I have long been an admirer of former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger but somehow, I find some of the views he expressed in a CNN TV interview yesterday and as reported by ‘Politico’ rather harder to swallow.
The Kissinger view is that even though China continues to covet Taiwan, “I don’t expect an all-out attack on Taiwan in, say, a 10-year period, which is as far as I can see.”
Discussing last week’s virtual meeting between President Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping, Mr. Kissinger noted:
“The situation surrounding Taiwan is one that hadn’t changed much since he and President Richard Nixon established a connection with China in the early 1970s. I believe that the ultimate joining of Taiwan and China, the ultimate creation of one China, is the objective of Chinese policy, as it has been since the creation of the current regime and that it probably would be in any Chinese government since Taiwan has been considered a historic part of China that was taken away by Japan, by force. That was exactly the situation Nixon and I faced when we first began contact with China “.
Apart from knowledge and history of what was then Formosa and of how Japan had unwittingly by its actions bequeathed one of the most difficult and as yet unresolved geo-political situations, what he and the disgraced Richard Nixon faced when they visited China in 1972 was a nation still transient in terms of wielding international strength and power and that was still working through its 25 year and 50 year plans.
Well, from my perspective, contrast the above comments with the estimated 3.35 million trained military personnel numbers the country has available today of which over 2 million are active, total military aircraft strength of 3,260 of which 1,500 are classed as fighter/interceptor or dedicated attack, 1,230 Helicopters, 264 Transport aircraft, 115 special mission and 405 trainers and a Naval Force that translates to 46 Frigates, 50 Destroyers, &2 Corvettes, 79 Submarines, 123 Patrol Vessels, 36 Mine Warfare ships and 2 aircraft carriers. Not to be forgotten either are China’s 3,2025 tanks, 35,000 armoured vehicles, 1,970 Self-propelled artillery. 1,234 towed artillery and no fewer than 2,250 Rocker Projectors.
Conventional wisdom as expounded by thinks tanks and organisations such as Carnegie have been that China would seek an expanded regional role but would defer to the distant future any global ambitions it may also hold.
But, over the past five years, it has become very noticeable of how China’s formally disguised ambitions have come out in the open. While the rest of world has itself become more hostile to China looking to blame the country for Covid 19, Beijing has used the pandemic to exploit opportunities.
I am fortunate to have spent a fair amount of time in China back in the early 1980’s and while back then I took the view that China’s ambitions were only to be seen as an equal with the west today I am left in little doubt that the underlying political objective in Beijing is now to establish China as a the world’s leading power by 2050. How it achieves that ambition will have to remain a matter of conjecture on my part but when it comes to ensuing confrontation with the west, I for one am in no doubt that Taiwan will be the final test point.
So, While I may agree with Henry Kissinger that China is not yet ready to seek to achieve its primary ambition – attacking Taiwan – that day in my view will certainly come and presumably it will come when western eyes are paying attention elsewhere. We can of course have no idea of western reaction and possible retaliation in regard to an invasion of Taiwan by China but be in no doubt that China has been watching changing and weakened western attitudes and resolve as nations in both North America and Europe face difficult internal challenges themselves and that obstruct the ease of challenging those that would confront us.
That the west still has military power and technical advantage with which to face up to threats from China and Russia is hard to refute, but does it have sufficient resolve and can its political leaders carry the people?
If not already, China does have a right to superpower status and somehow, we must come to terms with that. No use burying one’s head in the sand when facts speak for themselves. That said and Taiwan apart, I do not envisage China seeking to widen its global influence and boundaries of power by attacking other countries in the Asia Pacific region in my lifetime although I do believe that it will remain an ambition. In saying that we must also understand that China is struggling to come to terms with many other serious environmental challenges of its own making. Climate change is a completely separate issues that comes on top of that. We must remember that to achieve its medium/long term ambitions, China needs continuing western trade just as also western countries such as the US require China to continue buying its debt.
That said, the west is right to be pushing forward and strengthening regional partnerships. AUKUS, the trilateral security pact signed recently between Australia, the US and UK and that will allow Australia to ultimately operate a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines is big a step in the right direction. Australia is now modernising and renewing much of its Navy surface vessel fleet and the nine Hunter class future frigates that BAE Systems Maritime Australia is to build for the Royal Australian Navy (my understanding is that a prototype steel structure of a Hunter class vessel has now been completed at the Osborne shipyard- first steel cutting is due in 2024) is a very important demonstration of that.
The ANZUS treaty between the US, Australia and New Zealand now in its 70th year needs also to be strengthened in the face of increased potential of threats for China and Australian PM Scott Morrison’s suggestion that with relations between China and Australia at a new low the region is being eerily haunted by similar times many years ago in the 1930’s” and that led to the Pacific wars was a robust statement of a situation that cannot be ignored. I worry too about New Zealand diffidence and of its limited military resource. Japan though is at least waking up to the ever-rising threat faced.
In the interview, Henry Kissinger said President Biden that he was hamstrung entering the virtual summit by domestic political constraints — “Everyone wants to be a China hawk” but he implied that he also saw evidence that Biden was attempting to steer the US/China relationship in a more productive direction adding that “I think Biden began to move in a direction of a different tone. That does not mean it is yielding to China; it is to try to find a level in which we can talk about those things that are known to be common.”
He went on to say that “When I first went to China, it was a poor and weak and very assertive country. Now it is a fairly rich, quite strong and still fairly assertive country. But our challenge then and our challenge now is to find the relationship in which we can compete without driving the situation into a holocaust. And that is a big challenge for both leaders” adding that “The challenge in any conflict is not how you begin it but whether you know how to end it “.
These are interesting and objective observations but from China’s eyes, my fear is that they look more like attempted appeasement from a weakened US administration. Of course, it is right to attempt to stabilise our relationship with China but we must do so from a position of strength. And it must be done not by one single great power such as the US undoubtedly still is – it must be achieved through one voice of western alliance. Thereby hangs another big problem and one that I will discuss on another day.
In the meantime, we must be as assertive as China is and we must work harder to get our own house in order before we consider challenging the order of others. Diplomacy must also be given its chance but only on the basis of resumption of trust. That looks to be a very difficult objective to achieve but that does not mean we shouldn’t try.
(For the record: Richard Nixon had surprised the world choosing to visit China early in 1972 – the first US American president to so do since Mao Zedong established the Communist government regime there in 1949. Nixon’s visit was preceded by secret visits by Henry Kissinger who was then President Nixon’s national security adviser. The famous words used by Kissinger when greeting Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai at their meeting in July 1971 “We have come to the People’s Republic of China with an open mind and an open heart” are still fresh in the mind).
CHW (London 22nd November 2021)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785