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Taiwan Means War Only If We Want It To

Part Two of a two-part essay arguing the Taiwan question says more about the U.S. than China.

The United States and China will not go to war in our time over Taiwan. China is not engaging in provocative actions leading toward an invasion. So why the fuss?

Part One of this essay covered why China has nothing to gain, and given nuclear weapons, literally everything to lose. But however impractical an invasion might be, how unnecessary, or how risky, hasn’t China declared repeatedly it will reunite with Taiwan?

Yes. But if you want to cite Chinese propaganda as evidence of actual intent, it is best to pay attention to the details.

It was the United States itself that most clearly asserted the shared tripartite goal was reunification, declaring, with deliberate ambiguity as part of its diplomatic break with Taiwan, “there is only one China and Taiwan is a part of it.” Chinese President Xi regularly reiterates reunification as a goal, but always stresses the process is historical—as in, it is inevitable but we need to be patient, so don’t wait up for it to happen; the last revolution took 300 years to start—and must be peaceful. Sorry, if you’re going to quote Chinese propaganda statements as proof of intent, you can’t cherrypick only the scary parts. It makes no sense to trust Xi on the plan but to claim he and every previous Chinese leader has been lying about the peaceful execution in the same breath.

Not by coincidence, most of these reunification proclamations occur around important political holidays. One of Xi’s recent invocations was in a speech marking the 110th anniversary of the Xinhai 1911 Revolution, which overthrew the foreign Manchu Qing dynasty. The occasion was important, because Xinhai, ideologically midwifed by Dr. Sun Yat-sen, is acknowledged by both the most hardcore Communists and the most fervent Nationalists as the common origin point for modern China. This is drilled into every schoolkid on both sides of the Strait and forms a common vocabulary among their diplomats. The point is to understand Xi’s remarks in the same context as a Chinese person, not Rambo.

In Sun’s spirit Xi reiterated a vow to peaceful reunification with Taiwan. He urged the Chinese people to “stand on the right side of history and join hands to achieve China’s complete reunification,” invoking the way the people in 1911 who would come to form the Communist and Nationalist parties worked together against common enemies—the Manchus, then warlordism and feudalism, then the Japanese, and perhaps someday the Americans. Xi, talking to his own people and those on Taiwan, sketched a shared vision a long way from the PLA amphibious assault the West fears. Xi was also aware that, the day before his speech, HMS Queen Elizabeth, USS Carl Vinson, USS Ronald Reagan, and Japan’s Ise conducted joint carrier operations in the China Sea featuring the soon-to-be-nuclear-capable F-35 aircraft.

Far from anything new or provocative, Xi’s rhetoric was consistent with 70 some years of speeches maintaining Beijing has no quarrel with the people on Taiwan, who are today mostly Mandarin-speaking ethnically Han Chinese, same as in Beijing. Instead, the theme has always been that a few bad apples in Taiwan’s government are preventing all Chinese from seeing they need to work together. To invade Taiwan, China would commit itself to killing fellow Chinese noncombatants, something that would cause Xi to lose legitimacy in the eyes of his own people—the Mandate of Heaven still applies.

Meanwhile, on Taiwan, the current president more or less acknowledges the official line of a reunited China someday but quickly says there are more important things on her mind, like making money. Many in the West failed to notice it was Dr. Sun’s portrait that hung behind both leaders as they spoke on Xinhai Revolution day. The idea that all these factors boil down to “China is going to invade Taiwan” is beyond silly. America’s obsession with Taiwan independence is more Washington’s problem than Taipei’s.

Chinese leaders have for thousands of years believed in historical cycles. They endured close to 300 years to end the foreign Qing dynasty. They waited out Britain for hundreds of years for the peaceful return of Hong Kong. Such things come up in conversation with Chinese diplomats as casually as talk about the weather. Chinese diplomacy is patient, not spasmodically reactive. There is no fierce urgency to reunification. Sun Tzu: One waits to win.

In contrast stands America’s foreign policy. A comparison of countries where the U.S. and China military intervened post-WWII is telling. Chinese troops entered Vietnam only after the U.S. began its own campaign of regime change there. China entered the Korean War only after the U.S. threatened to cross into Chinese territory. Both of these events are celebrated in the People’s Army Museum in Beijing as examples of defending the homeland’s borders.

The museum, in addition, features an American U-2 spy plane shot down over the mainland during the 1960s. The museum also has exhibits showing the U.S. purposely bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, killing three and destroying the diplomatic sanctuary. The U.S. claimed it was an accident, but history makes clear it was retaliation against an undefended target accused of spying in former Yugoslavia. How many American embassies has China bombed?

China put its first blue water aircraft carrier to sea last year; the U.S. has maintained multiple carrier groups in the Pacific since WWII, recently facilitated the permanent deployment of two British carrier groups in the area (their first big show of naval force in the area since losing Singapore to the Japanese) and will sell nuclear submarines to Australia with the understanding they will patrol the South China Sea.

The U.S. recently brought India into the Quad Pact agreement against China, and convinced Japan to abandon its official neutral stance on Taiwan to support the U.S. Japan has quickly grown into a multiple carrier blue water naval force under American encouragement and with American technology; an unprecedented pledge by Japan’s ruling party seeks to double defense spending and underscores the nation’s haste to acquire missiles, stealth fighters, drones, and other weapons that can target China.

For the first time in decades U.S. forces are officially stationed on Taiwan. The White House recently announced the existing U.S.-Japan security treaty now extends to some additional disputed islands, and the Philippine security treaty covers Manila’s claims to Chinese-occupied islets. The U.S. maintains military bases in a ring around China’s eastern coast. Economically, Barack Obama via the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) tried to isolate China from the Asian trade sphere. Trump imposed and Biden maintains punitive tariffs on goods out of China. This autumn Congress will take up the Taiwan Invasion Prevention Act, which would authorize Biden to initiate (nuclear) war on China without any input from America’s elected representatives.

So who, in fact, is acting provocatively in the Pacific? Which side is saber rattling, and which simply responding the way a dog barks to warn off an aggressor?

Peter Van Buren is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the 99 Percent.

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