The Most Dangerous Place on Earth: Why China Has No Choice But to Move on Taiwan, and to Move Soon
At the height of the Cold War, Soviet Leader Nikita Khrushchev called Berlin “the most dangerous place on earth.” Today there is a new “most dangerous place on Earth.” It is not located in Europe, nor even in the conflict-prone Middle East. It does not lie along the borders between Russia and her former vassal states. It does not have a land border at all. It is the island of Taiwan. Officially known as the Republic of China, Taiwan is a flourishing democracy. A hi-tech powerhouse, it supplies most of the world’s microchips, vital to products ranging from video game consoles to automobiles.
How can a tiny island such as Taiwan pose an existential threat to the People’s Republic of China–and what will that mean for the world in the decade to come? These are the questions we will explore in a three-part series.
To start with, Taiwan’s independence and pro-Western alignment pose a threat to China’s control of its coastal waters. Its continued sovereignty is a reminder of historical injustice for many Chinese. China desires Taiwan because it is valuable economically because its loss to the West would cripple the position of the U.S. in the Pacific, and of course, because of Communist ideology.
But ultimately, it is not greed and ambition but fear that leaves Beijing feeling it has no choice but to risk war to seize the island–and to do it sooner rather than later. The continued presence of a hostile and independent Taiwan is intolerable to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) because it poses a mortal threat to them. Taiwan’s very existence as an alternative Chinese system is a challenge not just to the CCP’s argument that it is the only viable model of governance for China, but to the legitimacy of its claim to govern China itself.
For the CCP, control of Taiwan is not a luxury. It is a necessity. A necessity which cannot be weighed against other interests or desires, and therefore which cannot be deterred by engagement or appeasement on the part of American leaders unless they are willing to compromise on the root cause of the CCP’s insecurity: Taiwanese freedom.
The Question of Finality
When Khrushchev called Berlin the “most dangerous place on Earth,” he was not wrong, insofar as it was the place on Earth the very existence of which posed the greatest danger to Soviet Communism. At the height of the Cold War, Berlin functioned not merely as a strategic threat to the Soviet Union, existing as a Western bastion in the heart of East Germany, but also as a point of Western vulnerability, easily isolated in a manner which would leave the free world with the unenviable choices of escalating elsewhere or accepting a Soviet fait accompli. But Berlin was something more. It was an ideological threat to the Soviets. The existence of a capitalist, pluralistic, and prosperous West Germany in the heart of the Eastern Bloc gave the lie to the idea that the Communist “People’s Democracies” either were run for the benefit of the people or existed on the basis of “Democratic” consent. As long as West Berlin existed, the legitimacy of the entire structure of Soviet Communism was called into question on a daily basis.
For Khrushchev, the Western presence in Berlin posed a mortal threat to the Soviet position in Germany, because it challenged the very underpinnings of the East German state. For the Soviets, the greatest challenge to governing their empire was popular acquiescence. They did not require the active support of the population for the Communist system. In fact, they did not even desire it. The genuine popularity of local Communist regimes tended to pose a much greater threat to the Soviet position in Eastern Europe than their extreme unpopularity did, as was demonstrated when the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968 in order to crush the Prague Spring. What the Soviets did wish was for the populations to accept the permanence of the Communist regimes, and thereby make their peace with them. In that way, the populace would cease their opposition.
To accomplish this “pacification” the Soviets needed to convince the people of Eastern Europe that their system was permanent. More than anything else, this was the motivation behind the endless series of Soviet peace initiatives, summits, and arms limitation treaties pushed by Moscow on the West. While it may have been an added benefit, they were not solely aimed at lulling the West into a false sense of security for an attack. They were primarily aimed at convincing the people of Eastern Europe that the United States and its allies had abandoned them, that the division of Europe and the world was permanent, and that future development would have to come in the context of the Communist system.
East Germany was the weak link in this system. If West Germany existed, claiming sovereignty over all of Germany, the very existence of an East German state was perceived as a temporary expedient. Hence the tradition of the West German Bundestag or Parliament holding sessions in West Berlin, while dismissed as “posturing” by many Sovietologists in American academic circles, was seen as posing a mortal threat to the East German state. It reduced the East German government to the status of the mere claimant. If the mere existence of West Berlin kept the longevity of East Germany in doubt, the prosperity of the Western segment made the desirability of East Germany’s survival doubtful even for many socialists, given that Communism sold itself on being a more advanced, scientific economic model. West Berlin’s existence, therefore, forced the East Germans and their Soviet masters into an economic competition they could never win, and which eventually bankrupted them.
The People’s Republic of China does not maintain a formal empire in the way the Soviet Union did. “Communism” has increasingly returned to what it was in the 1920s, a euphemism for xenophobia. Mao’s early writings are full of attacks on the bourgeois, the middle class, the press, and missionaries not merely as class enemies but as national traitors. They were evil not merely because they were rich, but because they became rich by working for foreigners who exploited China. Capitalism or private businesses as they existed before the onset of Communist rule were bad not so much because they existed to make profits, but because the system in which they existed, one in which private property rights were independent of the Chinese state, was based upon a lack of Chinese sovereignty. This is one reason why the CCP has been able to transition so easily to celebrating wealth, and corporatist behavior by Chinese firms that would make Jeff Bezos blush, provided those firms are owned by good, patriotic, party members.
Chinese Communism then bases its legitimacy less on a mission to empower China’s masses, and more on a mission to restore Chinese sovereignty over all of “China.” That sovereignty is defined not just in terms of politics, but also economics, and culture. The very lack of CCP/PRC control over the Taiwanese economy or media thereby implies a lack of Chinese sovereignty over them. And what Beijing does not exercise sovereignty over, is by definition, under foreign control.
China’s Communist ideology may allow space for individual accumulation of wealth, but it does not allow room for individual claims of sovereignty. The CCP does not govern a “state” called the People’s Republic of China. The People’s Republic of China is the sovereign entity of the Chinese people wherever they are. Hence the existence of rival claims, such as a democratic system in Taiwan, reduces the CCP to the level of one of “two China’s”. Furthermore, just as in Berlin, the existence of a rival system challenges the CCP’s core claim that their mission is based on economic liberation. The success of pluralistic capitalism in Taiwan implies not just that the CCP’s mission of economic nationalism is challenged, but that is unnecessary. For a party that has struggled to reconcile the suffering even its leaders have conceded defined the 1950s and 1960s, the suggestion that there was another way–that prosperity and sovereignty could have been achieved without that suffering–is an existential threat. It suggests that the Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward were not merely regrettable. They were crimes.
That is why China’s economic success, which so many observers in the West have been quick to argue should make the CCP more secure in relations toward Taiwan and Hong Kong, has ironically made Beijing less so. China’s success has come at a high cost. The success is sufficient that China’s leaders can make a credible case–perhaps not an altogether convincing one, but nevertheless a credible one–that the achievements were worth the sacrifice. But if examples exist to show that they were not needed; if Taiwan’s example suggests the same outcome or an even better one could have been achieved if the Kuomintang Party which governed Hong Kong until the 1990s had not been driven off the Mainland in 1949, then the Communist party’s achievements occurred despite, not because of the party.
Taiwan and Hong Kong
Observers have cited many of the concerns laid out above to explain the CCP’s attitude toward Hong Kong. Namely, that the city provides an example of freedom and democracy and free-market economics that can influence the Mainland and undermine the image of the CCP. While there is a limited degree of truth to this, those who believed that Hong Kong ever had the ability to influence Chinese politics were deluding themselves. Hong Kong’s threat to China struggled to extend beyond the island itself, and the influence, enormous to be fair, of its diaspora on foreign governments. There was a simple reason for this. Hong Kong’s opposition to Beijing was driven less by a desire for China to be democratic than for Hong Kong to not be Chinese. Hong Kong is democratic to the extent it is because it is not Chinese. The language of the elite is English, and partisan lines mean the protest movement has stressed the use of English. Opponents of Beijing waved British flags. Hong Kong is not an alternative model for 99% of Mainland Chinese, because Mainland Chinese would never be welcome in an independent Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, fairly or not, has allowed themselves to be tarred as wanting to be British or American.
Taiwan is different. Taiwan is not dominated by a colonial elite speaking a colonial tongue. On the contrary, “Taiwan” is not even the real name. Rather, it is the Republic of China. Until 2000, Taiwan was governed by the Kuomintang, the side which lost the Chinese Civil War in 1949. Taiwan, then, is not a Western outpost, which could be tolerated until the time is right. It is an alternative model of what all of China could have been.
This is also why the “One China” policy is so important. An independent Taiwan would not mean the existence of China and Taiwan. It would mean the existence of two Chinas, much as there were two Germanies. And the CCP would be reduced from the leading force of the Chinese people everywhere to the ruling clique of a Chinese state. There are precedents for this in Chinese history, where during times of division with multiple dynasties ruling over different regions, historians spent centuries arguing over which faction represented the “legitimate” emperor.
Is War Inevitable?
For the People’s Republic of China then, the existence of two Chinas means the abolition of their own status as “China.” It does not matter if Taiwan calls itself the “Republic of Taiwan”. The effect will be the same as the act will be a denial of the PRC’s sovereignty over the Chinese world.
This does not, however, mean the status quo of “One China, Two systems” is stable, not least because as long as “two systems” exist in enough substance, then “One China” can be abandoned at any time by Taipei. Any Taipei with enough of a second “system” to meaningfully pursue its own policy is a timebomb for Beijing which could go off at any time. And it is therefore of the highest priority to remedy that.
For decades, Beijing hoped to defuse this bomb through peaceful acquisition. Between the 1990s and mid-2010s, Beijing invested heavily in promoting cross-strait trade and interactions. Beijing seems to have believed that if Taiwan’s economy were absorbed into that of the People’s Republic of China, any question of the inevitably or superiority of the CCP’s economic and historical path would be quieted. After all, it would be the only one left standing. To this policy of pursuing a de-facto economic corporate buy-out, the CCP added a political merger effort. The CCP aggressively wooed their old Civil War nemesis in the Kuomintang, reminding them that both parties revered the same revolutionary forefather in the figure of Sun Yat-Sen, and both had governed in the coalition during the 1920s and World War II. The model envisioned seemed to be not “one country, two systems” so much as “one country, one system, two-parties” in which the KMT would rule all of China in a coalition with the CCP, with the KMT holding exclusivity rights in “Taiwan province.” Such a plan might have worked had the Cold War ended in the 1970s when the KMT itself ruled a one-party authoritarian state, but by the 21st century, Taiwan had long since become a democracy. In such a context, the flirtations of the KMT with the CCP destroyed the party’s credibility with Taiwanese voters.
This strategy of peaceful absorption met its end on January 11, 2020, when the incumbent President of Taiwan, Tsing Lin-Wen, defeated her KMT challenger by nearly 20%. Tsing had trailed in the polls less than a year earlier, but her KMT opponent had visited Hong Kong in order to express support for Beijing’s proxy Chief Executive Carrie Lam and met with Beijing’s liaisons to the city. This represented a shift in sentiment. As recently as 2007, Taiwan’s KMT president had stressed eventual unification was their party goal. After January of 2020, it appears that can no longer be the case if the KMT wishes to be viable in Taiwanese politics.
If it is no longer acceptable for Taiwanese politicians to publicly favor reunification, then China’s investment in a “political buy-out solution” has failed. China’s treatment of Hong Kong over the last year and a half seems to reflect this conclusion. Beijing was willing to withdraw the extradition bill which had originally triggered the protests and to open talks about political reform when it appeared that a settlement in Hong Kong could have helped the KMT win the January 2020 Taiwanese elections. Once those had passed, the PRC adopted a policy of repression which cannot help but alienate all Taiwanese opinion, indicating that influencing Taiwanese public opinion no longer factors into Beijing’s plans.
If so, what will Beijing do now? The one thing we can be sure of is that they will not “give up” on Taiwan. Due to the nature of the “threat” to the CCP and the very rationale of the People’s Republic of China, that is not an option. Furthermore, for the reasons discussed, the collapse of Beijing’s soft power strategy greatly exacerbates the threat posed by Taiwan to Xi Jinping and his allies. The crackdown in Hong Kong will convince the Taiwanese themselves that Chinese rule will mean the end of their freedoms, and they can be expected to act accordingly. If China did not have plans to accelerate its own timescale, it is hard to see how Beijing would have embarked on policies in Hong Kong that would cause Taiwan to accelerate its own resistance.
The conclusion then is that Beijing will move against Taiwan, not because of strategic ambition, or Xi’s personal vanity, or even perceptions of American weakness under Biden. All of these may be added motivations, but ultimately Beijing will move against Taiwan because it has to. Moreover, that move will be soon, because the collapse of China’s peaceful long-term strategies in Hong Kong and Taiwan means that Beijing does not have the luxury of time. America needs to be prepared.
Having established why a Chinese move against Taiwan is inevitable in the near future, I will follow up with a subsequent article that will examine the forms such a move may take, and why the United States is sorely underprepared to counter likely Chinese actions. I will then conclude with a piece examining potential strategic options that might avert otherwise inevitable disaster.