip factories and manufacturing capability that will be transferred. Taiwan is the world’s leader in semiconductor manufacturing. Taiwan produces twice the amount of semiconductors as China and their technology is more sophisticated. Besides human rights, trade, economic advantage, and ideology spread we also need to understand the strategic advantage of technology that will enhance China in all aspects of national defense, commerce and science and technology.

  4. Understand the impact our decision to not intervene will have worldwide. This deals with global leadership, partnerships, alliances, and global influence. This will be a major blow in a long line of US decision making on what is acceptable.

  5. Build strategic messaging around our decision. If the answer is not to militarily defend we must start the strategic messaging now so countries can understand the decision and national interests. Failure to do that will create another after affect that will harm US reputation.

Similar questions apply when we discuss our continuing policy towards Cuba. The US Relations with Cuba, from the Department of State asserts, “The United States seeks a stable, prosperous, and free country for the Cuban people.” If this is the case, shall we go in with force to free the people of Cuba? The site continues:

“[t]he United States pursues limited engagement with Cuba that advances our national interests and empowers the Cuban people while restricting economic practices that disproportionately benefit the Cuban government or its military, intelligence, or security agencies at the expense of the Cuban people.”

We understand of course, that Cuba’s anemic economy is not solely to blame on our sanctions, since the rest of the world trades freely with this communist country. In light of all this, is this decades old policy something that we can continue indefinitely? What benefit does this bring to our country? What are the implications if we use military force? How will our allies react? Our enemies?

The purpose of this blog is to provide a short vignette of two islands in near proximity to a global power that is politically 180 degrees in the opposite direction. Both Islands have agreements between powers and both islands have discussed how to change them into a country that politically aligns with the global power in nearest proximity. This vignette provides strategic thinkers with policy decision and the 2nd and 3rd order of effects from those decisions. Last summer Cuba was in the headlines and now Taiwan is closer to potential conflict/pressure for change, we should discuss this as part of our ongoing national interest discussions. I appreciate the emails on this topic and discussions I have already had with some of you.

The similarities of these two island nations has been explored and can help us think about how we pursue relations with each of them. It should be noted, as well, that there are real and deep differences that complicate any national strategy. Both countries differ greatly in terms of economic, social, cultural, and technological development, as well as access to individual freedoms and equal rights under the law. Strategy for one country will not necessarily be effective for the other. Nonetheless, it is important to explore and learn from our historical dealings with each.

At i3CA we are focused on helping build the environmental models to help answer these questions through a layered approach for current assessments and future predictive analysis. Contact us at for additional conversation and help with resourcing this and other human domain ecosystem problem sets.

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