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Historian Alfred McCoy: As Tensions Rise over Taiwan, U.S. & China “Edging Ever Closer” to War

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U.S. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines is calling China the “most consequential threat” to U.S. national security. Meanwhile, the Chinese parliament has unanimously voted to give Xi Jinping a third five-year term as president. On Monday, Xi directly accused the United States of suppressing China’s development, stating, “Western countries — led by the U.S. — have implemented all-round containment, encirclement and suppression against us.” Both countries are beefing up their military presence along China’s naval borders, and President Biden has made repeated remarks that the U.S. would defend Taiwan militarily if it was attacked by China — statements backed by $619 million in high-tech arms sales to Taiwan. To make sense of fraying U.S.-China relations and rising tensions over Taiwan, we are joined by Alfred McCoy, history professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who examines the developments in his latest piece, headlined “At the Brink of War in the Pacific?”

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The Chinese parliament has unanimously voted to give Xi Jinping a third five-year term as president. Today’s vote comes just months after China’s Communist Party formally reelected Xi Jinping to the party’s general secretary for another five years.

This comes as tensions continue to escalate between the United States and China, in part over Taiwan. On Thursday, U.S. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told senators China poses the “most consequential threat” to U.S. national security.

AVRIL HAINES: In brief, the CCP represents both the leading and most consequential threat to U.S. national security and leadership globally, and its intelligence-specific ambitions and capabilities make it for us our most serious and consequential intelligence rival. During the past year, the threat has been additionally complicated by a deepening collaboration with Russia, which also remains an area, obviously, of intense focus for the intelligence community.

AMY GOODMAN: When asked if the United States would defend Taiwan militarily, Haines said, quote, “I think it’s clear to the Chinese what our position is, based on the president’s comments.” She was referring to Biden’s repeated remarks that the U.S. would defend Taiwan militarily if China attacked the territory.

Last week, the Biden administration approved $619 million in high-tech arms sales to Taiwan, including new missiles for its F-16 fighter jets. China’s new foreign minister, Qin Gang, recently condemned the U.S. arming of Taiwan.

QIN GANG: [translated] The Chinese people have every right to ask: Why does the U.S. talk at length about respecting sovereignty and territorial integrity on Ukraine while disrespecting China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity on the Taiwan question? Why does the U.S. ask China not to provide weapons to Russia while it keeps selling arms to Taiwan?

AMY GOODMAN: To look more at U.S.-China relations and the rising tensions over Taiwan, we’re joined by Alfred McCoy, history professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His most recent book is titled To Govern the Globe: World Orders and Catastrophic Change. His new piece for TomDispatch is headlined “At the Brink of War in the Pacific?”

Professor McCoy, welcome back to Democracy Now! Well, let’s put that question to you. Is the U.S. at the brink of war in the Pacific with China?

ALFRED McCOY: Good morning, Amy.

We’re edging ever closer to that brink. Yes, we are. Look, when — history teaches us one thing. As Barbara Tuchman said in her famous book, The Guns of August, referring to August of 1914, trying to explain how the great powers fought a war that nobody won, World War I, and basically what she found was that by preparing for war, that the powers inclined themselves. They increased the probability that war would come. And from the very apex of power in both Beijing and Washington, all the way down the chain of command, both powers are preparing for war. The leaders are making statements, and their commanders are falling in line with preparations for war. And that greatly increases the probability of conflict breaking out.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Alfred McCoy, I wanted to ask you, in terms of this whole issue — and we’re seeing it portrayed repeatedly in the U.S. press as China as a rising aggressive power in the world. Now, I confess I have a lot of problems understanding this, when you look at the record. From what I can tell, the last three times that China’s military went outside of its borders were back in the 1950s and '60s. And there was Korea. There was a brief war in ’62 with India, a border war that was a 1979 border war with Vietnam that China participated in. Meanwhile, since that time, by my count, the United States invaded Grenada in ’83; in 1990, Panama; in 1991, the first Gulf War; in 1999, the attack, the air war on Serbia; in 2001, Afghanistan; in 2003, Iraq. And there's the Libya bombings, the U.S. intervention in Syria. So, how is China being portrayed by our media and by the Western powers as the aggressive in the world these days?

ALFRED McCOY: The United States has been the dominant power in the world for 75 years. For the past 30 years, we’ve essentially been the world’s sole superpower. So, from that perspective, any challenge is a serious challenge. And China is the first power that’s become capable of mounting that challenge.

And in that sort of process of U.S. hegemony, the threat to Taiwan is serious. One of the keys to American global power has been what the Chinese call the first island chain; we call it the Pacific literal. At the start of the Cold War back in the 1950s, the United States had five mutual security agreements, starting in Japan, going through South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines and Australia. And that is the fulcrum of U.S. global power, enabling the United States to defend one continent, North America, and dominate another, the vast continent of Eurasia. And so, apart from everything else, the loss of Taiwan would break that geopolitical chain, that is the fulcrum for U.S. global defense, and threaten to push the United States back to what’s called the second island chain, essentially running from Japan through Guam and further south.

And so, from a geopolitical perspective, China represents — both, first of all, by its sheer size of its military, the second largest, the size of its economy, by many estimations now the world’s largest — a major threat, the first real threat to U.S. global power in over 30 years.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But hasn’t the United States, to a large degree, basically helped the enormous economic development of China by all of the U.S. companies that made China the manufacturing center of the world, invested there, built their factories there, and used the cheap products of China to keep providing a better standard of living for people in the West? So, isn’t the U.S., in a sense, responsible in large degree for this economic rise of China?

ALFRED McCOY: Well, first of all, the Chinese have done it themselves. But what the United States has done is admitted China as a full member of the global economy. Look, when the history of the American empire is written and scholars try and find some of the key decisions that Americans made, American leaders made, that doomed the U.S. empire to defeat, one of the things they’re going to, I think, focus on is, back in 2001, there was a bipartisan decision by leaders of both Republican and Democratic Party to admit China to the World Trade Organization.

Now, this was essentially an organization that mediated trade among comparable industrial powers. And for the first time, this enormous developing nation was admitted to the World Trade Organization as a full trading partner. And they then used it kind of like Pac-Man to just gobble up the world’s industry. And now China is the world’s premier industrial power, with twice the industrial capacity of the United States, larger than any other industrial power on the planet. And that’s largely due to the admission of China to the World Trade Organization.

At the time it was done, Washington, in a supreme act of imperial hubris, thought that China would play the global game by America’s clearly written rules. All right? That they would become a nice, compliant, cuddly big panda bear China. OK? Our nice little toy that would produce our toys for our economy at low-cost prices. And it clearly hadn’t happened that way. China is a great power. It is arguably the world’s most powerful empire throughout history. And China, from its perspective, is simply recovering its rightful place as the leader of the world.

AMY GOODMAN: So, we wanted to address what’s happened over the last few weeks with these extremely blunt statements of China. The Chinese president, Xi, directly accused the United States of suppressing China’s development, in what The Wall Street Journal described as a, quote, “unusually blunt rebuke of U.S. policy.” Xi said, “Western countries — led by the U.S. — have implemented all-round containment, encirclement and suppression against us, bringing unprecedentedly severe challenges to our country’s development.”

Xi’s comments came just days after the Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a nearly 4,000-word report”:https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/wjbxw/202302/t20230220_11027664.html condemning U.S. foreign policy since the end of World War II. The Chinese Foreign Ministry’s report began, “Since becoming the world’s most powerful country after the two world wars and the Cold War, the United States has acted more boldly to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries, pursue, maintain and abuse hegemony, advance subversion and infiltration, and willfully wage wars, bringing harm to the international community.”

The Chinese Foreign Ministry went on to say about the U.S., quote, “It has overstretched the concept of national security, abused export controls and forced unilateral sanctions upon others. It has taken a selective approach to international law and rules, utilizing or discarding them as it sees fit, and has sought to impose rules that serve its own interests in the name of upholding a 'rules-based international order.'”

So, there’s a lot there — the new foreign minister, the Foreign Ministry statement, Xi himself now saying that they’re going to increase their military budget by something like 7% this year.

ALFRED McCOY: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about this change and how you see this playing out.

ALFRED McCOY: Sure. We haven’t seen rhetoric — anti-American rhetoric coming from Beijing really since the early 1960s, when Mao Zedong became furious with Moscow, because during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, China wanted Russia to launch nuclear strikes on the United States from its missile installations in Cuba. And that was one of the contributing factors, among many, but still one contributing factor to the final rupture between China and Russia that caused the famous Sino-Soviet split. So, we haven’t seen rhetoric like this in 60 years. OK? Ever since the United States recognized China in 1979 diplomatically, generally the rhetoric has been very polite, very circumscribed.

So, this is all part of the rising tensions over Taiwan. In many ways, when you unpack most of those Chinese statements, what you find is what they’re really talking about is the U.S. is challenging China’s claim to Taiwan as being an integral part of the Chinese state. And indeed, President Biden, in one of his four statements last year — in, I think, probably the most provocative statement — said that Taiwan alone should determine its independence. And that was a fundamental rupture on what has been known as the One China policy. When we recognized China diplomatically in 1979, it has been bipartisan U.S. policy, under Republican and Democratic presidents — and you can go through every single one, who said it — all of them were opposed to Taiwan independence. They said there’s one China. The qualifier in that was that the United States did not want the People’s Republic to resolve the issue by force. But the United States — every American president, since the recognition of China over 40 years ago, has been absolutely consistent: Taiwan is a part of China; there is one China. And President Biden’s statement, that Taiwan should determine its own independence, is a real rupture, a real break with that bipartisan foreign policy.

And China has responded in kind. Last October, at the 20th Party Congress, Xi Jinping made, really, a phenomenal statement. He said that the wheels are turning to reunify Taiwan with China. And what he was referring to was these dialectical forces, Marxian dialectical forces, that inevitably mean that Taiwan will become integrated with China. And as the political philosopher Hannah Arendt taught us, that when authoritarian states like China speak in terms of inevitability, that’s when they’re capable of waging — conducting unspeakable atrocities, mass murders, or plunging into unwinnable wars. So, on both sides, we’re seeing very sharp rhetoric that’s part of that process of preparing the United States and China for war over Taiwan.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I wanted to ask you — if such a war were to break out, I’m wondering your sense of the reaction in other parts of the world, especially the Global South, in view of the enormous expenditures that China has made in its Belt and Road Initiative in countries throughout Africa, Latin America, India and other parts of the world. What would — how would the Global South respond to such a conflict?

ALFRED McCOY: Well, first of all, it would depend on the way the war broke out. OK? There are number of think tanks that have been war-gaming a possible U.S.-China war over Taiwan. One scenario is that China would simply impose a customs blockade, saying that this is our sovereign territory and that nobody can sail directly to Taiwan. You have to call first, by aircraft or by ship, on China, or some similar pronouncement, and then ring the island with ships and submarines and aircraft to block all communication. Now, if that were to happen, China could do that very quickly, in a matter of hours. And that would mean the United States, in order to break that blockade, would have to mobilize its fleets from Honolulu and Yokosuka in Japan and sail and attack the Chinese ships, sailing in what they claim to be their own territorial waters.

That would mean that the United States is attacking China. We would, under those circumstances, no matter what we’d say — to the world, we would look like an aggressor. All right? That we’re attacking Chinese ships in what is, by China’s standard, indeed by international standards, China’s territorial waters surrounding Taiwan. And so, right from the start, in the Global South, we would be seen to be an aggressor. We’d probably carry Europe with us under the NATO alliance. But beyond that, it would be very, very difficult diplomatically for the United States.

Now, by contrast, if — the other most extreme scenario is that China launches a lightning, massive amphibious invasion across the Taiwan Strait. China has 2,900 aircraft. They have now the world’s largest navy. They have ample capacity for such an operation. That capacity increases every day. You know, now, in some scenarios, the Taiwan defense probably has about three or four days in it to kind of resist this attack. China has — the People’s Republic of China has over 2,900 aircraft; Taiwan has about 470. So, you know, the Chinese have basically got four aircraft to lose to every one of Taiwan. So —

AMY GOODMAN: Professor McCoy, we have 30 seconds.

ALFRED McCOY: So, basically, what would happen in a war like that, China, if the war went China’s way, they would capture Taiwan before the United States’ main fleet could arrive from Honolulu. And in that case, the United States would again be an aggressor. It would again look like we’re attacking China. And we might face international condemnation for doing that.

AMY GOODMAN: Alfred McCoy, history professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison. His most recent book is titled To Govern the Globe: World Orders and Catastrophic Change. We’ll link to your piece at TomDispatch headlined “At the Brink of War in the Pacific?”

Next up, we speak with progressive Democratic Congressmember Barbara Lee. She was the sole vote against military action in the days after 9/11. Now she’s running for the U.S. Senate. Back in 30 seconds.

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