In geostrategic circles it is common to speak of China as an island, even though China is very much a part of the Eurasian landmass. China is isolated from its civilizational neighbors by mountain ranges and deserts and an ocean. These barriers have not been absolute, but these have been effective in isolating China and limiting Chinese interaction with other Old World civilizations. The less often recognized flip side of an insular China surrounded by mountains, deserts, and an ocean is that of Chinese unity. Chinese insularity and Chinese unity are two sides of the same coin; China’s geographical barriers both isolate and unify the region.

The idea of Chinese unity has a deep history in geostrategic thought, both in China and elsewhere in Eurasia and the world. Chinese civilization seems to have had its origins in the Yellow River Valley during the Neolithic, and it has been continuously Chinese civilization more-or-less since that time. There is direct line of descent from these earliest origins of civilization in East Asia to the China of today. And while the idea diffusion of Chinese civilization populated East Asia with other civilizations, related to China by descent with modification, few of these other civilizations had a profound reflexive influence upon Chinese civilization, even as they came to maturity and become regional powers. Moreover, when China has not been unified — as during the period of Warring States or the Taiping Rebellion — this has been regarded as an historical aberration.

Chinese unity is a far greater and much older imperative than any one Chinese regime, including the communist iteration of China as the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Chinese communists are as keen on Chinese unity as any Chinese emperor of the past (much as general secretaries of the communist party in the Soviet Union were as keen on Russian imperialism as was any Tsar). Any great disruption within China threatens Chinese unity, and so is perceived as an existential threat to one of the core strategic imperatives of Chinese civilization. Another way of stating this is Martin Jacques’ contention that China is a “civilization-state” that derives its legitimacy from the continuity of its civilization (cf. Civilization-States and Their Attempted Extirpation).

At the recent 18th Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Chinese General Wei Fenghe, State Councilor and Minister of National Defense, PRC, gave a speech largely focused on Taiwan and the South China Sea. Taiwan perfectly exemplifies the Chinese concern for Chinese unity. It has been seventy years since the Chinese Nationalists fled to Taiwan, and Mao was forced to accept their control of Taiwan because he did not possess the resources to follow the Nationalists across the Taiwan Strait. Taiwan has been a de facto independent nation-state since that time, but China has not forgotten Taiwan, and remains intent on re-asserting political control over the island.

After General Wei Fenghe’s speech he was asked questions, and he surprised many in the audience by explicitly answering a question about Tiananmen — the “June Fourth Incident” (天安門事件) — of which he was quoted as saying:

“Everybody is concerned about Tiananmen after 30 years,” Wei said on Sunday. “Throughout the 30 years, China under the Communist Party has undergone many changes — do you think the government was wrong with the handling of June Fourth? There was a conclusion to that incident. The government was decisive in stopping the turbulence.”

Turbulence threatens Chinese unity and stability, and as such it constitutes not merely a threat to the PRC or the ruling communist party, it constitutes a threat to Chinese civilization. Contrast this to Thomas Jefferson’s well known claim that, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.” Jefferson descended from the tradition of European civilization, which was always at war with itself, and never unified. And if you trace western civilization to its origins in Mesopotamia and Anatolia (cf. The Seriation of Western Civilization) it is obvious that western civilization has a different relationship to its origins than does Chinese civilization.

China’s grand strategy is dictated by these core concerns for continuity, stability, and unity, and China is willing to play the long game in order to secure these grand strategic goals. China has been mostly content to employ persuasion to this end, and this was the motivation for the “one country, two systems” policy that was supposed to assuage concerns in Hong Kong about its reunification with the Chinese mainland. For optimists, the success of “one country, two systems” in Hong Kong would persuade Taiwan to voluntarily accept a similar deal for itself. But China also plays the long game in Hong Kong, and it has been steadily wearing away at the autonomy of Hong Kong, so that the “two systems” of the “one country” come ever closer to coinciding.

The Chinese mainland implicitly offers to Hong Kong and Taiwan the opportunity to hitch their wagons to a star, as the large and growing Chinese economy represents the possibility of great wealth for all who get on board (but at the cost of what Rufus Fears called “national freedom”). Now that China feels its growing strength, both economically and militarily, we hear much less about “one country, two systems” and much more about the core strategic concerns of continuity, stability, and unity. China can now afford to be more direct about its grand strategy.

Thirty years’ on, the Tiananmen Square massacre is now perceived as being safely distant in the past so that it can be acknowledged by Chinese military leaders, who have moved on to other concerns. There will be no official commemorations in mainland China, but the Chinese government may eventually become sufficiently confident of its position and its view of Chinese history that it can acknowledge the incident and place it in a context that they believe contributes to the narrative of the ability of the Chinese leadership class to ensure the strategic imperatives of Chinese continuity, stability, and unity.

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Previous posts on Tiananmen Anniversaries:

2009 Anniversary of a Massacre

2010 Twenty-one years since Tiananmen

2011 Was the Tiananmen massacre an atrocity?

2013 A Dream Deferred

2014 Tiananmen and the Right to be Forgotten

2015 Tiananmen and Chinese Grand Strategy

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Grand Strategy Annex

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The center of the Cold War was Europe, and, by extension, the North Atlantic, which latter geographical feature lent its name to NATO. The Age of Atlanticism extended from Columbus’ voyage in 1492 to the end of NATO’s relevance in 1991, or almost exactly five hundred years.

The Pacific was always a Cold War backwater. After the US defeated Japanese sea power in the Pacific, there was no force to rival US dominance of the Pacific, even though the USSR had ports on the Pacific. This is related to the fact that although the East was once Red, the Cold War with China was always different from the Cold War with the USSR. In fact, in the midst of the Cold War China and the USSR fought a war, the Sino–Soviet border conflict of 1969 (like many recent wars, it was not called a war), the underlined the bitter divisions within the so-called “communist bloc.”

Now there is a power rising in the East — several of them, in fact — and as the Atlantic-centered world order of the post-WWII era passes into history, we enter into a Pacific-Centered World Order. While this Pacific-centered world order will not be as closely wedded to the Cold War as events in the Atlantic theater, but will not be utterly divorced from Cold War antecedents either.

While the Cold War with China (if there was one) was never quite the Cold War that was fought with the Soviet Union, it was nevertheless serious business, as Chinese support for North Korea and North Vietnam (later to be Vietnam simpliciter) demonstrated. And while Chinese support for national liberation movements in Southeast Asia mirrored Soviet support for national liberation movements in Africa and Latin America, the US had leverage against China: not only Japan, transformed from an enemy into an ally and soon afterward sporting the second largest economy in the world (a status since ceded to China), but most especially Taiwan.

The island of Taiwan is the fly in China’s ointment. Taiwan has been an irritant to China not unlike the way in which communist Cuba was been a near-offshore irritant to the US. Through the late Cold War, moreover, Taiwan had become wealthy, with a growing economy that set it apart from the moribund command economies largely found throughout the region, and its economic dynamism coupled with its position as a trading hub in East Asia gave Taiwan connections throughout the industrialized world.

I bring up Taiwan as one of the major unresolved points of conflict from the Cold War in the Pacific (I have elsewhere called the divided Korean peninsula an ember of the Cold War that periodically flares up) because of the recent talk about the “strategic pivot” of the US in the direction of the Asia-Pacific Region. Hilary Clinton wrote in Foreign Policy magazine in “America’s Pacific Century”:

As the war in Iraq winds down and America begins to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan, the United States stands at a pivot point. Over the last 10 years, we have allocated immense resources to those two theaters. In the next 10 years, we need to be smart and systematic about where we invest time and energy, so that we put ourselves in the best position to sustain our leadership, secure our interests, and advance our values. One of the most important tasks of American statecraft over the next decade will therefore be to lock in a substantially increased investment — diplomatic, economic, strategic, and otherwise — in the Asia-Pacific region.

Clinton used the word “pivot” three times in the piece, and although she never actually used the phrase “strategic pivot,” she did use the phrase “strategic turn” three times in this piece. More interesting yet is that Clinton did not once mention Taiwan in this article. China is mentioned throughout the article, and in very moderate if not conciliatory terms. China is called an “emerging power” and a “partner” and even an “ally.”

The President, presumably the architect of these strategic turn, and who has emphasized from the beginning of his Presidency that he would orient US strategic posture toward the Pacific, gave a speech is Australia in November 2011 that underscored this emphasis.

The President’s full speech in Australia can be viewed at Changing fortunes dictate another presidential pivot and can be read in full at Remarks By President Obama to the Australian Parliament. “China” is mentioned only three times in the President’s speech, and Taiwan, as in Clinton’s article for Foreign Policy, is not mentioned at all. Here are a few quotes from the speech:

Our new focus on this region reflects a fundamental truth — the United States has been, and always will be, a Pacific nation. Asian immigrants helped build America, and millions of American families, including my own, cherish our ties to this region. From the bombing of Darwin to the liberation of Pacific islands, from the rice paddies of Southeast Asia to a cold Korean Peninsula, generations of Americans have served here, and died here — so democracies could take root; so economic miracles could lift hundreds of millions to prosperity. Americans have bled with you for this progress, and we will not allow it — we will never allow it to be reversed.

Here, we see the future. As the world’s fastest-growing region — and home to more than half the global economy — the Asia Pacific is critical to achieving my highest priority, and that’s creating jobs and opportunity for the American people. With most of the world’s nuclear power and some half of humanity, Asia will largely define whether the century ahead will be marked by conflict or cooperation, needless suffering or human progress.

As President, I have, therefore, made a deliberate and strategic decision — as a Pacific nation, the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future, by upholding core principles and in close partnership with our allies and friends.

The strategic turn to Asia and the Pacific has been the topic of much comment. Obama’s Pacific Pivot by Joseph Nye (of “soft power” fame) has been quite widely distributed. The “Strategic Pivot” to Asia Now Committed, Pentagon Can Float Allegedly Deep Cuts by Thomas P. M. Barnett is an interesting analysis that ends with the provocative line, “These are delusions stacked upon delusions.”

I find myself rather surprised that Taiwan has been nearly ignored in this discussion. The administration has had nothing to say about Taiwan in the process of executing this strategic turn. A year ago, the U.S. – China Joint Statement (released 19 January 2011) includes a short but explicit passage about Taiwan:

6. Both sides underscored the importance of the Taiwan issue in U.S. – China relations. The Chinese side emphasized that the Taiwan issue concerns China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and expressed the hope that the U.S. side will honor its relevant commitments and appreciate and support the Chinese side’s position on this issue. The U.S. side stated that the United States follows its one China policy and abides by the principles of the three U.S.-China Joint Communiqués. The United States applauded the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait and welcomed the new lines of communications developing between them. The United States supports the peaceful development of relations across the Taiwan Strait and looks forward to efforts by both sides to increase dialogues and interactions in economic, political, and other fields, and to develop more positive and stable cross-Strait relations.

Since then, I haven’t been able to find anything. One must say that the strategic turn to the Pacific, where Taiwan was once a central issue, is deeply if not systematically ambiguous when it comes to Taiwan. The ambiguity is further driven home by on-again, off-again arms sales to Taiwan. Taiwan has been repeatedly rebuffed in its attempts to upgrade and update its fighters, as well as its attempt to acquire diesel-electric submarines from the US. More recently, however, it has been announced that Taiwan will purchase AH-64D Apache helicopters with Block III Longbow Fire Control Radar (FCR), becoming the first political entity outside the US with this particular hardware. This is what we call “mixed signals.” In other words, ambiguity.

In an interesting blog with a Taiwan defense focus, The Far-Eastern Sweet Potato, the author, J. Michael Cole, concludes his excellent essay, “Facing Reality in the Cross-Strait Balance of Power: What Can and What Can’t Be Done,” with this advice:

Rather than waste their time exploring the idea of waging a doomed guerrilla campaign against the PLA, thinkers should instead focus their energy on the means by which war in the Taiwan Strait can be rendered unthinkable. Unable to compete dollar-for-dollar with China, Taiwan has one option left: An asymmetrical deterrent backed by a modern Air Force.

This is a sober and sensible conclusion. The ambivalent of the US toward Taiwan in its strategic turn to the Pacific underlines the need for Taiwan to attend to its own interests, since those interests do not seem to figure prominently in US plans for Asia and the Pacific.

In its relative isolation and its need to pursue asymmetrical and nonconventional deterrence in the face of a powerful adversary, Taiwan’s strategic situation resembles the strategic situation of Iran, and, to a lesser extent, Pakistan. Recently in A Review of Iranian Capabilities I once again looked at a number of innovative and distinctive weapons systems that Iran has pursued in quest of backing up its threat of A2/AD (anti-access/area denial) in the Strait of Hormuz. Many of these possibilities would be open to Taiwan itself, even while A2/AD strategies are more commonly associated with China itself in the Taiwan Strait.

The obvious track for Taiwanese security would be to go nuclear, and given Taiwan’s relative wealth, advanced technology, and robust industrial plant this would be possible, but it would then lose whatever remaining goodwill it has with its sponsors at present. Ideally this would be done is utter secrecy until the deterrent was fully operational, at which time Taiwan could afford to alienate its sponsors, but the resulting damage to relations with the US would be so great that it is difficult to predict what the US would do in this circumstance. The more we consider the scenario, the more it looks like the above quote about a “doomed guerrilla campaign.”

The remaining strategy for Taiwan, then, is A2/AD in the Taiwan Strait. What happens when two A2/AD strategies collide? The answer to this question may determine the future of Taiwan.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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