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.
President Biden’s 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 Chinese soldiers.
More recently, 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.
According 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 capacity.
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 from Taiwan.
For domestic 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 Xi’s popularity.
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 surrender.
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 the Senkaku-Diaoyu 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 Taiwan’s military.
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 this desire.
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.
In the 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 (Vanguard Bank).
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, respectively.
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.
Overlooking the 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.
Earlier Chiang 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 metricsthat measured “comprehensive 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 populism.
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.
Last week’s 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 of history.
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 non-core interests.
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.
Or maybe 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 the Three 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 other Records 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.
The 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.
Most recently Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said that the island will defend itself “to 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, http://nytimes.com/2016/06/26/world/asia/china-suspends-diplomatic-contact-with-taiwan.html.
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, 2019), http://brookings.edu/on-the-record/danger-ahead-taiwans-politics-chinas-ambitions-and-us-policy.
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 avoided?
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.