US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) on Thursday spoke for more than two hours in a telephone call that touched upon tensions over Taiwan. Xi warned Biden not to “play with fire.” Xi has used this phrase in talks with Biden before. That he used it again on this occasion suggests that he intends it as a reminder of a previous threat and not as an escalation in the rhetoric between the two sides.
The translation is not simply the substitution of an English proverb to reflect the intent of the original Chinese. The idiom Xi used was wanhuo bi zifen (玩火必自焚), literally: “If you play with fire, you will surely perish by it.” It comes from a story in an ancient Chinese classic of a usurper waging war to secure legitimacy for his rule at home. The original phrase is “military action is like fire: If you don’t keep events under control, you will burn.”
Beijing wants it to be known that it regards the US as the side responsible for allowing their relationship to deteriorate, but Xi knows perfectly well that resorting to military action is unlikely to end well for China.
In November last year, then-Australian minister for defense Peter Dutton said it would be “inconceivable” that Australia would not support the US military if it came to Taiwan’s defense; a survey released on June 28 showed that 51 percent of Australians supported the idea of Australian forces defending Taiwan. Former Japanese prime ministers Shinzo Abe and Yoshihide Suga knew of the implications of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan to Japan’s national security, and their successor, Fumio Kishida, is continuing Abe’s push to amend Japan’s pacifist constitution as well as planning to increase military spending as a percentage of annual GDP.
Speaking over video link at the Ketagalan Forum on Tuesday, former Japanese minister of defense Taro Kono said that if China invaded Taiwan and the US became involved, the Japan Self-Defense Forces would be obligated to assist under the Guidelines for Japan-US Defense Cooperation.
In addition to fighting Taiwan’s military, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army could well find itself facing the US and its regional allies too, if it attacked Taiwan.
China would also pay dearly economically, for what British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has said would be a “catastrophic miscalculation.” China would become an international pariah, just as Russia has become over the brutal and unprovoked war in Ukraine.
Kono put it most succinctly at the forum, when he said that Beijing should be made to realize that a coercive annexation of Taiwan cannot be achieved within an acceptable cost and time frame. This is why it is imperative that Russian President Vladimir Putin is made to pay a high price, to show other autocratic leaders, such as Xi, what it looks like when you play with fire.
Fire does not discriminate. Once set in motion, it engulfs everything it touches, irrespective of who lit it. Xi knows this. He does not want war, he sees it as a last resort for which he is developing the capacity so that he can threaten to use it if he does not get his way. He is applying maximum pressure and intimidation to deter any moves by the US to help Taiwan, because he would need to respond to such moves, and that would lead to further escalation.
Xi is warning the US not to play with fire, but he knows the ensuing fire will engulf China too. He should heed his own warning.
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