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?
When building a new country, it’s imperative that the foundation on which the country stands, is strong enough to withstand all kinds of storms. The foundation could be in the form of values, beliefs and way of life. In essence, the people must set out clearly who they are and what they stand for. In addition, they should set out how they intend to govern themselves with regards to exercise of power and accountability.
Once accountability is established usually through separation of powers, the country needs to formulate a plan on how to build a sound economic system. An economic system that gives its people a fair chance of making a decent life. Such a system is desirable than a system that empowers a few at the expense of the many. Hence every country whether successful or a failed state, reflects its leaders’ thinking.
But there are countries that have not followed this natural course of action through no fault of their own. Some through duress. Others, through malicious advice and an element of ignorance. Most African countries started building their countries from a position of weakness after taking power from colonial masters. The negotiations they engaged in left their countries at a disadvantage. It’s not a secret that corruption is a massive problem in Africa. This is made worse by incompetent leaders who are out of touch with reality. However, many African countries were set up to fail.
What they agitated for and went to war for did not materialise when they became free. Throughout Africa, the economic power hardly shifted from colonial powers to the natives. The impact of this artificial freedom is seen in failed democracies that are struggling to meet the aspirations of their people.
For instance, there are more than 7 countries in West and North Africa that are effectively French territories. Only last year, the French parliament signed and ratified a law which stopped African countries from depositing their taxpayer money in the French Central Bank. This should have stopped in the 1960s when colonisation was coming to an end. It’s difficult to see how these countries could have developed without control of their money. In addition, they had to pay colonial tax. These African countries have been economically hamstrung for a very long time. It would be impossible to have democracy with a sound economic system under such circumstances.
In the last few weeks, South Africa displayed how it is hamstrung by its past. More than 330 people died in the riots and looting after former president Jacob Zuma, was sentenced to 15 months in prison for contempt of court. The sentence is seen as disproportionate considering former apartheid president W.P Botha was fined R175 000 for refusing to appear before The Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He paid R50 bail for contempt of court and went back to his care home.
It would be wrong to attribute the protests and looting strictly to Jacob Zuma’s prison sentence. There is something big and more serious at play. South Africans have always protested, it’s in their DNA. But this time it’s different. It’s on a scale never seen before. The protests and looting are driven by the deep social inequality that continued after apartheid. No democracy can fulfil its objectives with an economy grounded in an apartheid system.
The examination needed to establish why an apartheid economic system is still in place makes for uncomfortable reading. It brings into spotlight the handling of the transition from apartheid to democracy. One cannot fully comprehend the problems at hand without appreciating what unfolded in that transition. ANC has been in power for almost 30 years but it hasn’t delivered on its promise to eradicate poverty. There is still privatisation of education, health, housing and access to essential infrastructure.
In building the rainbow nation, they should have addressed the pain suffered by black people under the legacy of apartheid oppression. It was paramount to highlight structural racism, the implications of segregation and discrimination of black people. A dialogue would have made people understand the magnitude of these problems and outline expected behaviour going forward. The omission of this crucial element from the nation building process implies there is no demand or expectation to change behaviour.
Nelson Mandela’s experience in apartheid jail for 27 years and his ability to forgive, elevates him to a class of his own. This was captured perfectly when he said “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and achieve. But, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
This unique Mandela spirit was behind the truth and reconciliation which was designed to put the evils of the past behind. What a noble idea this was for history shows that such matters are normally resolved after the obliteration of one side through war. South Africa is unique in that no war was needed to resolve its democracy although the apartheid system killed millions of black people. It could only have been done with Nelson Mandela’s fortitude.
It’s interesting however that a former apartheid president was made Nelson Mandela’s Vice President. It was exceedingly generous. It would be absurd to expect De Klerk to advocate for justice needed for atrocities committed under apartheid. There is a feeling among South Africans that the transition from apartheid to democracy whitewashed the pain suffered by black people.
It’s difficult not to draw comparisons between Hitler and apartheid. Hitler and his country conducted themselves in an outrageous manner that their acts had to be accounted for. The Nuremberg trials were held under international law for the “prosecution of prominent members of the political, military, Judicial and economic leadership of Nazi Germany who participated in the Holocaust and other war crimes.” Most of them were found guilty and Germany had to pay reparations. It caused frightening levels of inflation. It was humbled. Its economy was destroyed. It took a long time to recover. A precedent was set which demonstrated that breach of international law is unacceptable.
But in South Africa, it seems no lessons were learnt and no reparations were paid for how the apartheid system operated. The Truth and Reconciliation was a good start but what has it achieved by way of addressing racial problems, inequality and democracy? There isn’t anything tangible to refer to and this void is materialising at the detriment of South Africa.
In Germany, students are taught about the implications of their country’s past. South Africa could have benefited from a similar approach by highlighting the perils of apartheid. You cannot address a problem that you do not acknowledge. ANC is rightly getting blamed for its leadership but most of the problems flow from unresolved problems under apartheid.
The rainbow nation was meant to accommodate people from all walks of life. It could have done more on substance. But it focused more on appearances. Awarding a joint Nobel Peace prize to Nelson Mandela and F.W de Klerk for the “peaceful termination of the apartheid regime,” was counterproductive. This was not well thought out. FW de Klerk acquired undeserved political capital by standing next to an Icon like Nelson Mandela. Again, this implied everything was going well but the reality on the ground was completely the opposite.
The looting and devastation of the economy that happened after Jacob Zuma’s prison sentence was caused by people living in extreme poverty. Those left behind. The forgotten. Those receiving grants from the government. The lower class. The unemployed. The marginalised. Those cut off from the democratic process. Those who lost faith in the system. Those dismissed as criminals in order to divert attention from real problems. Those who say they are still under an apartheid economic system.
There is no avoiding that the root cause of South Africa’s problems is still apartheid. It must be addressed. One hopes that a new generation can pick up where Mandela left and embrace the privilege of shaping their country’s destiny. It requires sober heads. It must be done in a manner that unites the country for it’s a delicate matter. The sooner it is done the better.
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