Taiwan and the New “Great Game”

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Tuesday, September 26, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

When Rudyard Kipling wrote the novel Kim in 1901, he popularized British intelligence officer Arthur Conolly’s earlier phrase, “the Great Game.”

The game was the 19th century geopolitical struggle between the British Empire and the Russian Empire as each sought influence and leverage in Central Asia.

The British were worried that too great a Russian influence would threaten their control of India. The Russians feared that a creeping British influence would extend into current Afghanistan, nearby Persia (now known as Iran) and Tibet.

A spin-off hostility would be the 1853—1856 Crimean War, in which Britain and France teamed up with the Ottoman Empire against Russia. Who does not recall Alfred Lord Tennyson’s near mythic poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade” which immortalized one moment of that struggle?

Today, all that may seem like ancient history except that a new great game is happening in Asia and it involves Taiwan.

In this game, the location has shifted south and the stakes are higher. The geopolitical struggle of great powers remains but now it is over the South China Sea. So who are the major players?

Russia is still involved but not as a dominant force. Instead it is part of a triumvirate with China, and North Korea.

On the opposing side is the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue commonly known as the Quad, which is composed of the United States, India, Japan, and Australia.

This alliance seems strange until one realizes how each would be impacted by what power controls the South Sea as well as the connecting link to the East China Sea, namely Taiwan.

Hostilities regularly threaten in this area as well as the Taiwan Strait. War has even broken out, ironically once again in far distant Ukraine. Nonetheless free and uninhibited passage through the South China Sea remains the game’s focus. Japan and South Korea see it as vital to their survival.

Within the triumvirate, China is the more dominant; it seeks to make the South China Sea its mare nostrum, just as it also seeks to control the Himalayan river sources of much of Southeast Asia.

On one level, this game can be seen as being between the triumvirate’s Marxist/Leninist perspective whereas those of the Quad represent democracy, but it goes far beyond that.

China has recently upped the ante for all sides by redrawing the map of what it considers are the legitimate borders of its territory. Even Russia was surprisingly impacted by this.

This “great game” has little chance of ending soon, yet all sides also shy away from the risk of all out war. Five of the nation’s involved possess nuclear weapons, so any war would be disastrous. Instead they jockey for strategic position.

The symbiotic trade needs of each of the nations involved complicate the game further. India does not want to openly condemn Russia’s actions in Ukraine since it depends heavily on Russian crude oil. The US and India are the two biggest trade partners with China; they don’t want China to gain control of the Indo-Pacific region.

However, they also do not want to alienate China so that they would lose their profitable trade and investment with it. In this matter, all in the Quad hedge their bets since they all heavily depend on either selling to the China market or buying cheaper Chinese products.

This may be why China is the most aggressive as it regularly challenges ships within the South China Sea and those passing through the Taiwan Strait. In addition it constantly enters Taiwan’s air space.

Nearby nations find themselves in the same fix. The Philippines exemplifies the limits of its weak position; it can barely defend its own interests. In 2016, the Philippines won a case against China under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea UNCLOS, yet it never pushed its advantage; and even now it has trouble running supplies to one of its South China Sea possessions.

Vietnam on the other hand is more aggressive; true it did lose sea battles with China over the Paracel Islands (Xiasha Islands) in 1974, but in 1979 when China crossed its land border with Vietnam to teach it a lesson, it was China that got taught a lesson. China has never revealed the number of combat losses in that “invasion.”

Ultimately, this great game will be played out primarily between China and the US with all the other countries playing important side roles. As for Taiwan, it remains the crucial linchpin as it sits between the South and East China Seas. Its importance grows with each day and year.

In short, Taiwan is the prize of the game. The US needs Taiwan to maintain its free and independent status. China, like a distant relative with a dodgy claim to an inheritance, tries to push its false claim for Taiwan.

So what does the immediate future hold? The US and Taiwan will have elections; their leadership would change as expected in a democracy. The people would also have a right to vote on then outcome.

As for the triumvirate, Putin and Xi have already overextended their legitimate claims to leadership. They rule in tenuous and forced privilege. Similarly, in North Korea, Kim Jung-un is leader for life, but he lacks a planned successor. If he were to die, North Korea would no doubt descend into a power struggle and chaos.

Taiwan remains as a participant and an observer of the game. Many rely on it being independent, but they hesitate to officially declare it as independent. Who will make the first move?