The Fourth Taiwan Crisis And China’s Strategic Culture

By Anuraag Khaund

THE current Taiwan crisis sparked by the recent visit of Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei on 2 August, 2022 led to the Chinese response consisting of strong worded statements prior to the visit and later military and live missile drills around the island nation. The response was expected given the sensitivity of the issue of Taiwan for China which sees the island as a renegade province and by extension tied to Beijing’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.  However, a closer look in the statements and the actions by Beijing would appear to be following certain tenets of the Chinese strategic culture. The article is an attempt at briefly teasing out the central features of Chinese strategic culture, as outlined by American scholar Andrew Scobell, in the Beijing’s response to Pelosi’s visit.

As per American political scientist Allen Whiting (quoted by Scobell) strategic culture or cultural image refers to ‘the preconceived stereotype of the strategic disposition of another nation, state, or people that is derived from a selective interpretation of history, traditions and self- image’. In other words, the strategic culture of any nation-state is tied to its perception of the past and on this count, China is no different from any other nation. On hearing Chinese strategy, undeniably the most important figure who comes to mind is the 6th century BCE general and strategist Sun Tzu whose classic text The Art of War continues to influence thinking on military strategy and tactics. However, Sun Tzu can be contrasted from other military thinkers in the sense that The Art of War focuses not much on actual military fighting but more on strategies centered around deception and psychological warfare. This can be highlighted from the lines of the text by Sun Tzu who states that ‘The Skilfull Strategist defeats the enemy without doing battle, Captures the city without laying siege Overpowers the enemy state without protracted warfare’. Here, the focus is more on winning without having to or using minimal force as compared to military engagement in the field. This attitude was evident in Mao’s explanation of the First Taiwan Crisis of 1954 to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev by stating that the Chinese shelling of the Quemoy and Matsu islands was to ‘show our (Beijing’s armed) potential’ in order deter the Nationalist government in Taiwan from seeking complete independence in view of the increasing US support to the latter than to occupy the islands− an instance of psychological rather than physical warfare. The recent drills around Taiwan, despite the analogies with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, can be seen as Beijing’s psychological warfare tactics or Sun Tzu ‘s ‘winning without fighting’ strategy at play through an intimidating display of its naval and air power as well as missile strength in order to make the world believe in China’s capacity for military reunification of the island as well as by raising the ante to deter Washington from making similar ‘mistakes’. Yet domestic concerns such as economic slowdown and the public resentment over the Zero- COVID policy and most importantly the upcoming 20th Party Congress in October (important for President Xi Jinping where he would make a bid for an unprecedented third term) would curtail Beijing’s nationalistic ambitions for the time being.

Secondly, Scobell says that the Chinese strategic culture can be described as the ‘Cult of Defense’ given the Chinese perception of their strategic culture being pacifist, non- expansionist and defensive in nature as opposed to the ‘maritime’ colonizing strategic culture of the West (Europe and now, the US). Among the guiding principles for external security listed by Scobell which justify the use of aggression in Chinese strategic culture are the related ideas of ‘Just War’ and ‘National Unification’. The idea of just or righteous war (yizhan) can be traced back to the time of Confucius which refers to wars or battles that are fought for just causes such as against tyranny and oppression as well as protecting the boundaries of Chinese civilization or achieving ‘unification’ as opposed to unjust wars fought for territorial expansion or conquest. Associated with just war is the idea of national unification, which can be traced to the Chinese Century of Humiliation (1842-1949) when the Qing Empire or the ‘Chinese civilization’ was divided into several parts by foreign Western powers and hence ‘renegade provinces’ like Taiwan had to unified with the Chinese nation. Taken together, the achievement of ‘national unification’ with Taiwan justified the use of force if necessary (just war). While statements about military action have not been made explicitly, yet the usage of phrases such as ‘There is but one China in the world, Taiwan is an inalienable part of China’s territory’ and reference to US attempts at ‘obfuscating China’s reunification and… undermining China’s development and re-vitalization’ by Sun Weidong, Beijing’s ambassador to India can be seen as expression of the idea of ‘national unification’ which, as seen earlier justified a ‘just war’ on the part of China (mentioned as ‘necessary countermeasures to ….safeguard sovereignty and territorial integrity). The ‘just’ness of any military action on the part of China or the defensive nature of its actions with Taiwan has also been highlighted by contrasting it with the actions of US who is the ‘biggest destroyer of peace’ as per Sun given its ‘unscrupulous behaviour and retrogressive moves’ in the Taiwan Straits which has put the world at ‘knife’s edge’. At the same time, the US is accused of ‘constantly distorting, obscuring and hollowing out the One- China Principle’ or in other words portrayed as a dishonest power that does not adhere to the 1979 Joint Communique (in other words an unjust power). In addition, Washington has also been accused by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi of acting in ‘bad faith’ and interfering in the ‘internal matter of China’ (Taiwan) as well as using the island ‘to contain China’. Hence, in such a context of the actions of an ‘unjust power’ or aggressor like the United States against the ‘national unification’ of China and Taiwan, Beijing’s ‘just war’ or military drills in the Taiwan Straits is justified as per the Chinese strategic culture.

Finally, the most important aspect of China’s strategic culture is the idea of ‘Active Defense’. Active Defense (jiji fangyu) is a relatively new concept which is marked by the ‘organic integration of offense and defense’ which implies the ‘achievement of the strategic goal of defense by active offense’ or striking first. In other words, as per ‘active defense’, the defense is achieved by the striking the enemy first before the latter could make the first move. While this would amount to ‘offense’, yet the offense in this case was not carried out to capture territory or conquer any country, but to disable the enemy from launching an attack or invasion by first attacking the latter’s capabilities. The idea of ‘active defense’ was used to justify the military offensives against India (1962) and Vietnam (1979) as ‘defensive actions’ notwithstanding the fact that it was Beijing who made the first move. While the concept of ‘Active Defense’ has not been evident in the statements of Wang Yi, Sun Weidong or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China, yet its possible invocation for a ‘military action’ by China against Taiwan cannot be ruled out. Active Defense in the case of Taiwan can be justified by Chinese reference to US’s attempts at ‘playing the ‘Taiwan Card’ and ‘using Taiwan to contain China’ i.e., Washington’s actions which pose a major threat to Chinese security interests thereby necessitating the first strike against the island. At this point, such an idea might appear alarmist or simply hysterical given the domestic costs of such Chinese major military action mentioned above or the ‘responses’ being limited only to show of strength through military drills. Yet, the statements by Xi Jinping about ‘complete reunification of the motherland (which)… will be fulfilled’ and pledge to ‘smash’ any attempts at Taiwanese independence (while stressing for ‘peaceful reunification’) in 2021 as well as the description of the recent Pelosi visit as ‘playing with fire’ by Sun Weidong can be seen as subtle references to Beijing’s intent for use of force, if necessary, in the future. Such future action might be justified by the doctrine of ‘active defense’ if the US continues and deepens its engagement with Taiwan.

While the ideas outlined above might not manifest in near future, yet the increasing ‘wolf-warrior’ or aggressive nature of Chinese diplomacy as well as the actions of current President Xi Jinping who seeks to cement his legacy by achieving ‘complete reunification’ do not entirely rule the possibility. Finally, Sun Tzu had stated that ‘War is a grave affair of the state…a road to survival and extinction (of the state), a matter to be pondered carefully’ and hence ‘The enlightened ruler is prudent; The effective general is cautious….’. In view of current domestic as well as external constraints, China might exercise restraint (ponder carefully) given the high costs of military reunification of Taiwan (matter of survival and extinction) with the Xi regime acting as a ‘prudent ruler’. Yet Sun Tzu’s maxim of the victorious army being ‘victorious first and seek (ing) battle later’ or the application of psychological warfare before military power should not blind us to China’s intent for using the latter when the right time and opportunity arrives.

Views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer 

  • The author is MA Politics and International Relations (PIR), Central University of Gujarat (CUG)

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