Would the US be prepared to risk a catastrophic war with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to protect the Republic of China, better known as Taiwan? US President Joe Biden laid out his vision clearly last month. He sees the rivalry between the PRC and the US as a global conflict between democracy and autocracy, and Taiwan is unquestionably one of Asia’s most successful democracies.
In 1954, then-US president Dwight D. Eisenhower threatened to use nuclear weapons after China shelled a rocky islet near Taiwan’s coast, when the country was still a military dictatorship. Things were different then. The US was treaty-bound to defend Taiwan. This changed after 1972, when US president Richard Nixon agreed that Taiwan was part of “one China,” and US president Jimmy Carter nullified the defense treaty in 1979.
Whether the US would still fight a war over Taiwan has become a question subject to what former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger long ago termed “strategic ambiguity.”
As a result, US military commitments in the East China Sea are peculiar. A defense treaty with Japan obliges the US to defend a few uninhabited rocks called the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台), known as the Senkakus in Japan, but not democratic Taiwan and its 23 million people.
There are practical reasons why a Chinese military attack on Taiwan might still provoke a war with the US. China’s control of the East China Sea would be a threat to Japan and South Korea. Allowing that to happen could start a dangerous nuclear arms race in East Asia. Taiwan also has highly advanced computer technology, which the US and its democratic allies would prefer not to see in the PRC’s hands.
Then there is the long hand of history. We are not determined by the past, but we ignore it at our peril. While its effects might be the result of myths, myths can be more potent than facts. At the core of contemporary Chinese nationalism is the idea of national humiliation redeemed by renewed greatness.
According to this narrative, for at least 100 years, from the Opium Wars in the 1840s to the brutal Japanese invasions in the 1930s and 1940s, China was degraded, bullied and occupied by foreign powers. Only the national revival overseen by the Chinese Communist Party will ensure that this never happens again.
This lesson is taught throughout the country. One reason for the dominance of revanchist nationalism in official Chinese rhetoric is the weakening of Marxist-Leninist or Maoist ideology in China. With so few Chinese, even communists, still believing the old dogma, the party needed a new justification for its monopoly on power. Redemption of the humiliations of the past has become a powerful one.
Japan’s colonial conquest of Taiwan, as a spoil of its victory over China in the Sino-Japanese War of 1895, still rankles. It is irrelevant that the emperors of China never cared much about Taiwan. Nor is it important that it was not the Chinese who were humiliated, but rather the Qing Dynasty, ruled by Manchus, which the Chinese Revolution in 1911, led by Han Chinese, brought down. None of that matters: The party regards restoring or keeping the Qing imperial possessions, such as Taiwan and Tibet, as a sacred patriotic duty.
Americans are affected by a different history — for which they were not even directly responsible. It was British prime minister Neville Chamberlain who signed the Munich Agreement in 1938, allowing Nazi Germany to begin dismantling Czechoslovakia. Chamberlain’s name would forever be associated with cowardly appeasement, while British prime minister Winston Churchill emerged as the great war hero.
The agreement has haunted US foreign policy, possibly even more than that of the UK. Presidents and prime ministers have been terrified of being compared to Chamberlain and have dreamed of being heroic Churchills.
The agreement emerged in US political rhetoric in pretty much every foreign crisis since then. US president Harry Truman invoked it at the beginning of the Korean War in 1950, when he vowed to “contain” communism. When the British refused to send troops to Vietnam to help the French fight Ho Chi Minh in 1954, Eisenhower accused Churchill, of all people, of “promoting a second Munich.”
In Vietnam again during the 1960s, Nixon warned of another Munich. In the US-led wars against Saddam Hussein, former presidents George H.W. Bush and his son George W. Bush compared the Iraqi dictator to Adolf Hitler, and fancied themselves in the role of Churchill. On the eve of that second conflict, then-British prime minister Tony Blair read Chamberlain’s diaries as a lesson in what not to do.
It might be that in today’s world, when a superpower conflict could destroy much of mankind, China and the US would avoid a war over Taiwan. So far, China appears to be playing a game of chicken, probing Taiwanese defenses, flying into its airspace, stepping up naval patrols, engaging in military practice runs for an invasion and making provocative statements about “not ruling out the use of force.” This is met by the US with more arms shipments and tough talk about a new cold war.
A game of chicken is a test of who will crack first, so it can escalate quickly and unpredictably. Being in thrall to the ghosts of history makes it harder to back down. If both sides refuse to do so in a crisis, everyone will lose.
Ian Buruma is the author of The Churchill Complex: The Curse of Being Special, From Winston and FDR to Trump and Brexit.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
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