A week before World War II began, 22-year-old JFK was in Berlin after taking a year from Harvard. He used his time to travel to the Middle East as well as working in the US embassies in London and Paris. During his work, he encountered reports that Hitler was preparing for war. He wasn’t fully convinced so he set out on a fact-finding mission to establish the veracity of the reports. As such, he used his father’s network to “speak to officials and diplomats” and made notes on the “gravity of a world in crisis”. This is highlighted in a book “JFK” By Fredrik Logevall.
In Germany, he saw the ferocious Nazi machinery in action but thought war would be irresponsible in light of World War 1. As the propaganda got worse, he wrote a letter to a friend saying Hitler might not be able to pull back from war with the way he is going. When Germany signed a Non-Aggression Pact with the USSR, JFK knew he had to get out of Berlin. It was only a matter of time before war began.
A few days later, he was in the House of Commons listening to then Prime Minister Nevile Chamberlain confirm that Britain was at war with Germany. Chamberlain was angling for peace negotiations with Hitler while Hitler was preparing for battle.
World War II did not come as a surprise to Churchill. He saw Hitler coming and warned the government, but no one believed him. He had seen the storm gathering while the Prime Minister was utterly complacent. He knew how ambitious Hitler was. On account of the war, Churchill became Prime Minister and could not have painted a darker picture when he said, he had nothing to give but blood, sweat and tears. The situation seemed hopeless in all the circumstances, but it was a situation that Churchill was born for.
There were two diametrically opposed visions fighting to shape the world. A Hitler vision designed to dominate every country to satisfy his delusions of grandeur and a commonwealth vision submitted by Churchill.
SOUTH CHINA SEA
75 years after World War II, it seems there is a dangerous storm gathering in the Indo Pacific involving the world’s superpowers. 40% of trade goes through the Straits of Malacca and up to a third goes through the South China Sea. It is the busiest shipping lane in the world, and it is rich in oil, gas and fish. It seems China wants control of the shipping lane and other superpowers say they have rights to the shipping lane too. The US trade in the region is worth over $100 billion a year. Annually, 3.5 trillion worth of trade passes through the South China Sea.
Shipping laws have been in force for centuries, but they seem to be causing friction between China and its neighbours plus western superpowers. Western superpowers adhere to international law and freedom of navigation while China is disregarding such laws and building military bases on islands deemed to be in international space.
In 2009, China submitted a new map to the UN claiming sovereignty over the entire South China Sea, at the expense of legitimate claims within the rights of other nations. The neighbouring countries affected by redrawing of the map are Taiwan, Vietnam, Philippines and Brunei. The Philippines went to an international tribunal and won but China ignored the ruling and is using the new map.
In the book, “The New Silk Roads” by Peter Frankopan, James Mattis, former US Secretary of Defence is highlighted as having said, “China’s long-term designs is to recreate the existing global order based on a return to the past.” He went on to say their preferred global order is based on the “Ming Dynasty” through force and “muscular manner by demanding other nations to become tribute states, kowtowing to Beijing, espousing many belts and roads and attempting to replicate on the international stage, their authoritarian domestic model.”
James Mattis believes there are 3 ways to address this matter. First, by building a more lethal force. Second, by strengthening military alliances. Third, by building new partnerships and reforming and modernising the Department of Defence. He referenced a key point from history which is that “nations with allies thrive”. This point reflects how Churchill galvanised the “Great Alliance” to defeat Hitler. World War II would have been impossible to win without the US and the USSR switching sides.
China has antagonised its neighbours the way Hitler did in Europe. This could unite them and essentially see Asia replicate how European countries came together against Hitler. In addition, the EU, UK and US have interests in the region. However, China has its allies. In Russia, it has an ally who is constantly undermining NATO. Their interests are closely connected. But, can history repeat itself and see Russia switch sides or should the EU, UK and US try to get Russia to come on their side? Can Russia trust China to play fair in the future given how it is treating its neighbours? These are intricate and complex matters for experts to consider.
The EU is understood to be deploying a new strategy for the region with a French naval force already present in the region. Germany sent its first warship to the region in 20 years. In May the UK sent its largest contingent of warships to South China Sea. The UK Ministry of Defence said it was “the largest concentration of maritime and air power to leave the UK in a generation.” Could this show of strength result in unintended consequences or is it sending a message that if diplomacy fails, they are prepared for the worst-case scenario?
It seems the world’s superpowers are uncomfortable with China’s intentions for building the world’s largest navy. Xi Jinping submitted to the national assembly of the Chinese Communist Party that “our country’s current security situation is largely unstable and uncertain”. The Chinese Defence Minister added that “China had entered a high-risk phase.” It appears that China’s solution to the uncertainty and perceived risk is to build “a world beating fleet.”
What is the worst that could happen should the idea of freedom of navigation fail? China has the largest navy in the world and other superpowers have demonstrated their strength by sending their warships to South China Sea. It is hard to envision the EU and the US giving up control of shipping lanes worth over 3.4 trillion to China.
Should China insist on excluding other superpowers, then war is unavoidable. Given the latest technology in weapons, this could potentially involve nuclear weapons. The South China shipping lane could alter the world’s power dynamics. Whoever can control that shipping lane is guaranteed to reap unprecedented economic benefits. It is an interesting conundrum considering no superpower is known for giving away its advantage without a fight.
TAIWAN AND CHINA
The tension between China and Taiwan goes back to the civil war which ended in 1949 but left matters of statecraft unresolved. Despite the unresolved matters, the idea of “One China” is deemed to be sacrosanct. China sees Taiwan as a province that broke away but will in the end, come back and join China. On the contrary, the Taiwanese do not see themselves as part of China. They believe that they have their own country separate from China. This, in a nutshell, is the crux of the China and Taiwan hostilities.
There was a significant event that shaped China before the civil war, and it is partly responsible for the current state of affairs. In 1895, Japan won the first Sino-Japanese war and the Chinese government at the time had to give up Taiwan to Japan. After the second world war, Japan surrendered and had to give back Taiwan and the Republic of China began ruling Taiwan. A civil war broke a few years later which resulted in Mao Zedong’s victory over Chiong Kai-Shek’s army which fled to Taiwan in 1949.
Since then, Taiwan gradually moved towards democracy and in 2000, it elected its first President Mr Chan-Shu. It sent shockwaves in Beijing as the president backed independence from China. In response China passed an Anti-Secession Law in 2004 prescribing China’s right to use “non-peaceful” methods if Taiwan decided to become independent. In 2016, Taiwan elected its current leader Tsai-Ing whose party, the Democratic Progressive Party believes in independence from China. She was re-elected in 2020.
Although Taiwan is a thriving democracy, only 15 countries in the world have diplomatic relations with Taiwan and they are small countries. According to Jenka Oertel, most countries including France, Germany and Britain switched from Taiwan and now have diplomatic relationships with China. She went on to say that the only country in Europe with diplomatic relations with Taiwan is the Vatican with a population of 825. Jenka Oertel was surprised by the fact that, as a thriving democracy with values aligned to the EU, Europe did not have a strong relationship with Taiwan.
The fact that only 15 countries recognise Taiwan as a democracy exemplifies China’s strong influence in the world. This is seen in international organisations like the UN and WHO where Taiwan is blocked from participating. In 2018, China came up with strong measures that demanded international companies to specify that Taiwan is a part of China on their websites. They were threatened with loss of business in China if they didn’t do it.
All hope is not lost though for Taiwan. Though isolated, it has a friend in America. Even though America has diplomatic relations with China, it also has strong informal relations with Taiwan. When Jimmy Carter formalised relations with China in 1979, the US passed the Taiwan Relations Act in the same year which guarantees support for Taiwan. The ACT says the US must help Taiwan defend itself hence it sells arms to Taiwan.
There is some ambiguity in the help that the US is meant to offer Taiwan. It is not crystal-clear what “help Taiwan defend itself” means. According to Bonnie Glasser, the US said it would “provide defences to Taiwan” but did not specify what those defences where. When Jo Biden became president, he said the US commitment to Taiwan is “rock solid.” However, no one can quantify what the commitment amounts to.
It is worth pointing out that there seems to be a change of US foreign policy as confirmed by Jo Biden after the end of war in Afghanistan last week. He said, “it is end of an era of America remaking other countries after Afghanistan.” These words and the manner of evacuation from Afghanistan are likely to make Taiwan feel slightly vulnerable. Furthermore, there are 79 000 US citizens in Taiwan. It will be interesting to see how the US will respond if China were to invade Taiwan. Whether Taiwan is taken over peacefully or through war, it will be monumental with global implications.
As a strategic location, China taking over Taiwan would mean less power for the US in the region. The complexities of the shipping lanes in the South China Sea and the tension between China and Taiwan, makes this decade (2020 – 2030) the most dangerous and likely to produce conflicts that could result in a horrible world crisis. If China invades Taiwan like Russia did in Crimea, would the US defend Taiwan? If yes, then nuclear war becomes a realistic prospect.
China’s desire for global domination is not a secret as demonstrated by the “Belt and Road Initiative.” It links countries in Europe, Asia and Africa together. There is an intensity in its mission which saw Hong Kong becoming part of China after some riots and demonstrations. This is seen as a move towards a unified China with Taiwan expected to go the same way and become part of China.
There are two visions fighting to lead and shape the world. The US vision that started after the end of World War II and the Chinese vision which is trying to replace the US. These visions could not be any more different with one based on democracy and the other based on communism. Every person in the world, would ideally want the world to be shaped by someone or a country they can relate to. This could be through values, way of life, religion or language. As such, power has consequences.
Churchill understood that Hitler’s victory would be horrible for the world. We can deduce by the passion, tenacity and determination that it was his life calling to ensure Hitler did not win. Imagine if Hitler had won which he almost did? It would have subjected the world to serve Hitler. All countries of the world working to enrich Hitler. When it comes to power, there are no rules unfortunately and it can be a messy process with catastrophic consequences. It is the way of the world. It is survival of the fittest. It requires a bulldog spirit. Who has the bulldog spirit today?