So now China is overtly threatening cross-strait war should U.S. Navy vessels tarry at seaports in Taiwan. Congress and the Trump administration contemplate such port calls in the text of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act. President Donald Trump has just signed the act into law. Afterward, diplomat Li Kexin announced that he had informed U.S. officials that Beijing meant to invoke its 2005 “Anti-Secession Law” if Washington does dispatch naval vessels to Taiwan. Under that measure, China’s leadership reserves the right to deploy armed force to keep the island from declaring formal independence from the mainland.
And it served notice that it will exercise that right. “The day that a U.S. Navy vessel arrives in Kaohsiung,” proclaimed Li, “is the day that our People’s Liberation Army unifies Taiwan with military force.” In short, he issued a public threat, and a public threat demands some form of public reply from its targets. If Trump and Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen now fail to arrange American port visits, they will appear to have bent to Beijing’s will—and no political leader relishes seeming to waffle, for fear of retribution from his constituents.
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So did threatening America and the island represent a stroke of genius or boneheaded, self-defeating diplomacy? The latter, I’d say. Yet such diplomatic ham-fistedness is comforting in its way. It gives the lie to the image that the Chinese Communist leadership strives to project: that an ultracompetent leadership, befriended by History with a capital H and overseen by President Xi Jinping, is shepherding the nation through an inexorable rise to global eminence, if not supremacy.
Sunny uplands await!
This is an image that seems to have taken hold among Western leaders. Not long ago I was conversing with an official you’ve heard of, and that person contended that dynamism is now on the side of authoritarians around the world—chiefly those who rule China. Chinese Communists (along with their brethren in places like Russia and perhaps Iran) are the innovators. The world’s liberal democracies—reputedly havens for free thinking and innovation—are laggards, flailing around in an effort to keep pace with changing times and circumstances.
If so, that’s a nettlesome development. That would mean Chinese Communists now hold all of the advantages that political philosophers ascribe to authoritarian societies, as well as the advantages that accrue to liberal societies in places like Europe, North America, or maritime Asia. They can command and control. Rulers in Beijing can ordain where resources are to go, and count on their constituents to obey. What’s more, they have the enlightenment to espy when circumstances are changing around China, and update their practices accordingly.
Such a competitor can be strong and decisive, and nimble and adaptive. Liberal societies, by contrast, must build alliances among competing power centers. Alliance building entails compromise and consumes time, thus postponing and possibly misshaping the eventual decision.
Let’s ask a big brain about this. Florentine philosopher-statesman Niccolò Machiavelli acknowledges the defects in liberal governing arrangements, yet claims republics still command an enormous advantage: the ability to change out key leadership when change to the surroundings warrants. The “natural bent” of human character, maintains Machiavelli, is to keep doing what worked before. Individuals find it nigh on impossible to alter their natures, so they may thrive in one setting yet falter in another. But a republic can change out one leader whose predispositions fit the times for another suited to a new normal.
Rome, Machiavelli’s go-to example, could appoint Fabius “the Delayer” to mastermind defensive operations against the Carthaginian warlord Hannibal while Rome slowly—glacially—got its military act together. Once Fabius and company had fought Hannibal to a standstill in Italy, the city replaced Fabius with the brash Scipio Africanus to carry the war across the Mediterranean to Carthage, assaulting the problem at its source.
Fabius couldn’t overcome his defensive proclivities; Scipio didn’t need to overcome his offensive proclivities because they aligned with times friendly to offensive action. Judging from republican Rome, then, a liberal society should prove more adaptive than an oligarchy or tyranny. Writes the great Niccolò, a republic enjoys the luxury of tapping “the diversity of the genius” of its citizenry. An authoritarian regime, by contrast, finds it tough to change out obsolescent leadership with leadership that conforms to the times. That’s why it’s authoritarian.
The United States and Taiwan have the opportunity to refresh their leadership through periodic elections. Would China’s Communist leadership summon the wisdom gumption to replace President Xi should the strategic setting change around China?
Doubtful. Maybe Xi is the exception to the Machiavellian rule, an enlightened despot blessed with a supple worldview. Those do come along from time to time. The coming years will put that proposition to the test. Unless Machiavelli is wrong about intractable human nature, though, China will find itself behind the times sooner or later. Heck, maybe it already has. Take a gander at China’s invasion threat through the Machiavellian lens we’ve been grinding. Why act so overbearing in cross-Strait affairs?
Hubris constitutes one potential answer. The belief that History is China’s ally predisposes Chinese Communist Party potentates to think in linear terms. China’s upward trajectory will only persist into the future, uninterrupted and uninterruptible, while America suffers terminal decline as a global superpower. If so, Beijing can lord it over Washington and Taipei without fretting overmuch about blowback for its overbearing conduct.
But what if the United States and Taiwan defy its threat to unlimber the sword? Indeed, they might do so. Putting an opponent on the spot in front of his constituents brings pressure on him to act, lest he look weak and feckless. President Tsai is in a tough spot, as the overseer of a small island nation in the shadow of a giant, predatory neighbor. She can do little more than condemn China for not understanding democracy and injuring her countrymen’s feelings. This will sway few on the mainland.
President Trump has options, though, and he’s shown himself to be a gambler. He may well direct the Pentagon to arrange ship visits to Taiwan—and dare China to launch a cross-Strait war, rife with hazards, costs and human suffering, in reply to so trivial a provocation. And by going on record promising to invade, China will have bound itself to fulfill its threat—lest it, in turn, look weak and feckless.
Bad move. Setting this cycle of challenge and reply in motion suggests China has fallen out of sync with the times. So does its historical determinism. Great powers do bounce back from lulls in their fortunes. Great Britain plummeted from unprecedented triumph in the Seven Years’ War (1756–63) to a low point in the War of American Independence (1776–83), then regenerated its strength to triumph in the wars against Revolutionary and Napoleonic France (1792–1815), and then went on to dominate world affairs for a century. And it started its comeback in a moment. Its Royal Navy lost big to the French Navy at the Battle of the Virginia Capes (1781), then crushed that same French fleet in the Caribbean Sea a year later—and never looked back.
Ancient Greeks taught that the gods, or Fate, punished hubris. Overweening pride goes before a fall. China’s leaders may want to dust off their Herodotus, Sophocles, or Thucydides.
It’s also worth considering an alternative explanation for Chinese bluster: fear. Suppose China’s party leaders haven’t fallen behind the times, or that they’ve escaped the Machiavellian verdict on authoritarian regimes and can adapt to fluid circumstances. If so, they may recognize that Taiwan defines itself less and less as Chinese and more as Taiwanese, and thus inclines more and more toward formal independence from the mainland. They may fear the Trump administration will make good on its vow to rejuvenate the U.S. military—including in East Asia. Or they may know something we don’t about China’s internal political, economic, or social conditions—something that could set back China’s rise from within.
In short, time may foreclose opportunity. Party leaders may calculate they must act now, or never, to keep Taiwan from bolting from the cross-Strait status quo, and to dissuade the United States from coming to its aid. Which Chinese motive should worry Taiwan, America and Asians more: hubris or fear? Fear, I’d say. It puts Beijing on a deadline for action, whereas hubris involves assuming the future inevitably belongs to China. Fear is in a hurry, that is, whereas hubris primes the prideful to believe they can act at leisure.
A bit of advice for Beijing and a bit for Washington, worth what you paid for it. For China, before resorting to public threats, heed the first part of Theodore Roosevelt’s famous injunction: “speak softly” while toting a big stick if you hope to get your way in world politics. Behind-the-scenes diplomacy should constitute your strategy of first resort. Forbearance—declining to compel foreign leaders to choose between confrontation and humiliation—supplies both China’s interlocutors and China a face-saving exit from encounters that could turn ugly.