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Xi Jinping’s visit to Italy and the relationship between China and the Catholic Church

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No official meetings between President Xi Jinping and Pope Francis are officially scheduled on the agenda for the Chinese President’s next visit to Italy.

 Neither party wants to jeopardize the agreement reached last September on the appointment of bishops and, however, as is well-known, both diplomacies like silence, long processes and long time schedules.

 Whoever remembers the old diplomatic precedents, also remembers that, just ten years ago, there was the possibility of another meeting between Benedict XVI and Hu Jintao in Italy for the G8 in L’Aquila. The Chinese leader, however, had to return quickly to Beijing, for a revolt in Xinjiang which was – as usual – more dangerous than we could believe.

 From the outset, however, Cardinal Zen opposed the “parallel” appointment of bishops by China and Italy, as  envisaged by the agreement currently in force between China and the Vatican.

  It should be recalled that, from the beginning, Cardinal Zen who was Archbishop of Hong Kong until 2009, dismissed the agreement between the Secretary of State, Cardinal Parolin, and the Chinese regime as an “incredible betrayal of Faith”.

 The old prelate was born in Shanghai in 1932, just a year after Mao Zedong founded a sort of Soviet republic in Jiangxi.

 Nevertheless, the new strategies and opportunities or new contrasts are beginning to take shape.

 Since January 30 last, for example, Peter Jin Lugang has no longer been a clandestine bishop from Nanyang, while Cardinal Filoni has recently gone to Macao to inaugurate some new facilities of the Saint Joseph University.

 In 2018, as many as 48,365 people were baptized in the churches and parishes of the People’s Republic of China.

 Currently there are almost ten million Chinese Catholics.

  There are also 104 dioceses recognized by the government of the People’s Republic of China, with 30 national provinces.

 Currently the largest number of newly baptized people in China is found in the Hebei province, with 13,000 new people baptized in 2018, followed by Shanxi, with 4,124 new Catholics, as well as Sichuan with 3,707 new people baptized, and finally Shandong with 2,914 new Christians.

 Even in Tibet as many as 8 baptisms were celebrated. In Hainan there were 35 baptisms and in Qinghai 43. This applies even to the Islamic Xinjiang, with as many as 57 new Catholics.

 On point of law – and not only canon law – Cardinal Filoni requires that the members of the unofficial Chinese Catholic communities should not be forced to join the specific “Patriotic Association” – as is instead subtly envisaged by the Chinese government.

 Nevertheless, for the Chinese government, this Patriotic Association is still a “people’s association” and hence has no ecclesial relevance. Moreover, participation in it is always “voluntary and never imposed”.

 This is what China, not the Vatican, maintains.

 Nevertheless, the Vatican precisely knows that in the areas in which – as we have seen above – there is a greater presence of new Catholic vocations, the People’s Association puts strong pressure to make priests and bishops be nationally independent “from the Vatican and from any foreign interference”.

 Without very strong nationalism, however, there is never any Chinese ideology – and certainly not the Communist one born from the Party founded in Shanghai in 1921.

 Hence currently a political and cultural policy – and even a religious, cult and sapiential one, if I may say so – would be needed to make the Chinese regime understand that a Chinese Catholic is all the more Chinese precisely because he is truly Catholic.

  Being Catholic is precisely the moment in which, as Saint Josemaria Escrivà de Balaguer used to say, we understand that “conversion is the matter of a moment, sanctification is the work of a lifetime”.

 And the sanctification of work and daily life applies to everybody, both believers and non-believers.

 This means that the universality of Catholicism includes everything, namely being Chinese, Italian, Indian from America or anybody else.

  For a Chinese, there is not being a Catholic outside being fully and absolutely Chinese.

 Moreover, the current Chinese law does not oblige priests and bishops to join the Patriotic Association, while in all the areas in which the Catholic faith is more widespread, the Chinese government tries to push clerics to join the aforementioned Association, which not too implicitly proposes “independence” from the Holy See.

 In Chinese politics, this is the heritage of a weak and divided Catholic Church, as experienced at the time of the “Chinese Rites Controversy”, which started in the early seventeenth century under the pontificate of Gregory XV and lasted almost three centuries until 1939.

 As you may recall, on the one side there were the Jesuits, who accepted and condoned the pagan practices and beliefs relating to the traditional cult of the dead according to the ancestral Chinese local traditions, but on the other there were the Franciscans and Dominicans, who thought that those practices – essential in the Chinese symbolism and tradition (even at political level) – should be radically changed in relation to the new, but perfect and unique, Catholic faith.

 Hence currently – and here the problem of its Communism is even marginal – China still fears to lose its “soul” and its profound identity, while the Catholic Church cannot certainly afford to be turned into a sort of Protestant Church, also subjected to the political power even in its Rites.

 Obviously the penetration of the Protestant-style sects – often of American tradition – could become dangerous both for the Catholic Church and, all the more so, for the Chinese government.

 There is also the issue of the four priests of the unofficial community of Zhangjiakou, Hebei, who are still detained in a secret place by the People’s Police.

  According to Chinese Catholic sources, the issue began in late 2018.

 Local governments’ factionalism and different CPC configurations in the various regions, as well as a proxy struggle between the Centre and the Periphery, are all factors which could explain the different approach of the various regional governments to the issue of Chinese Catholicism and its official presence in present-day Chinese society (and also in its the power system).

 There is fear for a dangerous competitor in the power game, but it should be clarified – especially at political level – that the Catholic person has not his/her own State, but is defined by the side of the currency in which Caesar is engraved.

There is nothing else – and a true Catholic is not allowed to worship anything else.

 According to some Vatican sources, however, while Pope Francis did not mention the issue of the priests detained in Hebei, the Vatican’s “policy line” could currently be to consider the Patriotic Association an organization to which the adhesion of bishops and clerics is fully optional.

 Again in Hebei, a priest accused his Bishop, Monsignor Agostino Cui Tai, of wanting to “oppose” the Sino-Vatican agreement and even asked the police to arrest him.

 Once again petty internal settling of scores, old tensions, as well as the usual problematic personal relations fit into the grand design of regularization of the Catholic Church in China, as certainly happens also on the government side.

 However, all the Chinese bishops to whom Pope Francis removed excommunication are in favour of abolishing the “Church of Silence” and massively adhering, instead, to the Patriotic Association.

 While recognizing the Chinese government’s full right to control the political activity of the Chinese Church, what about thinking about a very different instrument from the Patriotic Association, which is the obvious heir to an archaic Third International logic, together with the “United Front” and the other organizations that control political, religious and cultural heterodoxy in China?

 This is a topic about which Pope Francis and President Xi Jinping could talk if they met in Italy.

 Nevertheless, also for this negotiation by which China sets great store, there is the key issue of relations with Italy.

 The Chinese media notes that currently Italy has substantially adhered to the One Belt One Road project (OBOR), but that hopefully the agreement should be officially signed during Xi Jinping’s State visit to the country.

 Should this not happen, it would be an irreparable offense for China.

 It should also be noted that the Chinese media’s attention is very much focused on the “Special Working Group on China”, a structure recently organized by the Italian Government. In particular, China underlines the fact that both Greece and Portugal have already agreed to be part of the OBOR project, without the United States having had much to say about that.

Certainly the strategic relevance of Italy in the Mediterranean is very different from Greece’s and Portugal’s geopolitical function for China only regards its Atlantic projection and its traditional ties with Western Africa.

 For the Chinese media, however, Prime Minister Conte’s position is extremely important and, in all likelihood, China will enhance on the media the success it is already expecting to have in Italy.

 According to Chinese analysts, the US nervous reaction to Italy joining the OBOR project stems from the fact that is a crucial and decisive country for the European Union, from both an economic and geopolitical viewpoint.

 China is subtly trying to make us understand that while the United States finally wants to thwart the single currency and weaken the great network of duties and protections that the EU is essentially for it, China has no interest in undermining the EU nor certainly in plunging the Euro area into a further crisis.

 Surely, according to Chinese analysts’ economic projections, the flow of goods and services going from Italy to the United States would decrease – albeit to the benefit of  China – while it is likely that, in the near future, the 5G issue will emerge again, and hence China could have some more chances.

 Hence a clear loss of US relevance in Italy, which would give rise to a long series of very harsh countermoves by the United States.

 Over 60 countries, including 12 European ones, have so far signed a Memorandum of Access to the OBOR network, in whatever manner.

 We enter here directly into the project that Xi Jinping has recently outlined in the “Two Sessions” of the National People’s Congress, which are always held in the first two weeks of March.

  In this year’s two sessions, President Xi Jinping has underlined that the limit whereby the President of the Republic and CPC Secretary, as well as the President of the Central Military Commission, shall serve no more than two consecutive terms has been removed.

 The meaning is clear: my power lasts and is stable, possibly until 2027 – hence the many factional areas of the Party and the State would do well to conform again with the Party’s policy line and not to cause too much trouble.

 President Xi Jinping emphasized once again the importance of the anti-corruption campaign, with 621 civilian officials and military officers punished in 2018 alone.

 He also highlighted the new widespread presence of the Party’s committees in Chinese private companies – a presence that has now reached 70% of companies – as well as the huge reduction of NGOs operating in China from 7000 to just 400. Finally, there was the reaffirmation of the “mistakes” made by the Western propaganda, as well as the reaffirmation of the pillars of the CPC doctrine and practice.

 Certainly this has much to do with the relationship between the Chinese government and the Catholic Church.

 With specific reference to foreign policy, after the “two sessions”, Xi Jinping currently tends to finalize as soon as possible the negotiation for a “Shared Code of Conduct” between China and the ten ASEAN countries, while the Chinese control over the Taiwan and Hong Kong seas is expanding.

 It should be made clear that China will never conquer the Kuomintang island militarily, but it will wait for its internal political transformations to lead to a de facto reunification.

 China also knows that an attack on Taiwan would enable the United States, in particular, to massively and harshly return to the Asian continental region.

 As we will also see in Italy, for President Xi Jinping, China must define – as soon as possible – a “Chinese” model to resolve all current international tensions, so as to ensure that China can become a “contributor and promoter” of both global free trade – in contrast with Trump’s US trade policy – and of multilateralism.

 In the “Two Sessions”, President Xi Jinping also proposed “Xi’s five Study Points”.

 They concern above all peaceful unity, also referring to the fact that Xi in Chinese also means “to learn, to study, to put into practice”.

 As can be easily imagined, peaceful unity is directly related to the Taiwan issue – to which the rule of “one country, two systems” will soon be applied.

  In Xinjiang, the Chinese government will soon accept a UN mission, provided it “does not interfere in domestic matters”.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

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Looking back on India-China ties, one year past the Galwan incident

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Two nuclear-armed neighbouring countries with a billion-plus people each, geographically positioned alongside a 3,488-km undemarcated border in the high Himalayas. This is the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China’s Tibet Autonomous Region. Differences in perception of alignment of this border for both sides have contributed to a seemingly unending dispute.

Chinese unilateral attempt to change status quo in 2020

One year back, on 15 June 2020, a clash between Indian and Chinese troops in the Galwan Valley of eastern Ladakh turned bloody, resulting in the death of 20 soldiers in the former side and four in the latter side. It was an unfortunate culmination of a stand-off going on since early May that year, triggered by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops encountering Indian troops who were patrolling on their traditional limits.

It was followed by amassing of troops in large number by China on its side and some of them crossed the line over without any provocation, thereby blocking and threatening India’s routine military activities on its side of the traditionally accepted border. It was a unilateral attempt by the Chinese Communist Party-run government in Beijing to forcefully alter the status quo on the ground.

The LAC as an idea

Over the years, the LAC has witnessed one major war resulting from a Chinese surprise attack on India in 1962 and periodic skirmishes along the various friction points of the border, as seen in the years 1967, 1975, 1986-87, 2013, 2017, and the most recent 2020 Galwan Valley incident, the last being the worst in five decades. Post-Galwan, the optics appeared too high on both sides.

The LAC as an idea emerged with the annexation of Buddhist Tibet by Chinese communist forces in the early 1950s, bringing China to India’s border for the first time in history. This idea just emerged and was taking shape through the Jawaharlal Nehru-Zhou Enlai letters of correspondence that followed.

In 1962, while the world was engrossed upon the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Chinese inflicted a huge military and psychological debacle on unprepared and outnumbered Indian soldiers in a month-long war along this border.

Even to this date, there is still no mutually agreeable cartographic depiction of the LAC. It varies on perceptions.

What could’ve led to 2020 stand-off?

One of the reasons that led to the current new low in India-China ties, other than differing perceptions, is the improvement in Indian infrastructure capabilities along the rough mountainous terrains of the Himalayan borders and its resolve to be on par with China in this front. This has been a cause of concern in Chinese strategic calculations for its Tibetan border.

The carving up of the Indian union territory of Ladakh with majority Buddhists from the erstwhile Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir in 2019 has indeed added to Beijing’s concerns over the area.

For the past few years, India has been upfront in scaling up its border infrastructure throughout the vast stretch of LAC, including in eastern Ladakh, where the 2020 stand-off took place. There is a serious trust deficit between India and China today, if not an evolving security dilemma.

Post-Galwan engagement

Several rounds of talks were held at the military and the diplomatic levels after the Galwan incident, the working-level mechanisms got renewed and new action plans were being formed before the process of disengagement finally began.

The foreign ministers of both countries even met in Moscow on the side-lines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meet in September, which was followed by a BRICS summit where Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping came face-to-face in November, although virtually.

By February 2021, the process of disengagement of troops gained momentum on the ground around the Pangong lake area. So far, eleven rounds of talks were held at the military level on the ground at the border. But, the disengagement is yet to be fully completed in the friction points of Hot Springs and the Depsang Plains.

Diplomacy is gone with the wind

All the bilateral border agreements and protocols for confidence-building that were signed between the both countries in the years 1993, 1996, 2005, 2012 and 2013 were rendered futile by the Chinese PLA’s act of belligerence in Galwan.

The spirit of two informal Narendra Modi-Xi Jinping summits to build trust after the 2017 Doklam standoff, one in Wuhan, China (2018) and the other in Mamallapuram, India (2019) was completely gone with the wind. This is further exacerbated by the Chinese practice of ‘wolf-warrior diplomacy’, which is clearly undiplomatic in nature.

India’s diversification of fronts

Coming to the maritime domain, India has upped the ante by the joint naval exercises (Exercise Malabar 2020) with all the Quad partners in November, last year. Thereby, New Delhi has opened a new front away from the Himalayan frontiers into the broader picture of India-China strategic rivalry. Australia joined the exercise, after 13 years, with India, Japan, and the United States, a move indicative of militarisation or securitisation of the Quad partnership.

Recently, India has been consolidating its position over the union territory of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, lying southeast to the mainland, and close to the strategic Strait of Malacca, through which a major proportion of China’s crude oil imports pass through before venturing out to the ports of South China Sea.

Economic ties, yearning to decouple

Last year, India’s external affairs minister S. Jaishankar remarked that border tensions cannot continue along with co-operation with China in other areas. In this regard, the Narendra Modi government has been taking moves to counter China in the economic front by banning a large number of Chinese apps, citing security reasons, thereby costing the Chinese companies a billion-size profitable market. The Indian government has also refused to allow Chinese tech companies Huawei and ZTE to participate in India’s rollout of the 5G technology.

Moreover, India, Australia and Japan have collectively launched a Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI) in 2020 aimed at diversifying supply chain risks away from one or a few countries, apparently aimed at reducing their dependence on China. In terms of trade, India is still struggling to decouple with China, a key source of relatively cheap products for Indian exporters, particularly the pandemic-related pharmaceutical and related supplies in the current times.

But, the Indian government’s recent domestic policies such as “Self-Reliant India” (Atmanirbhar Bharat) have contributed to a decline in India’s trade deficit vis-à-vis China to a five-year low in 2020, falling to around $46 billion from around $57 billion in 2019.

The broader picture

The border dispute remains at the core of a range of issues that define the overall India-China bilateral relations. Other issues include trade and economics, Beijing’s close ties with Islamabad, the succession of Dalai Lama who has taken asylum in India since 1959 and the issue of Tibetan refugees living in India, educational ties, and the strategic rivalry in India’s neighbourhood, i.e., South Asia and the Indian Ocean Region, among others.

Chinese belligerence has led India to find its place easily in the evolving ‘new Cold War’

The more China turns aggressive at its border with India, the more it will bring India close to the United States and the West. Despite India’s traditional posture of indifference to allying itself exclusively with a power bloc, in the recently concluded G7 summit, India referred to the grouping of liberal democracies as a ‘natural ally’.

India has been raising the need for a free, open and rules-based Indo-Pacific in as many multilateral forums as possible, a concept which China considers as a containment strategy of the United States. Possibly, India might also join the G7’s newly announced infrastructure project for developing countries in an appropriate time, as it is initiated as a counterweight to China’s multi trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative.

There was a time in the past when the former Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru sought to lead Asia by cooperating with China. Considering today’s changed geopolitical realities and power dynamics, nowhere in anyone’s wildest dreams such an idea would work out. Prime Minister Modi’s muscular foreign policy imperatives are aligning well with the Joe Biden-led Western response to the looming common threat arising from Beijing.

Today, encountering Xi Jinping’s grand strategy of Chinese domination of the world (by abandoning its yesteryear policy of ‘peaceful rise’) is a collective endeavour of peace-loving democracies around the world, to which Asia is particularly looking forward. Most notably, it comes amid an inescapable web of global economic inter-connectedness, even among rival powers.

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Taiwan: The First and Oldest ‘Thorn’ between China and the West (part 2)

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In the first part of the article, we noted Taiwan has returned as one of the thorniest issues in the US policy toward China under the Biden administration. Almost five months have passed but the new White House is yet to completely formulate its China policy framework. But as they say, the proof the pudding is in the eating. In April third week, the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee sent to the Congress the US Strategic Relations Act of 2021 passed by 22-1 vote. The Act is filled with references to “closer US ties with Taiwan.” The Act, as expected, angered Beijing which accused Biden administration of hyping up the China threat theory.

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Fearful of China attacking Taiwan anytime now, a leading US political news magazine recently pitied President Biden for he might become the first president to be thrust upon with the decision to go to war to defend Taiwan. “If a war breaks out over Taiwan, Biden may be forced into a decision no American president since 1979 has wanted to make,” the magazine observed. A similar concern was the focus of a Washington Post report within the first week of Biden coming to office, i.e., “the dragon has woken up and Washington should engage with it.” The newspapers’ national political correspondent Olivier Knox wrote: “President Biden hasn’t been in office for a full week, but already faces questions about one of his most solemn duties: when, why and under what circumstances he might send Americans into combat.”  

In fact, from the Trump era onwards the US mainstream media (MSM), the State Department and the Pentagon – all have been consistently building up pressure on the White House to provoke China and take action against “the dragon.” On its part, the White House has increasingly sent out signals “it is prepared to send military into situations where there is high probability of combat.” Dangerous yet true is overall consensus in the US for quite some time demanding “aggressive toughness” as against the so-called “cringing appeasement,” should China commit a “strategic miscalculation” in the SCS or in the Taiwan Strait. On the other hand, “wolf warrior” statements and periodic military-strike threat to Taiwan from Beijing have been only adding fuel to the fire.

Let’s recall a short chronology of the US statements and actions over Taiwan in order to ratchet up pressure on Beijing. In part one of the article, we have noted two visits to Taiwan – both “first” since Sino-US normalization of ties in 1979 – by the Trump cabinets’ highest-level officials in September last year; ahead of the two visits, the US ambassador to the UN, Kelly Craft, had lunch with Taiwan’s top official in New York, James K. J. Lee. Craft-Lee meeting was described in a section of the US media as “historic” as it was the first time such a meeting took place since China seat at the UN was passed on from Taipei to Beijing in 1971.

Further, in last December, John Ratcliffe, the director of the US National Intelligence wrote in the WSJ: “As Director of National Intelligence, I am entrusted with access to more intelligence than any member of the U.S. government other than the president. If I could communicate one thing to the American people from this unique vantage point, it is that the People’s Republic of China is poses the greatest threat to America today, and the greatest threat to democracy and freedom world-wide since WWII.” Ratcliffe’s article was described by some as aimed at “setting the scene for a post-Trump administration.”

For limitation of space, let me cut to the chase and fast forward to the latest of President Biden’s actions which tantamount to undermining the “One China” policy without openly challenging Beijing but increasing the risk of conflict. Last week, a Democrat and a Republican member of the House of Representatives together moved a bill which would rename Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO) as Taiwan Representative Office. According to the bill, it is time for the State Department, for the Congress to take action to elevate relations with Taiwan. Remember, three months ago in March, a similar provocative step was taken by the US ambassador to the archipelago nation of Palau, John Hennessey-Niland. During his visit to Taiwan, a first in 42 years by a sitting envoy, he by mistake referred to Taiwan as “country.” Of course, no clarification or apology to China was offered. 

Interestingly, ever since the Carter administration normalized the US-China relations in 1979, on the issue of “One China” policy successive US administrations have all pursued a policy of strategic ambiguity(emphasis added). It has been an open secret and Beijing is not oblivious to the fact that the US understanding on “One China” policy is as good as fiction. Feeling helpless, Beijing so far has been compromising as long as the US does not cross China’s three Red Lines: Taiwan formally declaring independence; Taiwan acquiring nuclear weapon; an “outside power becoming too cozy” to Taiwan. John Culver, who served CIA for over three decades monitoring movements in the Taiwan Strait and retired last year, reckons “Beijing has made clear it has three ‘red lines’ that, if crossed, would see China go to war tomorrow.”

President Biden and his “team China” have been relentlessly issuing statements in order to heighten tensions between the mainland and Taipei. As recently as in April, the Secretary of State Blinken dared Beijing by saying “it would be a serious mistake for anyone to try and change the existing status quo by force.” Without specifying when exactly the Chinese government is going to push reunification by force, Joseph Hwang, a professor at Chung Yuan Christian University in Taiwan, said Beijing is waiting for an opportune time. The current lull is “is the quiet before the storm,” Hwang mulled over looking lost.

Inviting Taiwanese envoy to Biden swearing-in should not be viewed as one-off diplomatic move aimed at provoking China. Instead, and in fact, uninterrupted continuity in escalating tensions between China and the US even as Trump exited and Biden entered the White House on one hand, and China relentlessly mounting political, economic and military pressure on Taiwan, on the other hand, have turned the Taiwan Strait into potentially one of the most vulnerable military conflict hotspot. As an article in The Diplomat observed hours after Biden delivered his 100-days to the joint session of the Congress: “The Biden administration entered office at a critical inflection point for the United States. President Biden inherited a world order and in particular an Indo-Pacific region that is undergoing profound change with China’s rise and an ongoing geopolitical shift toward Asia. Within this broad expanse, the Taiwan Strait is increasingly a critical military flashpoint.”  

Finally, the purpose of a series of top government officials’ visit to Taipei, top US diplomats referring to Taiwan as “country” by slip of tongue, for several months on continuing presence of the US naval aircraft carriers in SCS and in nearby waters closer to the Taiwan Strait, and the latest attempts to create vaccine “friction” across the Taiwan Strait – all these actions are gearing towards one common goal, i.e., to elevate US-Taiwan relations as Washington prepares for conflict with Beijing. As NIKKEI Asia reported it last month in its ‘Politics’ columns, headlined: “US vows to approach Taiwan with clarity and resolve.” The influential Asian political newsmagazine from Tokyo further stated: “A comprehensive American strategy on China under President Joe Biden’s administration is still in the works, but Washington has promised to approach Taiwan issue with ‘steadiness and clarity and resolve’.” 

The US Senate Foreign Relations Committee sending a bipartisan bill to the Senate floor in April, sponsored by Senators Menendez (D-New Jersey) and Misch (R-Idaho) respectively, is being described by some critics in US as “the most important piece of legislation regarding US policy toward China in the Congress.” Implying it to be one of the most belligerent bills, Beijing’s China Global Television Network website condemned the bill as the US Congress “declaring Cold War on China.” Referring to Taiwan-related content in the bill, the CGTN said: “The bill contains several misleading statements about the US policy on China’s Taiwan region.” China’s official Xinhua news agency reported that the Act stipulates that the US government shall not place any restrictions on the ability of US officials to interact with Taiwan. The Xinhua cited Michael D Swaine, a scholar of China securities Studies, as saying: “the Act epitomizes the worst errors of the new Washington consensus on what a rising supposedly means for the United States and the world.”

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Taiwan: The First and Oldest ‘Thorn’ between China and the West

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Over three hundred and fifty years ago, when the West lost its first war with China over Taiwan, the technological level between the two sides was fairly even. But the Dutch, then the most dynamic colonial power, paid a heavy price for misbelieving “China might have invented gunpowder but we possess superior guns.” Today, the world is witnessing China’s rapid rise and the US is in decline. The question is, will Taiwan once again bust the Western (aka US) superiority myth?                                                                         

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In 1662, the West fought its first war with China and lost. The Sino-Dutch War, as it is called now, was fought when a Chinese admiral dared the Dutch East India Company to give up its little under half century ‘rule’ over Taiwan. The defeat resulted in the island falling under Chinese rule for the first time in history. It is not so important to know it was China’s first great victory over Europe’s most dynamic colonial power. In the words of the Dutch historian, Tonio Andrade, what is more significant is the first Chinese victory over the West broke the myth of Western superiority as it had been achieved on the basis of “Chinese advantage in strategic and tactical culture.” (Emphasis added) The Chinese victory also broke another myth which the Western historians held on to until as recently as in 1970s, i.e., the Chinese might have invented the gunpowder but didn’t know how to use it as weapon, Andrade, the author  went on to add.

Fast forward to the present-day tensions in the Taiwan Strait. As China embarked on the path of Reform and Opening-up, relations between Beijing and Taipei too started improving in the early 1980s. Seen as a remarkable political development on both sides of the Taiwan Strait in 45 years, the KMT government in Taipei declared in 1991 “an end to the war with the People’s Republic of China on the mainland.” However, since the election of Chen Shui-bian as president in 2000, political headwinds in Taiwan have been moving in the opposite direction to Beijing. Alarmed by Chen’s backing of demands for Taiwan’s independence, Beijing was quick to pass anti-secession law a year after Chen was reelected in 2004.

In 2016, following Donald Trump’s victory in US and the victory of Ms. Tsai Ing-wen as Taiwan’s president respectively, Beijing’s fear of Taiwan declaring itself an independent country has reached unprecedented levels. In fact, Beijing is feeling seriously threatened by the US role in creating conditions for Taiwan to declare independence. Immediately upon assuming office, President Trump held telephone conversation with the Taiwan president – something which no other US had done in the preceding forty years. This was the beginning of a new trend in US-China relations and which grossly undermined the “One China” policy.

During the past decade (between 2007 and 2019), the US warships made over one hundred trips through the Taiwan Strait. No wonder Beijing has been describing Taiwan as “the most important sensitive issue in Sino-US relations.” According to New Strait Times, in 2020, the year of Coronavirus pandemic, the cross-strait faced its worst crisis in the past two decades. Without denying that the PLA fighter planes crossed maritime border with Taiwan, China however dismissed Taipei’s claims of “incursions” by the mainland. Beijing even maintained its warplanes, bombers and anti-submarine aircrafts “conducted normal exercises on September 18 and 19 respectively and that the median line never existed.”

However, according to experts, the median line is the unofficial airspace boundary between Taiwan and China, and was demarcated by US Air Force General Benjamin Davis Jr. in 1955, before the US pressured both sides to enter into a tacit agreement not to cross it. Media reports originating from Taipei, Hong Kong and Singapore claimed the forty or more PLA incursions last October, were prompted by two US top officials visiting Taipei during August-September period last year. “U.S. Under Secretary of State Keith Krach arrived in Taiwan on Thursday for the second visit by a high-level American official in two months. The first visit was by the US Health Secretary Alex Azar in August 2020.” The visits by Krach and Azar respectively were first highest-level US Cabinet visits to Taiwan – in gross violation of the US commitments to China – since the US switched formal relations from Taiwan to Beijing in 1979.

This year, especially within hours following President entered the White House, the new US administration lost no time in announcing “our commitment to Taiwan is rock-solid.” Two days earlier, the State Department invited and officially received Taiwan’s unofficial ambassador in Washington to Biden’s inauguration – the first envoy from the island present at a presidential swearing-in since 1979. Both the statement of commitment to Taiwan and the presence of Taiwanese envoy at the presidential inauguration respectively were interpreted by strategic affairs experts in Washington and Beijing as moves to provoke China towards making a strategic mistake leading to military conflict.

Further, Taiwan has returned as “thorniest” issue in US-China relations under President Biden – since perhaps it is easier to violate “One China” policy than to either rally European allies against China or to announce a decisive Washington position toward Beijing. As President Biden gears up to embark on his maiden in-person visit to shake hands or bump elbows with his European allies, the US administration has further escalated tensions over Taiwan. Last Sunday, a bipartisan contingent of three US Senators – Tammy Duckworth and Christopher Coons, both Democrats, and Dan Sullivan, a Republican – briefly visited Taiwan on a US military aircraft.  According to media reports, the Chinese Defense Ministry described the visit as “extremely vile provocation.” Reuters citing Chinese sources said China believes that “Biden administration is challenging one-China principle and trying to achieve the so-called goal of ‘using Taiwan to control’ China.” 

Experts in Beijing point out, Biden is accelerating the pitch of what started under Obama and was intensified by Trump, i.e., to use “the US economic and military might to pressure Beijing and force it to accept US hegemony in the region.” Elsewhere, first the joint statement following Biden-Suga summit in April and then in late May the statement released after the summit meeting between European leaders and Japan’s Prime Minister Suga, are being interpreted as “belligerent stances towards Beijing initiated and encouraged by President Biden.” The EU-Japan post-summit statement called for “peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.” Similar to several moves initiated by Trump and Biden challenging one-China policy, the EU-Suga joint statement too is the first time that Taiwan has been included in such a statement. 

A scholar in Tianjin, who writes a column for ftchinese.com, the daily online Mandarin version of the Financial Times, thinks Biden has intensified the so-called Thucydides trap. In a recent article, he has actually put forward a solution for Beijing to not only avoid falling into the trap, but also steer clear of having to choose between using force to reunify with Taiwan and being forced into military conflict with the US by striking first. To sum up Li Yongning’s rather long thesis, he prescribes that China fight out Thucydides trap with economic growth and people’s prosperity. To prove his point, Li flashes the example of de-escalation of hostility between China and Japan. Remember until a few years ago, heightened tensions between the two over Diaoyu or Senkaku Islands. Of late, especially since the middle of Xi Jinping’s first five year tenure, belligerent provocations between Beijing and Tokyo have almost ceased.

How did China under Xi achieve this? According to Li, Xi’s strategy to strike peace and tranquility with Japan was simple and practical. “China’s GDP exceeded Japan’s in 2010 and by 2019 it became 2.8 times more than Japan’s, which put an end to Sino-Japan competitiveness. Likewise, once China achieves one and a half times or twice bigger GDP of the USA, the China-US competitiveness will be rendered as joke,” Li contended. In 2017, in PPP terms China had already exceeded the US economy. Li cited a Brookings Institution report which predicted China’s GDP will cross America’s in 2028. “Once China reaches there, higher GDP will act as shock absorber for all Sino-US conflicts,” Li wrote.

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