Since the time of Chancellor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Willy Brandt, German foreign policy has been based on a mistake that remains a mistake even if it has been good to Germany.
“Change through trade” was the motto of the then chief strategist Egon Bahr, which all German chancellors have since applied – at that time to the Soviet Union, later to China and Eastern Europe. Bahr did not come up with the motto himself, but based it on the economic theorist John Stuart Mill: International trade is the most important guarantee of peace in the world, he wrote in 1848.
The later editor of “Foreign Affairs”, Sir Norman Angell, was even of the opinion that a war between the great powers had become unthinkable simply because of the “complete economic senselessness of conquests”. Four years later the First World War began.
Military and conflict research today even assumes that trade does not promote peaceful change, but rather the ambition to show the other militarily. Peace creates the conditions for trade, but trade does not, conversely, create the conditions for lasting peace, as the SIPRI Institute found out again yesterday when looking at worldwide nuclear weapons.
In East Asia in particular, all hell is going on at the moment. The continent turned into a zone of increased prosperity – and thus into a powder keg.
Here are the seven most pressing questions and their answers:
1. Rearmament and war rhetoric dominate the headlines in East Asia. But who exactly provokes?
The crucial turning point occurred in Beijing. Unlike his predecessors, China’s president no longer has the goal of a “harmonious society” in mind, but called on his party to realize “the dream of a strong military”.
At the heart of this dream is “reunification” with Taiwan, an archipelago 130 kilometers from mainland China, populated by almost 24 million people and geographically part of China since 1945. In 1949, after losing the civil war against the Communist Party, the government, elites and armed forces of the Republic of China withdrew to Taiwan.
Beijing sees today’s Western-oriented Taiwan as a breakaway province. At Easter 2023, China tested the sealing off and conquest of Taiwan with a massive military presence. Again and again there are near misses of aircraft carriers and fighter jets both in the airspace and in the South China Sea.
2. Upgrades are known to cost a lot of money. Who is currently investing what amounts?
China wants to increase its military spending this year by 7.2 percent to $292 billion. The SIPRI Institute expects that China will have at least as many ICBMs as the US or Russia by the end of the decade. The Chinese fleet already has more warships than the United States.
Taiwan is also expanding its defense capability, most recently by purchasing 400 missile defense systems from the United States. The Taiwanese army, with almost 170,000 soldiers, is a dwarf compared to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army with its two million active soldiers.
The US is increasing its own presence in the region. Since February they have had new access to nine military bases in the Philippines. Overall, the United States has increased annual defense spending by 21 percent to $877 billion over the past ten years.
3. Is the US just a bystander or a warmonger in East Asia?
Neither: According to Joe Biden, however, the USA has made its decision in favor of intervention. When asked by the CBS interview, which aired in September 2022, whether US forces would defend the democratically ruled island claimed by China, Joe Biden replied:
“Yes, if in fact, there was an unprecedented attack.”
Did he mean that US forces – American men and women – would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion?
For the US, it’s not just about Taiwan, it’s about military supremacy in the region. Like the Roman proconsuls, the US Army with its 1.4 million soldiers is stationed on five continents. She will not give up Asia voluntarily.
4. Is Taiwan just a plaything for foreign interests or can the island kingdom defend itself?
The island people are highly defensive. In the event of an invasion, Taiwan could use the porcupine strategy developed by former Taiwan military chief Lee Hsi-ming.
A porcupine doesn’t have to be bigger or stronger than an attacking predator. It only needs to have many sharp spikes to make the attack painful for the attacker.
This means that the Taiwanese rely primarily on self-defense and largely forego attack capacity.
5. In addition to conventional weapons, the threat potential of the rivals is also important. So: Who is actually the dominant nuclear power in this region?
According to the latest report from the peace research institute SIPRI, China has rapidly increased its operational nuclear weapons from 350 to 410.
China may also be investing in a nuclear first strike capability. So far, the country has been content with a second-strike capacity.
Even today, it is not enough for much more, says SIPRI: The USA currently has more than 3,700 operational nuclear weapons and therefore has the upper hand in the event of a nuclear escalation in the conflict.
6. Are these potential war powers economically intertwined or are the flows of goods already separate?
China has been Taiwan’s most important trading partner since 2005. Last year, China accounted for 25 percent of Taiwan’s exports and 20 percent of imports.
In 2022, Taiwanese companies invested around five billion dollars in the People’s Republic of China, but the development of investments is declining. These include corporations such as the contract manufacturer Foxconn, which supplies the world with smartphones and other electronics from its Chinese plants.
However, Taiwan is trying to diversify: Trade with countries such as Australia, Thailand, Indonesia and India is being actively promoted. Efforts are being made to join the various trade agreements in the Asian region. This strategy is called de-risking.
However, the previous dependency is two-sided: China urgently needs the semiconductors manufactured in Taiwan. In this respect, in the event of an occupation of Taiwan, China would absorb its most important semiconductor suppliers.
7. Blocs are often formed in the run-up to wars . Who has who on their side here?
Although the US and Taiwan are not officially in an alliance, the US has pledged to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion.
The US, in turn, is allied in the Pacific with Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines and Thailand. At the end of April, the USA and the Philippines conducted joint military maneuvers in the South China Sea with more than 17,000 soldiers.
China, in turn, has the nuclear power North Korea on its side. Since 1961, both have been obliged to support each other militarily in the event of an attack. In this respect, the North Korean nuclear weapons, which SIPRI currently puts at 30 directly deployable nuclear weapons, could be added to the Chinese. That means: “The madman with the bomb” (“Spiegel” cover story) may be mad, but not alone.
Conclusion: China would take high risks with an attack on Taiwan. The Middle Kingdom is militarily strong, but no stronger than its opponents. The Chinese would be wise to remember the wisdom of foreign policy from Deng Xiaoping to Hu Jintao: