Is the West sleepwalking into a war with China?

Policy-makers need to tread carefully as a conflict between Beijing and Taipei would dwarf Russia’s war in Ukraine

There is a growing antagonism towards China in Western commentaries.

It is provoked by Beijing’s treatment of the Uighurs, Hong Kong and Taiwan, its activities in the South China Sea, and its role in Sri Lanka’s debt crisis.

Some of this is undoubtedly justified. But is the West sleepwalking to war with China – and would it be a just conflict or a foolhardy act of declining powers?

In Western China, the Uighur people are being mistreated, no doubt about it. In Hong Kong, Britain leased the city from the Chinese and gave its people almost no democracy.

Complaining now about Beijing’s behavior there is like tenants asking for repairs to be done to an office building 25 years after they’ve left. We might not like what is happening to Hong Kong, but it is Chinese territory.

As for Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea, they are largely false as its semi-fictional “Nine-Dash Line” fails to stand up to historical scrutiny.

Private lenders

Then there is Sri Lanka’s debt. Less than 10% is held by the Chinese. Japan, the Asian Development Bank and private lenders hold the rest.

How is Sri Lanka’s gross mishandling of its own economy somehow China’s fault, when it holds less of Sri Lanka’s debt than Japan does?

So far it is a mixed report card for China.

But what of Taiwan? Voices are saying more loudly, especially since Russia invaded Ukraine, that independence for the democratic island must be supported.

The problem, though, is that Taiwan is not independent, has not claimed independence, and indeed still claims to be the government of all of China.

That isn’t a typo. Taiwan claims to govern all of China. How could Taipei make that claim?

Chiang Kai-Shek’s government leaves the UN General hall in 1971. Photo: UN

Rival Chinese nationalists and communists united during World War II to defeat Japan, then descended into a brutal civil war of their own.

Communist forces gained the ascendancy and nationalist forces fled to Taiwan, where they partly displaced and repressed the indigenous peoples.

Nevertheless, the international community continued to recognize the nationalist forces in Taipei as the government of “all of China,” allowing them to hold the United Nation’s Security Council seat for China.

Chinese communists in Beijing played a long game and supported many pro-independence movements in Africa.

This paid off big time in 1971 when many of the newly independent African countries pushed for UN General Assembly Resolution 2758, which changed the UN’s recognition of the government of all of China from Taipei to Beijing.

The resolution clearly states that the communist powers in Beijing are “the only legitimate representative of China to the United Nations” and removed “the representatives of Chiang Kai-shek” in Taiwan from the UN.

Sovereign territory

When Resolution 2758 was voted on, Britain, Canada and European countries supported recognizing Beijing rather than Taipei as the seat of the Chinese government while keeping the sovereign territory as a single whole.

The United States and Australia voted to keep recognizing the government in Taipei. It was the first time Australia had voted against Britain and with the US on a major issue.

Today, all members of the UN, bar 13 small countries, recognize the government in Beijing as the government of “all of China.” The US does, Britain does, all European Union states do and Australia does.

So where is this independence that some want the West to go to war to defend?

The UN could perhaps have recognized Taiwan and China as two countries. But it didn’t. One of the reasons was that the government in Taipei didn’t ask to be independent.

Another victim of Russia’s bombing campaign in Ukraine. Photo: Flicka

To this day, the constitution of Taiwan claims to govern all of China and even makes temporary provisions in its constitution for voting in “free China” until “reunification.”

So, the mainland claims Taiwan to be a “renegade province”. Likewise, the Taiwanese constitution paints mainland China as a renegade.

The underlying truth is that the Chinese civil war, which started in the 1940s, has never formally finished.

So, when people say the West should support Taiwan, what exactly do they mean:

  • Do they mean a status quo of what the Americans call “strategic ambiguity?”
  • Do they mean supporting independence when Taiwan hasn’t declared it?
  • Do they mean forcing the continuation of the civil war’s stalemate until a formal resolution?
  • Do they mean supporting the Taiwanese constitution’s claim to govern all of China – that is, continue the civil war until the communists are pushed out of Beijing?
Taiwan’s independence

Words are increasingly important. The status quo can only be maintained while Beijing sees it in its best interest not to act. But the more people talk of Taiwan’s independence, or talk of going to war, the more China is pushed into a corner.

And while nothing can justify Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, nor his atrocities there, we can see that sometimes “virtue signaling” has unintended consequences in international affairs.

Taiwan is not independent – nor has it claimed to be. Calling for “support to Taiwan,” like calling for “NATO expansion,” has clear dangers.

Policy-makers need to tread very carefully. A conflict with China and Taiwan will make Ukraine and Russia look like the preview, not the war.

Andrew MacLeod is a Visiting Professor of War and Security Studies and International Genetics at King’s College London in the United Kingdom.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.