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Taiwan – a sign of the times

Peter Main

August 4, the anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, might not seem an auspicious date for China to mobilise its forces to surround Taiwan. Xi Jinping’s declaration of exclusion zones, blocking all access to the island’s ports to allow a „live-fire“ exercise, carries the very real risk of escalation, intended or not.

That risk aside, the absence of any full scale mobilisation on the Chinese side of the Straits means all talk of a possible invasion is just war-mongering, but no less dangerous for that.

The real parallel is not with 1914 but with the period immediately before. The opening decade of the new century, the dawning of the imperialist epoch, saw a series of flashpoints as a result of direct imperialist rivalry, rebellions against imperialist occupation or nationalist revolts within long-established „multinational“ empires.

Today, inter-imperialist rivalry and the potential for war stems from the emergence of new imperialist powers, Russia and China, out of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the restoration of capitalism. In a world already dominated by older imperialist powers, continued growth, in the case of China, perhaps continued survival in the case of Russia, can only be guaranteed at the expense of those powers.

Equally, those states accustomed to global power can only maintain themselves by hobbling their new rivals, whether by integration into existing alliances, economic straitjackets or, ultimately, war. As in the period before 1914, examples of each abound in today’s world.

The particular trigger for the clash over Taiwan, Nancy Pelosi’s much publicised visit to Taipei, appears at first sight almost comically trivial. An ageing politician, third in line to the presidency of the USA, facing the end of her career in November’s mid-term elections, wanted one last chance to strut across the world stage and, perhaps, even pick up some chauvinist votes. But what does it say about the state of US domestic politics that the incumbent president, Joe Biden, could not stop her?

Across the Pacific, why did Xi Jinping not simply shrug off this rather sad attempt at self-glorification? As in the USA, domestic concerns provide the answer. With the economy no better than flat-lining, widespread discontent at the effects of his pandemic policy and an approaching Party Congress at which he intends to be granted a third term of office, Xi needed to bang the chauvinist drum himself.

His claim that Taiwan is part of China’s national territory certainly demonstrates the arrogance of an imperialist power dismissing the aspirations of a smaller nation. Taiwan was, indeed, a territory that was required to pay tribute to the Chinese Empire in times long ago, so, incidentally, was Japan. Imperial China, however, was not a nation state, in its long pre-capitalist history many different peoples and territories came and went from its control.

To say Taiwan, which has had an entirely separate history from Mainland China in the capitalist epoch of nation states, is still subject to Beijing, makes as much sense as insisting all those European states that were once parts of the Holy Roman Empire should now be incorporated into Germany. Whether the people of Taiwan want to be an independent state or part of China is for the people of Taiwan to decide. To date, no one has asked them.

Strategic ambiguity

There is one last conundrum: given all the rhetoric about Taiwan’s rights and the noisy condemnation of Beijing’s actions, why has no US government actually supported Taiwanese independence? Why hide behind the „strategic ambiguity“ of recognising only one Chinese government, in Beijing, whilst also defending Taiwan’s „democratic rights“?

Given Beijing’s new-found economic and military strength it might be thought that this is simply rational realpolitik, but that was not true in the past, when the US position was first formulated. Back then, the „One China“ policy expressed the US intention to one day remove the regime of the Chinese Communist Party and re-instate the regime of Chiang Kai-shek and his successors – no doubt still without asking the people of Taiwan.

That goal has not been forgotten in Washington and in the 2020 general election in Taiwan, Chiang’s party, the Guo Min Dang, which echoes Washington’s position on the national question, won a third of the popular vote. In purely formal terms, the wing of the Guo Min Dang which defected from Chiang’s regime in 1948 is still represented in the Beijing government.

Among the new Chinese capitalist class, now under pressure from Xi’s policies, there may even be some who see advantages to a „re-united“, perhaps even „democratic“, China. If that were ever to be the case, the people of Taiwan would still have the right to decide whether they wished to be a part of it.

Just as before 1914, these provocations and conflicts are the early warning lights of a system plunging towards war. Like then, the working class should mobilise against all sabre rattling, military preparations and arms races which can only lead to a greater slaughter. Neither the „democratic“ great powers nor their „autocratic“ rivals can secure peace.

Only the overthrow of the whole system of capitalist great power competition, imperialism, and its replacement by an international socialist order, guaranteeing the freedom and self-determination of nations, can do that. Only then can rational and democratic planning of the world’s resources allow humanity to overcome the crises of poverty, pandemics and environmental breakdown that imperialism has generated.

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