A STRAIGHT line is the shortest distance between two glasses of gin. That is how Europeans drew the maps of their colonies in Africa and much of Asia, turning the natural geography of human habitation into one-dimensional lines. This legacy has segued with national ambitions of post-colonial states to create contested spaces that simmer with tension.
China’s priority for reunification is Taiwan, annexed by the Qings in 1683 and occupied by Japan in 1895. In 1949 it became home to the Chiang Kai-shek regime, which claimed to be the real China. Xi Jinping has linked his credibility and future to reunification by 2027. If he cannot deliver in his third term, a fourth becomes difficult. If he does, he will lead China through the 2030s.
One characteristic of superpower rivalry was the division of the world into ‘obedience’ clusters. NATO and Warsaw Pact countries were the most obvious instances of quasi-colonisation wrapped in economic benevolence. Two confident powers, India and China, stayed out of any ‘obedience’ zone.
China has been unwilling or unable to admit that India has an independent mind. Beijing is still in thrall of Mao Zedong’s dictum that India was a “running dog” of Western imperialism. In Xi Jinping’s calculations, India’s participation in the Quad is confirmation of the Mao canard.
Nehru peace jinx
China therefore has consistently viewed India as an obstacle to its rise. Mao Zedong was irritated by Jawaharlal Nehru’s patrician patronage rather than grateful. Nehru, more idealistic than realistic, told the BBC in 1953 that he saw “absolutely no danger from China”, adding “I don’t think China has any desire to expand”. He was woken up in 1962.
China attacked across the Himalayas to punch India down into a lower division. As often happens, it had the opposite effect. The defeat of 1962 set India free from the Nehru peace jinx. India tripled its defence budget in 1963 and set a course for rearmament that has made it into one of the world’s premier military powers.
Pakistan was the first country to discover the muscle of a different India when in 1965 it tried to seize Kashmir through war and instead lost Kashmir forever. Since then, Pakistan has descended into a jelly state, neither able to stay stable nor disintegrate, quivering on the rim of helplessness. China can do little to help a hapless ally.
For Xi Jinping, the Quad is a direct threat to China’s plans for Taiwan, and hence it is time for the military containment of India. He has, in effect, three years left. His game of matchsticks and sulphur needs reinforcement by military heft.
Great Wall of Steel
A week after securing a third term, Xi Jinping pledged to turn China’s standing army of two million into a “Great Wall of Steel”. They had to be fit to fight on high roads, rough waves and perilous stormy seas. The high roads are the Himalayas, the rough waves and perilous seas lie in the Indo-Pacific. China has therefore invested heavily in light tanks for mountain roads; sophisticated submarines; an amphibious assault arsenal; cyber-and-space capability; and a ballistic missile force.
Will Xi Jinping invade Taiwan and risk war on the Third Front of Asia? Only the Chinese leader can provide a firm answer, and he is not in the habit of giving interviews.
Moreover, invasion would be akin to an assault on his own country, killing fellow Chinese citizens and destroying Chinese industrial infrastructure. There is an option outside the conventional box that would tempt him: raise the levels of confrontation in stages till the threat is palpable, and America is forced to send its Navy or seem impotent. He then orders a blockade, not as the first act of a Chinese invasion but ostensibly to prevent an “American invasion” of Chinese territory. If Taiwan is Chinese then ipso facto American troops and warships in Taiwan constitute an American invasion. That is as good a casus belli as he is likely to find.
Cutting supply chains
Xi Jinping would then wait for the media to ratchet up the dread factor, while ensuring that Taiwan’s supply chains are cut, particularly of semi-conductors. Simultaneously, his diplomats would remind the world that it has already accepted the single-China option, which is why Beijing is in the Security Council.
All that the United Nations could do was appeal for a peaceful resolution. In November 2022, British Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace told the House of Lords: “It is in China’s plan to reunify Taiwan to mainland China… it is not a secret. Britain wants a peaceful process towards that”. A blockade would meet the ‘peace’ requirement since China would not fire the first shot. It would be ready to return fire.
Would Washington risk a full-scale war by breaking the blockade? These are the known unknowns, and unknown unknowns, to use Donald Rumsfeld’s appropriate terminology. What we do know is that a Chinese climbdown would lead to a contagious meltdown on a scale last seen in 1990.
Compromise would be the intelligent way out. Xi Jinping would be ready to accept a Hong Kong solution. His purpose would have been met. The red flag would fly over Taiwan.
A second Hong Kong
With Beijing getting fulsome support from Russia, its old and new friends, and indeed all those who have argued on behalf of the territorial integrity of a nation state, the odds on Taiwan becoming a second Hong Kong are higher than a Chinese meltdown or total war.
America would be damaged in the process, but a relieved world would quickly get on with other business.
Lenin noted that there were decades when nothing happened, and weeks when decades happened. Ukraine has pushed us into the Lenin cycle. The decades are beginning to unfold. As rising powers claim the attention of the 21st century, India and China will become leaders of different models of progress.
India’s transition into an economic giant through the uncertainties of liberal democracy is an attractive alternative to authoritarian arguments locked in the assumption that political stability is essential for equitable economic growth. In the various struggles across a fraught globe for independence, inheritance, territorial integrity and a high place in the emerging world order, the future of freedom is also at stake.