“In just a few short months, the U.S.-Chinese relationship seems to have returned to an earlier, more primal age.” former Australian prime minister and noted China watcher-scholar Kevin Rudd (who I have cited, more than once, before) writes in a thought-provoking article in Foreign Affairs. “In China, Mao Zedong is once again celebrated for having boldly gone to war against the Americans in Korea, fighting them to a truce. In the United States, Richard Nixon is denounced for creating a global Frankenstein by introducing Communist China to the wider world. It is as if the previous half century of U.S.-Chinese relations never happened.“
“The saber rattling from both Beijing and Washington has become strident, uncompromising, and seemingly unending,” he says and he notes that “The relationship lurches from crisis to crisis—from the closures of consulates to the most recent feats of Chinese “wolf warrior” diplomacy to calls by U.S. officials for the overthrow of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The speed and intensity of it all has desensitized even seasoned observers to the scale and significance of change in the high politics of the U.S.-Chinese relationship. Unmoored from the strategic assumptions of the previous 50 years but without the anchor of any mutually agreed framework to replace them, the world now finds itself at the most dangerous moment in the relationship since the Taiwan Strait crises of the 1950s … [and, he says, no doubt correctly, that] … The question now being asked, quietly but nervously, in capitals around the world is, where will this end? The once unthinkable outcome—actual armed conflict between the United States and China—now appears possible for the first time since the end of the Korean War. In other words, we are confronting the prospect of not just a new Cold War, but a hot one as well.“
What to do?
The situation, Mr Rudd says, will become especially dangerous over the next few weeks and months as US domestic politics and “events” …
… and “leaders,” real, imagined and would-be, all compete for “space” on the global and national stages ~ each advancing her or his own special priorities.
Kevin Ridd says, and I agree, fully, that “In this environment, both Beijing and Washington should reflect on the admonition “be careful what you wish for.” If they fail to do so, the next three months could all too easily torpedo the prospects of international peace and stability for the next 30 years … [because] … Wars between great powers, including inadvertent ones, rarely end well—for anyone.“
Mr Rudd reviews that strategic situation for the past few decades and concludes that “While Xi’s strategy has been clear, Trump’s has been as chaotic as the rest of his presidency. But the net effect is a relationship stripped of the political, economic, and diplomatic insulation carefully nurtured over the last half century and reduced to its rawest form: an unconstrained struggle for bilateral, regional, and global dominance.” I believe that his brief and pithy analysis is spot on.
There is a huge strategic risk, he opines, that “In the current political season, domestic pressures at work in both Beijing and Washington make crisis management even more difficult,” because:
- “In China, an already slowing economy, the ongoing impact of the trade war, and now the COVID-19 crisis have placed Xi’s leadership under its greatest internal pressure yet. Many in the CCP resent his brutal anticorruption campaign, which has been used in part to eliminate political enemies. His massive military reorganization has encountered resistance from the hundreds of thousands of veterans who lost out. The degree of opposition he faces is reflected in the large number of major personnel changes he has engineered in the party’s intelligence, security, and military hierarchies. And that was before the “party rectification campaign” that he launched in July to sideline opponents and further consolidate his power;” while
- “Domestic politics are driving U.S. policy, as well. With American voters heading to the polls in three months, China has become central to the race like never before. It now frames presidential politics across nearly all major campaign issues, including the origins of COVID-19 and the United States’ disastrous response, which, as of mid-2020, has left more than 150,000 Americans dead; an economic crisis marked by 14.7 percent unemployment, a 43.0 percent rise in bankruptcies, and eye-watering public debt; not to mention the future of American global leadership.“
He says that “Both sides, therefore, should consider carefully the crises that could arise over the next several months (in particular over Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the South China Sea) and how any one of these could spiral into something much worse.“
And he asks: “Are Beijing and Washington seriously prepared to escalate in a crisis to protect their domestic positions, conscious of the political price in each system for being seen as weak? Or are they institutionally equipped and politically willing to de-escalate to avoid disaster?” My answer to his two questions are: Yes and Maybe.
After reviewing the dangers posed by China’s abrogation of Hong Kong’s “rights,” Kevin Rudd turns towards Taiwan and he says that “Taiwan has long been the single-biggest challenge in the U.S.-Chinese relationship. From the CCP’s perspective, one grounded in both ideology and nationalism, the “return of Taiwan to the motherland’s tender embrace,” as party veterans would put it, would complete the revolution of 1949. But for Taiwan, the evolution of a separate identity over the last several hundred years, the progressive democratization of the island over the last 30, and the continued electoral success of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) have made the prospects of a peaceful reunification increasingly remote … [and he notes that] … Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has continued to reject China’s version of what is called the “1992 consensus”—an agreement that there is only “one China,” even if both parties disagree about what the term “China” actually means. Beijing, in turn, holds that the DPP’s refusal to accept this consensus rules out any negotiation on the specific form of one country, two systems that could apply to Taiwan in the future. Already, China’s perceived trashing of the one country, two systems principle in Hong Kong played a major part in Tsai’s reelection last November. It has also contributed to the general hardening of Taiwanese sentiment to any form of reunification with the mainland; recent opinion polls indicate that a record 90 percent of people in Taiwan now self-identify as Taiwanese rather than as Chinese.“
Mr Rudd explains that “In the U.S.-Chinese relationship, the Taiwan issue has been managed under the terms of three communiqués negotiated between 1972 and 1982 over the course of the opening and normalization process, along with the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979. The TRA states that “the United States will make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.” It also states that the United States will “consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.” And it requires Congress “to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.” Although the TRA is not a mutual-defense treaty, successive U.S. administrations have relied on the “strategic ambiguity” embedded within it to deter any Chinese consideration of reunification by military means … [but, he says] … The Trump administration has increased the scale and frequency of arms sales to Taiwan, including expanding the island’s Patriot missile defense system and offering new offensive capabilities such as the F-16V aircraft. It has also begun changing the relationship’s formal nomenclature — for the first time referring officially to Tsai with the honorific “president”—and increasing public contact between U.S. and Taiwanese officials. And Washington has released provocative video footage of previously undeclared U.S.-Taiwanese military exercises.“
I believe that the fate of Taiwan is the single most important and most dangerous issue in the Sino-American conflict. I believe that Xi Jinping, like an overwhelming majority of the Chines people, believes that Taiwan is an integral part of China which needs (and wants) to be reunited with the mainland. I also believe that an equally overwhelming majority of Taiwanese people believes that reunification can happen only when China is a functioning democracy.
I think that Xi Jinping’s actions in Hong Kong have made any hope of a peaceful reunification impossible. Does that mean that a war is inevitable? No … but it means that it is much more possible than it was even a year ago.
Kevin Rudd says that “It is increasingly plain from the impatience in Xi’s language that he wishes to see Taiwan return to Chinese sovereignty within his own political term. Whether he can do so or not is a separate question. If Xi were to succeed, he would match, and perhaps even surpass, Mao’s place in party and national history … [and it seems to me that Xi Jinping is fascinated by Mao, the “Great Helmsman,” and wants to eclipse him in Chinese mythology while he ignores and even diminishes the role of the even more important Deng Xiaoping; it’s a puzzle, but then so many things about China are] … (Of course, this raises the question of just how long Xi’s term will be: he reaches the two-term limit adhered to by his predecessors in 2022, but a decision at the 19th Party Congress in 2017 abolished term limits, and Xi currently appears poised to remain until the mid-2030s, when he would be in his early 80s) … [and] … Although both Chinese and American war-gaming exercises suggest that China would prevail in any major conflict in the Taiwan Strait, Beijing remains cautious, seeking to avoid unnecessary political or strategic risk. After all, to fail in such an attempt, or to succeed at great cost, would potentially end Xi’s leadership and undermine the party’s legitimacy. Accordingly, any Chinese military push against Taiwan is more likely to come later in the 2020s, when Beijing thinks the military balance will have shifted even further in its favor—enough to effectively deter the United States and perhaps cause Taiwan to capitulate without a fight … [thus] … For now, all three parties—Beijing, Taipei, and Washington—have chosen to remain just within the broad parameters of permissible conduct. And while the DPP administration in Taipei is bold, it is not reckless. Still, in the current political environment, the Trump administration could choose to escalate—by, say, allowing a U.S. naval visit to a Taiwanese port. The incendiary effect of such an action would be politically impossible for the Chinese leadership to ignore. It is conceivable that China could retaliate by starting a “low-intensity” conflict centered on Taiwan’s offshore islands, such as the Dongsha Islands or Taiping Island (both in the South China Sea) or Wuqiu Island (just off the coast of the mainland).” I think, yet again, that his appreciation of the situation is correct.
Mr Rudd analyses the situation in the South China Seas and says that “The existing memorandum of understanding on agreed protocols for avoiding and managing collisions in the air and at sea was negotiated during the Obama administration, before the nearly complete collapse in trust between Beijing and Washington. It is far from certain that these protocols will be effective with the rapid increase in air, naval, and other military assets in the area, where there is already a history of near misses between U.S. and Chinese military ships and planes … [and] …The South China Sea has thus become a tense, volatile, and potentially explosive theater at a time when accumulated grievances have driven the underlying bilateral political relationship to its lowest point in half a century. The sheer quantity of naval and air force hardware deployed by both sides makes an unintended (or even intended) collision increasingly probable. Standard operating procedures and rules of engagement for both the Chinese and U.S. militaries are typically highly classified documents. The general pattern of near misses in the past has shown U.S. aircraft or naval vessels swerving and changing course at the last minute in order to avoid collision. It is not clear, however, whether these procedures, or those of the Chinese navy and air force, have now been adjusted to a more offensive posture.” In other words, a tense situation is getting even more dangerous and the procedures for deescalating potential conflicts seem to be less than adequate.
“The question for both U.S. and Chinese leaders is,” Kevin Rudd suggests, “what happens now in the event of a significant collision? If an aircraft is downed, or a naval vessel sunk or disabled, what next steps have been agreed in order to avoid immediate military escalation? A Chinese interlocutor recalls a recent desktop exercise hosted by an independent think tank that brought together retired Chinese and American policymakers and military officers to consider such a scenario. The results were disturbing. Although the military officers from both sides could agree on a protocol to extract a damaged naval vessel safely, the nonmilitary participants, more attentive to the political interests of their governments, failed miserably in this task. One set of practitioners managed to de-escalate; the other set did precisely the reverse … [and he worries, as do I, that] … In a real-world scenario, beyond the clinical environment of a desktop exercise, the prevailing domestic political circumstances in Beijing and Washington could all too easily drive both sides to escalate. Political advisers might argue that a localized military escalation could be “contained” within defined parameters. Nonetheless, given the highly charged public sentiment in both countries and the high political stakes in play for each country’s leader, there is little reason to be sanguine about the possibilities for restraint.“
Mr Rudd concludes by saying that “We are often enjoined to remember the lessons of history. The truth is history rarely repeats itself in precisely the same form. But for the nationalists in both Beijing and Washington who may not realize how serious the stakes have become, a good weekend read would be my compatriot Christopher Clark’s book on the failures of crisis management and diplomacy in 1914, evocatively titled The Sleepwalkers … [my link added] … The core lesson in the events leading to World War I is that a relatively minor incident (the assassination of an Austrian archduke in Sarajevo in late June 1914) can escalate into a war between great powers in a matter of weeks. Clark’s graphic account is one of relentless escalation, inadequate diplomacy, and crude nationalism, along with a disbelief by populations and leaders alike that actual conflict was even possible—until the “guns of August” [my hyperlink, again] grimly proved otherwise … [thus] … For the United States, the China challenge is real and demands a coherent, long-term strategy across all policy domains and in coordination with allies. It also requires a new framework for the U.S.-Chinese relationship, one based on the principles of “managed” strategic competition: political, economic, technological, and ideological competition with mutually understood red-lines, open lines of high-level communication to avoid an accidental escalation, and defined areas of global cooperation where it is mutually advantageous (such as on pandemics and climate change). But the foremost task now is to safely navigate the next several months, to avoid stumbling into conflict in the midst of a presidential campaign in the United States and a period of contested internal politics in China. Leaders on both sides should remember that nationalistic jingoism tends to become more muted after the shooting starts.“
I’m afraid that I have little faith in the strategic visions of either President Trump or Vice President Biden: the latter is a doddering old man who might be on the verge of senility, the former is a doddering old fool who might be on the verge of insanity.
But, for Canada, it doesn’t matter. Even though Xi Jinping might be the best focused and least dangerous of all the players, China is not Canada’s friend. America, no matter who leads it, is our best friend, our good neighbour, our most important trading partner and the guarantor of our sovereignty and security. We, the Canadian voters, have chosen, since the late 1960s, to be, de facto, a colony of the USA. As in 1899 and 1914, we will be obliged to stand with ~ and even fight alongside ~ our colonial masters.
It is past time we, Canadians, got our foreign and defence policies (and our defence budget) in order … but for that, we will need to elect a new government with adult leaders.