Qiao Liang: The Taiwan problem puts at stake the fate of the nation, we can’t afford undue haste
US-CHina Perception Monitor May 4, 2020
[Note: On May 3 the US-China Perception Monitor re-posted retired major-general Qiao Liang’s interview for the Chinese language Bauhinia Magazine (2020, Issue 5), which was titled “We shouldn’t dance to America’s tune.” The re-post featured a discussion on the interview which was penned by a reader. This article is Qiao Liang’s reply to that discussion].
“Even though China’s rejuvination will not necessarily be cut short by this one war [over Taiwan], it will definitely make the road ahead difficult. It is not as simple as saying “at worst our modernisation will be pushed back a few years.” The Taiwan problem is not our ‘great task of rejuvinating [the Chinese nation]’ in its entirety - it isn’t even a main part. The main purport of the great task of rejuvinating [the Chinese nation] is (improving) the well-being of (China’s) 1.4 billion people - can getting Taiwan back fulfil this aim? For this reason, for the Chinese people, there is no greater undertaking than realising the rejuvination of the (Chinese) nation. Everything must give way to this great task, including resolving the Taiwan problem.”
After Trump certified the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act in 2019, America tightened the screws on China on the Taiwan issue. Taiwan’s next step yet again became a hot topic of debate among the Chinese people. As an [unofficial measure] of popular opinion, this type of fervent debate is destined to have a political impact. However, no policy can just be based on public opinion, because you need to consider your constraints. The determination or confidence of policy makers comes down to their views on how these constraints can be overcome, and not just [a willingness to] pander to popular opinion.
From public debates on the internet, the way that many Chinese like, or are used to, thinking and discussing problems appears to be to generalise and not pay careful attention to details. On the issue of starting a trade war between the US and China, some say [(mis)quoting Mao Zedong’s statement on the Korean War] “by striking once you can block a hundred punches,” or “when you strike, strike hard.” But how does one strike? What do we strike with? What will be the result? Few people touch on these questions.
The Taiwan problem is the same - some people trump out “If you don’t enter the tiger’s lair you won’t get the tiger cub,” or ‘if we don’t unify [Taiwan with the mainland] now then when will we?” But if you ask them “what is so special about today?” “How do you enter the tiger’s lair and get the cub?” Then they won’t come up with the details. Not thinking about your own or external constraints, beating your chest and making policy decisions on the basis of determination and faith alone (in more cases its a rush of blood to the head) - this might be called loving your country, but it actually harms it.
What are the constraints on policy making? Let’s discuss this by taking the Taiwan problem as an example:
1.As I Chinese soldier I want the world to know that on the back of 20 years of preparations, we are ready at any time to resolve the Taiwan problem militarily. On this point, the world, including America, need not have any doubts. Then why don’t we pull the trigger? This is because we have to measure the costs and benefits and chose the right opportunity. It can’t be denied that in the backdrop of the pandemic the US is in disarray and its military power has contracted, so there is indeed a short window of opportunity for us to resolve the Taiwan problem by force. But unless the pandemic develops to the extent that it takes America down for good, exploiting a tactical window will not be enough to resolve the strategic bind we will face afterwards. So if you want to judge what is the right time or choose the right time, you have to take in the whole picture.
Firstly we have to be clear about what type of moment China is now in and what stage are we in. In a nutshell, we have the rare opportunity for a once-in-a-thousand-year rejuvination; we will be powerful but we are not yet powerful - we are in the stage between accomplishing and not-yet having accomplished [superpower status]. Although we are the number one manufacturer in the world, and the only country in the world that produces every kind of essential goods and resources,* we are also a country whose own resources are insufficient to underpin the needs of our manufacturing industry, and whose own market can’t completely consume the products it manufactures. At this time, external constraints are are to a large degree restricting China’s rise. This is not to mention the fact that the global economy, including China’s, are all under the system of the American dollar. While China has the world’s largest foreign exchange reserves that are up to over US$3 trillion, if you paid attention to the fact that as the pandemic broke out this year, America overissued $6 trillion, its not hard to understand where China and America are different. While China’s economy and the RMB have yet to escape the constraints of the American dollar, or while the global economy and global finance are still under the system of the U.S. dollar system, every one of China’s policy decisions has to consider this chief external constraint. This is not an issue of whether or not you fear America, it is about considering how and to what extent they can harm [us in response to] our every policy decision. Only when you clearly weigh these two points can you know how to exploit opportunities and moderate harm, how to choose the lesser of two evils, and ensure you maximise China’s interests.
Secondly, even though China at the moment is in the midst of a once-in-a-thousand-year rejuvination, is taking back Taiwan a top priority? If not absorbing Taiwan right now means that the rejuvination of China can’t continue, or that all of our past gains will be lost, then, of course, we can only act decisively, do it in one stroke, and be resolved to take it. But what if taking Taiwan now might not happen quickly enough, and we are ensnared and become burdened by it? Will we still steel ourselves to take it at all costs? Looking at the current situation in Taiwan, there is no prospect of unification being achieved through non-military [lit. civil] means, we can only unify Taiwan with China by force. However, the Taiwan problem is not a domestic affair between the mainland and Taiwan - it is clear America will get involved and has the capacity to do so. Although we estimate that America basically won’t directly intervene militarily in the event that we invade Taiwan, indirect intervention is not a possibility or very probable - it is a certainty. What the American military envisages is that as soon as war breaks out in the Taiwan Strait, America shouldn’t directly go to war against China, but should rather combine with other Western nations to direct an embargo and sanctions against China, and using its naval and air supremacy, cut off China’s maritime life-line. This will mean the resources our manufacturing industry needs won’t be imported and we will be unable to export the products we produce. At the same time, they will rupture our capital chain through their financial centres in New York and London. We need to see that while America is beset by a pandemic and a fiscal crises and that its power has been substantially reduced, if it throws everything into implementing these measures it can still succeed.
From this it is not hard to logically deduce the relative weight that should be attached to taking Taiwan and rejuvinating China. Even though China’s rejuvination will not necessarily be cut short by this one war [over Taiwan], it will definitely make the road ahead difficult. It is not as simple as saying “at worst our modernisation will be pushed back a few years.” The Taiwan problem is not our ‘great task of rejuvinating [the Chinese nation]’ in its entirety - it isn’t even a main part. The main purport of the great task of rejuvinating [the Chinese nation] is [improving the] well-being of (China’s) 1.4 billion people - can getting Taiwan back fulfil this aim? For this reason, for the Chinese people, there is no greater undertaking than realising the rejuvination of the (Chinese) nation. Everything must give way to this great task, including resolving the Taiwan problem.
I have said more than once that no matter how much we emphasise that the Taiwan problem pertains to China’s domestic affairs, it remains, in essence, a problem between China and America. Without America’s intervention ‘Taiwan independence’ is a confected problem. With America having their back ‘Taiwan independence’ becomes a threat to China’s sovereignty. Because of that, the crux of resolving the Taiwan problem does not lie in tackling Taiwan independence forces, but lies instead in addressing the comparative strength of China and the U.S.. This is to say that before there is a clear victor in the arm wrestle between America and China, the Taiwan issues can’t be completely resolved. If we force ourselves to confront it [before this time] it will just be a half-baked effort that will create more problems down the road - it will make Taiwan become a heavy burden for us. The moment war starts across the Taiwan Strait, Taiwan will become a desolate island as all capital will be completely drained, its business will all close, and its people will all be unemployed. How much capital will we need to invest to revitalise its economy? How much human resources will be need to send to manage its society? How do you go about managing more than 20 million people who don’t identify with you or who are hostile towards you? Are we to continuously impose military rule? How great will the cost of this be? Would these costs not be a drag on, or even possible the downfall of, the great task of rejuvinating the nation? On the road to rejuvination, should China do its best to travel light - or would it be better to move forward with America and Western pressure coming from the outside, and, domestically, the burden of [rebuilding and managing] Taiwan? Do those who blindly advocate that we make our move now not even take these costs into account?
Thirdly, some people ask that if you say now is not the time, and doing the right thing at the wrong time is a mistake, then when is the right time? As I said earlier - the right time is when the wrestling match between China and America results in a clear winner. Some people don’t want to wait and say that what this means is that we have to wait indefinitely. I say, if we have to wait until some undetermined time in the future then so be it, but we are definitely not sitting around waiting, because if we sit around waiting that day will never come.
If that’s the case, how do we wait? How do you do it in a way that makes America fear something? For example, we should, without hesitating in the slightest, continue expanding China’s supremacy in total productivity in the manufacturing industry; resolutely advance the internationalisation of the RMB so as to offset the dilution and plundering of China’s wealth that is caused by the watering down of the American dollar [i.e., the reserve printing American dollars]; support emerging industries, of which Huawei is a representative, as a starting point to prioritising turning China into a digitalised society; exploit a long-tail supply chain strategy for the military industrial complex to pull along China’s economy and hasten the enhancement of our military’s capabilities; find the most fast tracked and efficient ways to attain resources from overseas so as to reduce China’s resource bottleneck as much as possible. There are many others so I won’t provide an exhaustive list here, but in a nutshell, we need to continuously strengthen China’s competitiveness and reduce as much as possible those external factors that will constrain China’s rise so that the day when it is apparent who has come out on top arrives earlier. At that time, without the American factor (or with that having been greatly reduced), taking back Taiwan will be like as easy as pie and we will take down anyone who stands in our way; lets see who will dare do so!
The problems listed above are not things that can be easily resolved just by military preparedness. At the least, you need to ready yourself on the political and economic front before you can raise your battle flag. On this point, it is obvious that America’s policy makers have always been clear, yet there are some people on our side that may not be clear. Every time there are signs of trouble in the Taiwan Strait righteous indignation is abound and public debate becomes blustering, which creates political pressure. They have no idea that this is exactly what the Americans want. This is exactly the effect the American’s want, and is the reason that Americans want the Taiwan problem to become a ‘problem.’ With this as an entry point, the American government can on each occasion trot out various topics in relation to Taiwan and dig a hole for us, and we jump into that hole each time without thinking. I don’t need to tell you who benefits from this.
So what do we do? Do we continue to let America dig a hole for us to jump into? No. Now is the time to put a stop to this game. China only needs to take concrete action once (I will let the American and Taiwanese authorities guess what that action is); to on one occasion pledge to the Taiwanese people and to the world: Taiwan is within range of China’s so-called ‘big-guns,’ that this is the final truth. [If that happens] the idea of Taiwan independence will certainly die. That will be enough, we can lay off talking all that other rubbish. What will remain to be resolved will be the problem between China and America. We need to learn to respond to America’s bringing up the topic of Taiwan by using the same method to hit back with our own grievances. Only that way can we escape the constraints America has imposed on China resolving the Taiwan problem.
From the very beginning just resolving the Taiwan problem was not difficult - what is difficult is tackling those constraints. If our train of thought can leap out from the confines of these ‘constraints,’ even though they still exist, we won’t be constrained by them, the situation will turn in our favour, the initiative will switch and will gradually come over to China’s side. This train of thought should be the basis and starting point of policy making. In the face of this grave issue which puts at stake the fate of our nation, all the unceasing rhetoric based on passion and hot blood is imprudent and even frivolous. China’s answer sheet should only contain stern, sober and undeniable strength - nothing else.
- the Chinese word used here is 全要素生产国, which is the standard translation for the word Total Factor Productivity (TFP). It is clear from the context, however, that this is not what is being referred to in this passage.