China flexes its muscles, and Taiwan worries

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This article is published in number 42 of Vanity Fair on newsstands until 12 October 2021

In the Taiwan Strait, military provocations increase and tensions rise. Never before have so many Chinese warplanes breached the Taiwanese air identification area – more than one hundred and fifty in a matter of days. But the Chinese bombers do not fly over the cities, they do not make reconnaissance on inhabited centers. They keep away, in the midst of those one hundred and eighty kilometers that separate the coasts of the People’s Republic of China and the island of Taiwan.

And so it almost seems that there are two different versions of this very important geopolitical game: on the one hand, life goes on as if nothing had happened, in Xiamen as in Taichung, the two cities that look at each other on opposite sides of the Strait; on the other, there are the headlines of the international newspapers, the alarmist analyzes, the statements and the threats. Ordinary people, both in China and in Taiwan, have been witnessing this political and most often propaganda ballet for decades. But now something is changing.

Beijing really likes to practice shows of strength: China does not recognize Taiwan or its territoriality, and therefore allows himself to fly where he wants and when he wants in that whole area of ​​the Pacific Ocean. The Taipei government has established a very large aerial identification zone, which covers the entire Strait and includes parts of mainland China. It needs it to monitor everything that flies over its skies and any incoming threats. In addition, an imaginary and unofficial dividing line passes through the center of the Strait: every time a jet crosses that line, there is talk of air raids. China periodically intensifies military exercises and flights around the area, but not only does it against Taiwan, it does so wherever it has territorial claims: on the Himalayan borders, in the South China Sea, in the East China Sea. Since 2010, for example, Beijing has entered the Japanese maritime identification areas around the Senkaku Islands, which China calls Diaoyu. Increase the pressure, try to push the other to make the first move and say: you see? We just defended ourselves. Not by chance, “To subdue the enemy without fighting” is one of the maxims of Sun Tzu’s military strategy.

If the relationship between China and Japan is complicated, the one between China and Taiwan is visceral. At the end of the Chinese Civil War, in 1949, the nationalists led by General Chiang Kai-shek, bent by the conflict against Mao Zedong’s Communist troops, withdrew to the island to prepare for the final counterattack and the reconquest of Chinese territory. The situation crystallized thus: the People’s Republic of China with Beijing as its capital and the Republic of China with Taipei as its capital, divided by the Strait. Chiang Kai-shek’s longed-for return to Mainland China turned into a chimera, hinted only by old nostalgics. Meanwhile, America and the international community, which for decades had only recognized Taiwanese China, began to look towards Beijing. Until the 1970s, Taiwan was part of the United Nations, had embassies around the world, a place of honor among the great of the Earth. But, thanks to the Cold War and the rivalry with the USSR, the policy of the West’s approach to the Republic of Mao prevailed, culminating in the visit of the then President Nixon to China (1972) and the opening of the first diplomatic offices. Taiwan, disowned and isolated on the diplomatic level, obtained a defense treaty as guarantee, with which Washington undertook to intervene if the island was subjected to military aggression. The Mao People’s Republic gained more: the rest of the world was committed to adhering to the principle of “one China”, that is, to no longer recognize the small Pacific island.

Until recently, the phrase that Taipei government officials repeated most often was: China may threaten, but it will never attack. There are too many commercial interests between the two countries, and it would be a gamble even for the world’s second largest economy to start a war that could quickly turn into a conflict between multiple parties, including America. Last week, Taiwanese Defense Minister General Chiu Kuo-cheng also said it would not be in China’s interest to invade Taiwan; but he also added that by 2025 everything could change, Beijing could have the capacity to act quickly, and that in forty years of military career it had never experienced a more tense situation.

The Pacific area suddenly takes center stage in international politics, and one of the reasons is the competition between America and China. Not only is the Dragon no longer a developing country, but it has made a giant leap in quality and now wants to become a hegemonic power that competes with the United States. A few days ago, in a speech broadcast on TV, President Xi Jinping declared that reunification with Taiwan “is inevitable and will be achieved”. Of course, he added, the peaceful road is the one most in line with the interests of the parties involved, but those who oppose it “will have a bad end”. From Taiwan they observed with great attention the moves of Beijing on Hong Kong: the former English colony was an autonomous region, and should have remained so until 2047, according to the agreement with which the United Kingdom returned the city to China in the 1997. Except that the hands of the Chinese Communist Party arrived much earlier, and those guys, accustomed to the freedom that one breathed in the fragrant port, began to protest. The Security Law, which entered into force on 1 July last year, effectively canceled the rule of law and freedom of expression guaranteed by autonomy, and opened prison doors for dozens of activists – those who have not fled elsewhere. One way or another, China has recovered Hong Kong without the international community being able to do anything.

On the other side of the world, in Washington, the “Chinese threat” has become the priority of American foreign policy. Donald Trump’s White Houses and Joe Biden’s on this point move in perfect continuity. Taiwan has once again become the ultimate symbol of democratic resistance to China. This is the real reason why someone now, and for the first time, is really talking about invasion.

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