“I generally avoid temptation, unless I can’t resist it,” said actress Mae West, in what now sounds like China’s motto for its treatment of Taiwan.
Having repeatedly sent fighter jets toward its estranged sister, Beijing brought this conduct to a new peak last week by sending in one day an aggregate 56 aircraft in warlike formations off of Taiwan’s southern tip.
Yes, China has some reason to feel provoked.
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen said in January 2020 that China must accept the fact that Taiwan is independent, thus implying a quest to divide China rather than unite it. That statement was followed by then-US secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar’s arrival in Taiwan, the first such visit since Washington severed diplomatic ties with Taipei in 1979.
Beijing sees all this as part of an effort to meddle in its internal affairs.
The West, at the same time, sees China as a major threat to international harmony.
Beijing is wrestling with six odd neighbors over maritime rights in the South China Sea, even though its claim for “historic rights” over much of that vastness has been dismissed in 2016 by an international arbitration panel in The Hague.
Beyond its region, China is charged with stealing intellectual property, manipulating its currency and dumping consumer goods in order to unfairly elbow foreign producers, all in violation of its signed fair-trade commitments.
This was the general setting in which the great Chinese experiment in authoritarian capitalism saw the rise of Xi Jinping, who might ultimately make in Taiwan his career’s pivotal mistake.
BORN to communist guerrilla, propaganda chief and deputy prime minister Xi Zhongxun, Xi-the-son experienced firsthand the Chinese Revolution’s absurdities, evils and whims.
During the Cultural Revolution, his house was rampaged and his sister committed suicide while their father was purged, jailed and exiled, and his wife was forced to denounce him publicly, in his presence.
Despite these formative encounters with totalitarianism, the younger Xi embraced it, canceling his job’s 10-year limit and potentially crowning himself for life. Biographers will likely debate this move’s reasons: did it reflect raw ambition, or a selfless reading of China’s interest?
Whatever historians will conclude, right now there is reason to suspect that decisions in China are being taken less collectively than they were under his humbler predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin.
Meanwhile, Xi has displayed great interest in foreign policy, underscored by his introduction in 2013 of the Belt and Road Initiative, an ambitious master plan for infrastructure investments in no fewer than 70 countries around the globe.
Despite the global view that this titanic effort requires, Xi’s understanding of the outer world may be flawed, and might involve some grave miscalculations.
SINCE its emergence in antiquity, China looked mainly inward, an attitude which at one point produced a full prohibition of foreign travel, which became punishable by decapitation.
When China finally met the outer world, it was first as British colonialism’s arena and then as Japanese imperialism’s prey. In Xi’s case, China’s abuse during World War II was part of his parents’ stories, feeding a suspicion of foreign powers that he took with him to his political career.
Add to this the elder Xi’s participation in the civil war with Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists, and you get the statesman who now intrudes Taiwan’s airspace and stirs the South China Sea.
Underlying this conduct are two apparent assumptions: first, no country will dare confront China, and second, China can do pretty much whatever it pleases.
One can imagine Xi conferring with his diplomats after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. “What will America and Europe do?” he might have asked. And after hearing the reply – “they will sanction, but they won’t fight” – he concluded: they also won’t fight for Taiwan.
That’s probably right.
And that’s beside the fact that sanctioning China is much more complicated than sanctioning Russia. The Russians export little to the West, and what Europe does need from them, gas, survived the sanctions. “We are not Russia,” Xi must have told himself that day. “We have a huge industry, they really buy what we make, and they are now addicted to our products. No one can afford to sanction China.”
That too is right.
Then, spinning a globe and putting his finger on Taiwan, he likely told himself: “We are 1.4 billion, they are 25 million; we sprawl over half a continent, they are a speck in the ocean; our military budget is $250 billion, theirs is hardly $15 billion. How can they possibly fight us? We will swallow them for breakfast.”
There is more to war than quantity. One immeasurable factor is motivation. Whether Xi’s troops will be prepared to die for his cause remains to be seen. The Taiwanese will be fighting for their homes, families and way of life. This is beside the fact that they are more modernly equipped and possibly better trained.
With more than 1.7 million regular and reserve troops; some 300 combat jets including more than 100 F-16s; more than 1,100 battle tanks as well as a phalanx of artillery barrels and missile batteries, Taiwan is in a position to humble China. It may not defeat China, but it sure might prevent its victory.
Moreover, plunging into war might expose China as a demographic giant with sick guts. War might reveal Chinese arms’ inferiority; Chinese troops’ lack of spirit, and also a deformed economy’s vulnerabilities, the way China’s teetering real-estate giant Evergrande is doing these very days.
Small nations repeatedly humbled big armies. This happened to the US in Vietnam, to Britain in South Africa, to Italy in Abyssinia, to France in Algeria, to the USSR in Afghanistan and to Imperial Russia in Japan. There is no reason to assume in advance it might not happen to China in Taiwan.
The author’s bestselling Mitzad Ha’ivelet Ha’yehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sefarim, 2019), is a revisionist history of the Jewish people’s leadership from antiquity to modernity.