[This piece was also posted at Asia Times Online on March 18, 2014. It can be reposted as long as China Matters is credited and a link provided.]
A certain amount of attention, and rightly so, has been paid to the discomfiture of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) with Crimea unilaterally declaring independence from Ukraine. The PRC abstained on the UN Security Council condemnation of the vote, instead of supporting Russia with a “nay”. The PRC possesses or covets several significant territories whose inhabitants, if given the opportunity, might eagerly defy the One China policy to announce, organize, and pass a referendum of independence: Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Inner Mongolia, Macau, and Taiwan.
Certainly, the PRC would have preferred that Russia persisted in its relatively principled and consistent opposition to the unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo (which the West engineered at the expense of Serbian sovereignty and in order to get around footdragging by Russia on the adoption of a Kosovo constitution that would have led to independence anyway in pretty short order). Instead, Russian diplomats cited that instance of unilateral Western high-handedness to excuse the shenanigans of Crimea’s parliament.
However, the PRC regime has more reason to worry about what happened in Kiev, not Sevastopol.
In Kiev, the United States took another bite out of the regime change apple, openly abetting the overthrow of a democratically elected president, the hapless and hopelessly corrupt Viktor Yanukovych.
Back on February 19, the Ukrainian government was slogging toward an EU-brokered agreement with the opposition for a transitional government and an early presidential election. I tweeted that it looked like the US had overreached itself and had no Plan B to deal with the unwelcome contingency of peace breaking out. I sarcastically opined that US Beltway think tanks were already hard at work pitching studies on how America could find a way to leap the troublesome gap in regime change tactics from non-violent NGO subversion to direct violent overthrow a la Libya in the name of “responsibility to protect”.
Well, it looks like the United States did have a Plan B, one that relied on violent provocateurs to undermine the agreement and accelerate the collapse of the government. The US government, in the person of Victoria Nuland, the assistant secretary of state for Europe, apparently laid the foundations for the coup by threatening Ukraine’s oligarchs with Western financial sanctions in case the demonstrations turned violent – and the demonstrations did turn violent as extremists among the demonstrators declared the EU-brokered truce “a ruse” and charged police lines. The snipers did their bloody work, oligarch-backed deputies bailed from Yanukovych’s Party of Regions en masse, Yanukovych fled, and the EU’s transition agreement ended up in the trash together with any Russian influence in the new regime.
The sinister possibility that the anti-Yanukovych forces did not passively rely on a violent reaction by Ukraine’s embattled security forces is, of course, is implied by the intercepted phone call between Estonia’s Foreign Minister, Urmass Paets, and the EU’s Catherine Ashton, in which Paets passed on suspicion from the opposition that the massacres carried out by snipers in Maidan were the work of a faction in “the new coalition”, not Yanukovych. A good indication of the seriousness of these allegations is the unwillingness of Kiev, Western governments and the Western press to investigate them beyond eliciting some dodgy denials and reporting the rather dubious allegation by the Ukraine government that the snipers were actually sent by Russia in order to justify an invasion.
The extent that the United States has gone all-in on the current Ukrainian government is also noteworthy. No attempt to put some space between the United States and the new government, even for the sake of tactical convenience in order to leave some geopolitical space for playing “honest broker” with Russia. Instead it’s We Are All Ukrainians, accompanied by a rather flailing and dishonest attempt to paper over the dubious legality of the new regime’s accession to power and, also, heroic efforts in the press to either minimize the healthy fascist component of the new gang or blame the Russians for its emergence.
The fact that the United States is also encouraging a similar campaign against a legitimately elected but anti-American and vulnerable government in Venezuela is another indication that the Ukraine coup itself (if not the befuddled response to the subsequent Russian pushback) was a matter of careful design, and not backed into by the Obama administration in a fit of improvisation.
Another smoking gun, as it were, concerning Western tactics, was the appearance at Maidan of Mikhael Khodorkovsky. Khodorkovsky had served 10 years in prison in Russia on politically motivated tax charges. Putin, in a decision he might now be regretting, pardoned Khodorkovsky on the eve of the Sochi Olympic Games in order to burnish Russia’s soft power image, in return from an undertaking by Khodorkovsky to abstain from politics.
No dice, as Khodorkovsky, his person and personal wealth by now safely ensconced in Switzerland, assured Kievans and a sizable crowd of Western journalists that not all Russians supported the adventure in Crimea, declared “Ukraine must become a European state” and drew a direct parallel between the doomed reign of Yanukovych and Putin’s authoritarian ways.
It should be noted that Khodorkovsky probably owed his incarceration both to his intention to challenge Putin politically 10 years ago and his willingness to further his agenda by advancing US geopolitical interests through the attempted sale of a 25% share of Yukos, at the time Russia’s largest oil empire, to a consortium of ExxonMobil and Chevron Texaco. In 2003, I opined that Khodorkovsky’s arrest thwarted hopes of the Bush administration and neo-conservatives (both of whom vociferously agitated for his release) that he would provide decisive influence for the US both to Russian politics and in the strategic issue of the export of Russia’s energy surplus. Today, Khodorkovsky looks and sounds like he is auditioning for the role of “good oligarch” who is expected help guide (and fund) Russia to a better, de-Putinized, pro-Western tomorrow.
Given the stampede of the oligarchs in Ukraine anxious to protect their Western wealth from sanctions by cooperating with the United States, it is not too surprising that Putin promptly put the Russian opposition/activist community on lockdown, to try to ensure that there would be no Maidan Squares-ie no determined, NGO-funded, Western-supported, Khodorkovsky-encouraged, increasingly confrontational, goon-infiltrated opposition chipping away at the patience of security forces, the legitimacy of the government, and the resolve of key oligarchs while Western governments hooted from the sidelines and threatened sanctions-in Moscow.
Same message received, I expect, in the People’s Republic of China.
As part of the crackdown on social and political activism and free expression that the PRC’s Xi Jinping has instituted to help him navigate through some treacherous economic waters, the PRC has shown itself markedly hostile to local millionaires, particularly those who have a big following on the Chinese microblogging platforms and display some kind of independent political posture and social conscience.
With Ukraine and Venezuela apparently demonstrating the US determination to exploit popular discontent, political opposition, and oligarch anxiety to overthrow target regimes, it would not be surprising if the PRC regime decides it has more pressing priorities than expanding political participation, loosening the leash on opposition parties, allowing increased freedom of expression, or assisting the journalists of Western prestige media in their practice of adversarial soft power reporting inside China.
The real Asian game, however, might not be inside the People’s Republic of China, where the regime still keeps a firm thumb on things. The PRC’s most apparent vulnerability to a Ukraine-style coup is on Taiwan.
Taiwan de jure independence is an existential threat to the PRC. That is not because the PRC would “lose” the province of Taiwan which is de facto independent and enmeshed in an intimate economic relationship with the mainland.
It is because if Taiwan, a Han Chinese bastion, formally disassociated itself from the PRC, and especially if/because independence was understood to represent a repudiation of US and Western adherence to the One China policy, PRC sovereignty would be fair game for the regime’s adversaries inside and outside of China, and ethnic regions such as Tibet would be emboldened to demand independence themselves.
Today, the PRC leadership’s attention is unhappily focused on Taiwan, the dismal approval numbers of the mainland-friendly president, Ma Ying-jeou, (18%) and the possibility that he will be replaced by someone from the indigene-heavy independence-inclined Democratic People’s Party in the 2016 election.
As circumstances and polls permit, the DPP dabbles in calls for independence-friendly initiatives as a matter of principle and in order to fire up the base.
So far one DPP candidate, Chen Shui-bian, has been elected, and served two terms from 2000 to 2008. (As part of Taiwan’s democratic transition, a native Taiwanese and ardent nationalist, Lee Tenghui, was made president as chairman of the KMT in 1988. After leaving office in 2000, he became a fixture in the independence movement). When Chen Shuibian took office for his second term in 2004, he flirted with a referendum constitutional reform (which would have inched Taiwan toward a more lawyerly version of independence) until he was dissuaded by the US government.
Actually, he was dissuaded by secretary of state Colin Powell, only after Powell was able to gain the upper hand over that enthusiastic pot-stirrer, creative destroyer, and regime-changer, vice president Dick Cheney. Lawrence Wilkerson, a senior staffer with Powell, told the story to Jeff Stein of Congress Quarterly:
“The Defense Department, with Feith, Cambone, Wolfowitz [and] Rumsfeld, was dispatching a person to Taiwan every week…essentially to tell Chen Shui-bian … that independence was a good thing.”
Wilkerson said Powell would then dispatch his own envoy “right behind that guy, every time they sent somebody, to disabuse the entire Taiwanese national security apparatus of what they’d been told by the Defense Department”.
“This went on”, he said of the pro-independence efforts, “until George Bush weighed in and told Rumsfeld to cease and desist [and] told him multiple times to re-establish military-to-military relations with China”.
Wilkerson’s account was supported by Douglas Paal, former head of the American Institute in Taiwan, the de facto US embassy in Taipei.
“In the early years of the Bush administration”, Paal said by e-mail last week, “there was a problem with mixed signals to Taiwan from Washington. This was most notably captured in the statements and actions of Therese Shaheen, the former AIT [American Institute in Taiwan] chair, which ultimately led to her departure”.
Sheehan was the previous head of AIT – and was married to Larry DeRita, Rumsfeld’s chief press flack at the Pentagon. She used her bully pulpit to push for Taiwan independence and support the credibility of the DoD approach until Colin Powell demanded her resignation and she was removed in 2004.
So, chalk up US support for the One China doctrine as a “sometime thing”, to paraphrase George Gershwin. As the anecdote quoted above demonstrates, US allegiance to the One China principle is, as most of our undertakings with our geopolitical adversaries, conditional, laden with formal and unspoken caveats, and ripe to be discarded once a geopolitical opportunity is perceived.
Under current circumstances majority opinion in Taiwan does not favor de jure independence (or, for that matter, unification); despite the dismal personal poll numbers for Ma, the KMT’s engagement-friendly and independence-averse policy with the PRC is favored by a majority of voters.
But judging by events in Kiev, the US appears to be increasingly unwilling to respect democratically expressed preferences (or ambivalence) when it sees an opportunity to roll up a geopolitical win against an important adversary. Any window of opportunity for the United States in the matter of the People’s Republic of China may, in fact, be fleeting.
In the United States, I detect a frustration that extends up to the Oval Office with the slipperiness of the PRC as a top-tier strategic competitor. The PRC has become bigger and more threatening and harder to lick; at the same time it has persisted with has its policy of bobbing and weaving, avoiding direct conflict with the United States and thereby denied the US. the opportunity to wield its unmatched military power in order to put the PRC in its place and confirm America’s place at the top of the Asian hierarchy.
At some uncomfortably close date, the PRC will be strong enough and the US protestations of resolve and capability will be suspect enough that front-line states like Japan and the Philippines and Vietnam will seek their own, independent mix of confrontation and accommodation with the PRC while US leadership is increasingly honored “in the breech”.
One of the awkward truths of US China policy is that it appears to be increasingly driven by an anxiety that the PRC is becoming stronger and more aggressive, and the United States is under a certain amount of pressure to make a move to cut China down to size “before it’s too late”.
If the United States-either the Obama administration or the even more confrontational outfit that will take over if, as expected, Hillary Clinton claims the presidency in 2016-wants to stick it to the PRC, quickly and on the most favorable terms, and despite the PRC’s determination to avoid a direct contest with the United States-Beijing’s key point of vulnerability is Taiwan.
With the precedent of Ukraine, let’s say that Ma Ying-jeou and the KMT decide to insulate Taiwan-mainland relations from the possibility of a KMT defeat in the 2016 polls and accelerate the development of cross-strait ties. This shall not stand! Declare the hard-core independence militants. Crowds appear before the presidential palace and refuse to disperse until their demands-maybe for reduction of cross-strait ties, maybe for a new unity government, maybe for a referendum on independence-are met. In Chen Shuibian, currently about halfway through a twenty-year sentence for corruption, there is even an imprisoned leader whose release could be demanded. Things get violent as the government, with its approvals hovering near single digits, encounters angry defiance as it tries to put an end to the crisis.
Taiwanese yearning for democracy and freedom outside the baleful shadow of communist China becomes a cause celebre. NGOs, politicians, celebrities, journalists, and money from the West and Japan come in. Japan, in particular, remembers its locally very popular history as the colonial ruler of Taiwan from 1895 until 1945, and offers moral and tangible support to the markedly pro-Japanese and anti-PRC elements in the Democratic People’s Party.
Recall that the President Lee Teng-hui, a fluent Japanese speaker from colonial days, has retained close ties to Japan, Shintaro Ishihara, and Japan’s right wing; after he left office, Lee visited Japan and made a pilgrimage to Yasukuni where his brother, who died in Japanese colonial service, is enshrined. Recall also that the DPP as a whole has little patience with PRC claims over the Senkakus; for that matter, Lee in fact stated that they belong to Japan.
In February 2013, the chairman of the DPP (and presumptive 2016 presidential candidate Su Tseng-chang) roiled relations with the mainland by visiting Japan to hail the Taiwan-Japan bilateral partnership as members of a democratic alliance, which would make the Asia-Pacific a region of security, stability and prosperity. Under unfavorable scrutiny, Su was compelled to avoid a meeting with nationalist firebrand and long-time friend of Taiwan Shintaro Ishihara, but one can safely say that Japan is prepared to give the DPP a favorable hearing if things turn ugly with the mainland.
Back to our scenario. Somehow, as in Ukraine, the elected government is delegitimized by some fatal combination of violence, disunity, and ineptitude, driven from office, and replaced by a new coalition, which declares undying loyalty to liberal democracy and implores diplomatic recognition and military and economic support from the West and the Asian democracies.
And it declares independence. And the United States and Japan, instead of sticking with the pragmatic precedent of US-Taiwan-PRC relations, honoring the One China policy and screwing over the Republic of China once again, decide to seize this once in a lifetime opportunity to force the PRC into a crisis on favorable terms…and they recognize the independent Republic of China.
In the best case, PRC backs down and sees its clout and prestige diminished. In the worst case…well, the United States is remarkably cavalier about the consequences of its strategic gambits, especially since the direct human costs are borne largely by America’s unlucky local adversaries and allies.
Remarkably, J Michael Cole, a defense journalist in Taipei who used to work at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, has already played with this idea in the National Journal.
He starts his scenario with a domestic political crisis, in what looks like a conscious parallel between Yanukovych’s attempt to tilt toward Russia and Ma Ying-jeou’s initiatives on cross-strait ties:
What is truly worrying when it comes to Taiwan is the fact that these developments occur at a time of intensifying Chinese pressure on Taipei, which is being compelled into signing various agreements that risk being detrimental to Taiwan’s ability to retain its sovereign status.
Facing elevated opposition by legislators and civil society, the Ma administration has hardened its line with increased reliance on law enforcement to counter peaceful protesters and has frequently made a travesty of public hearings and other mechanisms associated with liberal democracies. This, in turn, has served to exacerbate frustrations within the country, with possible repercussions for social stability.
[G]rowing disillusionment with political institutions and heightened fears that current trends could curtail their ability to determine their destiny could eventually compel Taiwanese to take action which risks destabilizing the government. Recent incidents, such as the crashing of a thirty-five-tonne truck into the Presidential Office by a disgruntled former Air Force officer, are a sign that things are coming to a boil, with escalation all the more likely between now and 2016, when the next presidential elections are scheduled.
Should Taiwanese decide that their country’s democracy is no longer sufficient to protect their interests and adopt nonpeaceful means to resolve the matter, the resulting instability would provide Chinese with justification to intervene militarily.
Cole echoes the “snipers enabled Russian invasion” interpretation of the chaos in Ukraine, and takes the tack that the PRC would encourage violent subversion, perhaps through a pro-mainland gangster, Chang An-le, in order to give it an excuse to invade while Democracy, Freedom, and the Seventh Fleet stand cravenly to one side. My personal feeling re Chang is that Beijing is sponsoring a pro-unification goon squad so anti-independence politicians can draw on a reserve of street muscle to provide a riposte to the more radical independence activists, who rely on street protests and stunts like pulling down a statue of Sun Yat-sen in Tainan City for political traction.
It is possible that the PRC, faced with the prospect of the DPP winning the presidency in 2016, might take the momentous step of fomenting political chaos in Taiwan, assume US fecklessness, and invade. But I should say that the PRC, based on its previous experience with the Chen Shuibian regime, is more likely to believe it can manage the awkwardness with a DPP regime through the usual mix of threats and inducements-if it believes that the US will uphold the One China policy.
In contrast to Cole’s opinion (and more in keeping, I might say, with the drift of his scenario and the propensity for mischief displayed by China hawks in the US), I think a more likely scenario for violent political unrest in Taiwan is that pro-independence forces, if egged on by the United States and Japan with the promise of recognition, might foment a political crisis in Taiwan, overwhelm the current government, declare independence, and dare the PRC to respond. That’s pretty much what happened in Ukraine.
A Taiwan declaration of independence backed by Japan and the United States would force an existential choice on the PRC: does it swallow the humiliation of backing down on Taiwan, revealing itself to be a paper tiger in front of its Asian interlocutors? Or does it make good on its bluster and launch an attack to subjugate Taiwan?
Time will tell.
But it doesn’t matter who you think the bad guy would be; whether you think the PRC would take the enormous geopolitical risk of fomenting chaos in Taiwan in order to justify an invasion, or if you think the United States would roll the dice on its future in Asia by egging on pro-independence radicals in Taipei, or you simply hope that nobody starts World War III during your lifetime…
Any way … consider Taiwan in play.
1. See here
2.See Visiting Su touts closer ties with Japan, Taipei Times, Feb 5, 2013.
3. See Taiwan Watching Crimea with Nervous Eye Toward Beijing, The National Interest, March 14, 2014.