Nancy Pelosi did not have to visit Taiwan. By doing so, she has put the American president in a difficult position. The U.S. would not tolerate a military invasion of the island, as Joe Biden explicitly affirmed. Now, however, China has taken the first step toward invasion by encircling the island with military maneuvers. The Chinese are talking about exercises taking place more and more frequently around Taiwan in the future. Will Biden protect the island with aircraft carriers and risk an outbreak of war, or has he only made false promises, as Chinese propaganda proclaims daily to the Taiwanese?
In 1972, President Nixon and his national security adviser Henry Kissinger had signed a treaty promising Mao Zedong that there was only one China and only one legitimate government, namely the communist one of the mainland (at least that is how the agreement was understood by the People’s Republic). Thus, the United States adopted the People’s Republic’s definition of Taiwan as a “renegade province.” The U-turn in American policy at that time was not the result of a sudden love for China, which was still arch-communist at the time, but of geostrategic calculations. China was to be split off from the most dangerous opponent of the free world at the time, the Soviet Union – a move which would help to end the war in Vietnam. This calculation, to which democratic Taiwan was carelessly sacrificed, seemed to work out at first – but only for a short time, as soon became apparent. It was not long before the two beta powers, China and Russia, once again joined forces against the U.S., the then still omnipotent alpha ruler.
The U.S. had insisted, however, that Taiwan’s unification with mainland China could only take place in a peaceful manner. In other words, reunification of the two Chinas should only occur if a majority of the Taiwanese were willing to vote democratically for such an event. Communist China persistently omits this condition, even when there is talk of the relevant UN resolution. The behavior of the U.S. is falsely portrayed as a breach of promise.
In view of the increasing military threat to Taiwan from the People’s Republic, the U.S., Taiwan and the UN could insist on a vote on the political future of Taiwan, but it is clear from the outset that Xi Jinping does not want to hear about such a proposal. The Tibetans were not asked for their opinion before their land was incorporated into China, nor were the Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang. As is well known, China’s expansion into the South China Sea was whipped through against the ruling from The Hague that questioned its legality. The de facto annexation of Hong Kong took place last year in defiance of the treaty signed with Britain and against the will of a majority of the people living there. China does not rely on votes; it relies on force. It violates the law whenever it believes it can take such a step with impunity.
In other words, China is behaving just like any expanding state that can rely on a strong economy and military. Such expansion is usually justified ideologically (by hostility to some exploitative power, for instance). It has, however, nothing to do with ideology, but everything with strength. More than two thousand years ago, superior strength allowed tiny Qin to triumph over its neighbors, thus laying the foundation for today’s China. Military strength, favoured by technological advantage, ensured that Europe conquered the New World and not, conversely, that the Indians made their home in Madrid, Paris and London (see Jarez Diamond: Guns, Germs and Steel). An overwhelming technological advantage, translated into military might, made a hitherto insignificant island, tiny England, the ruler of two-thirds of the world. Between 1917 and 1991, the Soviet Union brought the largest landmass on earth under its control – by force. But the true world ruler of the 20th century was the United States. They established their military bases all over the globe. The United States developed or brought to practical use almost all the technologies that shape today’s global economy: Digitization, space technology, use of nuclear energy, computer science, biogenetics. This gave them their strength as an unchallenged superpower for almost an entire century.
The Middle Kingdom was the world’s richest and most powerful country until the 17th century. For about a decade it is in the process of becoming so again. But almost everything that can be found there in terms of technical know-how has been taken over from the West during the past thirty years in a historically unique catching-up process. What a contrast! While for the last twenty years in the headquarters of the West, the US, the infrastructure of highways and bridges, railroads and subways has visibly decayed, while slums have been spreading in American cities and ethnic groups have been fighting each other ever more bitterly, modern China spreads the glitz and glamor of a technological prodigy. Everything there seems new and cutting-edge: the high-speed trains between Beijing Tibet and Xinjiang, the trade fair palaces across the country, the 5G digital infrastructure, the new airports and factories that the country is now mass-producing in a lasting frenzy of modernization.*1*
China – a developing country just until thirty years ago – is now so powerful that the U.S. – still the undisputed leader of the world at the beginning of this century – must now fear that it will no longer be a match for the great power China in a conventionally fought war over Taiwan. Mainland China has meanwhile rearmed to such an extent that an exchange of blows with the U.S. would bleed it at least as badly as China itself. All the more since the latter is in a far better situation from the outset because of its immediate proximity to embattled Taiwan.
On the other hand, it is hard to imagine that the U.S. – still the world’s largest nuclear power – would accept defeat in the event of war without playing its last and real trump card, its overwhelming nuclear superiority. It seems inhuman to even think through such fantasies of collective murder, let alone discuss them in cold blood. But this is exactly what is permanently happening in the planning staffs of all three great powers (and even in those of their smaller imitators). For the U.S., such considerations boil down to the conclusion that it could just about risk an exchange of blows with China today as long as it has only that country as an adversary. China is not yet a serious nuclear adversary for them. In the event of an outbreak of war, in which the rivals hope to the last that it will be low-threshold, i.e. at most using “tactical” nuclear weapons, the U.S. would not have to fear that it would disappear from the map, but China would have to fear so indeed (in any case, China’s current rulers would hardly be as unspeakably stupid and brutal as Mao was in 1957 when he swaggered that a nuclear war would not be an excessively dangerous catastrophe for China. “Perhaps half of the Chinese would not survive a nuclear holocaust, but then there would still be 300 million left.” *2*
The problem for the U.S. is Russia, which, as I said before, only allowed itself to be temporarily split off from China by Henry Kissinger, but now holds firm to its Chinese neighbor in an unbreakable, if unofficial, alliance. Russia differs fundamentally from this ally. While the People’s Republic has only grown bigger and stronger for thirty years, because it adopted the Western principle of free development of economic forces along with Western technology, doing so under the domination of a state that opposes excessive concentration of economic power in private hands (the only, but a very important concession to communist ideology), the Russian Federation is a state in decline that would have long been bankrupt without the exploitation of its vast natural resources (especially coal, oil and gas) and would probably have long since chased away its new tsar and dictator, Vladimir Putin. But just as one can conjure up in a few decades economically prosperous states like Saudi Arabia and the Arab Emirates from a desert, previously populated only by camels and bitterly poor Bedouins, – provided that a lot of oil is discovered under the sand – Russia’s vast fossil resources produced similar wealth flowing in from Europe. As a result, at least in the first decade of Putin’s rule, the Russian population was noticeably better off despite all rampant corruption. The decline came afterwards, when Putin turned to putting ever greater resources into armaments with the openly proclaimed goal of reversing “the greatest catastrophe of the twentieth century, the disintegration of the Soviet Union” through a renewed expansionist policy.
The parallel between Taiwan and Ukraine is obvious. The small island off the mainland was once called Formosa, the Magnificent. Today it is a splendid booty for the People’s Republic, as it possesses a treasure of unique value. Taiwan (more precisely, TSMC in Hsinchu) supplies the world with the smallest and best chips and has the largest market share of all competing groups with 55 percent. The US is currently doing everything it can to prevent the People’s Republic, which is currently still dependent on Western supplies in this sector, from taking the lead in this area as well. To this end, they are attempting to subject chip production in Taiwan and South Korea to their control in order to maintain the West’s lead over the People’s Republic, at least in this area. A successful invasion of Taiwan would put mainland China in possession of the most advanced chip production facility – as the U.S. rightly fears – and it could then supply Russia with chips.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine also follows economic logic. In his influential book “The Great Chess Game” Zbigniew Brzeziński, security advisor under Jimmy Carter, had put forward the thesis that without Ukraine Russia would lose its rank as an empire. He was certainly right. Although economically underdeveloped in most areas except the military, Russia is an economic world power because of its fossil sources and as an exporter of grain. If Putin succeeds in subjugating Ukraine, it will become a monopolist in this field, determining the misery or livelihood of billions and the existence or non-existence of millions.
There is no mention of such deep-lying causes for the aggressive behavior of China and Russia in official announcements. Instead, one hears in Chinese media that the Taiwanese brothers are prevented from uniting peacefully with the People’s Republic only because of its Western-influenced government and the Americans. The fact that the Taiwanese can boast of having one of the most successful democracies and are just as satisfied with their free life as a majority of the citizens of Hong Kong were until 2021, is not heard of in Mainland China. Nor does Putin’s Russia want to accept the fact that most Ukrainians, until the invasion of February 24, 2022, hoped for a good relationship with their great neighbor Russia, to which they are so close culturally, but by no means wanted to be ruled by Russia. It is precisely this right that Putin categorically denies them. Just as he denounces all Russians opposing his regime as “traitors” – traitors toward whom any action, including political murder, seems legitimate – all Ukrainians who do not want to be part of Russia are “Nazis” and “traitors” who must expect to be exterminated if they do not submit voluntarily. Elemental hatred plays a sinister role in Putin’s war of extermination. Quite a few – perhaps even a majority – of Russians are so hopelessly blinded by daily propaganda that they seriously demonize Ukrainians, with whom millions of them are linked by kinship ties, as “Nazis”.*3*
The Chinese are much more pragmatic. Since Deng Xiaoping, they have really just been playing a game with communist ideology. In fact, they have built a highly successful capitalist system in which personal initiative and individual ability count. Communism plays a role only insofar as it serves to legitimize the Stalinist model of one-party rule. On the other hand, the party also succeeds in preventing an excessive concentration of economic power in a few hands and thus tames capitalism. The game of ideology is thus determined by realism. And the country’s political elite is, of course, well aware that an overwhelming majority of Taiwanese are strictly opposed to a forced takeover by its strong neighbor. China’s rulers know that this majority sees the United States as a protective power that alone can save it from such a takeover. But mainland China also knows that the U.S. – and the West as a whole – do not want such a war, especially since their own country is becoming increasingly stronger both economically and as a military power. So they are counting on the U.S. not reacting in the end even to obvious provocations. True, the U.S. and a united West can prevent Russia from swallowing Ukraine by supplying the Ukrainians with more and better weapons. But Taiwan is a different case.
Taiwan is a bomb with a fizzling fuse attached to it. The People’s Republic’s six simultaneous maneuvers around Taiwan have temporarily encircled the island and cut it off from the world. Even if the six-day military muscle play has ended in the meantime, China can repeat it at any time and already proclaimed that it will do so. Before the U.S. managed to get its warships into position, a phone call from Beijing probably reassured the Pentagon with the message that only a limited maneuver was being planned anyway. The effect is nevertheless positive for China and detrimental to the US. China has given the Taiwanese a first deadly scare and can now convince them even more credibly that in an emergency the United States will not come to their aid anyway. Beijing has started this dangerous game and will certainly continue it until it eventually turns into a permanent siege to strangle the island economically. After this successful precedent, it won’t even take a military incursion to erode Taiwan’s autonomy and ultimately abolish it altogether.
But the credibility of the U.S. in Asia – and in Europe – stands and falls with its willingness to keep its president’s explicit promise that the U.S. will defend Taiwan against any incursion – including a gradual economic blockade. They have not shown this willingness in this dramatic circumstance. But what will happen if they do fulfill their promise by action? Then they will most likely suffer defeat as long as they rely only on their conventional forces and not on their superior strength as a nuclear superpower. So they can be expected to use nuclear weapons as otherwise they would have to bow out of world politics as a defeated superpower. And what would happen then? The use of nuclear bombs – even those of a merely “tactical” nature – would be met in kind by China’s unofficial ally, Russia. Unlike the war in Ukraine, a war over Taiwan could start a world conflagration that could no longer be controlled.
Who would be to blame? The United States, China or Russia? Chinese propaganda never tires of denouncing Japan for its imperial policies, from which the Chinese three quarters of a century ago suffered immensely. From 1867, the beginning of the Meiji period, until its defeat in 1945, Japan was a rising power with decidedly expansionist appetites. Meanwhile, China has followed exactly the same path – but with a population more than ten times larger and a land area twenty-five times as big. Even when ideologies are totally different, the actions of powerful rising states follow the same pattern everywhere: expansion. So who is to blame? I’m sure some of my readers will have an immediate answer. They point to China, to Russia or to the United States. Others may instead point to the respective ideologies. The capitalists are to blame, the communists, the extreme right, the extreme left, conspiracy theorists, and so on.
I regret that I cannot serve with such an answer. From history, as I know it, I am able to draw only one lesson, namely that man as such is guilty. One need only put the better weapons into his hand and he will turn them against his weaker neighbor. This is a sad lesson, to be sure, for it shakes our conception of Homo sapiens or Homo Deus. But I am not aware of any conflicting examples from the history of great empires. Every strong community that hopes to gain advantages from subjugating a weaker one has always seized this opportunity.
So is our world ruled solely by the law of the strongest? Fortunately, this is not the case. Within a community, the right to equal opportunities for all can unfold – even to the point of approaching a longed-for ideal. It is only between them that social Darwinism has prevailed and continues to prevail to this day, causing untold suffering but never endangering the species as such. In the meantime, more than eight billion of our species live on the globe – we are by far the most successful species besides cattle and poultry, which we breed ourselves.
But the successful evolution of our species may soon come to an end because we have invented weapons to wipe out not only our neighbors but the entire biosphere. Our intelligence – the intelligence of Homo Diabolus – is now for the first time great enough to lead to our self-extermination. This is a turning point; the decisive break in the history of Homo IN-sapiens. The fuse has been hissing for more than half a century.*4*
1 In a later essay, I would like to address the pressing and exciting question of why hegemonic powers can never defend their position against rising rivals for more than a limited time.
2 “I’m not afraid of nuclear war. There are 2.7 billion people in the world; it doesn’t matter if some are killed. China has a population of 600 million; even if half of them are killed, there are still 300 million people left. I’m not afraid of anyone.” (http://www.theepochtimes.com/n3/4758-maos-nuclear-mass-extinction-speech-aired-on-chinese-tv/).
3 When, in connection with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we blame the Russian government and its followers for their shameless lying, we should not forget, that in the US every third citizen is still bewitched by another shameless liar, Donald Trump, whose notorious mendacity is characterized by breathtaking intellectual primitivism. This is what happens when a government (Republicans as well as Democrats) de facto cuts off a part of its own population from higher education and disregards it as (white, Black, Latino) “trash”.
4 The only way out – which I always mention again and against all ridicule – is a world government. It will not eradicate the enmity between people, so it will by no means give us paradise, but only such a government is able not only to outlaw nuclear weapons but to abolish them.