Ever since I left China a few days after the June 4th 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown and nation-wide repression that followed, I have been haunted by recurrent nightmares of World War III—much like the theme of Bob Dylan’s song Talkin’ World War III Blues written at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
As I don’t want anybody to be a part of such a nightmare—which may not be a mere hallucination requiring psychiatric treatment as is the theme of the song—I think it is time to re-assess US global strategy toward China in such a way so as to channel, not contain, China’s aspirations to achieve major power status in a positive way. This means engaging in real diplomacy to convince Beijing that it is not in China’s interests to force unification with Taiwan—resulting in a confrontation between the US and China that has been dubbed the “Thucydides trap.”
When my students at the Johns Hopkins University-Nanjing University Center for Chinese and American Studies had begun to boycott classes in April 1989, my return air ticket was set, by sheer coincidence, just a few days after what turned out to be the June 4th crackdown. At the Nanjing airport, which was teeming with people desperately seeking to escape the country, I was told that I could not fly out that day because of bad weather conditions. Yet the only clouds over the whole country were the clouds of repression—as China had begun to change colors from pure red to red-brown-black.
At the Nanjing airport the next day, I overheard a few American businessmen wondering out loud why Beijing had not cracked down earlier. They had lost a lot of time and money, they said, during the nationwide protests.
Maintaining US corporate access to the gigantic China $$$ market was one of the reasons that the US did not engage in extremely strong economic sanctions after the June 4th Tiananmen Square repression—despite the strident pro-democracy message of Voice of America (VOA) broadcasts and other official American media1.
The US did, however, seek to “punish” China by engaging in an embargo on major arms sales, but not on “dual-use” military-civilian items like supercomputers (sold by the Clinton administration), which helped China’s nuclear weapons program, while the US also sold major weapon systems to Taiwan in a “balance of power.” Likewise, the Europeans agreed not to sell complete weapons systems to Beijing but nevertheless continued to sell “dual-use” civilian-military components for aircraft, naval vessels, imaging equipment, among other technologies that could be used for military purposes.
In the meantime, Beijing obtained or copied whatever arms and high-tech systems, including stealth and cruise missile technology, that they could, whether these systems were American, Russian or European—while gradually developing their own high-tech defense capabilities…
Much as Lenin had purportedly stated, the American and European capitalists would sell the rope to hang themselves. And Washington elites were right to fear that Moscow would take advantage of poor US-China relations in order to eventually improve Sino-Russian relations—which Moscow did.
These are just a few of the themes of my novel-in-progress which has gone through several titles and re-writes but is now entitled, Year of the Earth Serpent Changing Colors. I have published a few excerpts and redactions on the Wall Street International website.
Since 1989, I have warned in numerous books and articles that German unification, Soviet collapse, followed by the uncoordinated NATO and European Union expansion, would lead to a Sino-Russian re-alignment— much like the 1950 Sino-Soviet alliance against the US and Japan. Such an alignment would augment the chances of major power war.
Having left Nanjing just a few days after the June 4th 1989 repression, I knew that Humankind had not reached the so-called “End of History” as argued by Francis Fukuyama in the summer of 1989. Fukuyama argued that the democratization of Communist states would help limit the possibility of major power war. Yet I found it very dubious that either China or the Soviet Union/Russia would fully “democratize” in accord with American conceptions2. Instead it would be the Vengeance of History3.
In April 1989, months before the Tiananmen Square crackdown, I had argued in the LA Times that China could move toward “new authoritarianism” and unfortunately, not toward democracy. I myself had lectured on the American presidential election process in November 1988 to several hundred Beijing University students. On the eve of the US presidential election, I had made the not very astounding prediction that George Bush, Sr. would win both the electoral college and the popular vote. And given the fact that Bush appeared poised to win the electoral college at the time, I tried to explain how a US presidential candidate could win the election without winning the popular vote.
Yet explaining the electoral college was not an easy task. If the Americans themselves cannot really understand what the electoral college is for, and why such an anomaly has persisted, how could the Chinese understand it!
What was significant was not the talk itself, but the fact that the event was sponsored by the Beijing University students themselves—and not by Chinese authorities. That significance would not become apparent until the start of the pro-democracy and anti-corruption student protests in mid-April 1989 after the death of the Chinese Communist Party reformer Hu Yaobang—until the brutal suffocation of that movement on June 4th.
In 1989, it did look like substantive political change was taking place in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe. Yet Chinese hardliners opposed Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms. The June 4th crackdown on Tiananmen Square and throughout China was rationalized by Chinese Communist elites as a radical measure to prevent a “democratic” movement from gaining control in China—much like the non-violent Solidarity Movement in Poland.
Eventually, the Chinese population was either forced or co-opted into accepting the brutal June 4th repression with the help of the phenomenal economic growth that took place in the aftermath of that repression. Deng Xiaoping’s “four modernizations” ultimately led China to become the world’s largest economy in terms of its purchasing power by 2014—after Beijing had repressed Wei Jingsheng’s proposed “fifth modernization” of democracy.
Interestingly, Wei’s famous essay had defined “true democracy” as “the right of the people to choose their own representatives to work according to their will and in their interests” and as “the holding of power by the laboring masses.” In the essay, Wei praised the former Yugoslav system of worker’s self-management—an alternative economic system that was unfortunately marred by Communist Party manipulations. Yet even if not manipulated, worker’s self-management was not the American or the European ideal.
It was only a decade later when Vladimir Putin came to power in Russia, overturning Boris Yeltsin’s neo-liberalism and nomenklatura privatization, and began to significantly strengthen ties with Beijing. Now, an “authoritarian” duo of Moscow and Beijing are flirting with a possible military alliance in a global geo-economic system that is more reminiscent of both the pre-World War I and pre-World War II periods than the early Cold War period.
And, as I had argued back in the 1990s, both Crimea and Taiwan have become focal points of the new post-Cold War global rivalry. 4
So now, given Beijing’s threats to Taiwan, among other actual and potential conflicts throughout the globe, I am once again having recurrent nightmares of the World War III China Blues to the tune of an erhu and a dizi—and not to the tune of Dylan’s harmonica and folk guitar.
The former head of Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Philip Davidson, has warned that Beijing could attempt to seize control of Taiwan by force by 2027.
Critics might argue that the year 2027 was chosen to press the US Congress to provide even greater funding for a US naval build-up in the Indo-Pacific, as the Pentagon is presently been demanding. Nevertheless, Beijing could act rashly. The dilemma is that the effort to prove Chinese Communist Party legitimacy while sustaining the promises of Xi Jinping to “unify” the country, could press China to take risky steps to absorb Taiwan—either “peacefully” or by force—whether Beijing is truly prepared to do so or not.
Beijing’s conflict with Taiwan dates back to China’s defeat in 1894-95 Sino-Japanese war—when Japan obtained a protectorate over Korea and seized Taiwan. This was an integral aspect of what the Chinese call the “Hundred Years of Humiliation.”
The Sino-Japanese war, combined with the Opium Wars, in which China lost Hong Kong to the British, plus the unequal treaties with Russia and the European powers, plus subsequent wars with Japan during World War II, all represent aspects of the “Hundred Years of Humiliation” that caused China horrific suffering.
With President Xi Jinping becoming ‘president for life’, Beijing’s “new authoritarian” leadership now seeks to avenge China’s “Hundred Years of Humiliation” by protecting China from future threats. Seeking unification with Taiwan is one way to assure that it will be Beijing— and not Washington or another country—who controls the vital shipment of oil and gas and trade along the defense lines of communication from the Pacific to the Arab-Persian Gulf. In addition, Taiwan is problematic because it represents a major trade competitor and a producer of advanced semiconductors.
Yet economic factors are not Beijing’s only concern. As an integral aspect of what I call the “insecurity-security dialectic,”5 there appears to be a significant domestic consideration for China to seize Taiwan as well. Beijing fears that if Taipei continues to demand “independence,” then that demand will exacerbate demands for independence and “democracy” in Hong Kong, Tibet, and now in Xinjiang province, where China is pressing Uighur Moslems into re-education camps. (This represents a brutal preclusive action that can be compared and contrasted with the American repression of native peoples as the US expanded its empire across North America).
The dilemma is that Beijing sees the US and European Union support for democracy movements as a form of “hybrid warfare” that is intended to undermine monopolistic Communist Party controls over the country. This fear is furthermore a major factor leading both Russia and China to repress their respective dissidents, while concurrently engaging in closer defense cooperation.
This is the deeper meaning of China’s so-called “wolf warrior” critique of the American policies. Beijing not only sees the Biden administration's insistence upon an “international rules-based order” as serving US hegemony—but as also working to undermine Communist Party legitimacy and authority.
It is therefore not surprising that Beijing greeted the Biden administration in January 2021, by flying nuclear-capable bombers over Taiwanese airspace. And not long after Chinese diplomats had met with their American counterparts in Alaska, in mid-March, Beijing flew an even larger squadron of nuclear-capable bombers and fighter jets into Taiwan’s air defense zone in mid-April.
One possibility is that Beijing will attempt to blockade the island. A war between China and Taiwan might then remain at the conventional and cyber-warfare levels—but with Beijing seeking to hold the US at bay by threatening nuclear strikes against US and allied targets with “carrier killer” missiles in the new age of hypersonic weaponry that, if they become operable by 2027, could penetrate Missile Defenses.
Yet such a scenario raises the question as to whether a Chinese effort to blockade Taiwan would remain a “localized” conflict—or whether such an action could provoke a regional, if not a global, conflict. It is not impossible that conflict over Taiwan could also spark a conflict between North and South Korea, for example, or even a war between India, Pakistan and China.
In fact, the more the global system of alliances polarizes between the US, EU, and the Quadrilateral Allies of Japan, Australia, and India on the one side versus a Russia-China Axis on the other, then the greater chance that any spark, accidental, or accidentally on purpose, could set off wider inter-state wars.
Washington and Brussels need to engage in an intense diplomatic dialogue with Beijing to show that blockading, or somehow seizing Taiwan, is not in Beijing’s long-term interests. Beijing needs to realize that Taiwan cannot be annexed as easily as Moscow was able to annex Crimea. A war over Taiwan—that could in turn spark even wider wars for years to come—is in no one’s interests!
China’s President Xi Jinping has recently stated that he wants to tone down the rhetoric of China’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy in order to do “our utmost to portray an image of a reliable, lovely, respectable China.” In other words, China should ironically now be seen as acting more like Winnie the Pooh (a satirical image of President Xi that has been banned on Chinese social media) than like the rabid wolf warrior image of Chinese-style Rambo films.
Yet this promised change in tone should be met by a sincere change in policy that puts an end to repressive measures against the Uighurs and democratic dissent. Such a change in tone must also be accompanied by a real change in Beijing’s international strategy toward Taiwan and the South and East China—as a step toward mutual regional cooperation.
In the effort to thoroughly address the regional security and economic concerns of China, Taiwan and its neighbors—and prevent the militarization of the Indo-Pacific, if not much of the world—the US and European Union need to facilitate discussions between Taipei, Beijing and the ASEAN states. Initiatives to engage in multilateral peace initiatives and confidence- and security-building measures for both the East and South China Seas could be backed by the US, EU and other actors under a general UN Security Council mandate.
Instead of engaging in meaningless sanctions and counter-sanctions that do not address the issues posed by Beijing’s threats to Taiwan and the region, and that do nothing to stop human rights abuses, new peace initiatives would seek to secure the Sea Lines of Communications (SLOC), while reducing, if not eliminating, offensive weaponry, and by engaging in joint sustainable development projects in areas of energy, mineral, and fishing resources, for example.
The time is now for the US and EU to engage in a diplomatic peace offensive toward Beijing in the quest to establish new multilateral systems of security and regional peace and development communities in the Indo-Pacific region.6 This new rapprochement with China should concurrently be accompanied by a diplomatic offensive toward Moscow in the effort to calm burgeoning tensions in eastern Ukraine, Crimea, and Black Sea region.
But until the US and the Europeans can get their act together—and assuming that Washington and Brussels can actually convince China through engaged diplomacy that a war with Taiwan will not serve Beijing’s true interests—then it looks like I will be ‘Talkin’ World War III China Blues’ for a few more years…
1 Somewhat like today’s social media, students used transistor radios to learn from VOA and BBC what was happening in the country—as Beijing controlled all the domestic media. Of the major international media, the VOA appeared to most strongly support the students; the BBC less so, while Radio Moscow seemed to broadcast very dull neutrality.
2 Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History” The National Interest (Summer, 1989). That article would then be radically revised and published as Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (Free Press, 1992).
3 See my critique of Fukuyama, in Hall Gardner, Crimea, Global Rivalry and the Vengeance of History (New York: Palgrave/Macmillan, 2015).
4 Hall Gardner, Surviving the Millennium: American Global Strategy, the Collapse of the Soviet Empire and the Question of Peace (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1994); Hall Gardner, Dangerous Crossroads: Europe, Russia, and the Future of NATO (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1997).
5 Hall Gardner, IR Theory, Historical Analogy and Major Power War (New York: Palgrave/Macmillan, 2019).
6 Hall Gardner, World War Trump: The Risks of America’s New Nationalism (New York: Prometheus Books, 2018.