Global leaders cannot sit idly by as the world order faces increasing threats; instead, they will need to be proactive to secure the future.
That was one of many takeaways from the latest group of Millennium fellows to go on their study tour abroad to one of the geopolitical frontlines around the globe, an experience offered as part of their fellowship program. For this tour, the 2023 fellows visited Taiwan to meet with government officials, private sector innovators, and civil society groups to discuss the challenges that leaders contend with today and will continue to contend with in the future. Below are our fellows’ takeaways from the trip—which was supported by the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office—touching upon everything from how leaders should prioritize their countries’ needs to the role of education in building future security.
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Don’t forget the vulnerabilities
Our cohort engaged in a war game simulation in which we assumed the roles of key countries and international institutions to strategize on how to respond to a de facto blockade of the Taiwan Strait by China. The most exigent risk from the blockade that we needed to address was Taiwan’s dependence on imports for 98 percent of its energy needs. Furthermore, Hsinchu Science Park—an industrial hub devoted to scientific and technological development, which we also visited—singlehandedly consumes 10 percent of Taiwan’s energy. We thus saw how Taiwan’s public and industry would be negatively impacted very early on in the contingency of a blockade, even if the United States were to expediently pressure China to eventually reverse course. Taiwan, like many countries, seeks to increase its renewable energy capacity, but the war game suggested that Taiwan has significant energy-security risks.
At Hsinchu Science Park, we learned about Taiwan’s global leadership in semiconductors and the dominant role this sector plays in the Taiwanese economy. Recently, the founder of semiconductor manufacturer Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. expressed concerns that US-China economic tensions and technological competition could have global fallout, eventually slowing global chip production, including in Taiwan. Semiconductor exports contribute a quarter of Taiwan’s gross domestic product, and so any disruptions to domestic chip manufacturing pose grave risks to Taiwan’s current economic model.
More broadly, these two experiences underscored for me how important it is for leaders—of countries, companies, and other organizations nationally and internationally—to preemptively address vulnerabilities. It is often difficult to effectively address challenges after they fully manifest, particularly if they are precipitated by sources outside of one’s control (including geopolitical developments). Instead, leaders should focus on shoring up operational resilience in order to ensure that vulnerabilities don’t give way to crises.
—Tara Hariharan is a 2023 Millennium Leadership fellow and managing director of global macro research and head of research at the New York-based hedge fund NWI Management LP.
Leaders need to listen: People face different challenges from a variety of directions
We arrived in Taiwan as it was gearing up for the January 2024 presidential election, which—like many Taiwanese elections—will be seen as a referendum on the future of US-China-Taiwan relations.
But there are other issues that Taiwanese voters are considering heading into the elections.
From our meetings with people from various parts of Taiwanese society—including people from academia, civil society, and the private sector—we heard repeatedly what the election means for the younger generation of voters. We heard that young voters are dissatisfied with their economic prospects and feel worse off than their parents’ generations as they continue to face a competitive job market, low wages, and high rents. Many young people, increasingly frustrated with the two main political parties, seem poised to vote for the candidate of the newer Taiwan People’s Party, Ko Wen-je, who they view as honest, straightforward, and social media-savvy.
Taiwan is incredibly energy insecure and has high energy demand to fuel the island’s world-leading semiconductor industry. The ruling Democratic Progressive Party is pressing ahead with plans to possibly phase down nuclear power, and much of the public agrees. But the business community, typically a supporter of the Kuomintang party, is concerned about the economic and geopolitical implications.
There are many other issues the Taiwanese people will be thinking about when they head to the polls—immigration, indigenous people’s rights, childcare, eldercare, and healthcare, to name a few. But while economic issues may be the most pressing, China isn’t too far from the minds of voters. Some millennials our cohort spoke with even noted that their choice to not have children is impacted by the geopolitical situation.
The pre-election period was an opportune moment to learn more about what matters to Taiwanese people, and that is clearly a variety of things far beyond geopolitics. Global leaders are challenged to respond to a variety of challenges simultaneously—remembering and being accountable to diverse opinions is an important part of effective decision making.
—Chynna Hawes is a 2023 Millennium Leadership fellow and director for China at Edelman Global Advisory.
What countries with shared values can learn from each other
During the trip, our cohort visited the beaches of the Kinmen Islands, where anti-landing barricades face China’s city of Xiamen. Our local guide was optimistic about the effectiveness of the barricades, saying that they ensure war between Taiwan and China is in the past and never returns. But as a Ukrainian participant living in a brutal, unprovoked full-scale Russian invasion of my country, I would recommend to the Taiwanese people to be prepared. Discussions on disaster planning, self-defense, mutual aid, and medical training are essential preparations for any unforeseen challenges. Being well-prepared is key to being resolute in the face of uncertainty.
The threat feels close on the Kinmen Islands: There’s no need to use binoculars to feel the power and might of Xiamen, only miles away across the water (and much closer than the main Island of Taiwan). Locals on the islands talk about building a bridge and connecting Kinmen with China, which to me immediately had unwelcome similarities to the Crimea bridge that connects the temporarily occupied peninsula with Russia—and now, during the war, serves as a logistics chain to provide weapons and occupy more territories of Ukraine. A bridge between Kinmen and China might endanger Taiwan’s national security. If the situation were to mirror what happened in Crimea, a bridge between Kinmen and China could even potentially pave a path for China’s wider takeover of Taiwan. Such an event, if following what happened in Crimea and the Donbas in 2014, could even unfold without provoking strong reactions from the United States and the democratic world.
Taiwan’s struggle for recognition and sovereignty, which it is undertaking while navigating its complex relationship with China, struck a chord with me as it evoked strong parallels with Ukraine’s own battle for democracy and sovereignty.
For me, a Ukrainian, the study tour in Taiwan was a deeply personal journey. It illuminated parallels between two seemingly distant geopolitical situations and offered valuable insights that resonate profoundly with Ukraine’s own fight for freedom and independence in the face of geopolitical complexities.
—Alyona Nevmerzhytska is a 2023 Millennium Leadership fellow and serves as chief executive officer of hromadske.ua, a Ukrainian independent online news media platform.
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China’s perspective on Taiwan shows how deterrence must evolve
As a military officer working on strategic deterrence operations in the Eastern Pacific, I always viewed China-Taiwan relations through a hard-power lens: a naval scramble for land to solidify territorial control, access to resources, and dominance of shipping lanes. After visiting the Taiwanese Foreign Ministry, I came away seeing the conflict as much more existential. The mere existence of a free Taiwan is existentially threatening to Chinese leader Xi Jinping, because (even though most Taiwanese citizens do not consider themselves Chinese) it shows Chinese citizens the true counterfactual: China need not be authoritarian to be prosperous.
Since the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) transition from a revolutionary party to a governing one, it has searched for legitimacy everywhere but the ballot box. Mao Zedong initially tried to base his legitimacy on a class struggle before lurching towards a cult of personality in the Cultural Revolution. Deng Xiaoping emerged from this chaos to use economic development as a sort of social contract: the CCP would lift millions out of poverty, industrialize the nation, and reliably increase the gross domestic product in exchange for the tacit consent of the governed. Xi lurched back towards authoritarianism after a steady trend of societal opening and faced minimal opposition in part due to the economic promise of his “Chinese Dream.”
Taiwan is the reality that challenges that dream. Since the end of martial law in Taiwan, people on the mainland gaze across the strait and see a people that China still considers to be Chinese, but who are able to enjoy both economic success and political liberty, showing that their Faustian bargain with a Hobbesian leviathan was unnecessary. There wasn’t some traditional, cultural, or Confucian reason why they had to trade their liberty for financial security. Taiwan by its existence shows they could have had both.
It is a story we’ve already seen play out in Ukraine as Russian President Vladimir Putin felt intellectually threatened by Ukrainian people he considered to be Russian moving closer to the West. Applying this insight to the world, one can imagine similar intellectual security dilemmas precipitating a new series of conflict less susceptible to traditional deterrence.
—Nathan Bruschi is a 2023 Millennium Leadership fellow and president and chief executive officer of Anchorwork Inc.
It may not be all about optics—but the optics have implications
At the end of the trip, as we stood on the beach on Kinmen Island overlooking China’s Xiamen City just a few miles away, I thought about how the threat of military force in Taiwan not only shows up in everyday life but also plays a role in US-China relations.
A large-scale conflict involving China and Taiwan would have significant human, economic, and geopolitical implications, but simply the credible threat of military force from China has the potential to impact policy. China’s ability to leverage its credible threat of military force in Taiwan—not just for geopolitical power, but for favorable economic and political agreements with the United States—is deeply concerning.
This dynamic is unfolding as the United States faces waning domestic support for US involvement in global conflict. As the most recent example, the US Congress has been split on approving additional defense funding for Ukraine. The optics that the United States may not have resounding support for defending Taiwan (with a recent poll finding that only a narrow majority of Americans support committing US troops if China were to exercise force) could impact China’s calculus in dealing with the United States.
While it may seem like military force is somewhere on the horizon, the impact of the threat of military force is already here in Taiwan—and globally.
Amid increasing geopolitical tensions—not just in Taiwan, but in Europe and the Middle East—this trip reinforced how important it is for leaders to recognize the impact that external perceptions of domestic public opinion can have.
—Connor James is a 2023 Millennium Leadership fellow and a senior director at Laurel Strategies.
Education’s impact on national security
On our second afternoon in Taipei, we visited the Junyi Academy, where we had the pleasure of speaking with Anting Liu, founder of Teach for Taiwan, and Shinjou Fang, chairman of the Chengzhi Education Foundation. These inspiring teachers at the forefront of a movement to improve Taiwan’s schools shared their perspectives on evolving societal priorities and the importance of education in defining national identity.
Before the turn of the millennium, Taiwan’s primary and secondary education system was highly centralized and prioritized Chinese language, culture, and history. Speakers throughout our visit shared their childhood memories of learning more about Chinese mountains and rivers than about those in Taiwan. These standards, they said, changed with the new millennium, when the Ministry of Education reformed its school system, decentralizing curriculums and pivoting toward Taiwanese history and heritage.
Our hosts explained that this focus on young pupils drove a seismic shift in cultural identity. Earlier generations identified more closely with their cross-strait neighbors, claiming shared Chinese-Taiwanese or exclusively Chinese ancestry. Today, when asked, a majority of the population identifies as Taiwanese, with smaller groups claiming sole or part Chinese heritage. These evolving attitudes can be seen in the success of the Democratic People’s Party, whose leaders leverage national identity as the basis for continued self-governance.
Some suggest these cultural changes present a provocation to China, whose leaders claim the right to rule the island. These people would argue that each additional step toward formal Taiwanese independence may increase the odds of Chinese action to gain control of the island, either through influence operations, economic pressure, or violence. During our trip, I saw that, particularly in countries facing geopolitical pressures, teachers play vital roles in cultivating resilience and strength in the minds of young people. For Taiwan, it is clear that these teachers help build the STEM foundation necessary to fuel the country’s ability to innovate. They instill information-literacy skills required to identify misinformation and disinformation, which are key tools used by ill-intentioned Chinese cyber actors. Most importantly, these instructors establish the civic baseline and cultural structure necessary to continue democratic self-governance in the face of direct pressure from an authoritarian neighbor. Their work proves invaluable in shaping future generations and strengthening a sense of cultural and national identity.
—Major Will LaRivee is a 2023 Millennium Leadership fellow and an F-22 instructor pilot in the US Air Force.
The Millennium Leadership Program aims to foster, connect, and empower the next generation of global leaders.