The World’s Taiwan Problem
The current pandemic has somewhat elevated Taiwan’s standing on the world stage, as it was both early in warning of the dangers of what became the Covid-19 pandemic and remarkably effective in dealing with it. The latter apparently because of previous experience with SARS, having good information flows from China and pervasively not trusting the Beijing regime. Having a Vice President and former Minister of Health who was a epidemiologist probably also helped.
The New Zealand Foreign Minister, Winston Peters, has suggested that perhaps Taiwan should join the WHO, given its excellent performance in dealing with Covid-19 and (it turned out) accurate early warning. The Beijing regime has responded in what is increasingly familiar style, that New Zealand should “stop making wrong statements”. The Beijing regime had previously threatened Australia’s trade with China when Morrison Government ministers suggested an open enquiry into the origins of the virus was a good idea. Threats that have been at least partly followed through with. Revealingly, it has done so despite itself ending up voting for such an enquiry at the World Health Assembly.
The Beijing regime’s long-term strategic policy is to, in effect, re-establish an updated version of the longstanding Zhongguo, (i.e. Central State aka Middle Kingdom) tributary systems. In the various iterations of this system, the ruling regime in China is acknowledged to be of the highest status, the Chinese realm is the central realm, and all other regimes and realms are of lesser status and defer to the Chinese regime and realm. Trade operates within a framing that confirms and upholds this formal hierarchy.
Australia and New Zealand are each being admonished, and Australia punished, for failing to conform their proper place as tributary trade partners in such a structure. A structure that is, of course, very much under construction. But these rather remarkable diplomatic performances by the Beijing regime and its representatives are part of building such a structure.
The Belt-and-Road initiative is the infrastructure arm of this long-term strategic aim.
The existential shock of Soviet collapse
The Beijing regime’s self-maintenance is deeply tied in with this strategic policy. The collapse of the Soviet Union was the existential shock for the Beijing regime. Its entire domestic and foreign policy is built around avoiding a similar outcome. The sought dominance within (Afro-)Eurasia both displays the vigour of the regime and will allow it to quash any embarrassing or threatening external pressure or example.
In effect, the Beijing regime’s policy is that the US can have the Americas, China will be the hegemon everywhere else, the hegemon of Afro-Eurasia. Of course, in a globalised world, how unthreatening open and democratic states in the Americas would be long term is an interesting question. But that is more where the long-term logic of the Beijing regime’s strategy of self-maintenance might lead, not a matter of its existing strategic aims.
These strategic aims also entail that the US give up its alliance structure outside the Americas. Something of a sticking point, perhaps.
Taiwan as contradiction
But there is a much more direct sticking point. Taiwan. The entire logic of the Beijing regime’s self-maintenance strategy, and wider strategic aims, entail the actual (rather than merely notional) incorporation of Taiwan within the control of the Beijing regime. Since it is clear that this is not going to happen voluntarily, the entire logic the Beijing regime’s self-maintenance strategy, and wider strategic aims, entail (at some point) attacking and conquering Taiwan.
The People’s Republic has a history of border wars. With the Soviet Union, with India, with Vietnam. One could perhaps put its intervention in the Korean War in the same pattern. A history that includes incorporating “historical” China by force, with the conquest of Tibet following a border conflict.
If you do not understand that, whatever your view of proper policy towards “China” (i.e. the Beijing regime) is, it involves taking a view on the proper response to the overwhelming likelihood of the Beijing regime attempting, sooner or later, to militarily conquer Taiwan, you are deluding yourself.
There are two circumstances likely to trigger such an attempt. First, the Beijing regime perceives itself to be in some imminent or chronic existential crisis and uses some event to trigger the attack, rallying nationalist sentiment behind it. This is the Danubian monarchy attacking Serbia in July-August 1914 scenario, except with added coherent nationalism.
Second, the Beijing regime is sufficiently confident in its strength, and ability to face down the US, that it uses some event (perhaps manufactured) to trigger the attack as a way of firmly establishing its hegemonic position and unravel the US alliance system.
Either way, the logic of the Beijing regime’s self-maintenance and strategic framework is that such an attack will happen sooner or later. (If the Beijing regime does not collapse first: not a likely scenario, it currently has, despite similar signs of institutional sclerosis in its politics, nothing like the stress points the Soviet Union had in the mid 1980s, not least because its economic growth prospects are so much better.)
Those who think strategic thinking is just some silly, dangerous game, and everything is ultimately driven by economics, are the most common adherents to the path of “what, we worry?” self-delusion. In 1914, Britain and Hohenzollern Germany, aka the Second Reich, had far more in common and were far more economically, socially, culturally and familiarly intertwined, than the US and the People’s Republic currently are. How did that work out for them?
Folk in the US, insulated by two huge oceans from any other potentially threatening states, may deem Taiwan to be dispensable. It is, after all, still formally part of China.
Actually, that is not correct. There are two states who both claim to be the legitimate state of China who both agree that Taiwan is part of that state but do not agree that they are members of the same state. Taiwan is not, and has never been, part of the People’s Republic, and has armed forces to defend and maintain that not-being-part-of.
A vibrant democracy off the coast of Asia
Apart from that, abandoning Taiwan means tossing away a vibrant and successful democracy, Taiwan is, in practice, part of the US alliance structure and seen to be such. Abandonment of Taiwan could easily unravel much of the US alliance structure, especially in Asia. Both because of the example to other allies and because of the geographic shift in Chinese power projection involved.
As a citizen of a vibrant and successful democracy of over 20 million people on a large island(s) off the coast of Asia, I am in favour of defending Taiwanese democracy.
The logic of the self-maintenance and strategic aims of the Beijing regime entail the unravelling of the US alliance structure and the conquest of Taiwan. That the latter would likely be a huge step to the former raises the risks, but also the opportunities, from the military conquest of Taiwan. (And to not see such as being “territorially expansionary” is engaging in contemptible word games.)
Military conquest of Taiwan is inherent in the strategic aims of the Beijing regime, given that voluntary incorporation of Taiwan in a state (the People’s Republic) that it has never been part of, is unlikely. No amount of economic entanglement or interchange with the US specifically, or the rest of the world in general, is going to change that. Especially as most of such entanglement strengthens the Beijing regime, by giving it more economic growth to play with and more people and institutions with incentives to defer to it.
The Soviet case
It was not economic entanglement or interchange that brought down the Soviet Union. It was institutional sclerosis combined with increasing economic stagnation.
Gorbachev had to spend so much to pay off institutional interests that blocked much of his economic reforms (reforms very much driven by the example of China) that he was forced to use glasnost as a weapon to achieve perestroika. Given the constraints Gorbachev faced on taxing, cutting spending or borrowing, the yawning budget deficit had to be paid by printing money at accelerating levels in an economy where prices could not respond, so people stopped producing for the formal (taxable) economy. With the resulting economic and fiscal collapse, there were no levers left for the Soviet government, the military having been discredited by the attempted coup, and the constituent Republics simply left.
Part of Gorbachev’s problems was that his economic reforms did not work as intended. Likely because people misunderstood the Chinese economic reform process. It was not a top-down process, but a bottom-up process with things that worked in one locality being tried out elsewhere, which meant that discovery processes were built into it. Something that is much less a feature of top-down reforms.
The Gorbachev scenario is not the situation that confronts the Beijing regime. It got its economic reforms without needing to politically open up. On the contrary, it uses economic growth as a regime-supporting strategy and technological advance to improve its mechanisms of control. Yes, it is clear that the Chinese Communist Party has an increasing internal institutional sclerosis problem, as can be seen by the continuing high level of capital wastage.
President Xi puts himself forward as the indispensable manager and spokesperson of those institutional interests. But such institutional defence feeds the aim of self-maintenance through Afro-Eurasian hegemony, through the creation of a new tributary system that establishes Xi and the regime as the dominant centre surrounded by layers of protective insulation.
A functionally independent democratic and successful Taiwan is an affront to the claims, to the pretensions and to the survival dynamics of the regime.
Hence the world’s Taiwan problem. The logic of the regime’s outlook on the world makes a military attempt to conquer Taiwan close to inevitable, the longer the regime persists. One can accept such a military incorporation or seek to frustrate it but, either way, the only coherent positions regarding “China” have to be based on taking one or the other position. Failing to think that through will just mean sleepwalking into the crisis when it comes, though plenty of the great and good seem to be adopting precisely such attitudes.