Taiwan – flashpoint for war with China

We republish here an important article by Simon Korner providing background to the increasingly tense situation in the Taiwan Straits. It was originally published on the Facebook page of the Socialist Correspondent. Noting that Taiwan has currently become the most dangerous flashpoint for a possible new world war, the article exposes the dangerous and duplicitous actions of US imperialism and explains how the reunification of Taiwan with the mainland represents the unfinished business of the more than century long Chinese revolution.

This year has seen a significant rise in tensions over Taiwan. It is now the most dangerous flashpoint for world war of all the potential conflict zones.

It is the US which is deliberately escalating the aggression as it faces the rapid economic growth of China, whose GDP is set to lead the world by 2035.

The US has made it clear that it will never allow another power to share its pre-eminent global position. The American government’s 2017 National Security Strategy stated that China poses a threat to “American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity”. Mike Pompeo put it more bluntly when he said that nations have to “pick a side” (July 23, 2020), a view echoed by President Biden: “We are in a competition to win the 21st century, and the starting gun has gone off,” he said (Sydney Morning Herald, 9 June, 2021).

Taiwan finds itself at the epicentre of these tensions because the US is using it to prevent China’s further rise. Though the US officially denies any change in its China policy, it is in the process of reneging on its 1979 acknowledgment of the People’s Republic of China as “the sole legal Government of China” with Taiwan as “part of China” (Centre for Strategic and International Studies, 2017).

The historical US position of accepting One China, which it is now seeking to overturn, is most clearly visible in the fact that it still doesn’t officially recognize Taiwan as a country. Nor does the UN, or the majority of the world’s nations. Only 15 countries recognise Taiwan.

The UN kicked out the Nationalist Chinese in 1971 after the People’s Republic was recognised as the legitimate holder of China’s UN seat. The rival Chinese Nationalist government, which had fled to Taiwan from the mainland in 1949 after losing the war with the Communists, had initially been offered dual representation by the UN, but the authoritarian Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek – leader of the Republic of China, as the Nationalist entity was known – refused. “The sky is not big enough for two suns,” he said. His refusal led to the Republic of China’s expulsion.

The highest point in US-China relations came in 1979 when (long after the UN) the Americans officially recognised the People’s Republic and withdrew their forces that had occupied Taiwan since WW2 – acting on the promise Nixon had made in 1972 during his famous visit to China.

What’s happening now is the reversal of this rapprochement, and with it the deliberate creation of enemy images and the stoking of war psychosis. This hinges on the propaganda campaign that the Chinese are about to invade Taiwan. The US is thus framed as the defender of a small country against its bullying neighbour – cover for the US attempt to redraw China’s borders, a blatant attack on China’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The WW2 peace treaties made it very clear that Taiwan and all the Japanese-occupied Chinese islands would be returned to China, whose sovereignty had extended to Taiwan for hundreds of years. Agreements were signed in Cairo in1943 – by the US, Britain, the Soviet Union and China (then under Chiang Kai-shek) – and reiterated at the Potsdam Proclamation in 1945.

These clear waters were muddied in 1951 during the Cold War, when the US and Britain drafted the Treaty of San Francisco – the West’s belated formal peace treaty with Japan. Neither Chinese Nationalists nor Communists were invited to the signing. The USSR, signatory of both the Cairo and Potsdam agreements, objected to their absence and, correctly, saw the treaty as an attempt to rewrite the post-WW2 settlement.

The US reversed the bad faith of the San Francisco treaty temporarily – for long enough to use China against the main Cold War enemy, the USSR, which was finally defeated in 1991. Since then, China has become America’s new enemy number one, and is coming under sustained diplomatic, economic, and media attack in preparation for war. The US is busy arming Taiwan and fostering divisions between it and the People’s Republic, while claiming not to be interfering.

For its part, China’s position on Taiwan has never varied. The only change is that now it is confident enough to insist on adherence to the WW2 peace treaties. For China, reunification with Taiwan means righting a historic wrong – a final end to the legacy of the Japanese occupation during WW2. Reunion would complete the historic reversal of China’s humiliation, marking the end of centuries of colonial conquest and dismemberment.

US upping the ante

But why is the US so determined to prevent Chinese reunification?

Continued US control over Taiwan gives it the ability to disrupt China’s economy by military means. Taiwan occupies a crucial geographical position, guarding the main trade route for China’s imports of energy supplies, raw materials and goods as well as its exports. In the same way, the US squeezed Japan’s energy supplies and other raw materials prior to WW2, which in turn led to Japan’s Pearl Harbour ‘surprise’ attack (not such a surprise considering American economic strangulation of its imperialist rival). The new AUKUS alliance between the US, UK and Australia is an attempt to ramp up the ability to interfere with China’s trade.

For the US, then, control over Taiwan means nothing less than maintaining its position as the global superpower. If it loses Taiwan, it loses the whole of east Asia. It’s the domino theory in reverse. Losing Taiwan would mean not only the loss of its ability to threaten China but the unravelling of its decades-long domination over Japan, South Korea and the Philippines – countries where it’s had a major military presence since WW2. Freed from the American embrace, these regional powers, above all Japan, would begin an arms race to replace the US hegemon, according to Iskander Rehman, of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

Another key factor is that the US wants to keep control of the crucial semi-conductor market. Taiwan’s main semi-conductor company, TSMC, leads the world in producing semi-conductors, or chips, which are vital to all computer and phone production, as well as cars. This makes the island “Pound for Pound… the Most Important Place in the World”, according to Ruchir Sharma, chief global strategist at Morgan Stanley (New York Times, Dec 14, 2020).

China’s semi-conductor technology lags several years behind Taiwan’s, so that reunification with Taiwan would provide it with a significant technological boost. This is what the US wants to prevent, while its own Silicon Valley relies on Taiwan’s supply of semi-conductors, which it needs in order to maintain US dominance over all high-tech fields.

Military attack

Another important reason for the US strategic focus on controlling Taiwan is that reunification would deprive the Americans of a perfectly positioned base from which to launch a military attack on China. Such an attack is being planned and war-gamed quite seriously. A major report commissioned by the US Army in 2016 called ‘War with China: Thinking Through the Unthinkable’ concluded: “We postulate that a war would be regional and conventional…. We assume that fighting would start and remain in East Asia, where potential Sino-US flash points and nearly all Chinese forces are located.”

But this complacent military assessment is challenged in an article in Forbes magazine (June 15, 2021), which points out the very real dangers of nuclear war: “If a fight over Taiwan occurs, the Air Force plans to wage conventional warfare against China by flying nuclear-capable aircraft into its airspace—or by launching cruise missiles from outside its airspace from other nuclear-capable aircraft.”

But it goes on to say: “Either way, Beijing would have no quick way of determining whether the attacking U.S. bombers were carrying nuclear or conventional munitions.

“Its nascent strategic warning system would not be able to differentiate between a nuclear and non-nuclear attack until weapons actually started exploding on its territory, and China’s highly centralized nuclear command authority might not be willing to wait that long before responding.”

The US would not play to lose, and nuclear engagement would therefore escalate inevitably.

There are important precedents for this nuclear danger. During the 1958 Taiwan Strait Crisis, President Eisenhower told his commanders that conventional armaments should be used first, but a secret report – released only recently by the US Security Archives – shows that the president’s written and spoken comments to other officials “left little doubt … that he was prepared to use nuclear weapons.”

Current US strategy under Biden calls for a “combat-credible” US military presence. US marines and special units are already in Taiwan, secretly training the Taiwanese military, while the Americans are pushing Taiwan to arm itself with billions of dollars’ worth of US weapons – for example, last year they sold Taiwan $1.8 billion worth of arms.

America’s aggressive policy towards China is bi-partisan. Biden is following the same hard-line approach as Trump. And of course, Britain is fully integrated into this drive to war – having sent its aircraft carrier fleet with over 3,700 troops, along with the Dutch fleet (another former colonial power in Asia, also with expansionist ambitions) to join the huge and permanent US navy fleet in east Asia. Western ships sailing through the Taiwan Strait – which is only 100 miles wide – come about as close to mainland China as the Isle of Man is to Lancashire.

This deployment of deadly naval weapons is fraught with the danger of accidents. In early October, an American nuclear powered submarine in the South China Sea crashed and potentially leaked nuclear material. A similar accident could easily trigger a war.

Despite the catastrophic consequences such a war would entail, Biden has warned explicitly that the US will act to prevent union between Taiwan and China.

Nationalist expansionism

As for the Taiwanese Nationalist regime, ever since 1949 it has actively pursued its claim as the sole legitimate government over both mainland China and Taiwan. Project National Glory was the regime’s military plan to recapture mainland China, preparations for which began in 1961.

By 1991 Taiwanese president Lee Teng-hui unofficially accepted that Taiwan would no longer challenge Communist China. Yet Taiwan’s expansionist constitution remains in place, claiming China, Mongolia, and the entire South China Sea as its territory. Taiwan’s self-declared Air Defence Identification Zone is also highly aggressive – covering, as it does, parts of the south-eastern Chinese mainland.

Contrary to the western media’s deliberate seeding of the impression that China is an aggressor, Chinese planes have never intruded into Taiwan’s airspace as recognised internationally by air traffic control – they have simply flown within their own airspace. Yet these perfectly legitimate flights are designated an incursion by Taiwan – a ludicrous claim.

Reunification

China’s 2005 Anti-Secession Law emphasises the One China policy, which was endorsed by both Chinese Nationalists and Communists 70 years ago and remains the agreed international position, notwithstanding US attempts to disrupt it. The fact that China was under Nationalist rule when the peace treaties were signed, and subsequently became Communist, does not alter the fact that Taiwan was legally handed back to a single, unified, China by Japan.

For its part, China has made clear it wants to reunite with Taiwan peacefully, and that it would resort to war only if Taiwan develops nuclear weapons or fully secedes. Either of these developments would pose an existential threat to China because they would mark the removal of all constraints on the US using Taiwan as its main forward base against the mainland.

Rather than fomenting conflict, the West could be promoting better relations between China and Taiwan. Co-operation had begun to improve in the 1980s and still has great potential. Many Taiwanese companies have offices in mainland cities, especially those geographically closest to the island. Taiwan has been the biggest ‘foreign’ investor in China since 2008. Cross-strait trade in 2018 was worth $150 billion (Taiwan gov.tw). Up to 1.2 million Taiwanese live on the mainland (Economist, 19 Nov, 2020) – one city near Shanghai, where 100,000 Taiwanese Chinese live and work, is known as Little Taipei. The descendants of the 1949 Nationalist refugees keep up strong family ties in mainland cities; there are intermarriages and strong cultural and family exchanges, with people travelling back and forth constantly, at least pre-Covid. The two peoples speak the same language, share the same culture, the same food.

This is the co-operation and unity the US is now seeking to destroy.

The US and British move into the South China Sea is as provocative and dangerous as if China were to send warships into the Caribbean or off the coast of California to ensure “freedom of navigation”.

By contrast, China stated officially in 2014: “China will never seek hegemony or engage in military expansion now or in the future, no matter how developed it becomes.”

China’s nuclear arsenal is a fraction of the size of America’s – around 130 nuclear warheads capable of reaching the USA, compared to the Americans’ 1,550 intercontinental missiles. The US vastly outspends  China on arms: $738 billion a year, compared to China’s $252 billion.

Commentator David P. Goldman believes that a wing of the US establishment “would rather roll the dice of war than allow China to surpass the United States in military and economic might… Like the French in 1914, they believe that if they do not fight now, they may never have the opportunity to do so in the future” (Asia Times, Oct 26, 2021).

This is the war we must try to prevent.

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