Among political scholars and commentators, the great sea change in recent years has been the reappraisal of globalisation’s initial promises. Global connectivity has clearly not ushered in the era of peace and stability that Francis Fukuyama once believed would liberate us from history’s tumultuous march. (Fukuyama, 1989) Instead, it has allowed not only ideas, but the fear of disease, migrants, political interference and economic loss to flow freely from territory to territory.
The political scientist Mark Leonard, in his recently published book The Age of Unpeace: How Connectivity Causes Conflict, analyses the failure of globalisation to create lasting peace in a two-part argument. Firstly, he argues, the simple fact that countries are better connected increases the risk of antagonism. Contrary to the idea that overlapping interests between countries in terms of people, trade and regulations will make them feel closer to one another, Leonard argues that this is more likely to lead to unhealthy comparisons and the kind of cultural backlash that provoked Brexit instead. Not averse to treating international relations as a branch of popular psychology, he cites Freud’s theory of the narcissism of small differences: in essence, we loathe those who excessively resemble us and thereby threaten our self-identities (Leonard, 2021). As the United States and China increasingly fear the interference of the other in their societies, all their disputes over who has the right to regulate Didi and Douyin (called TikTok outside China) are like so much squabbling over which partner owns the espresso machine in the run-up to a relationship ‘decoupling’.
Secondly, he shows that globalisation has also created novel tools for exercising influence over other countries. Countries weaponise the very networks that were supposed to bring harmony and concord to exercise their will over others. The examples are endless: Russian interference in the US election through Twitter, Turkey bargaining with the EU by threatening to release its pent-up migrant flows, the US using its control over SWIFT – the system banks use to facilitate international payments – to sanction Iran, and China’s frequent use of trade embargoes to express its discontent. This has created many opportunities for conflict well below the threshold of warfare, leading to a condition that Leonard labels ‘unpeace’ (Leonard, 2021). In contrast to the Cold War, diagnosed by the political scientist John Gaddis as a ‘Long Peace’ for the relative stability created by the existence of two diametrically opposed blocs, the age of unpeace is an ambiguous and shifting world sketched out in silverpoint by the hints and half-promises of its architects (Gaddis, 1986).
Taiwan’s travails: the world’s greatest love affair and the international orphan
Writing this article from a quarantine hotel in Taiwan, I am struck by how well Leonard’s framework applies to the situation of the tiny island. As part of my morning ritual for resurrecting my Mandarin after a summer of not practicing it, I turn on the news each day to see a parade of mask-wearing news anchors and vaccination statistics (they do things a bit differently here). Then, through the linguistic haze, something vaguely catches my attention about mainland China blocking imports of Taiwanese fruits. The camera then switches to show the popularity of Taiwanese custard apples in Japan, implying that the Chinese embargo is something they can overcome, before an official’s head pops up to lament Taiwan’s position as an ‘international orphan’.
This ‘orphan’ status stems from the ‘one-China policy’, originally adopted by both the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on the mainland, as well as the government set up by Chiang Kai-Shek on Taiwan in 1949. Although for the first two decades of its existence Chiang Kai-Shek’s government was recognised as the sole, legitimate representative of China by the US and the majority of its allies (the UK being an exception) for the first two decades of its existence, in 1971 it found itself booted from the United Nations following a resolution pushed by China and its allies(Winkler, 2012). Shortly thereafter began the great love affair between the US and China, as Nixon famously met with Chairman Mao in 1972 and formally recognised the PRC instead of Taiwan in 1979. As the US and Chinese economies intertwined themselves ever tighter, Taiwan found itself left out in the cold, unable to participate in international fora and disempowered to form Free Trade Agreements with WTO signatories (Meltzer, 2014).
Such a strategy on the part of the PRC is a textbook example of the use of economic ties to exercise one’s will, an illustration of the second part of Leonard’s argument. Rather than just threatening one’s enemy with military force, a much more effective strategy by far is to use one’s economic ties to create alliances that may effectively banish them from the community of nations. This is exactly what China did in 1971, where the success of the resolution to remove Taiwan from the General Assembly depended on the support of developing nations that had been cultivated by Chinese investment (Lovell, 2019). Moreover, despite Taiwan’s largely successful attempts to create a distinct economic identity, through specialising in vital manufacturing niches such as semiconductors, it is still dependent on its neighbour across the straits as its largest export market (Meltzer, 2014). It becomes clear that China holds much more in its armoury than mere battleships.
Unusual for an orphan without an adoptive parent, Taiwan has managed to thrive economically. And yet, it has had difficulties in forming attachments. Part of this can be ascribed to the PRC’s deliberate attempts to isolate a neighbour that is too close for comfort (note the narcissism of small differences here). Furthermore, the idea of independence is a contested issue in Taiwan itself, facing particular opposition from Chiang Kai-Shek’s legacy party, the Kuomintang (KMT). Even as the passion between the US and China has soured, and the US is taking a greater interest in safeguarding Taiwan’s international position, this could prove to be a stumbling block. Recent attempts by Taiwan’s ruling Democratic People’s Party (DPP) to pass legislation that would allow the import of American pork, which could have potentially paved the way for a formal trade deal with the US, led KMT opposition members to sling pig entrails across the parliamentary chamber. It got the point across, and Taiwan will hold a referendum in December to resolve the issue (Nachman & Hioe, 2021).
Being able to sign trade deals could be a crucial means for Taiwan to end its isolation and strengthen its position. Aside from a trade deal with the US, one possible avenue is joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). The multilateral trade agreement, formed by Japan out of the tatters of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), had been proposed by the Obama administration but was abandoned under President Trump. Japan has been keen for some time to get Taiwan into the pact, as it is assumed that, once China successfully joins, it will use its veto to block Taiwan’s accession. The DPP however, have been slow to submit an application for fear of upsetting their domestic position (Hille, 2021).
The surprise announcement of the AUKUS pact last week, for the time being centred upon an agreement for the US and the UK to share their nuclear submarine technology with Australia, has thrown things into motion. China responded the following day with an application to join the CPTPP, a bid which, if successful, would make a mockery of the initial raison d’être of the TPP as a trade pact to counter China through its liberal trading standards. As a response to AUKUS, it is a masterstroke (Hille & White, 2021). Although AUKUS may increase the military deterrence China faces in the South China Sea and the Pacific, it does very little to co-opt regional actors and does nothing to address the US’s lack of economic strategy to rival China’s in the region (The Economist, 2021). In one fall stroke, China both potentially blocks Taiwan’s bid for international recognition and strengthens its economic hold on the region.
China’s successful bid is not a foregone conclusion, however. It is unlikely that any of the countries currently in the CPTPP will want to antagonise China by blocking its accession, but some may have conditions of their own. Having borne the brunt of Chinese trade sanctions on exports such as coal, Australia may make the removal of these sanctions a condition for them to not exercise their veto against China’s bid – or it may simply choose to delay China’s accession process. China itself would also have to make significant economic changes to comply with many of the CPTPP’s trade standards, which would be difficult to accomplish in a short time-frame (J. Schott, 2021). That being said, the problem stands that the US needs bolder economic initiatives in the Asia- and Indo-Pacific to supplement its security partnerships such as the Quad and AUKUS.
There is a useful cliché for characterising American and Chinese strategic planning, which Mark Leonard reprises in his book. While the US State Department sees the world like a chessboard, implementing its stratagems in the surgical manner of a predator drone operator, Chinese strategists are more akin to skilled players of the ancient game Go, where the aim is to surround as much territory as possible by linking one’s pieces together. (Leonard, 2021) In a condition of unpeace, where connections are deployed more frequently and fiercely than armaments, the strategy of a Go player may be the wiser of the two. Playing a more active role in setting global trading standards, rather than standing by as China joins the CPTPP, would be a good place for America to begin rebuilding and reinvigorating its greater network influence.
AUKUS reshapes the strategic landscape of the Indo-Pacific. (2021, September). The Economist.
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Gaddis, J. L. (1986). The Long Peace: Elements of Stability in the Postwar International System. The MIT Press.
Hille, K. (2021, September 14). Taiwan’s chances of joining Asia’s trade pact are dwindling. Financial Times.
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