“What will the role of New Zealand be should China invade Taiwan?” was by far the most popular question for Jacinda Ardern after she spoke at a NZIIA seminar last week. Promising to be benign, Ardern said we are “very predictable,” cited alleged human rights abuses in Hong Kong, and went on to say we will “continue to escalate and raise our voice as our concerns are heightened by activity in the region.”
The fact that the Prime Minister tried to side-step the question was not a surprise, although speaking of escalation did not seem wise in my opinion. What was a surprise is that it was already the question on the top of the minds of conference participants as she was the first speaker and she certainly did not mention war over Taiwan in her speech. She was followed by senior US official Kurt Campbell, the “Asia Czar” and author of Obama’s pivot to Asia. In his speech Campbell affirmed official US adherence to the one-China policy, which recognises Taiwan as part of China.
The reason appeared later in the conference, as anti-China war talk predominated in the rest of the geopolitical sessions so the question was presumably the main concern of the conference organisers NZIIA and sponsors, including the major Government departments MFAT, Defence, and DPMC. If this is an insight into their thinking then I do think we all need to be concerned.
The most egregious example of China war talk was a presentation by American think-tanker and Indopacom adviser Oriana Skylar Mastro based on an article she wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine arguing that Xi Jinping was likely to invade China within the next few years, and that the US would certainly fight back if it did so. Other speakers dwelt on the same theme. American expert Michael Swaine disagreed with Mastro.
There is no doubt that anti-China war rhetoric has escalated particularly in the United States. What is also true is that China is showing more and more signs that it will push back against this rhetoric. This was evident in last week’s meeting between US Assistant Secretary Wendy Sherman and Chinese official Xie Feng in Tianjin. And the push-back is not limited just to Party officials, as shown by reports of angry Chinese telling BBC and other journalists to piss off as they tried to report on the flooding, as they are seen as anti-China.
Rhetoric is one thing and war is another. But what recent experience from the disastrous Iraq war in 2003 tells us is that repeated demonisation of the designated opponent in the Western media is often a prelude to war. War over Taiwan is indeed possible, but in my opinion only if China is provoked by the US moving to a two China policy.
And war between China and the US would rapidly turn nuclear. Japan has recently announced it would defend Taiwan, and Biden has told Japan it would defend it with all the powers at its disposal, ”including nuclear.” Nuclear war means nuclear winter which means we are all dead.
Which is why any talk of escalation, even if it is only about words, is very unwise in my opinion. Words matter and it is high time to dial down the rhetoric, to talk about peace not war, and co-operation not conflict.
There is another reason to be careful about what we say. Diplomatic language is rapidly disappearing on all sides, and New Zealand may find that China re-evaluates its so-called ‘mature relationship’ and we see some of the economic consequences that Australia has faced. And we don’t produce iron ore.
It is also crucial that we do not do not follow Australia, the UK and NATO in getting involved in any of the more aggressive actions the US is proposing for its allies as Admiral Stavridis notes:
… “the battle” between Washington and Beijing “may come much sooner. US allies play a central role and the USA is deliberately involving them in “more aggressive” operations, for example, in the South China Sea.
The Prime Minister was also asked if New Zealand would work more closely with the “Quad,” the alliance between the US, India, Australia and Japan to contain China. It has not yet developed into a southern NATO but that is where it is heading. Her answer was that it was “one of the areas we have flagged.”
We all need to know a lot more about what is planned. It could get serious.