Taiwan's Dilemma



The new “Chinese-American” world order will indeed be born on the other side of China, from a dispute that has lasted 70 years for control of the island and the Taiwan Strait.

"For more than 70 years, China and Taiwan have avoided coming to blows. The two entities have been separated since 1949, when the Chinese Civil War, which had begun in 1927, ended with the Communist's victory and the Nationalist's retreat to Taiwan[…]. In recent months, however, there have been disturbing signals that Beijing is reconsidering its peaceful approach and contemplating armed unification”. (OS Mast, The Taiwan Temptation).[1]

The withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan leaves behind a power vacuum and a zone of great turbulence in central Asia, on the “coasts” of China. There is also a “peace negotiation” and “power sharing” in Kabul that will have knock-on effects for a long time in much of Asia and the Middle East. A peace negotiation that will not count on the direct participation of the USA, the main responsible and biggest loser in the War in Afghanistan, that will involve, in one way or another, countries that did not participate directly in the conflict, but that will be affected by its developments in the coming years, as is the case of Pakistan, India, China and Russia itself, which has an important military presence in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. One should also include Iran and Turkey, which act as a geopolitical transmission chain towards the Middle East, where the US is also withdrawing, or at least reducing its military presence.

Even so, and despite the complexity of this jigsaw puzzle in Central Asia, the new “Chinese-American” world order will in fact have to be born on the other side of China, from a dispute that has lasted 70 years, over the island and control of the Taiwan Strait, where, in recent months, there has been an escalation of threats and increasingly frequent and dangerous “war exercises”, involving the Chinese and American Armed Forces, together with their main forces in the south and Southeast Asia.

Now, in the recent commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the CPC, the Chinese government has made public a strategic plan for the assault and military occupation of Taiwan, already accounting for the predictable response from the US. Despite the fact that everyone knows that in this case the surprise of the first attack is a fundamental element, and that therefore the disclosure of this plan is just one more step in the psychological escalation of the war climate in the region. On the other hand, the US has already changed its “grand strategy” and is shifting its focus from the Atlantic, Eastern Europe and Russia, towards the Pacific and Asia, today the dynamic epicenter of the expansion of world power and wealth, and the competitive growth of the world's military arsenals. The most likely thing is that they will progressively replace their “Russian scarecrow” with their new great Chinese enemy.

But be careful, because this American change was not provoked by the economic boom in China, but by the Chinese decision to build an autonomous naval power – a decision that was only effectively implemented in the first decade of the 2013st century. A Chinese naval power capable of unlocking the free circulation of its commercial and energy flows through the Taiwan and Malacca straits, and of allowing the international projection of its maritime power. A project that definitely accelerated after President Xi Jinping took office in XNUMX and his announcement that China intended to be a global military power by the middle of the XNUMXst century.

Decisions that immediately redefined the strategic importance of the two large “lines of islands” that block the Chinese maritime exit as if they were an inverted “Great Wall”. Right in the center of the first of these two island chains is Taiwan, a kind of enemy aircraft carrier situated just 130 kilometers from the Chinese coast.

In 1954, US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles declared that the island of Taiwan was nothing more than a "handful of rocks".[2] At the same time, it was Dulles himself who threatened China with an atomic attack if it tried to take back by force that “cliff” where the nationalist general Chiang Kay-shek took refuge in 1949, along with what was left of his defeated troops. by the communist revolution led by Mao Tse-tung. Despite the apparent paradox, Dulles was right, because the island of Taiwan was just a handful of rocks that the Americans themselves turned into a strategic territory to stop the expansion of Chinese power.

The same ambiguity existed on the side of the Chinese empire, which only gave Taiwan some importance very late, after its conquest by the Dutch, in 1624, and by the Spanish, in 1626, and after the island became a refuge for the last defeated soldiers of the Ming Dynasty. by the Qing Dynasty, which conquered the island in 1683. It only officially became a province of the Empire in 1885, ten years before handing it over to Japan as tribute for its defeat in the 1895 war against the Japanese; these converted it into a colony that was only returned to China in 1945, after the Japanese surrender in World War II. And just like that, four years later, the island once again became the refuge of General Chiang Kay-shek.

In 1949, Taiwan had only seven million inhabitants and only survived as a “rebel province” thanks to US military protection. In practice, Taiwan has become a “vassal state” of the United States, with the unrealistic intention of “reconquering” and “reunifying” China. The same inverted objective of the Chinese government, since neither of them ever accepted the American idea of ​​creating “two Chinas”. And it was here that the contemporary history of this “cliff” began, which acquired increasing strategic importance over the decades, confirming the thesis that it is the struggle for power that defines the importance of geography. Starting in 1954, shortly after the end of the Korean War, when China tried to retake the islands of Quemoy and Matsu, on the “path” of Taiwan, but was repelled by US aircraft carriers.

Soon afterwards, the “Mutual Defense Agreement” was signed, which transformed Taiwan into a “military protectorate”, once again defended by US forces in 1958, when Chinese troops were once again repelled from the two small islands, and when the USSR threatened for the first time to use atomic weapons if the US attacked Chinese territory.

From then until the beginning of the 1970s, a kind of “combatant coexistence” prevailed between China and Taiwan, where the USA finally installed its own military bases. However, the situation changed radically after the signature of the Shanghai Communiqué, in 1972, which enshrined the rapprochement between the two countries after the recognition, by the USA, that the territory of Taiwan is part and is inseparable from the Chinese territory, because there is only one China, with capital in Beijing. After this recognition, the US moved its embassy to Beijing, canceled the Mutual Aid Agreement with Taiwan, dismantled its military base on the island, and finally withdrew its troops from Taiwanese territory. And it was this Chinese victory that opened the doors to economic integration that transformed Taiwan into the second largest “foreign” investor in mainland China's economy in just a few years.

The situation of calm, however, would change once more in the 1990s, after the end of the Cold War, when the first elected government of Taiwan proposed the independence of the island, even without the explicit support of the USA. The proposal provoked immediate military mobilization from China, bringing the aircraft carriers of the US Seventh Fleet back to the Taiwan Strait. Everything indicates that exactly at that moment the new Chinese strategy of creating an autonomous naval power, capable of defeating the American forces in the South China Sea and Taiwan, began to be conceived.

As a result of this decision, China began to acquire or produce the 80 conventional and atomic submarines it currently has, alongside 3 aircraft carriers (the third still unfinished) and 1.275 new boats that were added to its coastguard, transforming -the greatest naval power among all its Asian neighbors.[3]

The US now controls all the strategic points between the Sea of ​​Japan, the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific capable of instantly blocking trade and energy flows that are essential for China's daily survival. After the Chinese decision to create its own naval power, and after the gigantic growth of the Chinese economy, the situation became intolerable for the Chinese. These can now propose to control the South China Sea and defeat the USA in all war scenarios, in addition to having the naval, air and land power to occupy Taiwan, even in the case of the involvement of American troops, unless for the US to decide to use atomic weapons, with unforeseeable consequences for both sides, since China would likely respond using its own tactical atomic weapons.

Americans are fully aware that control of Taiwan is no longer just a Chinese territorial dispute, but has become an essential condition for China to have sovereign access to the Pacific and the Indian Sea. And the US also knows that the Chinese can occupy and conquer Taiwan in a few days or weeks, even with US intervention. At the same time, they know that their defeat in the battle around the island would affect their naval power in the South Pacific, and their credibility with their regional allies and around the world.

On the other hand, the Chinese are fully aware that their military victory would not end the problem of their “rebellious province”, and that after their victory over Taiwan, the island could become the scene of an endless guerrilla war, financed by the Americans and their regional allies, as happened in reverse with the US in the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 70s.

Therefore, if we were facing a chess game, we could say that the Chinese have the “white stones” and they are the ones who will have to open the game and move their pieces in the first place. But the Americans have the “defense advantage”[4] and they will only move their “black stones” after the Chinese. If China attacks Taiwan, we will have a world order; but if it does not, we will have another “order” entirely different, and the same would happen if the North Americans crossed the “red line” defined by the Chinese.

In this context, whoever “blinks first” or makes a “miscalculation” could face catastrophic consequences. Therefore, the most likely in the short term is that Taiwan will become the central focus and permanent conflict (like Berlin, at the beginning of the Cold War), from where the “basic protocols” of the new “international order” will be born and defined. ”.

If that happens, you have to keep a cool head, because maybe the world could be reaching, through this path, its “new normal”, different from what one might think at first glance, because ultimately, as we said in another article, “what stabilizes the hierarchical order of this interstate system – always in a transitory way – is not the existence of a leader or 'hegemon', is the existence of a central conflict, and of a virtual war between the "great powers".

A kind of reference point for the strategic calculation of all the other States, which also acts as a brake on the unilateral discretion of the most powerful. As happened with the dispute between the Habsburg Empire and France, in the XNUMXth century; or with the dispute between France and Great Britain in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; or more recently, with the dispute between the USA and the Soviet Union, after the Second World War”.[5]

The big difference, compared to the Cold War, is that now two great civilizations are fighting, but even so, they are fighting with the same weapons, for the same capitalist wealth and for the same global power.

* Jose Luis Fiori Professor at the Graduate Program in International Political Economy at UFRJ. Author, among other books, of Global power and the new geopolitics of nations (Boitempo).


[1] Mastro, OS, “The Taiwan Temptation”, July/August 2021, p.1. In: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/print/node/1127523.

[2] Expression used by the US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles (1988-1959) to characterize the geographical irrelevance of the island of Taiwan, in 1954. Cf. Kissinger, H. about china. São Paulo: Objective, p. 161.

[3] Jesus Junior, H. and Godinho, NVR “Chinese naval modernization and implications in the South China Sea”. Magazine of the Naval War College, v. 25, no. 3, p. 791-826, Sep-Dec. 2019.

[4] Carl von Clausewitz said that in war it is “easier to keep than to acquire; whence it immediately follows, that, supposing the means are equal on both sides, the defense is easier than the attack. But where does this greater ease of conservation and protection come from? From the fact that all the time that elapses unused becomes advantage of the defender” (Clausewitz, C. von. Of war. São Paulo: Martins Fontes, p. 427).

[5] Fiori, JL Global power and the new geopolitics of nations. São Paulo, Boitempo, p. 31.

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