The China War in Taiwan: 1938 is knocking on the door

Those who are tired of the historical comparisons are politely asked to extend their spirit one more time. International relations are now at a crossroads, which warrants a comparison with the late 1930s. Let us think seriously about 1938, when war clouds began to gather in Central Europe and East Asia.

So, two rising powers – dynamic, aggressive and short-tempered – began to light the fire, which in the next three years turned into a world war. A German dictator and a Japanese general came to the conclusion that their countries are able to claim for themselves the “living space” they deserve, and if not now when.

We are seeing something like this now. One dictator, Putin, has already started a local war, ostensibly to win over two Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine; But we already know from his mouth and from the subjects of his vessels, that he means much more than that, both in Ukraine and beyond. China’s second dictator, Xi Jinping, has kicked into high gear a long-standing demand to correct what his regime considers a territorial distortion: the separate existence of Taiwan.

The possibility of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan has been on the table since 1949, when the communists won the civil war, and the remnants of the defeated Nationalist army fled to the small island in the South China Sea, about 150 km from the mainland. But in recent days we have witnessed war maneuvers unprecedented in their scope. To the extent that they were first portrayed as a gesture of protest against the visit of Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, they soon took on the character of a simulated invasion.

The Taiwanese think this is what the Chinese invasion will look like, of course with a lot more ships and planes; And the missiles will not cross Taiwan’s skies, or its coastal waters, but will hit concrete targets. The quarantine on the shores of Taiwan will not be partial, but full. The massive internet attack on Taiwanese government websites will be even more massive, and will almost certainly bring down servers and services.

In short, China is announcing, implicitly, that the war is coming and coming. In itself this news does not surprise anyone. The head of the US military’s Pacific and Indian Ocean Command estimated a year and a half ago that China would attack “within six years.”

Chinese TV screens on Thursday. China’s missile tests are shown following Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan / Photo: Associated Press

Its results are known in advance, but…

Last October, after China’s unprecedented show of force near Taiwan’s airspace (150 fighter jets, bombers and other aircraft), Taiwan’s defense minister said that the communist army could launch a full-scale attack on Taiwan with minimal casualties. “The situation of our army is the gloomiest in 40 years and more, since I enlisted,” he said.

It is possible that he exaggerated, because the reason for his speech was a request for a special allowance of 8.7 billion dollars from the parliament. In Taiwan, unlike China, the parliament is not a rubber stamp. If the government wants money, it must convince the majority of deputies that it deserves it.

Few assume that Taiwan has the ability to successfully defend itself. It is not Ukraine. It is much smaller, it has no territorial hinterland, and it cannot count on the support of neighboring countries, because there are none. Of course, the water that separates it from the rest of the world also makes it difficult for China. It cannot cross the border overnight as Russia did. A Chinese invasion will therefore not enjoy the advantage of surprise. But the advantage resulting from manpower and equipment is unequivocal.

Taiwan vs. China is a match whose results are known in advance. The question is of course whether these will be the only participants. The likelihood of American intervention must be considered very high, based on statements and commitments. In 2020, under President Trump, the US sold arms to Taiwan amounting to 1.8 billion dollars.

Since entering the White House, President Biden has repeatedly promised to come to Taiwan’s defense if attacked. He did so three times. His spokesmen later tried to blunt the sting of his promises. It was not clear if they were doing so because he failed in his speech, or because the promise and denial are part of a long-standing American “ambiguity” strategy.

Chinese TV screens on Thursday.  China's missile tests are shown following Pelosi's visit to Taiwan / Photo: Associated Press

Chinese TV screens on Thursday. China’s missile tests are shown following Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan / Photo: Associated Press

It was hoped that the status quo would remain forever

When Washington severed its diplomatic relations with Taiwan in 1979, and opened an embassy in Beijing, Congress immediately passed a law, which allowed the US to increase and maintain intensive informal relations with the island, and to add and equip it with weapons. Washington hoped for a more or less eternal status quo, in which Taiwan would continue to pretend that it was the real China, and would not call itself, for example, the “Republic of Taiwan.”

For many years it seemed that China would also want such a status quo. And indeed, over the years, China advocated “peaceful unification”, unless… unless Taiwan denies the unity of China and declares independence. She is independent in every sense, and she behaves quite well. The Economist ranks it as the most successful democracy on the Asian continent, and places it 11th in the world democracies index. China is in 151st place.

China now claims that the trend towards independence, or what it calls “separatism”, has taken over Taiwan. This warrants immediate action. The Chinese can also wait until 2024, when there will be presidential elections in Taiwan. In the last quarter of a century, the government tended to change once every eight years. If in 2024 the old Guomintang party, which is inclined to moderation and seeks an understanding with Beijing, returns to power, perhaps the communists will calm down. And maybe not. Because the question of Taiwan is no longer limited to the very territorial dispute. It became a metaphor for China’s full relations with the US, and in fact with the outside world. Dictatorships do not depend on the express will of the voters, especially if there are no voters. But they definitely need audience knowledge.

“2022 will be especially difficult”

The Chinese dictatorship has inflamed its public opinion to such an extent that millions have been tempted to believe that the long-awaited act of unification is imminent. The disappointed won’t take to the streets, because every beginner Chinese knows how such demonstrations end. But it is a regime that needs legitimacy, and the “territorial integrity of the homeland” provides such legitimacy.

Furthermore, it is possible that the regime is convinced that it has reached, or is about to reach, a point of military parity with the US. A Chinese professor, Jin Kanrong, who advises his government on foreign affairs, said at the beginning of the year (to the Nikkei Asia news agency) that China has acquired a military advantage in the Taiwan arena, and it will be able to defeat not only the US but also Japan, if the Japanese intervene.

By the way, the professor was early to warn back in January that 2022 will be particularly difficult, on the occasion of two political events: the October Communist Party conference, when Xi Jinping’s term will be extended, and the mid-term elections in the US for Congress.

It seems he was right. This is not just a difficult year. Maybe this is the turning year. China’s behavior in recent days is more than letting off steam. It seems that China is ready to accept risks that have not yet occurred to it. Exactly 50 years ago, she assumed that improving relations with the US was a condition and would not pass to her progress. No more. And this change is making the South China Sea and the entire world a much, much less safe place. 1937 and 1938 are knocking at our doors.


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