Steering a reckless course

In China’s long journey to reclaim what it sees as its rightful status on the world stage, it has barely put a foot wrong.

Its ability to end poverty, create wealth and build infrastructure has captured global imaginations. Its once widely rejected authoritarian system of government is now openly challenging the stained achievements of Western democracy.

But there has recently been a marked change.

China’s success rode on policies driven by result-orientated pragmatism. This is now transitioning, on the surface at least, to dream-orientated emotionalism, chasing former glory and lost territory in a manner beginning to resemble warlords from failed states.

Such is China’s apparent new mindset that its rhetoric prioritises war and nationalism over globalisation and trade. It parades its new weapons like models on a catwalk and, unnecessarily, is creating a recipe that could lead to disaster.

Central to this is the future of Taiwan, the territory of some 24 million which Chinese Communist Party forces failed to capture after winning power in 1947.

Much to China’s irritation, Taiwan now runs a fully developed democracy and operates pretty much as an independent sovereign nation. This situation has developed since the One China Policy came into place in 1979 and, with the forging of trade, it is one from which both China and Taiwan have benefited.

Not many years ago, the prospect of conflict across the Taiwan Strait was inconceivable. This is no longer the case. Chinese warplanes buzz Taiwan. American and allied warships conduct naval exercises, and Taiwan has announced unequivocally that it would do ‘whatever it takes’ to repel an invasion.

In a speech last month, President Xi Jinping menacingly declared that reunification with Taiwan was a ‘historical task [that] must be fulfilled and definitely will be fulfilled’. He spoke about an ‘unshakable commitment… a shared aspiration of all the sons and daughters of the Chinese nation’.

Although, no deadline for taking back control been set, the Communist Party’s hawkish Global Times stressed: ‘The peaceful atmosphere that existed in the area only a few years ago has all but disappeared… war maybe triggered at any time.’

This type of language echoes that of other conflicts about historical grievance and humiliation, whether Serbian nationalists, Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge or Islamic extremists and their caliphates. The rallying cries have little to do with providing higher standards of living for citizens which, until recently, had been China’s driving motivation.

With warplanes and warships from rival powers testing each other’s resolve, the risk of fatal miscalculation is growing every day, while there is also every indication that Xi Jinping has overestimated China’s strength.

The main island of Taiwan is a hundred miles from the Chinese mainland. It is mountainous, inhospitable for a fast, efficient invasion, and a perfect landscape for prolonged guerrilla warfare.  As one senior defence official told Asian Affairs, a Taiwanese insurgency against Chinese control would make America’s Iraq look like a child’s picnic.

There is every risk, too, that defiant and innovative social media messaging from Taiwan’s insurgents would rejuvenate resistance in Hong Kong and across the water in Xiamen and other Chinese cities.

Inevitably, the US would become involved and shipping and trade routes in the region would be negatively impacted or even blocked. Insurance and other costs would rocket.

China imports some ten million barrels of oil a day and is the world’s biggest importer of food, some 60 million tons a year. In a regional conflict, with trade routes jeopardised, Beijing would have difficulty feeding its people and fuelling its factories and weapons. 

At the same time, China has lost friends through its ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy. From Fiji to Lithuania, smaller governments are openly saying they have had enough of its attempted intimidation. Policies towards Hong Kong and Taiwan have corroborated these views.

What is unclear is to what extent the fiery rhetoric and antagonistic path stems from China’s juggernaut expansion running out of steam. The economy is slowing. Energy shortages are chronic. Debt is spiralling and the vision of the Chinese dream is becoming battered with cold reality.

Does Xi Jinping, therefore, see the recovery of Taiwan as the key to maintaining support from the Chinese people? If so, we are entering very hazardous times indeed, because he is wrong.

Vibrant and free Taiwan sits symbolically and geographically at the crossroads of two competing political systems.

While America’s export of democracy to the Islamic regions might have failed, its attempts with the Confucian societies of East Asia have been successful, not only with Taiwan, but also with Japan and South Korea.

If Xi tries to export Chinese-style communism to Taiwan through the barrel of his guns, he will lose and that failure risks bringing down his whole system.  

America can survive losing wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan. It is doubtful if the more brittle Chinese system would survive military failure in Taiwan.

We should take warnings from Germany and Japan in the 1930s, and Serbia and Yugoslavia in the 1990s, about how dangerously leaders can act when badly advised and pushed into a corner.

Asian diplomats, when liaising with Chinese counterparts, should try to steer Beijing back towards pragmatism, understanding limitations and what is possible in any given environment.

Ironically, some Chinese people have proved to be good at this. As Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen advised recently,the key ingredients are patience, resourcefulness, pragmatism, and a stubborn refusal to give up.

Xi Jinping would be wise to take note.

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