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Can everyone please CALM DOWN about Taiwan
If the world went to war every time a US politician visited China’s perceived sphere of influence, there’d be a lot more Wikipedia pages, and probably better history lessons too.
The amount of drama surrounding Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan has been truly spectacular. The speaker of the US House of Representatives is to visit Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea and Japan to discuss trade, the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, security and democratic governance, adding that her stop in Taiwan shows that the US “will not abandon Taiwan.”
The United States… constantly distorts, obscures and hollows out the one-China principle, steps up its official exchanges with Taiwan, and emboldens “Taiwan independence” separatist activities. These moves, like playing with fire, are extremely dangerous. Those who play with fire will perish by it… The right way for [China and the US] to deal with each other lies only in mutual respect, peaceful coexistence, no-confrontation and win-win cooperation. The Taiwan question is purely an internal affair of China, and no other country is entitled to act as a judge on the Taiwan question.
“China’s military ‘will not sit idly by’ if Nancy Pelosi visits Taiwan” writes The Guardian. But actually, yeah, it will. They might swim up to Taiwan and try and look a bit threatening, but that will most likely be it. They literally just did that last year, does no one remember that?
China has launched missile fire in the Taiwan Straits, waters it claims to be under Chinese jurisdiction. Apparently, "the goal of these exercises, to put it bluntly, is to prepare for the military fight with Taiwan." What, is China going to declare war on the United States because of a visit? Really?? Is that the take we’re going with???
OK so, I know a lot of people are worried about this, and I’m not dismissing certain valid concerns. There are parallels between this situation and the war between Russia and Ukraine, but personally, I don’t think we’re doing WWIII because Nancy Pelosi is going on holiday and I’m just going to list a bunch of reasons why.
In 1950 North Korea invaded South Korea, each side was supported by the Communist bloc and US respectively, fighting lasted for three years, ended in a truce, blah blah blah. Here’s a podcast episode on it if you want to learn more.
The Korean War was one of the first military clashes of the Cold War era, and also one of the first (and last) times the Chinese and US militaries went head to head. True, China’s military was not at the level that it is today. They not only have more modern technology, but they’re also not just coming off the back of 10 years of in-fighting. That said, in my opinion the end of the Korean war was the beginning of a sort of understanding between the US and China. It’s as if both parties said “OK, we’re diametrically opposed systems, but we can draw a line in the sand, play nice, and hurl rocks at each other from a distance.”
Something important you might not know about this conflict is that in China’s opinion, they won the Korean war. After the 1999 NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade (over which they did not go to war btw), an editorial in the People’s Daily read: “. . China is a China that has stood up; it is a China that defeated the Japanese fascists; it is a China that had a trial of strength and won victory over the United States on the Korean battleground…” The Korean war is also portrayed as an invasion by the US, an important distinction, as China positions itself as just coming to Korea’s aid. China may play themselves as the victims of Western imperialism and Japanese aggression, but they also portray themselves as the underdogs who stand up for themselves. They're not weak, they’re just outgunned; they’re not surrendering, they’re just standing their ground.
The Korean war also provides another parallel with today’s situation in that China’s perceived victory over the US is a source of its national pride. “‘Victory’ in Korea over the United States marks the end of the "Century of Humiliation" and thus remains central to both the collective self-esteem of many Chinese nationalists as well as the legitimacy of the CCP today” states one article. It is something that is brought up time and time again by the CCP to stoke patriotism, and is taught to all school children who “not only remember it but also draw both pride and strength from that memory.” Many of these students also read positive accounts of China in the war, which the study claims gives them “lower levels of anxiety and anger, higher levels of pride… high levels of patriotism and the highest level of agreement that ‘the US seeks to avoid military conflict with China.’”
In other words, in viewing themselves positively as the heroes, China feels no need to start a war with the US. China would always be able to portray the US as the aggressor, while they stood bravely defending their territory and shouting slogans, a tactic they have not failed to use time and time again.
Taiwan straits crises (yes, crises plural)
The US and China managed to avoid going to war during the entire Cold War despite multiple provocations, some of which involved Taiwan. The First Taiwan Straits Crisis in 1955 saw China seize some of the islands in the Strait, while the US helped evacuate Taiwanese soldiers from their bases. While the US threatened nuclear strike, both sides backed down before things escalated. The Second Taiwan Straits Crisis which took place a few years later in 1958, things came way closer to armed conflict. In a speech at the 8th Party Congress in May 1958, Mao said:
“If the war maniacs use atom bombs what is to be done? Let them use them. If we prepare and if they really strike, what is to be done? We must talk about this problem. If they strike then they strike. We will exterminate imperialism and afterwards once again construct.”
Turns out he was bluffing though, and when on August 25th the Americans launched a fleet into the strait, Mao was taken aback to say the least, and called a ceasefire on September 3rd, after which the Americans reiterated, again, that they would be willing to engage in nuclear warfare if necessary.
Both situations were part of general Cold War tensions at the time, and the threat of nuclear annihilation was completely normal during this period. Unsurprisingly, China was much more up for direct confrontation during this time too, and essentially only didn’t go to war because they couldn’t count on the backing of the Soviet Union, who by the 1960s were pursuing a policy of rapprochement with the US anyway. Although the Cold War is notable for its proxy wars and lack of direct armed conflict, I think it is notable that this would probably have been the best opportunity the US had to take the CCP down. But they didn’t take it, and not only did things calm down, relations between the two countries actually actively improved for a while.
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Nixon visits China, etc
Following an initial secret visit by Henry Kissinger in 1971, US President Richard Nixon made a public visit to China in February 1972. A largely symbolic visit, one major achievement on the Chinese side was the successful removal of Taiwan from the United Nations, a seat China was able to take up. This marked a period of rapprochement with the US, following a hostile 50s and 60s. Basically China’s declaration that they’re going to be cool with the US, despite the fact that both sides didn’t get everything they wanted. It was, however, a good start.
Deng repaid the visit with his own trip to the US in 1979, at which point the US formally stopped recognising Taiwan as the Republic of China, which marked the beginning of Taiwan being disinvited from all the cool kid clubs like the UN. There was seemingly no animosity between the two countries at the time, despite the severe hostility towards the visit from the general public, and an attempt on Deng’s life. Things remained calm.
This wasn’t to say that everything was patched up. China still saw the US as an imperialist aggressor, and continued to portray them in such a manner in official internal documents and educational materials. The US was equally ambivalent. When former Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Newt Gingrich visited both Taiwan and mainland China in 1997, he made the US’s position abundantly clear:
I said frankly . . . we understand that in principle you will not renounce the right to use force," Gingrich said. "We want you to understand that we will defend Taiwan. Period." He said that Chinese leaders, in four or five meetings, had calmly listened to his warning and had simply played down the prospect of using force and therefore the chance that the United States would ever need to respond.
Things remained calm, despite a third Taiwan Straits Crisis in 1996 after then-Taiwanese President Lee Teng-Hui made a semi-official visit to the US. After the usual blustering and military showboating, things died down again. In fact, a 2002 visit of Taiwanese Minister of Justice Chen Ding-nan to the White House went off without a hitch. So, what changed to get us where we are today?
Both the US and China had a change of leadership in the 2010s that would throw off the seemingly calm veneer that lay on the surface of their relationship. With that change in leadership came a change in attitudes toward nationalism, as well as communication styles, both of which seemed to mirror each other.
Trump started his presidency off by actively trying to improve relations with China, something we’ve discussed in a previous newsletter. This improvement was followed swiftly by deteriorating relations (and might I add threats of war), as well as an actual trade war, which technically ended last year, and seems to have evaporated from the public consciousness. This is a case in point of people being unable to retain information for any given length of time - this was the closest the US and China have come to open conflict since the Cold War. If they didn’t go to war then, they’re not doing it now.
The Trump era was also marked by low-key moves towards improving relations with Taiwan. For example, when a new $250 million compound for the American Institute in Taiwan was unveiled in June 2018, it was attended by a small American delegation. At this point, again, the Chinese government claimed the US had violated the "one China" policy and demanded the US stop any relations with Taiwan. Again, nothing came of it.
I remember this period of China-US relations vividly. News outlets proclaimed loudly (and wrongly) that Trump had made this worse, things were much calmer and friendlier under Obama, and now war was inevitable. What they failed to realise was that the strong position Trump put out, while blustering, matched China’s bravado and put the ball in their court. Now we’re entering a period where no one knows where the ball is, and people can’t seem to make their mind up one way or the other on China policy.
We should also remember that China essentially sees the US as a failing state, or at least that’s the image it would like to portray. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, China sees itself as ascendant, reclaiming its rightful place as the preeminent world power, while the US flounders, plagued by a bad economy and political in-fighting.
Bi-lateral relations are still a thing
The thing I'm so confused about is why so many people are panicked by a few words, as if China doesn't use this sort of language all the time. As one commentator pointed out, the CCP’s choice of words is more to put the responsibility for any escalation of the situation squarely with the US and absolve China of any blame before anything even happens. It's not necessarily a declaration of intent. As we've seen in the above examples, the US violates China's version of the One China Policy basically every 5-7 years, which at the most has led to stern words, military drills, and sanctions.
I also want to add that we've discussed the China-Taiwan thing quite a lot here, so I expect my very intelligent readers to know that there are so many other things going on behind the scenes.
I’ve put forward the (not at all unique) idea that China’s strategy for reunification is slow and steady, and the economic aspects of it are just as (if not more) important than the use of force. China is still Taiwan’s biggest export market, and can easily bully them with sanctions. There are also plenty of deterrents for military confrontation: US military bases near Taiwan, Western bases in former colonies in Asia, the new AUKUS deal between the US, UK and Australia. Yes, China uses its military to assert dominance, but a large-scale invasion is most likely off the table, at least until the West collapses of its own accord.
I don’t know if there’s so much going on that people are failing to make links between what happened literally last year (let alone 40 years ago) and what’s going on now, but it seems people are struggling to remember the basics of modern international diplomacy: talk a lot, puff up your chest, do nothing, go home.
My advice to everyone is to first of all, calm down. Second of all, please listen to the moderate, sensible, China-understanding voices on Twitter, or wherever it is you get your updates. There are so many of them and they're so smart. Much smarter than me, and definitely smarter than your hourly MSM updates.