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October 22, 2021
Cover News Analysis

When shouting matches threaten to become shooting matches

By J Brooks Spector• 10 October 2021

The Covid-19 pandemic remains, the climate crisis grows, but for the immediate future, the biggest challenge globally is the US-China competition between economically entangled frenemies.

A big task for politicians, diplomats, intelligence analysts, potential investors and anybody else attempting to suss out the future of their own nation’s international relations is to understand the intentions and the capabilities of international competitors, antagonists — or frenemies. And right now, for the Americans and Chinese, the most important pair of such questions is in getting a handle on their counterpart’s intentions and capabilities in the years ahead in dealing with the turbulent, complex dynamics of East Asia.

Between those two big things, the assessing of capabilities is definitely the easier of the two. The leaders and analysts of a reasonably well-informed national government (or even a private risk assessment firm) can usually gain a reasonably good sense of the capabilities of a would-be, might-be antagonist nation from the close reading of local and international newspapers, from listening to knowledgeable academics, government analysts, data specialists and business and other professional travellers.

Also, assessments can come from paying attention to foreign leaders’ broadcast speeches, the enormous reservoir of unclassified internet-based materials, and plain vanilla, old-style observations of the demonstrations of the defence prowess of a would-be antagonist.

In fact, much of this information is deliberately carried out in the open so a potential antagonist understands your capabilities and proclivities. In effect, it says: “If you do X, unfortunately we shall need to do Y. And we can, as you can see, easily do just that. So let’s not go down that pathway, okay?”

But, compared to capabilities, intentions are much more complex to interpret and understand, and then to put such understandings to work in devising policies to make effective use of one’s own national capabilities or in improving them — but without making fateful miscalculations.

As it has been repeatedly pointed out in these pages and in so many other places, the so-called “hundred-year peace” between 1815 and 1914, while it encompassed numerous little wars between some European powers (and all of those European powers at one time or another against the less-well-endowed, technologically advanced militaries of societies across Africa and Asia), was built upon well-established mutual understandings of the capabilities of the European great powers, and even, to a significant degree, of their respective intentions as well.

The system of alliances lent a sense of predictability to relations in a way that repeatedly pulled the great powers back from the brink of major conflicts — until, suddenly, it didn’t, thus creating the cataclysm of World War 1. Now nobody in our contemporary world wants something like that to break out along the East Asian littoral and into the Western Pacific Ocean, most especially between two nuclear powers. But there is an increasing sense of tough talk and there are some particularly provocative activities taking place now, nonetheless.

The challenge, now, is to disentangle competing understandings (and misinterpretations) between the US and China about each other’s intentions, as both nations continue to enhance their respective military capabilities.

China has been embarking on a significant military build-up for some years now with a rapidly growing defence budget (albeit one that still is smaller than the US’s total military spending), with one aircraft carrier already in service and at least one more well on the way to delivery. (The question of the longer-term utility of carriers as apex force projection/force multipliers is increasingly a matter of conjecture, however.) Western defence experts say that China has been enhancing its anti-surface ship missile capabilities as well. And this comes in addition to what is acknowledged as significant, growing Chinese cyber-attack capabilities.

China’s foray — now, actually, the establishment of permanent facilities — into the South China Sea includes artificial islands, long military runways, radar installations and related facilities. This activity is based on its claims over the mini archipelagos in the South China Sea and the waters around them, all on the basis of a line drawn on a map in the late eighteenth century. In geostrategic terms, this becomes especially important since such a high proportion of total global trade passes through or near the South China Sea — vast amounts of primary commodities and petroleum to China, Japan and Korea — and manufactured products from those nations to the rest of the world.

In recent weeks, China has significantly and provocatively increased air force overflights of Taiwan’s self-declared aerial defence identification zone during a sequential number of days, using a wide array of military aircraft, ranging from interceptor-fighters to long-range (nuclear-weapon capable) strategic bombers, reconnaissance, and command and control craft. This is the mix that would be essential for a real-life aerial campaign in support of an actual attack on Taiwan.

Aside from such flights being useful as a large-scale training effort for any potential attack, this run of flights can also be read that more direct, more belligerent actions against Taiwan could be carried out if Beijing’s leadership chose to do so, thereby delivering devastation (think “shock and awe”) upon Taiwan, and then following up with an invasion of the island.

Taiwan’s somewhat problematic status internationally has made such possibilities tantalising — and tormenting — for the Chinese leadership, since they have consistently claimed the island is really a breakaway province from China and it is long past time for Taiwan to come home.

Taiwan is now only recognised by a handful of small nations. It lost its seat in UN bodies back in the early 1970s; and then the US gave up its earlier full-on support for Taiwan’s international status when it recognised the government in Beijing back in 1979. (The US has reserved the right to continue to supply Taiwan with hi-tech weaponry and an implicit pledge to defend it.) Accordingly, an invasion — something that might be necessary down the road from the Chinese perspective, if appeals to unite peaceably with the motherland should fail — would, in the Chinese view, simply be returning the island back into the national fold, rather than being an aggressive war of conquest against a neighbour.

Of course, things are not quite as simple as all that. Taiwan has never actually been under the control of the current regime, the People’s Republic of China, in Beijing. In earlier centuries, it was a kind of Asian Wild West, and was largely an island controlled by Chinese pirates. Then it came, at least partially, under the suzerainty of two European colonial empires. The Ching dynasty eventually brought it under China’s control, only to lose it to a newly expansionist Japan in 1895 after the Sino-Japanese War. Thereafter, as a kind of Japanese colony, significant economic development infrastructure was constructed, largely centred around agriculture.

At the conclusion of World War 2, Taiwan was transferred back to China following the Japanese surrender, but, crucially, to the Kuomintang government based in Nanjing, China. As communist forces eventually overwhelmed that existing government, the Kuomintang government fled offshore to Taiwan, setting up a government “in exile” on the island, but still, obviously, on de jure Chinese territory.

After initially being under the harsh control of the Kuomintang’s transplanted political structures and its military, over the past few decades Taiwan has evolved into an increasingly well-established democratic state with a record of rapid, expansive economic growth — as it has come to be seen as one of the “four little tigers, or dragons, of Asia” and as a global development model.

Significantly, as part of China’s increasing globalisation and manufacturing rise in the years after the tumult of the “Cultural Revolution”, a growing number of hi-tech Taiwanese entrepreneurs have moved increasing shares of their actual production to mainland China in the country’s burgeoning economic zones and to benefit from cheaper labour, but significantly integrating key sectors of the two economies.

Not surprisingly, however, given the way China has increasingly restricted the rights guaranteed by the agreement that had led to Britain’s handover of Hong Kong to China and the increasing repression of the Muslim Uighur population of Xinjiang, most Taiwanese are unimpressed with uniting with China. Instead, support for the idea of a completely independent Taiwan has grown apace.

Meanwhile, Taiwan has become the centre for the manufacture of the world’s most sophisticated, advanced microchips — essential for the creation of much of the world’s computer and telecommunications gear, as well as its automobiles, planes and other critically important manufactured goods. Any interruptions to this production — or restrictions on the entry of such chips into global supply chain networks because of potential hostilities — would have seriously unpleasant global economic repercussions, for the US and China, along with every other manufacturing nation.

Even apart from this potential microchip bottleneck is the realisation by the Chinese that they have some significant domestic economic issues — highlighted by the likely default of the sprawling, but overextended property, construction and manufacturing conglomerate Evergrande, and the impact that would have on private and quasi-government banks and other financial institutions. Actual hostilities involving China would have major, but unpredictable effects on that nation’s economic life.

Amid all this, the US has been ramping up its defence posture in and around the region. Even as the Trump administration refused to participate in the Trans-Pacific trade accord President Barack Obama had caused to be in existence, the Biden administration has now led the charge for the “Quad,” a quasi-alliance between the US, Japan, Australia and India whose obvious target is China, even if the respective leaders insist China wasn’t in their minds at all.

Then there is the recent ruction over the supposedly unexpected switcheroo by the Australians, cancelling their order of conventionally powered submarines from France in favour of a fleet of US/British-made nuclear-powered subs instead. (Nuclear powered subs can operate more quietly, for much longer distances, as well as stay submerged longer. If the potential antagonist is China, nuclear is the clear way to go.) A small historical footnote comes with the realisation that the French had cancelled the sale of patrol ships to Israel years before, after they were paid for in full. This Australian submarine purchase agreement is part of the newly declared Aukus partnership — Australia, the United Kingdom and the US — for the region, logically directed towards China.

Meanwhile, right now, the US is leading four-nation naval exercises in and around the South China Sea, bringing 17 ships together — US naval forces along with ships from Britain, Japan and the Netherlands, including three aircraft carriers, two from the US and one from Great Britain. Not too surprisingly, this has irked the Chinese government.

Things took a potentially awkward turn when one US submarine participating in these exercises collided with something while submerged. No one is saying what, exactly, it was the sub hit, and so speculation has run from a submerged, abandoned freight container, to an allied vessel, or even to a Chinese submarine closely trailing the US sub — and thus resulting in a collision from one of those games of military chicken depicted in those submarines-at-sea-dramas from the cinematic world. (More troubling still, a fatal collision between a Taiwanese aircraft and a Chinese one would take some real efforts to tamp down an outbreak of at least limited hostilities as a result of that interaction.)

Now, at least, there are signs the Chinese and the US are seeing some of the baleful possibilities in all this. (This comes as analysts are speculating that the Chinese may actually be considering the possibilities of a quick, decisive strike against Taiwan in the next few years. US tabletop exercises have apparently indicated such an invasion might succeed, despite resupply efforts by the US and significant casualties on the part of the Chinese.)

We simply must add that the biggest cinema hit in China right now is a film celebrating the defeat of US Marines by a massive Chinese army at the Chosin Reservoir in the northern part of North Korea in the Korean conflict. Titled The Battle at Lake Changjin, the film is on pace to be among the country’s most successful flicks, ever. Describing the film, The New York Times noted, “The movie runs at 2 hours 56 minutes, a government-sponsored, action-filled and patriotism-packed drama that cost more to make than any Chinese film before it. It seems to be just what audiences in China wanted. As a barometer of Chinese politics and culture, it feels very much a movie of the moment: aggrieved, defiant and jingoistic, a lavishly choreographed call to arms at a time of global crisis and increasingly tense relations with the world, especially the United States.”

If anybody in the Chinese Embassy in Pretoria is reading this story, please can they get me a copy of this film to see?

Another straw in the wind as a recognition of the larger meaning of the Chinese challenge on the part of the US has come in public acknowledgement by the CIA that it is creating an all-hands-style, in-house centre for examining and understanding Chinese capabilities and intentions, especially as the Middle East and Afghanistan recede in importance, now that the US has left Kabul. President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping have reportedly spoken by phone briefly since then, and they have agreed to hold a full-dress summit — virtually — later in the year. They will obviously have lots to talk about

Daily Maverick

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