What Tibet tells us about China’s intentions towards Taiwan

Written by Christopher MacDonald.

Directly across from the Potala Palace, in Lhasa’s main square, there stands a triumphal, 120-foot-high slab of concrete commemorating Tibet’s 1951 incorporation into the newly founded People’s Republic of China (PRC). The Monument to the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet marks the year that representatives of the Tibetan government, summoned to Beijing in the face of an imminent invasion which neither side wanted, voluntarily signed away their country’s sovereignty.

Call it “liberation” or call it “annexation.” Either way, it was a significant victory for China’s new rulers, and the triumph of a deep strategic template for winning wars without risking your forces in battle. That template was set during China’s Warring States period (5th century to 221 BC), and the indications are that, to this day, it guides the plans of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for taking control of Taiwan.

For nationalists in China, stoked by a relentless diet of militarist propaganda pumped out through the CCP-controlled news media and entertainment industry, the answer is that there needs to be a conflict against “Taiwan separatists” as early as 2020, in time for the 100th birthday of the CCP. More measured analysis points to the second half of the 2020s as a particular danger period for the region, when the balance of military power in the Western Pacific becomes far more favorable to China.

In either case, Xi’s “China Dream” implicitly promises that Taiwan will fall under Beijing’s control well before 2049, when the regime intends to celebrate its centenary in power.

The case of Tibet

In 1950, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was immeasurably better equipped than the Tibetan army, and it was battle-hardened by years of civil war; but the terrain was too challenging — lack of roads to supply a large army along with high-altitude conditions which the Chinese troops were ill-suited to — for CCP leader, Mao Zedong, to chance a full invasion. Instead, the PLA overwhelmed the first Tibetan force it encountered in the borderlands, then made the native authorities an offer they couldn’t refuse. The result was the following year’s 17-point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet, which guaranteed political and cultural autonomy to the Tibetans while transferring responsibility for foreign relations to the CCP and permitting the PLA to station troops in the region.

The 17-point Agreement was the PRC’s first iteration of the “one country, two systems” model. As Tsering Shakya has written, it was primarily designed to erase Tibet’s international identity and consolidate China’s geopolitical advantage. Peaceful liberation didn’t, however, mark the end of the Party’s campaign to take control of Tibet. It was only the beginning of the end.

Mao proceeded to befriend the young Dalai Lama and appease the Tibetan elite, welcoming them into the infrastructure of the new regime in line with the “united front” approach that had proved so effective against the Kuomintang (KMT) during the civil war. Meanwhile he pressed ahead with the construction of two major roads into Central Tibet.

By the time ordinary Tibetans cottoned on and began rising up, it was already too late. The PLA flooded into central Tibet in 1959, crushed the rebellion and drove the Dalai Lama into exile. The 17-point Agreement, having eight years earlier secured PRC sovereignty over Tibet without a costly war, was quietly forgotten.

Strategic narratives

As with Tibet in the 1950s, Beijing’s strategy for Taiwan today relies on ratcheting up the military pressure to unnerve its opponent, while pursuing an array of non-military approaches to influence perceptions of Taiwan’s future prospects, isolate Taiwan from its main allies, and interfere with Taiwan’s capacity to defend itself. The more convincingly China tightens the military noose, the greater the effect of its operations to influence, isolate, and interfere.

In this strategy, the intended outcome is not to invade but rather to cajole and coerce a critical mass among Taiwan’s elites and leading interest groups to accept the logic of inevitable “unification” and conclude that they personally, and possibly Taiwan as a whole, would be better off throwing their lot in with the PRC. In effect, to make them an offer they can’t refuse. Invasion comes later.

For decades, Beijing has been spinning a web of carefully crafted narratives designed to soften up those elites and dominate the international discourse on the topic of Taiwan. The most prominent narrative is the emotive story of Taiwan as part of China since ancient times, temporarily estranged by foreign predation, with its 21st-century citizens as junior members of China’s biological family.

Upon examination, it’s a flimsy tale (as was the corresponding tale crafted for Tibet in the 1950s), and is best viewed as a smokescreen for the CCP’s temporal objective of seizing a vital piece of strategic real estate, given that the island-nation obstructs PLA plans for power projection into maritime realms dominated by the U.S. and Japan. Nevertheless, it carries powerful blood-and-soil appeal to nationalist audiences at home, wrapped as they are within an information domain tightly controlled by the CCP. It also helps the CCP to impose its requirements — concerning how it wants Taiwan to be named in international settings, for example — onto foreign audiences unconcerned about the nuances of Taiwan’s historical and current status.

These and other supporting narratives, such as the PRC’s “one China principle” (not to be mistaken for a country’s “one China policy”) and the CCP-KMT “1992 consensus,” combine to build a powerful symbolism of Taiwan as one fragment of a larger Chinese whole. And symbolism can create new realities over time, just as the symbolism of an eleven-dash line (later nine dashes) around the South China Sea, on a map first published for the Republic of China government in 1947, is now all but reality across four-fifths of that sea.

Fostering that international perception of Taiwan as part of China clears the path for a world in which the space to voice or even conceive of a non-China narrative for Taiwan dwindles to nothing. Taiwan’s autonomous identity becomes incrementally erased, as Tibet’s was after 1951, and China’s geopolitical footprint expands accordingly.

When the narratives described above are examined in the context of China’s decades-long program of espionagestrategic incentivesunited front operations and strong-arm tactics against Taiwan, all of them elements of an integrated campaign of hybrid warfare, it is clear that Beijing expects to undermine Taiwan’s ability and will to defend itself, and isolate Taiwan from the U.S., before proceeding to the decisive phase of the campaign.

Patiently accumulating advantage

This would have been recognized as the smart way to go about things by sovereigns and generals during the Warring States period. “First secure victory, then go into battle,” Sun Tzu insisted. Otherwise the risks and costs are too high. It explains why Mao Zedong, a devotee of ancient strategy and a specialist in hybrid warfare, smiled when Henry Kissinger asked about the CCP’s timetable for taking Taiwan, and said: “We can wait for 100 years” — meaning 100 years from 1949, when the PRC was founded. “Patient accumulation of relative advantage” was how Kissinger characterized China’s ingrained approach to geostrategic challenges.

Warring States strategists knew full well that the program doesn’t always pan out as intended, and when interference and isolation alone aren’t enough, the aggressor will need to resort to force of arms. Any multi-year campaign of hybrid warfare must therefore be accompanied by viable preparations to launch a conventional attack.

Even as Mao glad-handed the Tibetan elite in the 1950s, he was pushing military-grade highways across the mountains and plateaus towards Lhasa.

A coming Taiwan Strait crisis?

With the clock running down on Mao’s 100-year timetable, the PRC defense budget has multiplied then multiplied again, doubling every six-to-seven years since 1996. The PLA’s rapidly expanding navy and air force bristle with shiny new hardware, backed up with the world’s largest inventory of short and medium-range missiles and state-of-the-art capabilities for space and cyber war. Party and military leaders have made it clear over the years that the priority driving PLA modernization is to have the capacity to forcibly “unify” Taiwan. Xi Jinping has stepped up the rhetoric since taking power in 2012, repeatedly instructing the PLA to steel itself for a bloody and glorious conflict.

How, then, could Taiwan, whose US$10.7 billion defense budget is smaller than the PLA’s annual increment alone, possibly withstand an onslaught from across the Strait?

In fact, as analysts including Michael BeckleyIan Easton and others have demonstrated, the odds of pulling off a successful surprise attack against Taiwan do not currently favor the PLA, and this is likely to remain the case for years to come. Even allowing for massive attrition of Taiwan’s civil and military infrastructure under aerial bombardment and with minimal or zero intervention by the U.S. and Japan, a reasonably well-marshalled defense of Taiwan — in today’s era of cheap, precision-guided munitions — could hobble invasion forces to such an extent that the attack becomes a debacle, possibly ending the CCP’s reign in the process.

Instead of a surprise invasion, restricted-access to PLA writings therefore indicate that the preferred approach would involve a summer-long blockade combined with comprehensive bombardment to neutralize Taiwan’s coastal and urban defenses, before dispatching the invasion fleet across the Strait in the autumn via newly secured staging posts on offshore islands. But blockading Taiwan presents China with the same kind of challenge that walled cities posed for armies during the Warring States period: the possibility of a lengthy, costly siege with a high risk of failure, especially when foreign intervention is factored in.

In Sun Tzu’s words: “The rule is: attack walled cities only when there is no alternative.” For walled cities we may read “an island bastion.”

Following the same playbook?

If the CCP remains rational and follows the Warring States playbook, it will only resort to kinetic attack once clear-eyed assessment confirms that the outcome will be a walkover. There can be no glory-seeking and no rash decisions: “Never mobilize for war in a fit of rage” stated Sun Tzu. “Never attack in anger.” On the other hand, if Xi traces Mao’s footsteps into full-blown tyrannical paranoia, there is no telling how the Party will respond.

Nevertheless, Beijing knows full well that the real value of progressively cramping Taiwan’s space for maneuver (from instituting encirclement patrols by PRC warships and warplanes to whittling away the island-nation’s remaining corps of diplomatic allies and coercing foreign corporations to describe Taiwan as a province of China) is symbolic. Having a mighty military poised to invade is vital to the illusion, but the main objective remains to back Taiwan into a corner until it accepts peaceful liberation. Then the gloves come off.

Masters of misdirection

It is worth recalling how things turned out for Tibet after the rebellion was crushed in 1959. Its culture was maligned and its institutions were trashed by the invader. The Panchen Lama, Tibet’s second-ranking spiritual leader, who stayed on after 1959 and reported confidentially to Chinese premier Zhou Enlai on conditions in the region, later estimated that by 1962 between 15 and 20 percent of Tibet’s population, or up to half of the country’s adult males, had been hauled off to labor camps, from which many never returned.

A stark reminder of what Tibet endured in those early years is unfolding in the neighboring, PRC-ruled region of Xinjiang today. Recent estimates, reported at a U.N. panel, indicate that up to 1 million of Xinjiang’s 10 million Uighur and Kazakh inhabitants are now interned in extralegal “re-education centers,” while the remainder live under a regime of hostile high-tech surveillance, arbitrary detention and totalitarian repression. Xinjiang, like Tibet, is where “one country, two systems” has turned out to mean “one country, three systems” — the third being a hellish police state characterized by ethnic apartheid and levels of Orwellian control that North Korea would surely envy.

Having served its initial purpose, the Sino-British Joint Declaration has apparently followed Tibet’s 17-Point Agreement into the bin.“One country, two systems” hasn’t fared so well in Hong Kong either. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs last year described the Joint Declaration between China and Britain, an internationally binding treaty which promised Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy for 50 years after the 1997 handover, as “a historical document [which] no longer has any practical significance.”

The reality is that if the day ever comes for the PRC to make Taiwan an offer it can’t refuse, as it once did to Tibet, that offer will take the form of a piece of paper that promises “peaceful liberation.” Given the desperate circumstances, the offer will appear unexpectedly reasonable to those on the other side of the negotiating table. This is of course exactly how Warring States strategists, masters of misdirection that they were, would have wished it to appear.

The eventual outcome, however, for the proud people of an island-nation which has long defied authoritarian rule from across the Strait, is likely to be anything but peaceful.

Christopher MacDonald is a translator and interpreter based in Cardiff. He previously lived and worked for over 20 years in Taipei, Hong Kong and Shanghai, including two years as lead interpreter on the British Side for the Sino-British Joint Liaison Group.  This article was first published on Taiwan Sentinel and can be found here. Image credit: Wikipedia Commons.

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