By Eric Vandenbroeck and
co-workers 9 April 2021
The Cross straights trouble
The public clash
between the top US and Chinese officials, Anthony Blinken
and Jake Sullivan and Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi, at their
high-profile meeting in Alaska on 18–19 March was a stark reminder of how
the world has changed, permanently.
recent virtual Quad summit with the prime ministers of India, Australia, and
Japan on the surface focused on regional security, emerging technologies, and
climate change. But beyond that, the Quad summit marked the official return and
strong embrace of this coordinating mechanism among maritime democracies to
ensure stability in the Indo-Pacific region. Initiated during the George W.
Bush administration to discuss regional security issues, today the Quad has a
greater purpose: addressing strategic competition with China. Although the Quad
is not a formal alliance, its renewed purpose has been catalyzed by China’s
growing regional assertiveness: the militarization of so-called reclamation
islands across the South China Sea; economic
coercion against Australia and other countries; coercive pressure on Japan in
the so-called East China Sea; and its
brinksmanship in the Himalayas, which resulted in the death of 20 Indian and what could have been as many as 34
clearly relying on Graham Allison's 2017 book, there was "2034:
A Novel of the Next World War" written by two former military
officers, James Stavridis and Elliot Ackerman which
was based on the premise that an overly tired American or Chinese
sailors in the South China Sea might make a mistake and start a war.
In fact, long before Graham
Allison's book, since at least the early 1990s, Chinas rise has been
identified as ‘a defining dement in post-Cold War international politics, and
questions have been asked about what China leaders might do to try to change
the world once they had the power to do so.1 We are now at a point when we no
longer need to use the future tense.
to Shaun Breslin, China's
identification as a global power became relatively common in the mid-2000s.
Still, it really became a well-established 'common sense’ position in the years
following the global financial crisis. And by 2012, surveys showed that China
was already popularly thought of as the world's leading economic power among
respondents in North America and Europe. And all of this was still before Xi Jinping begun to signal a new
direction for China, with both the desire and ability to take a new global
role. Which started in earnest when Xi
in 2014 started to promote what he called 'the China solution.'
Apart from the
general knowledge that the Chinese Communist Party has threatened to invade
Taiwan for more than seven decades, an article that decided us to take up the
subject if and how a potential future Pacific War could be avoided starting
with the consequential discussions following the
Treaty of Versailles and the 1941-1945 pacific
war appeared in The Diplomat on December 18, 2020, titled China’s
Military Actions Against Taiwan in 2021: What to Expect A look at the
security environment facing Taiwan in the upcoming year.
Recently an extensive
in-depth report described how the consequences of a war between the United
States and China, most likely over Taiwan, should preoccupy the USA is because 189
Million Americans could die.
In this context,
there also has been the suggestion that while Washington and Beijing were
trading blows, Russia
could threaten the Baltics, increase its presence in Ukraine, or provide
oil and weapon support to China.2 Iran would be unlikely to stand idle in the
Middle East in such a crisis, given U.S. attention directed elsewhere. Another
factor is the allied dimension. In matters ranging from technology issues to
criticism of China’s handling of Hong Kong, U.S. allies have sometimes been
hesitant to support Washington when American rhetoric and actions are deemed
too provocative or come with high economic costs.3 France and Germany refused
to support the United States in the 2003 Gulf conflict. In a U.S.-China war,
even Japan might not join the battle given its domestic politics and
constitutional constraints, and the United States could well fight alone,
shattering its alliance system...Until a few days ago, China now cautioned
Japan ahead of a US-Japan summit after Japanese Prime Minister
Yoshihide Suga suddenly said earlier this week that Japan could cooperate
with the US if there were a Taiwan issue...
Yet while at the
moment neither the US nor China is capable of imposing its will on the other at
acceptable cost or risk, and yet both countries hold preferences and
priorities that place them at sharp odds with each other, on first sight, one
would think the goal of America should be to channel China’s rise in the
direction of being ambitious without growing aggressive, toward either the
United States or its security partners. By concentrating on its own progress,
the United States could aim to outpace China in economic innovation and
outshine it in delivering better governance to its people. The United States
has a fundamental interest in preserving the credibility of its security
commitments, protecting its open access to Asia, upholding a dynamic international
order that is anchored in adherence to accepted rules and norms, and
preventing great power conflict...
But so then, where is the current problem?
Three factors are
feeding this current anxiety. The first is the assessment by many outside
experts that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which includes China’s navy,
air force, and strategic rocket arsenal, has reached or is very close to
reaching such a level of strength that attempting to forcibly compel Taiwan to
politically unify with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is a feasible
policy option. Among these assessments, none carried more weight than Admiral
Philip Davidson, chief of the U.S. military’s Indo-Pacific Command. In
February, Davidson opined before a U.S. Senate Committee that China might
try to seize Taiwan by military means “in the next six years.”
Lonnie Henley, a
former senior U.S. intelligence official, and now a George Washington
University professor, said he thinks the Chinese government set a goal of
being able by 2020 to invade Taiwan and probably now believes it has succeeded
successfully. Oriana Skylar Mastro of Stanford
University and the American Enterprise Institute reported in early 2021 that “Chinese military leaders
have told me that they will be ready within a year.”
The second factor
feeding fears of a cross-strait war is the recent intensification of PLA
military pressure on Taiwan. Chinese warplanes flew near Taiwan almost
daily in 2020. Up to 37 PLA aircraft flew across the Taiwan Strait's
midline, breaking what was previously a taboo that both sides generally respected.
This intimidation has continued into 2021. On one occasion, in January, 13 Chinese military aircraft flew
through Taiwan’s air defense identification zone. Chinese media said a PLA military exercise near the Taiwan Strait
in September 2020 was “not a warning, but a rehearsal for a Taiwan takeover.”
Chinese military activity prompted speculation that Beijing was preparing to capture the Pratas Islands, which the Republic of China (ROC) controls
but which lie some 250 miles from Taiwan's main island.
Military analysts say
Beijing likely intends this extended period of harassment to weaken not only
Taiwan’s morale, by signaling that its people will never be safe
until they agree to unification with the PRC,
but also Taiwan’s military readiness. The constant incursions force Taiwan to scramble its
own aircraft in response, stressing the ROC’s smaller air force's maintenance
The third factor
contributing to the war anxiety is the perception of a general increase in
Beijing’s foreign policy's aggressiveness. Observers point to China’s violent
border clash with India, stiffening Chinese defense of the “nine-dash line” in
the South China Sea as a Chinese territorial boundary, and the rise of “wolf
warrior” diplomacy. But many observers particularly believe that China’s
treatment of Hong Kong has immediate ramifications for Taiwan. One argument is that Beijing’s brazen dismantling of civil
liberties in Hong Kong, contravening China’s previous commitment to leaving
Hong Kong’s political system intact until 2047, clarifies that the Chinese
government is not deterred from taking military action against Taiwan by the
anticipated negative international reaction. Another argument is that Hong Kong
is a harbinger of aggressive PRC action against Taiwan because both are part of
the Chinese government’s irredentism project. With Hong Kong now truly
subjugated, Taiwan is next because it is the last large piece of
unrecovered territory in the eyes of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Finally, some argue the lack of effective U.S. pushback against the
Hong Kong clampdown will embolden Beijing to move more forcefully to impose its
will on Taipei.
To be sure, the PRC
threat to Taiwan has grown steadily, and the trends are still adverse. China’s
military budget is estimated at $250 billion annually, compared to only $11
billion for Taiwan. The PLA has 12 times the workforce of the ROC armed forces.
Last year the PLA Navy added 25 ships to its fleet, a rate neither Taiwan nor the
United States can match.
However, for Taiwan
and its friends, the situation is not as dire as portrayed by those warning
that Beijing will soon opt for war even in the absence of a major provocation
political reasons, China is extremely unlikely to embark on a war of choice
against Taiwan in the next year. In February 2022, Beijing will have the
opportunity to present itself in the best possible light to a massive
international audience when it hosts the Winter Olympics. The Chinese
government has invested lavishly. A cross-strait war would ruin this party. In
October 2022, the CCP will hold its 20th National Party Congress. Xi Jinping
will be up for a third term as CCP general secretary. It is hard to imagine Xi
starting an unnecessary war with Taiwan before his re-appointment because of
the high risk that war-related economic and even political turmoil would erode
Even with the PLA’s
improved capabilities, military action against Taiwan is a
perilous proposition for China. An attempted invasion across the strait
would involve the largest and most complex amphibious operation in history. A
military did this with no significant combat experience since 1979, when it
performed badly in a border war against Vietnam. China could more confidently
capture one of the ROC’s smaller outlying islands or impose a blockade on
Taiwan’s major ports, but neither of these approaches would guarantee Taipei’s
Chinese analyst Cui
Lei of the China Institute of International Relations recently argued that Chinese leaders feel compelled to maintain
an image of toughness toward Taiwan but have no intention to launch a military
attack in the foreseeable future. Cui argued that military action is daunting
because Taiwan’s people will not submit without a fight; the United States
would help defend Taiwan out of fear of losing U.S. leadership in the region;
China is not as militarily strong as the United States; the war would cause
discontent in China, and the international backlash would derail China’s
progress toward modernization.
As is required of any
paramount leader in China, Xi affirms his commitment to unification. But how
deeply Xi is committed to making Taiwan a province of the PRC during his tenure
is unknown. There are other issue areas where he could strive for
accomplishments to bolster his legacy, such as cleaning up and rejuvenating the
CCP, presiding over the successful restructuring of the Chinese economy,
ushering China out of the “middle-income
trap,” and of course,
blessing humanity with Xi Jinping Thought.
The notion that
Chinese aggressiveness on other fronts presages an attack on Taiwan is
questionable. The consequence of that aggressiveness is that China
simultaneously suffers from poor or damaged relations with India, Japan (due to
Islands dispute), Australia (economic coercion), some of the Southeast
Asian states (the South
China Sea dispute), and the United States (on several issues). On top of
this, China is battling against accelerated economic
decoupling, which could slow Chinese economic development. Already dealing
with multiple crises in its foreign relations is more likely to give Beijing
pause than to encourage the Chinese leadership to initiate an additional,
larger crisis. Hong Kong and Taiwan's situations, their relationships with
Beijing, and the PRC’s policies toward them are completely distinct. The
imposition of the National Security Law in Hong Kong is the culmination of a
political struggle that dates back to 2002 and is disconnected from the PLA's
readiness to go to war with Taiwan.
None of this is the
reason for complacency. For decades Taiwan has settled for a suboptimal defense
capability. But Taiwan no longer has the luxury of underperforming. The ROC
military suffers from several serious but fixable problems. Under the Overall
Defense Concept announced
in 2018, the ROC military will evolve away from small numbers of large,
prestigious, and expensive platforms and toward larger numbers of smaller, more
independent, and survivable combat units along with more emphasis on mundane but
important capabilities such as rapid airfield repair and mine laying and
sweeping. Taiwan’s government, however, has met entrenched opposition to these
reforms from some senior commanders. Moreover, military effectiveness is
limited by unmet recruiting targets, insufficient training of both conscripts
and reserves, and ammunition and spare parts shortages. It has been suggested
that Taiwan’s leaders must explain to their public the need to raise
defense spending above the accustomed 2 percent of GNP.
This is also
because Taiwan’s military is not optimally manned, trained, equipped, and motivated to defend against China's attack.
Efforts at defense reform face obstacles from institutional opposition from
senior officers and a lack of time. Whereby most agree that Taiwan’s
military doctrine for countering a Chinese invasion calls for an asymmetric
response, therefore shaping its force posture and acquisition of expensive and
high-end platforms, which is “high on prestige but of limited utility in an
actual conflict,” Hunzeker warned. This is
particularly the case, as the People’s Liberation Army has a qualitative
and quantitative edge over
In a speech
in February 2021 Xi Jinping stressed the significance of
studying Party history that "led
the people to create a new Chinese civilization with a long history.” Here
Xi, among others, links the Taiping rebellion, 1898 100 Days Reform, Boxer
rebellion and Xinhai Revolution as expressions of
The Xi factor
While in March 2014,
Xi started to publicly promote the use of 'China Solution' in Nov. 2014, he
established goals for a new role in world affairs. Whereby one of the aspects
that makes Xi convincing is what we believe is his sincere beliefs. A good
example of that we thought was when President Xi Jinping visited WHO
headquarters in Geneva in 2017 and trying to convince WHO of its
effectiveness, brought along a bronze statue showing acupuncture marks on
the body (despite as we detailed acupuncture is
more like a placebo). Thus Xi is likely to be sincere when he believes a
large part of the Pacific ('the South China Sea') in reality belongs
to China as has been taught in Chinese schools since the 1940s based on a map created by cartographer Bai Meichu in 1936 who later advised the Republic of
China government on which territories to claim after the Second World War.
above mentioned New Atlas of China's Construction (中華建設新 圖), the James Shoal (off
Borneo), Vanguard Bank (off Vietnam), and Seahorse Shoal (off the Philippines)
are drawn as islands. Yet, in reality, they are underwater features largely due
to mistranslations using what was originally
a British publication.
As we have earlier
described, a turning point for Bai and others who saw China's need to create a new Nation-State was the
Versailles peace conference's outcome in 1919. In an article in the June 2013 issue of China
National Geography, Shan Zhiqiang, the magazine's executive chief editor,
added: The nine-dashed line has been painted in the hearts and minds of
the Chinese for a long time. It has been 77 years since Bai Meichu
put in his 1936 map. It is now deeply engraved in the hearts and minds of the
Chinese people. I do not believe there will be any time when China will be
without the nine-dashed line.
The initial making of the Chinese Pacific
It is clear that Bai
(whose New Atlas of China owed as much to his nationalist imagination as
to geographical reality) was quite unfamiliar with the South China Sea
geography and undertook no survey work of his own. Instead, he copied other
maps and added dozens of errors of his own making, errors that continue to cause problems to
this day. Like the Maps
Review Committee, he was completely confused by the portrayal of shallow
water areas on British and foreign maps. Taking his cue from the names on the
committee’s 1934 list, he drew solid lines around these features and colored
them in, visually rendering them on his map as islands when in reality, they
were underwater. He conjured an entire island group into existence across the
sea center and labeled it the Nansha Qundao, the ‘South Sands Archipelago.’ Further south,
parallel with the Philippines coast, he dabbed a few dots on the map and
labeled them the Tuansha Qundao, the ‘Area of Sand Archipelago.’ However, at its
furthest extent, he drew three islands, outlined in black and colored in
pink: Haima Tan (Sea Horse Shoal), Zengmu Tan (James Shoal), and Qianwei Tan
Thus, the underwater
‘shoals’ and ‘banks’ became above-water ‘sandbanks’ in Bai’s imagination and on
the map's physical rendering, he then added innovation of his own: the same
national border that he had drawn around Mongolia, Tibet, and the rest of
‘Chinese’ territory snaked around the South China Sea as far east as Sea Horse
Shoal, south as James Shoal and as far southwest as Vanguard Bank. Bai’s
meaning was clear: the bright red line marked his ‘scientific’ understanding of
China’s rightful claims. This was the very first
time that such a line had been drawn on a Chinese map.
A key part of the
assertions was to make the names of the features in the
sea sound more Chinese. In October 1947, the RoC Ministry
of the Interior issued a new list of island names. New, grand-sounding titles
replaced most of the 1935 translations and transliterations. For example, the
Chinese name for Spratly Island was changed from Si-ba-la-tuo to Nanwei (Noble
South), and Scarborough Shoal was changed from Si-ka-ba-luo (the transliteration) to Minzhu jiao (Democracy Reef). Vanguard Bank’s Chinese name
was changed from Qianwei tan to Wan’an tan (Ten Thousand Peace Bank). Luconia Shoals' name was shortened from Lu-kang-ni-ya to just Kang,
which means ‘health.’ This process was repeated across the archipelagos,
largely concealing the foreign origins of most of the names. A few did survive,
however. In the Paracels, ‘Money Island’ kept
its Chinese name of Jinyin Dao and Antelope
Reef remained Lingyang Jiao. To this day,
the two names celebrate a manager and a ship of the East India Company,
At this point, the
ministry seems to have recognized its earlier problem with the translations of
‘shoal’ and ‘bank.’ In contrast, in the past, it had used the Chinese word tan
to stand in for both (with unintended geopolitical consequences), in 1947 it
coined a new word, ansha (Ànshā), literally ‘hidden sand’, as a replacement. This
neologism was appended to several submerged features, including James Shoal,
which was renamed Zengmu Ansha.
In December 1947, the
‘Bureau of Measurements’ of the Ministry of Defence printed
an official ‘Location Map of the South China Sea Islands’, almost identical to
the ‘Sketch Map’ that Zheng Ziyue had drawn
a year and a half before. It included the ‘U-shaped line’ made up of eleven
dashes encircling the area down to the James Shoal. In February 1948, that map
was published as part of the Atlas of Administrative Areas of the Republic of
China. The U-shaped line, with an implicit claim to every feature within it,
became the official position.
Therefore, it was not
until 1948 that the Chinese state formally extended its territorial claim in
the South China Sea to the Spratly Islands, as far south as James Shoal.
Clearly, something had changed in the years between July 1933, when the
Republic of China government was unaware that the Spratly Islands existed, and
April 1947, when it could ‘reaffirm’ that its territory's southernmost point
was James Shoal. What seems to have happened is that, in the chaos of the 1930s
and the Second World War, a new memory came to be formed in the minds of
officials about what had actually happened in the 1930s. It seems that
officials and geographers managed to confuse the real protest issued by the RoC government against French activities in the Paracels in 1932 with a non-existent protest against
French activities in the Spratlys in 1933.
Further confusion was caused by the intervention of Admiral Li Zhun and his assertion that the islands annexed by
France in 1933 were indisputably Chinese.
The imagined claim
conjured up by the confusion between different island groups in that crisis
became the real territorial claim.
Pratas's islands now a conservation zone, from where
visitors can send postcards back home from a mailbox guarded by a
cheerful-looking plastic shark. Not far away is a new science exhibition
explaining the natural history of the coral reef and its rich marine life.
parade ground (which doubles as a rainwater trap) stands a golden statue of
Chiang Kai-shek in his sun hat, and behind him is a little museum in what looks
like a scaled-up child’s sandcastle.
This museum holds, in
effect, the key to resolving the South China Sea disputes. Its assertion of
Chinese claims to the islets actually demonstrates the difference between
nationalist cartography and real administration. Bai Meichu may
have drawn a red line around various non-existent islands in 1936 and claimed
them as Chinese, but no Chinese official had ever visited those places. The
maps and documents on the museum walls tell the Republic of China (RoC) expedition's
story to Itu Aba in December 1946 and a
confrontation with some Philippine adventurers in 1956. Still, in the absence
of any other evidence, the museum demonstrates that China never occupied or
controlled all islands. In the Paracels, it
occupied one, or just a few, until 1974, when the People’s Republic of China
(PRC) forces invaded and expelled the Vietnamese garrison. In the Spratlys, the RoC occupied
just one or two. The PRC took control of six reefs in 1988 and another in 1994.
In the meantime, the
other countries around the South China Sea, Vietnam, the Philippines, and
Malaysia took control
of other features. The real history of physical presence in the
archipelagos shows how partial any state’s claim actually is.
The Taiwan problem
The current mess of
rival occupations is, with some exceptions, the only one that has ever existed.
Understanding this opens a route to resolving the South China Sea disputes. By
examining the historical evidence of occupations, the rival claimants should
understand that there are no grounds for them to claim sovereignty over
everything. They should recognize that other states have solid claims to
certain features and agree to compromise.
Beijing insists that
Taiwan is unfinished business from the Chinese Civil War of 1946-1949, which
saw the Communists triumph over Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang government.
With the establishment of the People’s Republic on the mainland in 1949, Chiang
withdrew his government to Taiwan.
Kai-shek argued that his party must enable Korea and Taiwan to restore
their independence and freedom. Even more so, Mao's Communist Party had long supported Taiwan's
independence rather than reincorporation into China. At its sixth congress
in 1928, the Guomindang party had recognized the
Taiwanese as a separate nationality.
In January 1949,
Chiang Kai-shek stepped down as leader of the KMT and was replaced by his
vice-president, Li Zongren. Li and Mao entered into
negotiations for peace, but Nationalist hardliners rejected Mao's demands. When
Li sought an additional delay in mid-April 1949, the Chinese Red Army crossed
the Yangtze (Chang) River. Chiang fled to Taiwan.
After he retreated to
Taiwan, Chiang asserted that he was the legal government of all China and that
Taiwan and the mainland were both parts of China. But he died in 1975, and
Taiwan has moved on. Today, the majority of the island’s people identify as
Taiwanese, not Chinese.
As we have seen, last
month, the U.S. 7th Fleet
announced two carrier
strike groups were conducting “coordinated operations in a highly trafficked
area to demonstrate the U.S. Navy's ability to operate in challenging
environments.” Earlier this month, Beijing began month-long exercises,
including drills on the disputed Paracel Islands. Taiwan announced its own
round of missile tests, set to begin this week.
The first modern
surge of Beijing’s declinist narrative began in the wake of the 2008 global
financial crisis and was given a scientific sheen by relying on metrics that
national power.” It was
not just a perception that America was sliding toward second-tier status, but
an empirical fact. There was yet another uptick in declinism
in 2016, after the election of Donald Trump and the rise of anti-globalization
Two days after
pro-Trump rioters stormed the Capitol Building, an article in the People's
Liberation Army Daily declared, “The shocking events at [the Capitol Building]
highlight a grim reality: Not only has the United States been severely impacted
by Covid-19 and an economic recession, but it’s political system and society
are also experiencing a deep crisis.”
Dealing with its own
internal problems a draft of the 14th Five Year Plan includes China’s plan
for boosting investments in human capital, a challenge that was upended by
Scott Rozelle and Natalie Hell’s 2020 book, Invisible
China: How the Urban-Rural Divide Threatens China’s Rise describing the possible impacts of China’s
underinvestment in education.
announcement on the country’s 2021 defense budget indicates it
is likely that China’s annual military budget hikes will continue to be
substantial as long as economic growth continues apace.
Asim Doğan, in his extensive new book "Hegemony with
Chinese Characteristics: From the Tributary System to the Belt and Road
Initiative" (Routledge Contemporary China Series April 2021), suggests
that Chinese leaders believe that China has numbers on its side as a world
order emerges in which developing countries demand, and are accorded, more sway.
Most member states reliably support China (according
to a cache of documents) as an irreplaceable source of loans,
infrastructure, and affordable technology, including surveillance kits for
nervous autocracies. This whereby China is increasingly sure that America is in
long-term, irreversible decline, even if other Western countries are too
arrogant to accept that 'the East is rising, and the West is in decline' an
attitude we also have seen in our analyses of
Pan-Asianism. The Quad’s greatest threat to China is the bottling up of the
Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy
in the South China Sea.
Some diplomats even
talk of living through a turning point in Chinese foreign policy and debate
whether the moment more closely resembles the rise of an angry, revisionist
Japan in the 1930s or Germany when steely ambition led
it to war in 1914.
Accidental war and territorial sovereignty
Be it from the
perspective of history, reality, or logical deduction, we have to be aware of
the dangers of an uncompromising attitude when territorial sovereignty is in
conflict with the hegemonic system. Even if it is not yet a historical pattern,
as long as half of the wars in history can be explained, that would be enough
to warn the people that it should not be taken lightly. Those views that say
China-US contradictions can be resolved by seeking common ground while setting
aside differences would ultimately be disproved under the scrutinizing eye
During World War II,
Britain and France did not declare war on Germany because their own territorial
sovereignty was violated. When Poland was invaded by Germany, the Versailles
system and the Locarno Treaties established
by Britain and France were violated, as was their alliance with Poland.
Similarly, the US
sent troops to North Korea, Taiwan, Indochina, the Middle East not to fight to
protect its own territory and sovereignty, but because the post-World War II
hegemonic system and the duty, credibility, dignity (or “face”), status, and
agreements that came with it were seriously challenged.
The reason why
China-US relations do not look promising is that the core interests of the two
countries are in conflict over the Taiwan issue, resulting in an irreconcilable
zero-sum relationship. That is, China and the US are clashing on issues
concerning national unity, territorial integrity, and the hegemonic system.
Some have interpreted
President Xi’s 2017 19th Party Congress report as setting a deadline for
reunification by 2049, when he stated that “complete national reunification is an inevitable
requirement for realizing the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” This
where on 7 April the U.S. State Department reaffirmed on Wednesday its "rock-solid"
commitment to Taiwan and said the U.S. maintains the ability to resist any
actions that would threaten the island's security.
But perhaps a
longer-term U.S. goal, short of war, should be a strategy designed to change
the CCP’s definition of “unification” to something like a commonwealth or
confederation, or even one similar to the U.S.-Canada arrangement. But even
that would be a fraught domestic political step for the United States. It would
require a consensus here that “solving” the Taiwan issue should even be our
goal. Like so many of our culture-war issues in the U.S., there are powerful
interests that are deeply invested in not solving these problems.
Countless wars have
revealed some sort of a historical pattern: once a country’s territorial
sovereignty is in conflict with the hegemonic system, it is only a matter of
time before war breaks out. This is because both parties are locked in an
irreconcilable zero-sum relationship.
One country raises
the flag of justice, holding sacred a state’s territorial sovereignty. Another
country holds up its own flag of justice, holding sacred its commitment to
peace to all mankind. Both sides seem to be within reason and taking actions
that are perfectly justifiable on the grounds of morality and values. The crux
of China-US relations lies in the Taiwan issue which is precisely an
irreconcilable dilemma between territorial integrity and the hegemonic system.
The zero-sum nature of this dilemma has made pessimists think that war would
break out between China and the US sooner or later, which does not seem that
exaggerated a view at all.
The common interests
of China and the US are not their core interests. Which of the shared goals
which we also previously have covered, tackling
global warming and climate change, maintaining nuclear non-proliferation, and
fighting the Covid-19 pandemic, among others, can compare to the loss of state
territory and the collapse of the hegemonic system? Core interests can cancel
out non-core interests, but not the other way around. So far, the US has sought
to decouple from China in areas such as academic exchange, further studies,
travel visas, company listings on stock markets, science and technology
exchanges, and so on, which are shared interests with mutual benefits but
non-core interests. These are meant to wield a deadly blow to the enemy.
The extent of the US's decoupling actions shows just how
relentless a country’s core interests can be in wiping out its
The Alaska meeting
will not change the nature of China-US conflict and neither will it stop
China-US relations from worsening. The US is systematically planning to
comprehensively contain China in the fields of diplomacy, 'China shock' economy, science and
technology, strategic resources, education, culture, ideology, military, and
others to ensure its absolute advantage over China in middle- and long-distance
races. Trump and Biden have just made a hurried start. What the world is about
to witness is two major alliances led by the US and China, and countries
around the globe battling against each other. That would be far more
nerve-wracking than what happened during the Spring and Autumn and the Warring
States periods, and certainly much more treacherous as well.
the U.S. policy for Taiwan should follow the Tsai administration’s example
of basing its legitimacy on the vibrant quality of its democracy and economic
freedom. There are an array of steps the United States can take with regard to
Taiwan on trade, multinational democratic forums, health policy, and even
security affairs that neither stretch Washington’s standard invocation of
Communiques, the Taiwan Relations Act, and other assurances nor risk abandonment.
How serious China is
about its so called rights in the Atlantic or what they call the South China
Sea was recently exemplified by two FP articles titled China’s
"Secretive Maritime Militia May Be Gathering at Whitsun Reef" and the
Expose China’s Maritime Militia at Whitsun Reef.
Yet at the top of the
PRC’s core interests aren’t just rocks in the sea its first priority is
safeguarding of its CCP-led political system.
A new kind of cold war
It is a new kind of
Cold War, but not one based on ideology like the first incarnation. It is a war
for international legitimacy, a struggle for hearts and minds and money in the
very large part of the world not aligned to the US or NATO.
The US and its allies
will continue to operate under their narrative, while Russia and China will
push their competing narrative. This was made crystal clear over these past few
dramatic days of major power diplomacy.
global balance of power is shifting, and for many nations, the smart money
might be on Russia and China now.
Russia is a tough and
seasoned negotiator. It takes every opportunity to improve relations with the
West through dialogue, using issues such as nuclear management, anti-terrorism,
energy, technology and the situation in the Middle East as bargaining chips. A
honeymoon with China could be read as a sign that it is willing to enter
another round of dialogue with the West. Whereby on the other hand also in the
Indo-Pacific as countries begin to cluster, making room for countries such as
Indonesia, the Philippines and possibly even Taiwan and/or France and Britain, will
probably develop into a strategic nucleus of the cluster.
It is domestically
and in its immediate neighbourhood where China has
pushed for more elbow space and flexed muscle. Part of this has been in
response to what China has felt as encroachment from the United States and its
allies, unleashing nationalism
and counterproductive diplomacy.
This downward spiral
in the most important relationship in the world has still to find a bottom. The
Biden administration’s approach may be more evident by now but it’s not yet
clear where it will lead nor how considered or reflexive it will be.
Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said that the island will defend
the very last day" if attacked by China. “We are willing to defend
ourselves, that’s without any question,” Wu
told reporters. Adding yesterday that Taiwan-US relations
undergoing major adjustments.
Whereby on the same
day the US blacklisted seven Chinese supercomputing developers that assist
Chinese military efforts citing
national security concerns. Meanwhile, Taiwan's Defense Ministry continues
to report new
incursions by China's Air Force into Taiwanese airspace. Whereby
one suggestion has been that China is playing a long game, by wearing down
the Taiwan Airforce via chewing up Airframe hours of the finite number of
Taiwanese pilots. Taiwanese authorities say 15 Chinese military
aircraft, including a
dozen fighter jets, crossed into their defense zone. Thus
warplanes from the Chinese mainland, Taiwan, and the United States gathered
southwest of Taiwan at the same time this week as a US warship transited
nearby, adding more tension to the region.
The encounter started
on 7 April when a US Air Force EP-3E spy plane conducted a two-hour surveillance
flight in an area where the Taiwan Strait meets the South China Sea. The
People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force responded by scrambling jets to
monitor the situation, while Taiwan dispatched patrol aircraft and put its
air-defense missile crews on standby, Taiwanese media reported. PLA aircraft
have been flying over the region, which Taiwan regards as its air defense
identification zone (ADIZ), on an almost daily basis in recent months, but the
involvement of a US warplane was more unusual.
Most of the above
article was written on 8 April with the completing part on the 9e, yet
given recent developments we like to ad; Update
14 April 2021:
As has been widely
reported a day after Ukraine officials announced they expected NATO to soon
extend an invitation to join the Membership Action Plan, the Foreign Ministers
for China and Russia met and said they were increasing their level of
cooperation, as stated, in large measure because of Western interference in a
sovereign nation’s (meaning China and Russia's) internal
affairs. This whereby the
hard truth really is that the United States is presently capable of defending
the territorial integrity of neither Taiwan nor Ukraine. Whereby as postulated
above we have to be aware of the dangers of an uncompromising attitude when
territorial sovereignty is in conflict with the hegemonic system. Whereby when
I clarified this in the case of the Pacific region one could ad that back in
2015 Ali Askerov
and Thomas Matyok made similar arguments in the case of Ukraine.
Which brings us to
the question as is postulated by some, if Russia
would invade Ukraine and China invade Taiwan simultaneously or of even
if the Russians preparing a military operation to take Ukraine as a whole?
The problem with such an operation is the vast size of Ukraine. Assuming no
resistance at all, which is not likely, it would take weeks for Russia to fully
occupy Ukraine, and during those weeks it would have to assume that Western
weapons and supplies, and perhaps troops, would pour in. An extended campaign
by Russia would do more than prove costly; it would leave other Russian
interests short of defenders. The status of Belarus might be challenged, as
well as the Russian position in the Caucasus. The emergence of Russia against
the borders of a range of NATO members, from the Baltics to Slovakia, Hungary,
Romania and Bulgaria, would likely revitalize NATO, driving much of Europe from
its strategic complacency and toward panic.
There is no question
that Ukraine is critical for Russia, and a revitalized NATO might be a small
price to pay for it, but Russia faces the same problem as China: It could lose.
Russia has a vast army, but as with the Soviets, only parts of it are
effective. And as with the Soviets, Russia’s ability to support a massive
armored force logistically is unknown. A rapid seizure of the area south of the
Pripet Marshes might not strain Russia’s forces, but should the U.S. and NATO
rapidly arm Ukrainian forces with anti-tank and anti-air weapons, and support
them logistically, a quick win could become a long battle. This would
particularly prove true if U.S. aircraft, optimized for anti-armor warfare,
were thrown into the battle. Turkey, seeing an opening, might test Russian
forces in the Caucasus, and Poland could move in on Belarus.
None of this is
certain, but Russian planners must be taking these possibilities seriously.
Optimists rarely win wars, and Russia has learned not to be optimistic. It
could find itself bogged down in Ukraine, hammered with advanced weapons and
facing attacks on its flanks. In other words, it could lose. What’s more,
starting a war in Ukraine would mean sacrificing economic possibilities in
Europe. Now, a war is possible. Russia has used military exercises as cover for
war before, namely, with Georgia. But Georgia is small and Russia didn’t take
all of it. Ukraine is startlingly big, and I suspect its forces will have
training on U.S. weapons that have not been distributed out of concern for
Russian fears – but they could be rapidly distributed in the event of war.
There is, then, the
possibility of coordination between Russia and China. On the surface this is
reasonable. In practice it would have little effect. A war with China would be
a naval war. A war with Russia would be a ground war. There would be no contest
for troops between regions, only for supplies, and only if both wars were
extensive, which is doubtful. The two at war with the U.S. at the center would
not achieve a dilution of forces, nor could Russia or China support the other.
Russia cannot supply meaningful naval support, and China cannot sustain
meaningful ground forces at that distance.
The most likely
presumption we thus can make is that neither China nor Russia is so desperate
as to risk defeat or a long, bleeding war. And each is acting as if it is not
serious about war; instead, they are advertising the threat. Of course, all
things are possible, but this seems unlikely at this point.
Continued in what
will be our conclusion and outlook in Part Eight of: Can a potential
future Pacific War be avoided?
1. Javier C.
Hernandez, “China Suspends Diplomatic Contact With Taiwan,” New York Times,
June 25, 2016,
2. For a list of
Beijing’s actions see Richard C. Bush, “Danger Ahead? Taiwan’s Politics,
China’s Ambitions, and US Policy” (speech, Bloomington, Indiana, April 15,
Part 1: Overview of
the discussions following the 1919 or "Wilsonian moment,” a notion that
extends before and after that calendar year: Part
One Can a potential future Pacific War be avoided?
Part 2: Issues like the
Asian Monroe Doctrine, how relations between China and Japan from the 1890s
onward transformed the region from the hierarchy of time to the hierarchy of
space, Leninist and Wilsonian Internationalism, western and Eastern
Sovereignty, and the crucial March First and May Fourth movements were covered
in: Part Two Can a potential future Pacific War be
Part 3: The important
Chinese factions beyond 1919 and the need for China to create a new
Nation-State and how Japan, in turn, sought to expand into Asia through liberal
imperialism and then sought to consolidate its empire through liberal
internationalism were covered in: Part Three Can a
potential future Pacific War be avoided?
Part 4: The various
arrangements between the US and Japan, including The Kellogg–Briand Pact or
Pact in 1928 and The Treaty for the Limitation and Reduction of Naval Armament
of 1930. Including that American policy toward Japan until shortly before the
Pearl Harbor attack was not the product of a rational, value-maximizing
decisional process. Rather, it constituted the cumulative, aggregate outcome of
several bargaining games which would enable them to carry out their preferred
Pacific strategy was covered in: Part Four Can a
potential future Pacific War be avoided?
Part 5: The
Manchurian crisis and its connection to the winding road to World War II are
covered in: Part Five Can a potential future
Pacific War be avoided?
Part 6:The war itself
quickly unfolded in favor of Japan’s regionalist ambitions, a subject we
carried through to the post-world war situation. Whereby we also discussed when
Japan saw itself in a special role as mediator between the West
(“Euro-America”) and the East (“Asia”) to “harmonize” or “blend” the two
civilizations and demanded that Japan lead Asia in this anti-Western enterprise
there are parallels with what Asim Doğan in his
extensive new book describes how the ambiguous and assertive Belt and Road
Initiative is a matter of special concern in this aspect. The Tributary System,
which provides concrete evidence of how Chinese dynasties handled with foreign
relations, is a useful reference point in understanding its twenty-first-century
developments. This is particularly true because, after the turbulence of the
"Century of Humiliation" and the Maoist Era, China seems to be
explicitly re-embracing its history and its pre-revolutionary identity in: Part Six Can a potential future
Pacific War be avoided?
Part 8: While
initially both the nationalist Chiang Kai-shek (anti-Mao Guomindang/KMT),
including Mao's Communist Party (CCP), had long supported
independence for Taiwan rather than reincorporation into China, this started to
change following the publication of the New Atlas of China's Construction
created by cartographer Bai Meichu in 1936. A turning
point for Bai and others who saw China's need to create a new Nation-State was
the Versailles peace conference's outcome in 1919 mentioned
in part one. Yet that from today's point of view, the fall of Taiwan
to China would be seen around Asia as the end of American predominance and even
as “America’s Suez,” hence demolishing the myth that Taiwan has no hope is
critical. And that while the United States has managed to deter Beijing
from taking destructive military action against Taiwan over the last four
decades because the latter has been relatively weak, the risks of this approach
inches dangerously close to outweighing its benefits. Conclusion and outlook.