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China’s great geostrategy for trade and defense

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The primary policy line of the People’s Republic of China, above all at sea level, is to defend its strategic and military interests, but anyway without undermining the trade routes and economic relations between China and its neighbouring countries.

 Just think about the Spratly issue, but also about the Chinese position on the ownership and nationality of the Senkaku Islands, as well as about the pressure made on China by India in 2017 to block the road that China had planned and designed on the border with Bhutan.

 From this viewpoint, China’s tensions in its neighbouring countries have immediately affected Japan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam.

 We should also recall, however, the naval confrontation with the United States in May 2009, especially with the USNS Impeccable and Victorious, for the right to operate in the 200 nautical miles off the Chinese Special Economic Zones.

 The United States does not like at all China’s protection of its regional seas, but it will be hard to change China’s mechanism of full protection of its coasts, which partly inhibits the use of old and traditional checkpoints, from Malacca to the Paracel and Ryuku Islands – all areas in which the United States could impose a blockade on the  trade and military flows of China’s vessels.

 This is still the first goal of China’s regional naval security.

 This is one of the primary strategic features of the Belt and Road Initiative, i.e. to get out of the Eastern maritime region and, hence, credibly offset the inevitable imbalance of the Chinese strategic formula on its regional seas with a significant geo-economic presence on Central Asia’s Heartland.

 As well as to provide China with a possibility of military (but also geo-economic) countermove capable of blocking the opponent on the sea or, alone, on its land borders.

 Therefore the aim pursued by China is its full security and absolute freedom of manoeuvre, within the “first circle” of peripheral islands, but with the possibility of projecting a significant interdiction power beyond this limit.

 One of the essential strategic meanings of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative is that, at geo-financial and economic levels, the Chinese leaders are well aware that the global financial crises – the past ones, but also those looming large – make the Chinese economy too vulnerable to global flows.

  This is even more severe if you have planned a neo-mercantilist and export-oriented economic development, as the Chinese leaders have done since Deng Xiaoping’s Four Modernizations.

 At that time there was no other alternative option.

 We also need to consider the tensions in Tibet and Xinjiang, which have also a geo-economic significance.

 It should be recalled that in 2000 the Chinese government launched a “Great Development Program for Western Regions” to finally establish a close connection between the land areas of Xinjiang and the Tibet region – which is essential for China’s nuclear defence and intelligence -and the coastal areas’ economic development.

This is also a very useful logical pathway to understand the Belt and Road Initiative well.

 Also at military level, which – in the Chinese logic – is closely linked to political decision-making, so far all the 2008 and 2009 “White Papers” of the Chinese Armed Forces have always emphasized the rule of the “three functions and a role”.

 It is a rational and operational criterion, which envisages that the Armed Forces should: a) provide the strength to enhance the Party’s leading role, which has always been  the first aim of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA); b) provide support to take advantage of this period of great strategic opportunities for China; c) also provide support for the defence of China’s national interests; and, finally, d) play an important role in maintaining world peace and promoting global economic development.

 These are not empty words. These are programs.

 Reading between the lines, it is said that – beyond the regional seas and networks outside its borders – China will operate in such a way as not to create definitive tensions with its competitors or allies.

 Therefore what we need to know is that currently the CPC has the urgent need to define a stable economic development for China.

 Thirty years ago the CPC leaders argued – and history has proved them right – that the war between the superpowers would never occur, in line with Mao Zedong’s thinking, whereby imperialism “was a paper tiger”.

 A regional, Soviet, Euro-American and partly Middle East paper tiger, in which no one had any interest in firing the first shot.

 At the time, however, China was already thinking about  Asia, Africa, the “Third World” devoid of “capitalists” or Soviet “revisionists”, left as breeding ground for a new growing great power, which had not been ruined by the crazy Cold War, namely China.

 Now – and this is also implicit in the Belt and Road Initiative – the current Chinese leaders obviously think that additional 30 or 40 years of peace and development are needed to enable China to really become a stable and great power.

 Hence in terms of current strategic doctrine, so far China has adapted to fight what the Chinese strategists call “a war and a half”. This means that it can and must successfully wage a major war on its own borders, in addition to effectively resisting attacks carried out around other Chinese borders.

 We also need to consider the stable Indian garrison of 60,000soldiers in Southern Tibet, in addition to the very recent Quad 2.0 alliance between the United States, India, Japan and Australia, established precisely to counter the Belt and Road Initiative.

  In this case, we have the whole range of potentialities and contrasts facing the Belt and Road Initiative.

 Obviously it should also be recalled that at least 22% of Japan’s and Australia’s foreign trade currently depends on China.  Hence it is very unlikely that regional and military tension will turn into a real clash.

 In its future strategic planning, however, China is preparing to resist an Indian land invasion from the South-East and to simultaneously lead a victorious regional naval confrontation, especially in Taiwan’s peripheral area or in the South China Sea.

Certainly present-day China is simultaneously carrying out the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), with the ten ASEAN countries and the six ones with which ASEAN has further free trade treaties, as well as with the China-ASEAN Free Trade Area. The United States, however, has already created its anti-BRI commercial and economic network with the US-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement (USMCA), and then with the probable reformulation of a  proposal from the old Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP) or with the new Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.

 Hence, while the United States is rebuilding its geo-economic centre of gravity in Asia – that it considers to be of primary military and commercial interest – obviously China has turned to Africa, where currently the United States is not particularly engaged.

 A Zen game of void and full, where everyone represents both characteristics.

 At political and technological levels, the United States is causing severe trouble to China, particularly with the recent creation of a special agency called Review of Controls for Certain Emergent Technologies, an office for “dual use” control regarding biotechnologies, Artificial Intelligence, advanced navigation and positioning systems, data analysis and above all big data, robotics and biotechnology.

 This is, in fact, the broader scene of the clash on Huawei and 5G which, as we can imagine, is much more important than the simple organization of an evolved Internet network.

 For example, in the 2018 US Cyber Strategy it is argued that the USA must “win two cyber wars simultaneously”, which are clearly wars against the Russian Federation and, above all, against China.

 Hence, should the United States led by President Trump fail to fully win their current trade war with China, it could use the cyber leverage to redress the global balance of power, with a clear support action taken by the other NATO countries – an action which is necessary from the political and military viewpoints.

 One will be used in the absence of the other  – the greater the Chinese commercial presence in the leading sectors, the greater the tendency and likelihood of a cyber war against China.

 And the other way round.

 There is more, however, in relation to the clash between the United States and China and, hence, in relation to the necessary and logical shift of China to a closer bond with the EU, its individual Member States and the rest of the world.

 For example, The National Defense Authorization Act of 2019, published on August 13, 2018, focuses on the operations of the Chinese ZTE corporation, while the US government is prohibited from purchasing all Huawei’s materials –  as is now well-known – but also the products of Dahua, which deals with video surveillance, as well as the products of Hytera, which manufactures advanced radio systems and, finally, of Hikvision, the current largest producer of video surveillance systems in the world.

 As has long been happening, in all the US government official documents China is also seen as a dangerous competitor of almost equal rank and power.

 Is it a realistic project? The answer is both yes and no. At technological level, probably in the future. At financial and commercial levels, not yet.

Nevertheless the matter here is tuer dans l’oeuf, namely to nip in the bud.

 It should also be recalled that, again in August 2018, US President Trump announced 25% additional tariffs and duties on 50 billion US imports/year from China and later 10% additional tariffs and duties on other 200 billion Chinese goods exported to the United States. Last September further duties on Chinese exports to the USA were announced to the tune of additional 267 billion dollars.

 Last autumn, at the UN General Assembly, the United States made public the “alleged” China’s influence operations against the Republican Party (only?) in the midterm elections while, at the same time, Terry Branstad – the  US ambassador to China since 2017, a “friend of President Xi” and former Governor of Iowa twice –  published an article condemning China’s “influence operations” in Iowa.

 The United States has also put great pressure on El Salvador to avoid it breaking with Taiwan. Later, however, the United States exerted further very strong pressures on the IMF, with a view to stopping funds for Pakistan that would partly be used to repay old Chinese loans to the country.

 Also President Trump’s move to withdraw from the INF Treaty – which apparently concerns, above all, the Russian Federation – anyway puts also China under military pressure.

 Nevertheless, there is the stick and also the carrot for the future US friends in Asia: last August, in fact, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo proposed a package of financial aid for Asia to the tune of 300 million dollars, to which other 133 million dollars would be added, albeit only for specific support to private companies operating in the region.

 The BUILD Act has created a new US government agency, namely the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation, with as many as 60 billion dollars of US funds  already available abroad, above all to Asia – a very evident response to the Belt and Road Initiative.

 Hence what will the United States do in the future, considering that the bilateral clash with China is now seen as structural?

 Surely, the battle over duties will continue and it is now possible that, in only two other moves, all Chinese imports to the USA will be heavily and selectively taxed.

 In any case, the United States will try to hit the companies that are most active in the Chinese project known as Made in China 2025.

 The current Chinese leaders’ project is modelled on the German one, known as Industry 4.0, and is already focused on the general technological upgrade of Chinese public and private companies, with the predetermined increase of components and spare parts manufactured nationally from 40% in 2020 to 70% in 2025.

 There is also the construction of centres for productive innovation – that is already at an advanced stage – which will be 15 in 2020 and 40 in 2025. There will also be a change and a significant strengthening of internal intellectual property rights.

Innovation will be mainly focused on: 1) a new information technology; 2) robotics and the automated production of consumer goods and capital equipment; 3) aerospace and aeronautics; 4) hi-tech shipping; 5) railways; 6) vehicles with new energy and motion systems; 7) energy; 8) agricultural technologies; 9) new materials; 10) biopharma and advanced biomedical technologies.

 In the official Chinese documents, there is no mention of “autonomous innovation “in all these sectors – as was the case in previous projects as from 2006 – and it is not here just a matter of innovation, but of entire production processes.

 Autonomous innovation is internal activity and here the Chinese government makes us understand that there is a global research and experimentation activity open to collaborations with the EU, Japan and Korea.

 Hence, where possible, the United States will hit exactly in these sectors, by avoiding – to any possible  extent – any kind of technology transfer or, in any case, any transfer ofad hoc scientific information.

 Furthermore, in the future, the United States will have the opportunity of convincing both Japan and the EU to implement practices against China featuring sanctions and open trade restriction, not only at technological level. Certainly Italy will harshly experience this kind of  operations, whether they are known or not to our intelligence Services.

 How will China respond to these practices? Probably with a hard and close dialogue, although with some significant concessions to the United States.

 Furthermore, in the framework of China’s technological upgrade program, its leaders will have the chance to increase the non-State sphere in China’s production system. Finally China will look for new foreign markets. This is the first CPC’s response.

 Most likely, the Chinese leaders will also avoid the additional burden of public debt on companies and, above all, they will largely limit the growth of real estate speculation.

 In all likelihood, China will spend a lot of money on productive investment – as already envisaged in its 2025 Plan – and will look for new external markets, above all (but not only) with the Belt and Road Initiative.

 It should be recalled that currently the BRI countries account for 27.3% of the total Chinese foreign trade with the United States alone.

 Moreover, China will soon develop excellent regional free trade agreements, such as with the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and the enlarged ASEAN.

 Furthermore, nothing forbids to reach a great agreement with India.

  In the future, however, China’s trade interest will be, above all, in Japan and South Korea.

 Meanwhile, the United States can carefully assess the  military and commercial cost of an all-out economic war against China, which will certainly not be irrelevant.

 This is context in which we can see the weak and tired interests of the European Union, which does not know its destiny and hence will not have one. The same applies to Italy which could use the potential of the Road and Belt Initiative, but will not be in a position to do so and, above all,  will have no way out of the US strategic, military and financial pressure.

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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