International OPINION | China must not get baited into war with US

OPINION | China must not get baited into war with US

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Pelosi’s Taiwan visit should not be red flag for China to charge into war

The Chinese government must not swallow the bait of Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan to go to war with the US and Taiwan, as lessons from history show. History teaches that China risks humiliating defeat if it charges into war over Pelosi’s visit, and the US may possibly also be the loser.

Pelosi, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, landed in Taiwan on August 2. The next day, she received from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen the Order of Propitious Clouds with Special Grand Cordon.

Pelosi’s Taiwan trip has cast dark clouds over Sino-US relations and the Asia-Pacific region. On August 3, Taiwanese troops on the island of Jinmen (Quemoy) fired warning flares at a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) drone flying in their vicinity.

This confrontation on Jinmen brings back memories of the first Taiwan Straits crisis in 1954 and the second Taiwan Straits Crisis in 1958 when PLA artillery shelled the islands of Jinmen and Mazu on both occasions.

On August 4, Chinese missiles landed in waters near the Taiwanese coast. Chinese state media said the PLA would conduct live firing exercises in several sections of the waters surrounding Taiwan from August 4 to 7.

On August 3, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the US would inevitably be punished for Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan, which Beijing regards as part of China. In a phone call lasting two hours and 20 minutes on July 28, Chinese President Xi Jinping warned US President Joseph Biden against letting Pelosi visit Taiwan, saying, “Those who play with fire will perish by it.”

When Chinese leaders repeatedly make dire threats, they usually mean it. During the Korean War in 1950, the Chinese government repeatedly warned that if UN forces, led by the US, crossed north of the 38th parallel, China would intervene. Washington refused to heed the warnings. In November 1950, Chinese troops crossed the border into Korea, routing the UN army.

When Pelosi was in Singapore on August 1 as part of her Asian tour, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong highlighted the importance of stable US-China relations for regional peace and security, said the Singaporean Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This was a hint from Lee to Pelosi that she should not visit Taiwan, as it would roil regional peace and security. Yet Pelosi visited Taiwan.

Pelosi also met Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan on August 1. In a Facebook post on August 3, the Singapore Foreign Minister said, “ASEAN is also watching cross-strait developments with concern.

Stable US-China relations are vital for regional peace and prosperity. Singapore hopes that the US and China can work out a modus vivendi, exercise self-restraint and refrain from actions that will further escalate tensions.

Why did Pelosi proceed with her Taiwan trip despite repeated warnings not to? One can be forgiven for suspecting this was part of a deliberate plot by Washington to lure Beijing into taking actions to China’s detriment. I do not know Biden’s mind, so I cannot say with certainty whether Pelosi’s visit was part of a US-engineered strategy to snare China over Taiwan.

History lessons

The Franco-Prussian war and the Sino-French war, both in the late 19th century, offer lessons which are pertinent to the present Taiwan crisis.

The Franco-Prussian war was sparked by Otto von Bismarck, the Prussian Chancellor, issuing a press release to the press and foreign embassies on 13 July 1870. Bismarck’s statement gave the impression that King Wilhelm I of Prussia rudely rebuffed a demand by the French Ambassador to Prussia, Vincent Benedetti. Bismarck said his press release “would have the effect of a red flag on the Gallic bull.”

Sure enough, enraged by the perceived insult, France declared war on Prussia. In response, the other German states joined Prussia against France. The combined German forces defeated France in 1871. Prussia’s victory resulted in the unification of Germany, which was divided into disparate states for centuries. The humiliation of the French defeat made France vow revenge, which led to World War I, where millions of soldiers of France, Germany and other European powers died.

Just as other German states ganged up with Prussia against France, several nations are rallying behind the US against China over Taiwan. In a statement on August 3, the foreign ministers of the G7 nations and the high representative of the EU said Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan was not a justification for China’s “aggressive military action” and blamed China for risking “unnecessary escalation”.

In response to the statement, at a press conference on August 4, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying quoted Singapore scholar Kishore Mahbubani who accused the G7 of being dictatorial globally.

If US forces defeat China, it would leave a long-lasting sting in China which will stir painful memories of its humiliating defeats by foreign powers in the 19th century. Like France after the Franco-Prussian war, China would seek vengeance, which may possibly lead to a wider and more catastrophic war later on.

A war between the US and China risks affecting other countries like Singapore. The US aircraft carrier, Ronald Reagan, departed from Singapore on July 26, according to the Facebook page of the US embassy in Singapore. The nuclear-powered aircraft carrier is currently cruising near Taiwan, according to media reports.

The Battle of Fuzhou in August 1884 offers a parallel of what might happen if a war between the US and China breaks out. Fuzhou, presently the capital of Fujian province facing Taiwan across the Taiwan Straits, was a naval base where China was building a modern naval force during the late 19th century.

Due to its superior warships, a French naval fleet destroyed the Chinese fleet in Fuzhou in a lopsided victory. One benefit that the French derived from its victory was it destroyed the Chinese fleet in Fuzhou before advanced warships could be added to it.

Similarly, if the US goes to war with China at this time, the US will have an opportunity to damage the Chinese navy before it becomes more powerful. China currently has three aircraft carriers and is expected to have several more in the coming years. That is why China should not be provoked to war with the US over Taiwan, lest it risks losing aircraft carriers.

Despite its superior weaponry, Washington should not presume it will inevitably win a war with China, as the Sino-French war shows. The French victory at Fuzhou marked the beginning of the Sino-French war in 1884 and 1885. A French expeditionary force captured the city of Keelung (Jilong) in Taiwan in October 1884. Unable to overcome stiff resistance from a Chinese army, the French force evacuated from Keelung in June 1885.

In Vietnam, Chinese forces scored a victory over French forces in the Battle of Bang Bo on 24 March 1885, causing the French to retreat a few days later. This retreat resulted in the resignation of Jules Ferry as French Prime Minister on 30 March 1885 amidst denunciations from his political opponents.

If the US suffers defeat in a battle with China, it may shorten its presidency of Biden. Even if Biden serves his full term, he will be unlikely to be re-elected in 2024. It is not necessary for a military defeat to prevent Biden from gaining a second term.

War between the world’s two biggest economies would hurt the economy of the US and the world, such that disgruntled Americans would not give him a second term in the 2024 election.

During the televised debate between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon on October 13, 1960, as both candidates competed to be elected US President in November that year, Kennedy quoted a former US Admiral of the US Asiatic Fleet, Harry Yarnell, who said the islands of Jinmen and Mazu were “not worth the bones of a single American”.

The late admiral probably adapted the words of Bismarck, who said the Balkans were “not worth the healthy bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier”. Tragically, World War I was started by assassination in the Balkans.

The islands of Jinmen, Mazu and Taiwan are not worth the bones of a single American soldier or a single Chinese soldier of mainland China or Taiwan. Let us hope this Taiwan crisis will not spark a war the way the Balkans caused World War I.

Toh Han Shih is chief analyst of Headland Intelligence, a Hong Kong risk consulting firm. The opinions expressed in this column are his own.


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