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Journalist says Taiwan is a sophisticated democracy that's under threat


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. When President Biden met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Monday, one of the many things they agreed they disagree on is the status of Taiwan. Differences over Taiwan go back decades. But in recent years, militant statements from Chinese officials and increasingly aggressive maneuvers by the Chinese military have raised fears that China might actually invade Taiwan, potentially drawing the United States into a war with another nuclear power.

Our guest, New Yorker staff writer Dexter Filkins, says that in war games staged by U.S. commanders several times a year, scenarios emerge in which a war over Taiwan leads to U.S. attacks on the Chinese mainland and Chinese attacks on Alaska and Hawaii. Filkins chronicles the fascinating history that led to the current confrontation and analyzes the prospects for war and peace in a new article titled "A Dangerous Game Over Taiwan." Dexter Filkins is a veteran foreign correspondent who's reported from many conflict zones. He shared a Pulitzer Prize in 2009 with a team of New York Times journalists for their coverage of Iraq and Afghanistan. Filkins is author of the book "The Forever War" and the winner of two George Polk prizes. He joined The New Yorker staff in 2011.

Dexter Filkins, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

DEXTER FILKINS: Hi. Thanks so much.

DAVIES: Let's start with the meeting this week between President Biden and Xi Jinping on Monday. Warm handshakes, no treaty signed, no joint communique, no resolution of anything - this was regarded as hopeful by some. What's your take on what we saw?

FILKINS: Well, I mean, it's always hopeful if they're shaking hands. But I think the much broader context is that what's happening is, I think, the emergence of a kind of new cold war between the United States and China. And basically that's happened as China's economic power and its military power have grown so rapidly and so impressively over the last 20 years that it's kind of now in a position to challenge the United States pretty much across the globe economically and increasingly militarily. And so if you - the real flashpoint here is Taiwan, for the moment. But they're competing everywhere. I mean, they're competing across - particularly in the Western Pacific, where we have a lot of allies and a lot of Democratic allies, like Japan and South Korea. And so these are just two - you know, these are two prize fighters who are eyeing each other.

DAVIES: A lot of people have little sense of kind of how big or important a place Taiwan is. Just - I don't know. How large, how populous is it?

FILKINS: It's got a population of about 28 million people. So it's sort of population of Florida. It's about 200 miles long, and it's about 100 miles off the coast of the Chinese mainland. And it's kind of at the southern end of the South China Sea. So it's in the kind of western Pacific. It's - I roamed the length of the island. There's - it's beautiful. Taipei, the capital, which is really sophisticated place, is in the northern end. There's tropical forests in the south. There's mountains in the middle. There's really beautiful beaches. So it's a really interesting and fun place to run around.

DAVIES: There's been all of this saber rattling, you know, threatening maneuvers from the Chinese military and U.S. responses. You know, you write in this article that you went to Taiwan kind of expecting to see an embattled nation getting ready for a fight. What did you find?

FILKINS: Yeah, it's true. I mean, I read a lot before I went there, but I sort of figured, you know, that I would see a bit of Israel there. It's another really small democracy surrounded by enemies. And, you know, when you go to Israel, like, they're ready to go, you know (laughter)? All you got to do is, like, if your phone rings, you're ready to go. Everybody serves in the military, men and women, for at least two years. And they are - it's a warrior state. And they need to be. And I kind of figured I'd find a bit of that in Taiwan. And really, I didn't see any of it. It was, like, completely the opposite (laughter). It was shocking in that way how low key everything was when sort of the whole world, the United States, everywhere, are talking about - the whole world's talking about Taiwan. What's going to happen? What are the Chinese going to do? The Chinese have been, you know, for years, but especially recently, been making all these preparations, which look very ominous and making really threatening statements. It seems like everybody in the world is concerned about it except them.

DAVIES: How do you explain that? Is the government soft-pedaling the message?

FILKINS: Not - I - sort of, but I think - for me, it was explained by it's just been going on for so long. So, I mean, how long can everybody stay kind of pumped up and full of adrenaline? And I think the answer is you can't. And so people are getting on with their lives. And, you know, it's a democracy. It's a free market economy. It's a super sophisticated economy. It's one of the most important places in the world for the global economy. People are, like, living their lives, you know. And it's a busy place. And so if there isn't - you know, if there aren't Chinese jets flying over the capital, nobody's really thinking about it.

DAVIES: We'll talk in more depth about the military situation there. But in general, as you experienced it, what was your sense of the quality of the readiness of the Taiwanese military and the sense of civilian population ready to mobilize if something happens?

FILKINS: They say they're ready. You know, they say they're very wary, and they're ready to go. But there's not a lot of evidence that. I mean, there really isn't. They have a formidable - Taiwan has a very formidable military. They have cruise missiles. They have American jets. They have submarines. So on paper, it's very, very impressive. But, of course, they're facing, you know, one of the largest armies, the largest army in the world. But I didn't - again, when you run around Taiwan, when you walk the streets in Taipei, when you talk to people, you just don't see much of it. And so in that sense, it's kind of disconcerting.

DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you. We're going to take a little break here. We are speaking with Dexter Filkins. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker. His new article about the risk of war between China and the United States is titled "Dangerous Game Over Taiwan." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with New Yorker staff writer Dexter Filkins. His latest article looks at the history of the conflict between China and Taiwan and increased tensions that analysts fear could lead to war. The article is titled "Dangerous Game Over Taiwan."

I want to talk about the history of this conflict. It was fascinating to read about this because I think I had a pretty simplistic view of it. Taiwan is this island. It was actually held by the Japanese for decades before World War II. But then in the 1940s, there was the civil war on the Chinese mainland between the Communists, led by Mao Zedong, and the anti-Communist forces led by Chiang Kai-shek. What happened there that changed the course of Taiwan?

FILKINS: Yeah, it's super interesting. The short version is the Chinese civil war, which had been going on for years, but it kind of came to an end in 1949 with the victory of Mao Zedong and the Communist forces on the mainland against the forces of the Kuomintang led by Chiang Kai-shek. And basically, what happens is Chiang Kai-shek retreated to Taiwan and took literally a million people with him. And at the time, I think the population of Taiwan was about 6 million. So kind of 1 in 7 people came from the mainland. And so they they kind of envision Taiwan as like a fortress. And we will hold out against the communists and one day return. And we will invade the mainland and take over - which, of course, never happened. So in a sense, what we're seeing here is the last battle of the Chinese civil war, which is still unfolding.

DAVIES: What kind of government did - I mean, Chiang Kai-shek essentially ruled Taiwan for - what? - 20, 30 years. What kind of government did he run? What was society like?

FILKINS: Yeah, almost 40 years. And he was, you know, iron fisted, repressive, no free speech, no free press, no other political parties except for the Kuomintang. And it was basically, I mean, what amounted to a military dictatorship for almost four years. And what's remarkable, really, is that since the late 1980s - I mean, Chiang Kai-shek died in 1975, but since the late 1980s, you've had the birth of, the evolution of, the development of this really kind of thriving democracy, which is now kind of where we are today. But you had this long period of repression, really severe repression, you know, thousands of political prisoners, thousands of people dead up until, you know, that really repressive period, up until like the middle 1970s going into the late 1980s.

DAVIES: And during those early decades, what was the United States' posture towards mainland China and Taiwan?

FILKINS: Well, this is where it becomes an almost kind of surreal (laughter) - this story. So if you go back to the civil war, the communists take over, Mao Zedong. Mao takes over in the late 1940s. And Chiang Kai-shek goes to Taiwan as the Republic of China. So you have the People's Republic, and you have the Republic of China in Taiwan. And so for the next 30 years, until 1979, until Jimmy Carter was president, that - I mean, I'm fudging the dates a little bit here, but roughly for about 30 years, you had - the United States was essentially recognizing Taiwan and the Republic of China as the representative of the Chinese people.

So until the early 1970s, Taiwan, as the Republic of China, this tiny island, had a seat on the U.N. Security Council as one of the five permanent members. And so that's how kind of odd things were. And, of course, that was a result of the Cold War. You know, the world was kind of polarized into two camps, sort of, you know, the communists on one side - that's the People's Republic of China and the Soviet Union - and then the Republic of China, ie, Taiwan, was with the West. And so we were kind of - we, the United States, were kind of willing to sustain this fiction that the Republic of China was actually representative of the people on the mainland.

DAVIES: Right. And this became increasingly unrealistic over time. And eventually, I think it was Jimmy Carter who actually recognized the government in Beijing as the representative of mainland China and withdrew recognition from diplomatic recognition from Taiwan. Do I have that right?

FILKINS: That's right. That's right. I mean, there's a kind of famous moment in the early '70s when Henry Kissinger and then Nixon went to - President Nixon went to China. But it was - ultimately, it was Jimmy Carter broke relations with Taiwan and then established them with the People's Republic as the kind of you are - we do formally indeed recognize you as the government of China, even though you're communists and you're a dictatorship, et cetera, et cetera. But yeah, that's the big - the big turn comes in 1979.

DAVIES: And yet Taiwan remains an ally of sorts, right? I mean, it's allowed to keep diplomats in Washington as long as they don't call it an embassy.

FILKINS: Yeah. It's, you know, diplomacy, you know, diplomacy historically and kind of globally always is kind of based in these strange formalities that often amount to fictions. And so we say we don't have diplomatic - we, the United States, we say we don't have diplomatic relations with Taiwan. But but really, we do in every kind of formal way. There's a kind of beautiful - I mean, can't call it an embassy, but there's this beautiful old house in the middle of Washington, D.C., in Cleveland Park, where the embassy is, the Taiwanese embassy is.

But we don't have formal diplomatic relations with them. But we have what amounts to an ambassador in Taiwan. They have what amounts to an ambassador here. But we just can't say it out loud. And that's what's so kind of odd about all this stuff. Like, Taiwan isn't formally a country, an independent state. We don't call it that. But it's part of the People's Republic of China either. So it exists in this kind of strange limbo.

DAVIES: In the height of the Cold War, I think there were U.S. troops on Taiwan, there are no longer and were not once things changed. But while the U.S. posture, you know, evolves, so does the island, the nation, the island of Taiwan, right? There's increasing democracy. And the successors to Chiang Kai-shek, that repressive anti-communist who ruled for so long, took a different approach to relations with China. What did we see?

FILKINS: Well, it's been kind of an evolution over time. But basically, you have kind of basically two main trends that start in the 1980s. And one is kind of the birth of the Taiwanese democracy, which is real and kind of in full flower today. But then you've had kind of two opposite trends. And beginning in the late 1980s, you had this kind of - you had a sense, and it was generational, that we, the Taiwanese, are part of China, in fact. We, you know, historically, we have been part of China. And one day, we will be part of China again.

And so in '90s and in the early 2000s, you had this kind of pretty sincere effort on both sides, including in Taiwan, to kind of integrate their two countries, if not politically, then economically. And then what's happened since then is kind of a complete reversal of that. And so as Taiwan has become more democratic, what's happened essentially is that people don't want to be part of China. And so they've moved away from China. So the - all the economic and diplomatic integration that was happening over the course of 20, 30 years, all that's been reversed. And it's basically been reversed because the people don't want it and Taiwan's a democracy whereas the - you know, the People's Republic is not. But people don't want to be part of China. And again, that was kind of generational. The old people were like - the older generation was - a lot of them came from China. They had - you know, the grandparents were in China. But the young people, they just - they don't feel a connection.

DAVIES: Yeah, this is fascinating. I mean, you write that people who - after the Chinese Civil War, for decades, couldn't see relatives that stayed behind on the mainland. And then, this period of engagement occurred, and there were flights, and people got to, you know, do business and meet relatives. And there is this younger generation who grew up in Taiwan, who don't see themselves as part of the legacy of the Chinese Civil War. And you write about a couple of interesting Taiwanese university students - Truman Chen, Sandra Ho - who became kind of cultural influences. Tell us their story.

FILKINS: (Laughter) They're, like, really fun. The - I met these - so I met these two young - I mean, I think they're 30 or so, these two young Taiwanese. And when they were in college, was the kind of - the integration of China and Taiwan was, like, in full flower. So they did this kind of exchange trip to mainland China. And they found themselves - the Chinese government was rolling out all these singers to sing these propaganda songs about, you know, Taiwan and the People's Republic will, you know, walk hand in hand through the green pastures together. And they found themselves just guffawing with laughter, like, at the absurdity of it. And so they started making fun of it, and they started making fun of it online, on social media, with their friends. And everybody, like all their friends, found that when they went back to Taiwan. They found it to be kind of hilarious.

And so one thing led to another. And today, they have this superpopular TV show on YouTube that gets, like, a huge number - I mean, it gets as many as a million viewers every - it comes on like three times a week - every time it comes on the air. It's basically like the "Saturday Night Live" news update. It's kind of a fake newscast. And - but they take real clips and real news, most of it from China. And they just basically make fun of them all day long. And it kind of, for me, kind of accentuates - you know, like, China for them is like this kind of crazy neighbor or, like, maybe like a kind of crazy relative that is just good for comic material, and you kind of make fun of. But they don't feel like they're part of China at all.

DAVIES: How has China set out to isolate Taiwan in the world as this tension has grown?

FILKINS: Well, it's really interesting, their efforts. And they've succeeded. So Taiwan, again, it kind of exists in this weird state. You know, they're not part of China, but they're not really a fully independent country, at least by the rules of international diplomacy. And that's largely because the Chinese, the People's Republic, has succeeded in successfully kind of painting them into a corner. And the way - they've done things like they've made sure that Taiwan has no seat in the United Nations. And they have no seat in virtually any international organization like, say, the World Health Organization. They just don't.

And so - and then, the other way in which - one other way in which the People's Republic has been really effective at isolating Taiwan is they've pressured other countries to sever diplomatic relations with Taiwan so that Taiwan now, I think, is recognized by only 14 countries in the world. So only 14 countries out of whatever - 155 - have diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Nobody else does. And they're - and the ones that do are getting pressured every day by the Chinese to drop.

And they're getting pressured - they're getting - I mean, it's kind of carrot and stick. So kind of one by one, China has kind of knocked off virtually every country in the world that has had diplomatic relations with Taiwan. And so of the 14 countries that are left, like, you know, you look at the list, and it's like - and it, you know, doesn't include the United States. It doesn't include the countries of Europe. It's basically like island countries like Tuvalu. You know, it's other tiny islands that are feeling extremely vulnerable.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Dexter Filkins. He is a staff writer for The New Yorker. His new article about the risk of war between China and the United States is titled "Dangerous Game Over Taiwan." He'll be back to talk more after a short break. I am Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I am Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Our guest is New Yorker staff writer Dexter Filkins whose latest article looks at the history of the conflict between China and Taiwan and increased tensions that analysts fear could lead to a war that could draw the United States into conflict with China, another nuclear power. Filkins' article is titled "Dangerous Game Over Taiwan." So the current president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-Wen, is disinterested in, you know, unification with the mainland. But there are people within Taiwan who do believe in closer ties and ultimate unification, a lot of people with business relationships, right?

FILKINS: Yes. Yeah. And that's where it gets really complicated. So dating to the late 1980s when the kind of big event in 1989, when the Chinese government, government of the People's Republic, massacred hundreds of students - mostly students, young people who were demonstrating in Tiananmen Square, the West reacted pretty strongly, severed economic relations across the board. China was very isolated at the time just when Taiwan was kind of taking off economically.

And so what developed and what has kind of really developed over - you know, over the last 30 years is huge investment, Taiwanese investment in China - huge numbers, tens of thousands of Taiwanese living in China owning businesses, enormous businesses. I mean, you know, for instance, Foxconn, which is one of the largest companies in the world - most successful companies in the world that assembles, you know, practically every iPhone that makes its way into America, that's a Taiwanese company. And so that has kind of brought these two countries very close together. So when you - whatever sentiment there is in Taiwan for kind of closer relations with China, it's in the business community. And that's really where you find it.

And so I talked to some businesses, for instance, and some Taiwanese businesses with big operations in China. And they're very kind of - they have a much more sanguine view of the People's Republic. They're like, look, you know, we've been doing this for a long time. We - you know, we operate these huge businesses there. It's very, very profitable not just for us, but for - you know, for the Taiwanese economy. We have thousands and thousands of Taiwanese who live there. They send money home, etc., etc. So they just have a very kind of - it's a much more positive view of the People's Republic than the overall population.

DAVIES: So let's talk about the military situation, which has changed a lot. But - you know, but first, let's just - apart from the interests of the Taiwanese and their own independence, what is the strategic significance, more broadly, of Taiwan in the Pacific?

FILKINS: Well, I think if you stand way back, Taiwan is a democracy and a really flourishing democracy along, say, with other democracies there in the region - so Japan, South Korea. And the other really important aspect of it is economic, which - it's really kind of a - and we can talk about this. But basically, because of its very sophisticated semiconductor industry, like, it - Taiwan occupies a kind of absolutely central place in the global economy, which renders it extremely important.

But I think it's even - if we had a map in front of us, I would sort of draw a line from, like, Northern Japan, kind of southwest, 3,000 miles down, say, the arc of the Chinese coastline. And in kind of military terms, it's known as the first island chain. And kind of - basically, China is kind of, I don't want to say hemmed in, but it's bordered by a long string, a long archipelago that moves about 3,000 miles from the northeast to the southwest. And what that does effectively is it makes the Chinese navy - it makes it very difficult for them to operate in the open seas. It makes it a lot easier for, say, countries like the United States to keep an eye on them. And so Taiwan is a kind of anchor of that.

And if you shift back to economics again, those sea lanes, the ones that run along the Chinese coast and through the South China Sea, up to Japan over to the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, those are some of the busiest sea lanes in the world. And we're talking trillions of dollars of economic value moving through those sea lanes every year. And again, Taiwan is a kind of central piece of that. And the Taiwan Strait's a kind of central part of that, all of which would be changed enormously if Taiwan were suddenly not a democracy and kind of part of the West, essentially. It would be a very, very changed globe that we would be operating in, principally in the Western Pacific.

DAVIES: If it were part of China, you would have the Chinese in control of these enormous maritime assets and sea lanes, which would change kind of the military situation?

FILKINS: Yeah. I mean, I think - it would change the military situation, but also the economic one. I mean, I think those sea lanes, which were, if not the busiest in the world then some of the busiest in the world, would no longer necessarily be open. The freedom of navigation, the law of the sea, all of those things, which, essentially, international treaties signed by most of the countries of the world, including China, essentially posit and guarantee freedom of navigation in international waters throughout the globe - all these things are demarcated and defined in the law of the sea. China has made it absolutely clear, absolutely clear that they don't buy any of that.

And so essentially, if the Chinese - if the People's Republic came to dominate the Western Pacific, I think it's fair to say all bets would be off. And I mean say the assumption of freedom of navigation, the freedom of commerce in the area - of ships to move through the area, all those things would suddenly be in play. And so that's a very different world.

DAVIES: And China now has the world's largest navy, right?

FILKINS: It has the world's largest navy. And that's kind of the backdrop for this whole conversation. And so as they become wealthier, they have - you know, of course, they have more resources to spend on their military. And - but that's what they've done. And so now they have the largest military in the world.

DAVIES: So what are some of the moves, the military maneuvers, that China has engaged in, say, in the last ten years, which have created such concern for Western leaders?

FILKINS: What's happened increasingly over the last decade, but really, really accelerated in the past - just past few months, is the People's Republic has made it increasingly clear that it doesn't - A, doesn't recognize Taiwanese sovereignty, but doesn't recognize, say, even the international sea lanes that go through the Taiwan Strait. So just, say, recently over the summer, the Chinese Foreign Ministry declared that it had sovereignty over the Strait of Taiwan, which is an international waterway, according to the Law of the Sea, which the People's Republic is a signatory to. But they basically said, look, this is ours. And we're going to treat it as though it's ours. And then as - and if we - if we just take the moment to focus on Nancy Pelosi's visit in August, when things really cranked up, the Chinese military has begun a series of continuing and very relentless military exercises. So they have flown dozens and dozens of military jets into - across the median line, which is the middle of the Taiwan Strait, which has kind of been the unofficial border between the two countries. So it's international airspace, but it's very, very symbolic.

They've done naval exercises in which they practice the blockade of Taiwan. And they've done missile tests and the missiles of which have landed in Taiwanese waters. So it's really - and they're still going. They haven't really turned the volume down on this stuff. So it's just this kind of relentless, kind of unending series of military exercises that have been going on over the last - basically since the summer.

DAVIES: Right. And the United States has responded to a lot of these moves by sending military assets, particularly naval assets in and, I guess, planes as well. So all of that stuff is indicating a very more - a much more aggressive posture by China. Meanwhile, what has Xi Jinping himself said about Taiwan and his plans for its future?

FILKINS: Well, this very interesting. I mean, again, it goes back a long way, but I think it's important to remember that the People's Republic, the Chinese government regards Taiwan as part of China in that - and they regard this conflict over Taiwan as essentially an unfinished piece or the last battle of the Chinese civil war. And so Taiwan is part of China as far as they're concerned. And every Chinese government since Mao Zedong has said so and has said essentially one day Taiwan will be reunited with China, you know, one way or another.

And the - what's different now is that Xi Jinping is essentially - I mean, he just said this earlier this year and a couple of years ago as well - this is a problem which cannot be passed to the next generation. In other words, we're going to solve this thing. If you don't want to solve it, we're going to solve it. And he's said - he's made it very clear we are not going to rule out the use of military force. And so I think those two statements together - we're not going to rule out military force and we're not going to push this down to the next generation - that's what got everybody's attention.

DAVIES: Yeah, essentially saying we are going to see reunification on my watch.

FILKINS: On my watch. And he was just, you know, he was just reelected to a third term. So, yeah. So the question is like, is he serious? And if he is serious, when's it going to happen and how is it going to happen?

DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you again. We're going to take a little break here. We are speaking with Dexter Filkins. He's the staff writer for The New Yorker. His new article is titled "Dangerous Game Over Taiwan." We'll continue our conversation after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And our guest is New Yorker staff writer Dexter Filkins. His latest article looks at the conflict between China and Taiwan and risks that a war could draw the United States into conflict with China. The article is titled "Dangerous Game Over Taiwan."

You talked to somebody at the RAND Corporation who - a former Pentagon official who several times a year runs war games, trying to map all this out or play scenarios in which top U.S. commanders participate. I was a little surprised to hear they would talk to you about this.

FILKINS: (Laughter) It's pretty amazing. It was like a great conversation. So there's this guy at the RAND Corporation. His name is Dave Ochmanek. Yeah, he's in my story. And these things are happening all the time. But several times a year, the U.S. stages a war game over Taiwan. And so - and I think, you know, you're talking about everybody standing around a giant map. And it's just, you know, it's like a board game. You know, you've got the navies and the ships and the air forces. And, I mean, they're, you know, more sophisticated than a board game, but essentially that. And the guys who are playing the Chinese commanders, they're kind of steeped in Chinese military strategy. They kind of know the politics. They're trying to mimic the Chinese as best they can. And then there's the - then there's like the Taiwanese military, and there's the U.S. military. And several times a year, they get together and they game it out.

DAVIES: And what happens? Well, I guess a lot of things - I guess a lot of scenarios emerge. But what are some of the more troubling ones?

FILKINS: Well, the really the really shocking one was that the U.S. usually loses. And - but the other one, which is probably the most sobering, is that often a lot of people die. You know, they're very, very heavy losses. And so the war escalates very quickly, you know, depending on how it starts. But the war escalates very quickly and into something enormous. And there's a professor quoted in my story who said, you know, in some of these simulations, hundreds of thousands of people die. So that's what we're talking about here. I mean, we're talking about kind of, you know, the two largest armies and navies and air forces in the world fighting over this one place.

DAVIES: And maybe we should just clarify this. I mean, the United States does not have a treaty obligation to defend Taiwan, right? I mean, it doesn't even recognize it as a country, right?

FILKINS: Well, that's right. And that's where, again, you come back to this kind of very - and this threads the whole history of Taiwan, the ambiguity. Like, what is it? So basically, since 1979, the U.S. has not been legally obliged - that is, by treaty - to come the defence of Taiwan. We have no legal obligation under treaty to protect them as, say, we do Poland, which is a member of NATO. You know, an attack on Poland is an attack on the United States for all practical purposes. Not true with Taiwan - used to be. But what does exist is this kind of very vague - not super vague but a vague commitment to defend Taiwan, where a succession of American presidents all the way up to Joe Biden - and we'll get to that in a second - have said essentially, yeah, like, we'll probably defend Taiwan if it's attacked. And so - and that's what the Chinese are dealing with, essentially, which is, like, if we try to take Taiwan, what's the United States going to do? And the most that American presidents have been willing to say since 1980 has been, like, maybe we will. Maybe we'll defend Taiwan. So we're not legally obliged to defend Taiwan. We probably - you know, we've left ourselves a lot of room for maneuver and room to say, like, actually, we decided not to. But that's kind of where we are at the moment. And actually, you know, that's changed rather dramatically just in the past 12 months under President Biden.

DAVIES: You mean he's been more explicit in saying we will defend Taiwan.

FILKINS: That's right. That's right. I mean, he's been super clear about it. And, you know, you just kind of barely notice these things in the United States because they just go by. But he's - they don't just go by in Taiwan. Like, everybody's paying attention. And so - but President Biden, clearly - I mean, this is, like, not by accident because he's done it four times. He said we will defend Taiwan if it is attacked. We will. And he's made that extremely clear. And I remember he did it - he's done it four times. And I remember the last time he did it, I got a text message from a very senior Taiwanese official saying, fourth time, fourth time. So, like, they're paying attention. It's important to them. And so, again, the United States is not legally obliged to defend Taiwan, but increasingly, it appears that we are willing to do so.

DAVIES: I mean, the other thing, of course, that happens is the United States could move to arm Taiwan, and it has plans to do so. I mean, you're right that they want to upgrade Taiwan's military hardware and provide more training. It was shocking to me to read that this has been hard to do because the United States has a shortage of military goods, in part due to the conflict in Ukraine. You quote a senior administration official as saying the Ukraine war has showed us we don't have the ammunition stocks to sustain a medium-sized war. We don't have the industrial base. I mean, I think people think of the United States as, you know, this is the arsenal of democracy in World War II. Really? We don't have the industrial base to meet military needs?

FILKINS: It's astonishing, really, when you think about it. But - and we don't. And the answer is, like, the warehouses are empty. And not only are the warehouses empty, but the factories to produce and to produce the weapons quickly don't exist. Like, they're gone. So, like, you know, there's one factory that makes, like, Stinger missiles, and they're working all the time, you know? But it's only one factory. And so somebody actually said to me - this was - a senior American naval officer said to me, what happens if the Chinese, like, sink an aircraft carrier? You know how long it takes to build an aircraft carrier? You know, he's like, we can't - he literally said we cannot match them carrier for carrier. We can't do it. We don't have the industrial base.

DAVIES: We're going to take a little break here. We are speaking with Dexter Filkins. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker. His new article about the risk of war between China and the United States is titled "Dangerous Game Over Taiwan." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with New Yorker staff writer Dexter Filkins. His latest article looks at the history of the conflict between China and Taiwan and increased tensions that analysts fear could lead to war. The article is titled "Dangerous Game Over Taiwan."

One of the other things you write is that a deterrent to war is Taiwan's role in producing semiconductors. I mean, it is absolutely critical. It provides them to both - what? - China and the United States for all kinds of critical things. Is that a deterrent to a Chinese attack or an American response or both?

FILKINS: Well, it depends on who you talk to. It's an incredible situation. I mean, you have Taiwan, an island off the coast of, let's say, America's principal adversary. On that island are manufactured something like 90% of the world's advanced semiconductors. And so as more than a couple of people said to me, but one person in particular, if Taiwan - if those factories on Taiwan were shut down, either because they were damaged or because the Chinese took them, for any reason, the industrialized world would go into the Stone Age - that essentially everything from iPhones to cars to missile systems, all that stuff, everything, every modern piece of equipment needs an advanced semiconductor that is - that at least a piece of which is finished or manufactured in Taiwan. That's how crucial Taiwan is to the global economy. And so you kind of stand back and go, my God, you know, the Chinese definitely know this 'cause they buy billions of dollars' worth of chips from the Taiwanese every year. But that's like - that's the big prize in the middle of the island.

DAVIES: You write that an invasion of Taiwan would not be easy just because of the geography, right?

FILKINS: Yeah, it's amazing. I mean, who knew? But there's something like 14 beaches of - only 14 beaches in Taiwan that could hold maybe a battalion of troops each, a battalion being about 800 troops. And the beaches are too shallow to hold troops. The ones that are bigger don't have any roads connected to them. They go into mountains and jungles. The approaches to those beaches are filled with mud. (Laughter) And so - and they're too shallow. And so it's kind of a mess. And so what - I spoke to a guy named Richard Chen, who is the deputy defense minister in Taiwan. And he said to me, I don't think the Chinese will invade, and I think it would be a disaster for them.

But he said, I - but I don't think they'll invade because I don't think they have to. And so that came back to his larger point, which was his biggest fear is not an invasion; it's a blockade because Taiwan has to, like, import everything. And that's the greater fear. It's not an invasion. It's something less that won't require, won't demand a kind of - it's not dramatic enough to get people fired up in the U.S. but which is very effective. Taiwan is an island. It's incredibly vulnerable to a cutoff of raw materials, food - in the case of Taiwan, anything having to do with semiconductors.

But if you just take, for instance, electricity, the majority of electricity in Taiwan is generated by power plants, the runoff of liquefied natural gas. Taiwan has about a seven-day supply of liquefied natural gas, which is very difficult to store. It comes in on ships. What if China tomorrow just started flagging those ships? Taiwan would go dark in a couple of weeks. And you can kind of go down the list - food, internet, everything. And it's very, very vulnerable to a blockade or even less, just ships getting stopped, like oil tankers and natural gas tankers, that kind of stuff.

DAVIES: You know, one of the things that you discovered in your conversations was that some American officials are concerned that President Xi Jinping, who is, you know, aggressive but not reckless, might not have all the information he needs. What are they talking about?

FILKINS: Well, I think, over time, since he became the leader of the party, he's increasingly isolated himself. And so there's a concern that he's simply not - you know, this happens with dictators, like, throughout history. They don't have anybody who will tell them the truth. And so there's that concern. And I think the other concern, which, I think, became a concern in the Trump administration and the Biden administration - which is that attempts by us to get messages to Xi have failed. And so Matt Pottinger, who's the deputy national security adviser for President Trump, said, we basically concluded that the messages that we were sending through channels that we thought were reliable were not getting through. And so I think it's that kind of concern, which is like you pick the phone up and nobody's there.

DAVIES: Dexter Filkins, thanks so much for speaking with us again.

FILKINS: Thank you, sir, really appreciate it.

DAVIES: Dexter Filkins is a staff writer for The New Yorker. His new article about the risk of war between China and the United States is titled "Dangerous Game Over Taiwan."


DAVIES: We want to end today's show by saluting our dear friend and colleague, Marty Moss-Coane, who, for 35 years, has hosted WHYY's morning show Radio Times, which will have its final broadcast tomorrow. Longtime listeners to FRESH AIR may remember when Marty filled in for Terry during the early years of the show. After 35 years, Marty deserves a break from the grind of a daily show. But she'll be back on WHYY early next year with a new program called The Connection. Best of luck, and congratulations, Marty.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.


Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.