Brief #62: Taiwan, debt diplomacy, vaccine diplomacy, Young Pioneers, Clubhouse
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Happy Spring Festival and Lunar New Year! Chinese New Year is a public holiday on Christmas Island, Australia. Yun visited Christmas Island ten years ago and highly recommend it as a travel destination.
1. Taiwan: strategic crisis
In October, we wrote that:
China and the US are moving on a collision course with respect to Taiwan. War is still highly unlikely in the short term, however, given the interests of both sides in avoiding such catastrophe. But we can’t rule out a war started by accidents or miscalculations.
Australian National University academic Brendan Taylor argues that the “prospects for a Taiwan conflict are real and intensifying. However, they are not yet being treated with the seriousness nor the urgency that they deserve.”
We agree: a strategic crisis is building over the Taiwan Straits.
Underlying this crisis is the shifting relative balance of power. The power balance has shifted decisively in Beijing’s favour. Its economic and military ability to coerce Taiwan and deter US intervention has never been so strong. And this power is continuing to grow. Will the US (with Taiwan) still be able to prevail on the battlefield by 2035 or 2050 over a cross-strait conflict? Most probably not.
Another factor underlying this crisis is that all three parties are challenging the status quo. Beijing is upping its coercion of Taiwan through economic, diplomatic and military pressure. Its nationalistic rhetoric has become louder.
In Taiwan, local identity has grown stronger in recent decades. Today, a record number of people in Taiwan regard themselves as “Taiwanese” (64 per cent) rather than only as “Chinese” (2.4 per cent). This has reflected on a political level with Taipei trying to gain more international space for the island nation.
The US has changed gears, from engagement with Beijing to strategic competition. Cross-strait relations are now seen in this new context, and the Taiwan issue will be used to contain Beijing.
In short, the underlying balance of power between the three has changed rapidly along with their relationships to each other and their respective domestic politics.
Some have argued that the US should be willing to fight a war with Beijing over Taiwan. Taiwan is important, they argue, because it’s a falling domino that could unravel US power in Asia. If the US doesn’t defend Taiwan, then it will be discredited in the eyes of its allies.
This was essentially the argument for the US wars in Korea and Vietnam. Yet, the lesson of Vietnam is not one of falling dominos, but rather strategic overreach and exhaustion.
As to the argument about US credibility depending on displaying loyalty to its allies, this may seem intuitive but is actually inaccurate. US allies do not want absolute loyalty, they want the US to act responsibly in their interests. In addition, we should expect the US to abandon its allies when it is in its interest to do so, taking into account the reputational cost of doing so.
Taiwan is a thriving democracy, and its people deserve to determine their own future free from Beijing’s coercion. The US should deter Beijing from using force to unify with Taiwan.
But when the underlying forces change so drastically that the US can no longer deter Beijing, then we believe that it's in the US interest and in the interests of most, if not all, regional countries and US allies, for Washington to not fight a war over Taiwan against Beijing.
This would not be the first time that the US has abandoned Taiwan. The US turned its back on Chiang Kai-shek in the Chinese Civil War that brought Mao and his communists to power. The US did it again when it did not stop the PRC from taking over the UN seat held by the Republic of China in 1971, and officially recognised the PRC in 1979.
Some may argue that this course of action leaves hanging 24 million Taiwanese. Yes, sadly it does. But then how many lives are on the line when China and the US go to war over Taiwan?
2. “Debt trap diplomacy” debunked… again
Research by Acker, Brautigam, and Huang showed that, contrary to the popular narrative of debt trap, “Chinese banks are willing to restructure the terms of existing loans and have never actually seized an asset from any country”. The article found that:
The notion of “debt-trap diplomacy” casts China as a conniving creditor and countries such as Sri Lanka as its credulous victims. On a closer look, however, the situation is far more complex. China’s march outward, like its domestic development, is probing and experimental, a learning process marked by frequent adjustment.
The other side of the debt-trap myth involves debtor countries. Places such as Sri Lanka—or, for that matter, Kenya, Zambia, or Malaysia—are no stranger to geopolitical games. And they’re irked by American views that they’ve been so easily swindled.
This study follows a study published last year by Lee Jones and Shahar Hameiri, who found that:
In Sri Lanka and Malaysia, the two most widely cited ‘victims’ of China’s ‘debt-trap diplomacy’, the most controversial BRI projects were initiated by the recipient governments, which pursued their own domestic agendas. Their debt problems arose mainly from the misconduct of local elites and Western-dominated financial markets.
The theory that China can entrap other countries through debt in order to gain strategic assets does not have solid evidence. Yet this criticism of China’s overseas infrastructure investment and its Belt and Road Initiative is repeated widely by political leaders and commentators, including by the governments of the US, Australia, and Japan. The term “debt trap diplomacy” was first coined by a think tank in India in 2017.
For the “debt trap” to work, China would need to enter project contracts with the expectation that the country would fail to pay off debt. This means China would have to persuade or mislead the recipient country to select projects that are not economically sustainable.
However, the recipient country government probably has better information than China on whether a project is economically sustainable. The more likely scenario would be for a corrupt recipient country government to mislead China into financing a project. And China may be more willing to work with corrupt political elites. The Hambantota port, for example, is in the political district of the then-President of Sri Lanka, Mahindra Rajapaksa.
While corruption is a problem with the recipient country, China’s willingness to work with countries prone to corruption that other lenders tend to avoid can exacerbate the problem of corruption. But it’s unlikely that China would intentionally seek out loss-making ventures in the expectation that it can seize strategic assets in the end. And indeed, evidence shows that it hasn’t happened.
3. Vaccine diplomacy
The global distribution of vaccines will demonstrate the cleavage between the “haves” and the “have nots” in this world. The scramble for vaccines has raised concerns of “vaccine nationalism”, where rich countries hoard the vaccines produced in their jurisdictions while poorer countries have difficulties accessing vaccines. For example, the EU placed export controls on vaccines, which could impact vaccine rollout in even richer countries such as Australia.
The scramble for vaccines mirrors earlier incidents of the scramble for masks.
At the same time, other countries are deploying “vaccine diplomacy” for humanitarian and/or influence purposes. As with most foreign aid, such initiatives serve dual purposes of helping other countries as well as gaining influence. Australia and New Zealand have both pledged to help Pacific Island countries to access vaccines.
China and India are the bigger players in “vaccine diplomacy”. Both countries are manufacturers of vaccines. And both seek to use their domestically manufactured vaccines to increase their influence.
China has joined COVAX and promised many developing countries across the world early access to the Chinese vaccine. COVAX aims to guarantee fair and equitable access to vaccines for every country in the world. Due to the low COVID cases in China compared to countries such as the US, it can afford a slower rollout domestically and give other countries earlier access.
Vaccine diplomacy may yield a positive outcome for global health, assuming all vaccines supplied are of high quality. Competition for influence may mean that poorer countries end up getting earlier access for vaccines.
However, China has also started criticising Western vaccines when promoting its vaccines. Such campaigns may serve to increase vaccine skepticism.
As with many issues around China, how you see China’s actions can largely depend on your biases. If you see China as a strategic competitor, as many in the West do, then what China is doing is “merely” buying influence (at the expense of the “West” or the US). Since influence is zero-sum, China’s actions are then viewed negatively. This kind of framing sometimes fails to acknowledge that most aid, including those by Western countries, are also about buying influence.
On the other hand, if you are a willing recipient of China’s vaccines, then you may see China’s action more positively. Even for those countries in the Global South that are not recipients, competition for influence can bring overall positive benefit for the region. It’s like a marginal seat or swing state in an election — countries can aim to hedge successfully to extract maximum benefit.
4. Young Pioneers of China
The Central Committee released a guideline on strengthening the work of Young Pioneers of China (中共中央关于全面加强新时代少先队工作的意见) last month.
For background, Young Pioneers of China is run by the Communist Youth League, both are the youth wings of the CCP. The difference is that Young Pioneers are for young kids (6 to 14 years old) while the Communist Youth League are for older kids and young adults (14 to 28 years old). Young Pioneers of China has over 100 million members. In some schools, like Yun’s primary school, students are required to join.
Ideological education of the youth is highly important for the CCP. In the words of the new guidance:
Children and youth are the future of our country, the hope of the Chinese nation, and the future of the Party. Our Party has always attached great importance to children and young people, and has always taken the training of children and young people as a strategic and fundamental task to ensure that the red realm will not change colour.
Under the new guidelines, the CCP will intensify its efforts at guiding Young Pioneers and strengthening the institutional infrastructure for that purpose.
The Young Pioneers feed the CCP with new members. And it’s important to indoctrinate and educate them when they are young. Indeed, political and historical education has acquired greater importance for all Chinese youth in recent years as the CCP tightens control over society.
The question of “revolutionary successor” has been a vexing one for successive generations of CCP leaders. For Mao, he thought those born and raised under the red flag of communist China was better qualified to carry on the revolution than the old cadres (tainted with the thinking and habits of the old world). He was severely disappointed by the Red Guards, who were more capable in destroying the order than in exercising political power.
Like Mao, Xi will likely find himself disappointed by China’s youth. This is because the CCP is no longer able to impose its narratives on the youth. China’s youth today are being influenced by many sources, including foreign culture and entertainment.
The CCP will have a hard time competing. That is why it has turned to powerful ethno-nationalist narratives. The risk of relying on such narratives is that younger generations will be more nationalistic than their parents, with effects felt decades in the future. This may in the end constrain CCP’s scope of actions. To illustrate, the effects of the Patriotic Education Campaign that started in the 1990s has wide-reaching and consequential for China’s foreign policy, including on China-Japan relations and cross-strait relations.
Clubhouse, an audio-based social network app, made waves this week. For a brief few days, thousands of PRC citizens were talking to each other and foreigners about a variety of issues, such as cross-strait relations, Xinjiang, human rights, and democracy.
After six days, Beijing blocked access to Clubhouse from Chinese cities. What scared the government was the free flow of information and exchange of views.
Most takes on this saga focus on the unprecedented moment of free discussion, a brief spark showing what an uncensored internet could be like for the Chinese people, and their relationship with the world beyond the Great Fire Wall. Indeed, this saga shows us a tantalising glimpse of a freer China.
But there is another story, perhaps one that is less optimistic. Most Chinese users were among the elite. You had to have an iPhone to use the app, for one. So those that participated in these discussions were probably better educated, cosmopolitan and liberal than the average person in the PRC. On the other hand, the PRC nationalist mobs raging online presents a counter-image, one that points to a China less liberal, and accepting of diverse opinions.
A lonely stranger in a foreign land I'm cast, sore sick for my dears on every festive day.
From On Double Ninth Day Thinking of my Brothers at Home 九月九日憶山東兄弟 by Wang Wei 王維, translation by Wang Baotong 王宝童.
As the Spring Festival is a time for family gathering and reunions, those who are unable to sit down with their family to eat 年夜飯 (New Year’s Eve Dinner) will feel the absence of their loved ones even more. This includes many migrant workers in China, who are prevented from going home. Spring Festival is often the only time in the year they get the opportunity to see their families.
While this poem refers to another festival, the sentiment expressed can be felt by many migrants and displaced people around the world right now. We are thinking of our subscribers who are 獨在異鄉爲異客.
- Lina Benabdallah, Politics of the Past, Promises of the Future, and Images of the Silk Road: The article seeks to unravel the meaning and timing behind the revival and reconstruction of the legacy of Zheng He, as a way of marketing the New Silk Road with values (such as trade, prosperity, cultural exchanges) associated with the Ancient Silk Road. Through analyzing the Belt and Road Initiative marketing materials, official discourses, and other visual materials, the article examines the politics of the past and the political use of nostalgia in foreign policy making.
- Jasmine Hayter, The underappreciation of Classical Chinese idioms: Xi’s climate speech: Classical Chinese quotes are frequently used in speeches by China’s political leaders to give greater depth to the content of their talk as well as to concisely sum up the speaker’s intentions. But the insights they offer rarely see the light of day in international media. In fact, their mistranslation and omission is the norm. The use of a Daoist quote by Xi Jinping in his speech delivered at the Climate Ambition Summit in December 2020 provides us with a vivid illustration.