The global US alliance system can only continue to exist if it is committed to defend Taiwan. That is what former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott argued in a Daily Telegraph article on Wednesday last week.
His arguments shared great similarity with the “vertical alliance” strategy to resist the Qin Dynasty’s moves to unify “all under heaven” two millennia ago.
In the article, titled Stopping an Invasion, Abbott analyzed the importance of the US and other democracies being committed to intervene if China invades Taiwan, to ensure the continuity of the global US-led alliance system.
Abbott said that the “global US alliance system would unravel” if the US does not put itself on the line for Taiwan and acquiesce should China invade the nation.
Without making China understand the US and other democracies’ determination to defend Taiwan, it would think that “the only resistance would be Taiwanese,” and “China would move swiftly to take Taiwan.”
Abbott explained how failing to defend Taiwan could lead to “the end of the Pax Americana.”
“American acquiescence in a Chinese takeover would brand the US as an unreliable ally” and the “global US alliance system would unravel,” he said.
The consequence of that would be “forcing all the other countries of our region into making the best possible accommodation with Beijing — or of arming themselves to the teeth to dramatically raise the stakes should Beijing threaten them,” he said.
In a nutshell, should Taiwan fall, the current international order would be gone. Abbott reckoned that the best way to avoid such a scenario would be to deter China from cross-strait adventurism by making Beijing believe that not only Taiwan would offer resistance, but also the US and other democracies. In short, the US and its allies must commit to defending Taiwan.
Abbott mentioned an example that demonstrated an effective way to deter a superpower from invading other countries.
He wrote that “peace held in Europe for more than 40 years because the Soviet leadership thought that America would indeed put itself on the line for its allies,” and therefore, being committed to defend Taiwan against China is a good strategy, just like what the US had done for Europe during the Cold War.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) must know very well that Abbott’s argument is valid, because it is nothing new for Chinese strategists.
Abbott’s idea of defending democracy by defending Taiwan against China is basically a 21st century version of the vertical alliance, championed by Warring States period strategist Su Qin (蘇秦). The seven major players during that period were the states of Yan, Zhao, Han, Wei, Qi, Chu and Qin. By the fourth century BC, Qin had emerged as a superpower, applying a “horizontal alliance” strategy to lure other states to give up resistance.
To counter Qin’s looming invasion, six other states formed the vertical alliance.
According to Han Dynasty historian Sima Qian (司馬遷), once the king of Qin learned of the vertical alliance’s formation in 333 BC, he “suffered from a huge panic attack.”
Under the vertical alliance, the six states were supposed to defend each other if Qin invaded any one of them.
The king of Qin was in a panic because he thought that the six states were serious — however, what happened later proved that they were not serious enough.
Eventually, Qin unified China for the first time late in that century. The rest is history.
“Applying the vertical alliance strategy was the only way for the eastern states to survive. However, only great statesmen would consider for the future in 10 years time, only historians would consider for the future in 30 years time,” Taiwan-based historian Bo Yang (柏楊) wrote in the History of the Chinese People.
He attributed the six states being exterminated one after another by Qin to their insufficient commitment to the vertical alliance.
Bo’s comment echoed the opinions of Song Dynasty writers Su Xun (蘇洵) and Su Zhe (蘇轍), who are among the most famous writers in Chinese history and who wrote two separate articles on the matter, both titled On the Six States.
Su Xun argued that the six states fell due to their policy of appeasement allowing Qin to expand its territory unchecked.
Su Zhe argued that the alliance failed due to the states’ insufficient commitment to support two of its members, Han and Wei.
Han and Wei were two small adjacent states bordering Qin. They were not only regarded as buffer states, but also keystones of the alliance.
It might be hard to repress a feeling of deja vu when comparing today’s situation in the Indo-Pacific region with the Warring States period.
Particularly, Han and Wei’s situation seems familiar to anyone who looks at today’s Taiwan.
According to Sima Qian, the ruler of Zhao in 333 BC convened a summit of the six states to form the alliance.
The ruler did so mainly because he came to be aware, thanks to Su Qin, that Zhao would face an existential threat by Qin if Han and Wei should fall.
He needed all six states to be committed to support Han and Wei to stop Qin’s expansionism.
What happened later proved that the survival of Han, Wei and Zhao was also critical to Chu, Yan and Qi.
As the commitment to support Han and Wei was not as vigorous as it should have been, Han, Zhao and Wei fell within five years. Soon after that, Chu, Yan and Qi fell, too, and Qin eventually swallowed up “all under heaven.”
It would not be surprising that the CCP is dreaming of repeating history. The CCP always envies Qin for what it achieved two millennia ago.
For example, Mao Zedong (毛澤東) expressed his admiration of Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇), who defeated the six states and became the founder of the Qin Dynasty.
When looking at today’s world map, it is difficult not to associate China’s Belt and Road Initiative with the Qin-led horizontal alliance.
It is as difficult not to associate the G7, the Five Eyes and the US’ island chain strategy with the vertical alliance.
Even the CCP is drawing such conclusions.
According to Xinhua news agency, Fang Jin (方晉), secretary- general of the China Development Research Foundation, a think tank subordinated to the Chinese State Council, has pointed out that the Belt and Road Initiative is China’s horizontal strategy to defeat the US’ “return to Asia” policy, which Fang regards as equivalent to the vertical strategy.
The diplomatic wisdom of the Warring States period is still valuable today.
Abbott’s call for defending Taiwan mirrors Su Qin and Su Zhe’s judgement that Han and Wei were critical to the vertical alliance.
The question is how to avoid repeating the mistake that the six states made.
Lionel Te-Chen Chiou is a Sydney-based freelance journalist specializing in cultural affairs. His main research interests are the Chinese Communist Party and its narrative control.
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