The US, China and Taiwan: a Thucydides Trap?

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Thursday March 25, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

It is almost impossible nowadays to read anything that involves the US and China without the phrase “Thucydides Trap” popping up.

It is a natural application. The US is an established power, while China continues to rise.

China and Russia seem to have resolved their problems by the creation of buffer states between them and while conflict between China and India grows, it is more difficult to claim which is the rising power, a determination needed to apply the term.

However, it is important to add Taiwan into the mix between the US and China. Taiwan is a medium-sized nation that is often cited as a key flash point between these two.

Furthermore, Taiwan has the unique experience of being witness to, if not entangled in, many past Thucydides Traps. It has also freed itself from them as well as the Chinese mindset and its doublespeak.

In 2011, I finished The Mapping of Taiwan, a book that covered five centuries of how the island was mapped by numerous national powers as they competed in trade and sometimes were locked in war.

Looking over those five centuries, I saw how no one nation could hold a monopoly on trade or power forever and how Taiwan was witness to many Thucydides Traps.

For that reason, the book had a lengthy extended title, which few are aware of: The Mapping of Taiwan, Desired Economies, Coveted Geographies: New Perspectives on Cartography, Competing Monopolies, and the Destiny of Taiwan (a Story within Many Stories).

Yes, Taiwan is no stranger to Thucydides traps and power grabs but Taiwan also has a uniqueness in its ability to break free of Chinese mindsets. That is what makes it so important.

Knowing how to read and interpret the Chinese narrative and doublespeak separates Taiwanese from the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) diaspora who fled China in 1949.

The Chinese mindset and narrative is cyclic. It is found in the classic opening lines of the Romance of the Three KingdomsR: “The empire, long divided must unite; long united must divide. Thus it has ever been.”

In mindset terms, these lines express both the fear and dream that lurks in the heart of any of China’s “true believers.” That drama is not present in Taiwanese.

For China’s “true believers,” the empire must be preserved above all; Sun Yat-sen’s wish for democracy be damned. One’s duty, therefore, is determined by which end of the cycle one is in. If China’s “empire” is being divided, one must resist it; if it is being united and growing, one must foster it. Thus it has ever been.

It is a compelling narrative.

However, cyclic narratives are also ones that are easily manipulated with doublespeak. Examples of this pervade China’s history and even filter into Western renditions of them.

For example, when China dominated its surrounding states in earlier centuries, those states were given the euphemistic name of “tributary states.” Such nomenclature indicates their inferior position to the empire while providing them with “the privilege of offering tribute.” China was being “benevolent.”

China also claims two great “alleged” dynasties: The Yuan and the Qing.

The Yuan Dynasty was really part of an extended Mongol empire, which stretched from Europe to Korea. And the Qing Dynasty refers to the Manchu empire, which began in Manchuria and went on to embrace China, Mongolia, Tibet, and Xinjiang.

The doublespeak returns when Chinese refer to their 19th Century under the Qing as the “century of humiliation” by foreigners. Here one has to balance how throughout the Manchu rule, the Han slogan was “overthrow the Qing and restore the Ming” and how Han Chinese also expressed the humiliating shame of having to wear the Manchu queue.

However, in the 19th century, when Western nations forced the Manchu empire to grant them trade opportunities and port privileges, this was cast as a humiliation not of the Manchu empire but of China.

Finally when Manchu rule was overthrown, the Han Chinese sought to regain not only their own territory but also the other territories that the Manchus had conquered; these territories were now recast not as part of a Manchu empire but as part of China.

This is the reason why the Uighurs, Tibetans and Inner Mongolians suffer a cultural genocide; they too must be recast to fit as loyal Chinese. Their existence contradicts the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) current concept of China’s cultural “status quo.

This doublespeak narrative continues to the present. Mao Zedong with his Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution was responsible for more Chinese deaths than the Japanese, but Mao is idolized and his portrait hangs in Tiananmen Square while the Japanese are hated. Why?

Mao was only “30 percent” wrong; he was building the empire while Japan was threatening it. Nonetheless, the doublespeak is not without a realistic and practical side. While Mao continues to be idolized, upon his death, the Gang of Four, the natural successors of his ideas and thought, were quickly dispatched into ignominy. The CCP did not want to go through a second Mao rule.

All this is mentioned because one must realize and understand it in order to see how the Taiwanese escaped.

They fought for and achieved democracy from the KMT diaspora’s one-party state rule. They wanted to be Taiwanese and not part of any mythical empire.

And so, if war comes to Asia due to a Thucydides Trap, it will be primarily due to the hegemonic ambitions of the CCP and not Taiwan. The CCP has fostered a narrative and mentality from which it cannot escape and from which it must resist allowing Taiwan’s democracy to continue.

With this narrative, the current regime in Beijing will not be placated; instead it has created the trap. Beijing constantly harangues its people and Taiwan that the “Taiwan question” must be resolved by 2035 if not sooner. Resolving it has become a legitimizing part of its rule; it is part of its promised legacy, which is dangerous

The narrative continues to grow in surprising ways. If one had been in Asia in 1997 as I was when the UK handed Hong Kong over to the PRC, would one ever have predicted what is happening now in Hong Kong?

The clampdown seemed impossible at the time.

Hong Kong had been promised to have full democracy between 2017 and 2047 before it would graciously return to the “motherland.” That dream quickly evaporated.

What it left was the Chinese mindset that diplomats must be conscious of whenever the alleged “Taiwan question” is brought up. One should not have to be Taiwanese to know which way the wind is blowing.

This is what US diplomats and their allies, who are used to a more linear thinking, must bear in mind. At the end of the day, Taiwan is Taiwan, and China is China.

All nations will have to deal with this as they listen to and filter the CCP narrative. What China really seeks by its narrative is to have an excuse to claim Taiwan.

Beijing desires Taiwan as an immediate access point to the Pacific Ocean as it seeks to expand its empire. It will not be satisfied with peacefully entering the Pacific through the Bashi Channel or between Taiwan and Japan.

It is a time to be blunt. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between the US, Japan, India and Australia, must let the CCP know that any victory that it would hope to achieve by attacking Taiwan would at best be Pyrrhic and even if such a victory could be claimed, Taiwan would not easily be held.

Thus far, this discussion has avoided commenting on China’s other hegemonic wish to make the South China Sea its Mare Nostrum; the same thoughts apply to that region as well.

As global powers wax and wane, there will always be Thucydides traps.

For the US and its Asian allies, Taiwan remains a solid rock of democracy; it can also be their Rock of Gibraltar for peace; they only need to step up to the plate.