An old Latin adage reads: Si vis pacem, para bellum. Translated it means: “If you wish peace, then prepare for war.” This adage has many variants and claims to authorship, but what is most important is its message for a peaceful Taiwan.
Why should Taiwan prepare for war? The reasons are many and obvious.
Certainly, such preparation is not because Taiwan wants war or is a warlike nation. Instead, the answer is found in its neighbor, China.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which rules China as a one-party state, is ambitious and troubled — and that combination makes war a viable option, as the above Latin adage ironically has a flip side.
That flip-side is similar in phrasing, but different in application. It comes from Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin. In critiquing imperialism, Lenin translated certain lines from a novel and misattributed them to the British imperialist Cecil Rhodes. They read: “The empire, as I have always said is a bread and butter question... If you want to avoid civil war, you must become imperialist.”
For imperialists, war can serve to distract from troubles within. Thus, together, these two sayings emphasize Taiwan’s situation and why it must prepare for war.
Examine the first, Taiwan must see preparation as a deterrent. Any nation, large or small, must demonstrate its ability to defend itself. If it does not, it will be seen as the desirable and easily plucked proverbial fruit. Taiwan certainly does not want that.
The second saying applies to Taiwan’s hegemonic neighbor, China. While Lenin was speaking against imperialism, he failed to see that any state, even those formed by “proletariat revolutions” can easily become imperialist.
In this, British author George Orwell demonstrated through his novel Animal Farm that he had much greater vision and insight into human nature than Lenin.
Taiwan possesses a hard-won democracy. It knows well the history of how its democracy was achieved. It also knows that the CCP needs to deny that reality and twist it to its own advantage, especially when the CCP faces internal problems.
In short, in addition to Taiwan’s strategic location and wealth being advantageous for China, China and its president, Xi Jinping (習近平), also realize that they must become imperialist in this matter because Taiwan distracts from China’s increasing internal problems. When you understand this, you understand Taiwan’s situation.
Xi clearly has a life goal of wanting to enter the Chinese pantheon; he sees himself as the successor to Mao Zedong (毛澤東). With no heirs on whom to bestow his presidency, whatever Xi does must be done in his lifetime, and time is running out. To this end, he has already laid the ground work for him to have an unprecedented third term, something normally forbidden by CCP rules.
Further, in true Animal Farm fashion, the CCP has already become capitalist in its means if not in its admitted profession. However, all is not well internally. The once famed double-digit GDP growth that the CCP achieved is a thing of the past. In its place, China’s rich private sector is becoming at odds with the CCP, and the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed that the party is not a “team player” in world health.
These are not the only internal problems. China’s imprisoned Uighurs are not becoming model citizens. Tibet and Inner Mongolia are not happy to see their cultural identity erased. Even Hong Kong has become “unappreciative” of how the CCP does not keep its promises.
The growing troubles in the energy and the coal market have already led to “brownouts” in China akin to the Philippines in the 1990s. Climate change and a coming cold winter are at the doorstep. And finally, even Beijing hosting next year’s Winter Olympics is posing more problems than relief.
If Xi wants his portrait hung in Tiananmen Square, he and the CCP are desperately in need of “imperialist distractions.”
As a long-term insider of the CCP, Xi certainly understands Mao’s playbook. Mao was a master of distraction and was able to twist the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution to his advantage. Throughout that turmoil, he always managed to be seen as a hero, even though he ironically was responsible for it and for more Chinese deaths than the “villainous” Japanese.
In doing this, Mao knew how to find “perceived enemies” both within and without.
Unfortunately for Xi, the present times are not the times of Mao. In today’s age, instant communication and awareness are more readily available; things cannot be hidden as they were in the past.
Xi faces other problems. Mao had abundant human resources to sacrifice at his disposal. The China he directed did not yet face the effects of the one-child policy. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese died in the Korean War and afterwards, but they were “expendable.”
However, with the one-child policy reaching its zenith, too many parents and grandparents are dependent on “one child.” Xi does not have Mao’s luxury. Returning body bags from war would impact China’s whole society.
Furthermore, war would not just involve Taiwan. Japan and the US have finally begun to see that their lucrative trade with China might now have too high a cost if China gains control of strategic Taiwan.
In past decades, Japan and the US had done little when Taiwan suffered under the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) martial law and White Terror, but that was because such tolerance allowed them to also court the beneficial trade deals of working with China as well as Taiwan. Now, however, all those circumstances have changed.
Japan and the US will help defend Taiwan, not so much because they believe in Taiwan’s democracy, but more because of self-interest. In a shrinking world of many influences, they recognize that the freedom of the seas and the freedom of their own democracies are inevitably linked to the democracy of Taiwan. Hegemonic China will always remain imperialist.
On Taiwan’s side, its people have additional intrinsic motivation to prepare for war. They have already been through the KMT’s one-party state, martial law and the White Terror. Thus, what Xi is offering, or even threatening, is simply a return to that past, but with different masters.
Taiwanese will therefore ask: Did our ancestors die to overcome the one-party KMT state only to exchange it for that of the CCP? Did our ancestors risk all for such an end as this?
This is the mentality and message that Taiwan and its president sense that they must develop and convey to China: “Any victory you achieve would be a Pyrrhic victory. We endured 40 years of KMT occupation when we were unarmed and unprepared at the end of World War II. This time we are ready and prepared. As a bonus, because of our chip production, we even have allies you do not imagine.”
Instability in the Taiwan Strait will benefit no one. Taiwan understands this and the others are beginning to see it as well.
Pundits may comment on whether war with China is or is not inevitable, but the ball is really in China’s imperialist court and how desperate it is. Taiwanese know where they stand. They must be ready. Si vis pacem, para bellum.
Jerome Keating is a writer based in Taipei.
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