Alex Lo
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Alex Lo
My Take
by Alex Lo

The reincarnations of Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek

  • In the fateful triangle of Taipei, Beijing and Washington, Xi Jinping and Tsai Ing-wen have both been channelling old ghosts, one self-consciously and publicly, the other stealthily

The formation of a US-led, Nato-like alliance; calls for a formal defence pact between the United States and the island of Taiwan; a retaliatory mainland Chinese military display that worsened a crisis in the Taiwan Strait; heightening tensions between Washington and Beijing threatening a war …

Sorry, I am actually thinking about the 1950s. But if it sounds a lot like today, well, that’s because it is. Almost half a century of fruitful relations and dialogues between Beijing and Washington – on which the prosperity of China and peace of the world had depended – have almost been buried and forgotten. As Hegel famously wrote: “The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.” Apparently, that applies even if many of us have lived through it.

While Xi Jinping is self-consciously channelling the ghost of Mao Zedong, Tsai Ing-wen is doing the same, albeit stealthily in the spirit of Chiang Kai-shek. Domestically, Tsai and her Democratic Progressive Party have, of course, been carrying out their own version of “de-Stalinisation” against Chiang’s legacies as they try to delegitimise and discredit their main rival, the Kuomintang; not to mention their not-too-subtle subversion of Chiang’s one-China mission as stated in the island’s constitution.

But when it comes to the fateful triangle of mainland China, the island of Taiwan and the US, she has been replicating Chiang’s moves from the 1950s by deliberately provoking Beijing and drawing Washington to commit formally to the island’s defence, including US troop deployment in the event of an armed conflict, no matter who started it.

Back to the past

In late June, in an unprecedented and highly provocative move, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand took part in a Nato summit. The summit itself came up with a new doctrine, which identified China as a threat to Nato’s “interests, security and values”, including Beijing’s close relations with Russia and its growing influence in Africa.

The supposedly Atlantic military alliance has suddenly declared interests in the Pacific and the Indian oceans! Well, why not the whole globe? And people still doubt there is such a thing as Nato expansion just because they hate and despise Vladimir Putin! But even without this “Easternisation” of Nato, there are already Aukus, the Anglo-American security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the US, and the Quad nations of Australia, India, Japan and the US. None of these are new; history repeats itself.

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Back in the 1950s, there actually was an Asian version of Nato called the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (Seato). Until recently, people tended to forget its mostly useless existence other than as a legal fig leaf for the US to intervene in Asia.

Chiang wanted Taiwan to join, but the then US president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, thought its membership would be too provocative. No doubt Chiang had calculated that membership meant Seato-US commitment to Taiwan’s defence, something like Nato’s mutual defence of members under attack; Eisenhower and Dulles didn’t want such a liability.

Instead, after the mainland started bombardment of several outlying Taiwanese islands that were reinforced with Taiwanese troops and which were closer to the mainland, the US offered a defence pact to Chiang.

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The generalissimo considered its terms humiliating. The defence treaty barred him from attacking the mainland without the green light from Washington, and the US would not defend its offshore islands, unless it was judged that the threat extended to the main island of Taiwan itself. A subsequent resolution passed by the US Senate and signed by the president improved the terms for Chiang somewhat by extending defence to the smaller islands.

But since Washington had threatened Beijing with nuclear weapons, the treaty and resolution greatly alarmed Western allies. Would the US risk a nuclear war over some insignificant islands? The answer was “yes”, as the subsequent Cuban missile crisis and before that, Eisenhower’s spurious anti-communist “domino theory” would show. No islands were too small, no countries too insignificant in the US fight against communists, even if some of those fights could go nuclear! Remember that while China didn’t have nuclear weapons at the time, its then closest ally, Soviet Russia, did, and Moscow had its own version of the domino theory, too. In fact, Mao used the crises over Taiwan to justify the need for a poor nation like China to develop its own nuclear weapons.

Back to the future

It’s not my purpose here to repeat the history of the first and second Taiwan Strait conflicts in the 1950s. But what is highly relevant and disturbing is that the same or similar calculations and miscalculations between the three sides of Taipei, Beijing and Washington are back in play again. China today being a superpower with an economy and army to match makes any armed conflict even more dangerous.

Xi said at the ongoing 20th party congress: “We will continue to strive for peaceful reunification with the greatest sincerity and the utmost effort, but we will never promise to renounce the use of force, and we reserve the option of taking all measures necessary.”

Who may defend whom, to what extent and under what circumstances, as well as questions about levels of military engagement and escalation – these considerations are coming back to haunt us all from the 1950s.

Tsai’s slow sail to independence is no less dangerous than Chiang’s ambition to reunify China under him. Both envisaged full US support and were happy to provoke Beijing in doing so. At least until recently, Washington had wisely declined to provide such a full security guarantee, preferring a posture of “strategic ambiguity”.

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But the old US domino theory against multiple targets has now converged into a single big target – China – and morphed into another containment theory (or rather practice), previously directed at the Soviet Union.

Though at odds with Beijing’s interpretation, the US’ one-China policy has been officially guided by the Taiwan Relations Act, the three joint communiques between Beijing and Washington, and the “six assurances” the US made to Taipei. Together, they rendered the pacts and resolutions of the 1950s obsolete. Beijing could and still can accept those terms as they have proved their worth by helping to preserve peace across the Taiwan Strait. During that time, people on the island and the mainland have grown prosperous, with economic links having proved to be mutually advantageous. It would be a historic tragedy to reverse all those gains and achievements of the Chinese people.

But while the US state and defence departments continue to claim to adhere to those statements and law, US actions on the ground today resemble its actions from the 1950s. Whether the mainland will react peacefully or forcefully over Taiwan depends greatly on whether the US looks to the diplomatic breakthroughs of the 1970s or its anti-communist belligerence of the 1950s for guidance.