AMID the intensifying sabre-rattling over Taiwan, the doyen of American whistleblowers, Daniel Ellsberg, deemed it important to publicise his nation’s nuclear war gaming during the Taiwan Straits crisis of 1958. That’s because evaluations of a potential conventional war suggest that China would have the upper hand even if the United States militarily came to Taiwan’s aid. What might be the next step?
Ellsberg points to “shallow” and “reckless” discussions over the possible use of nuclear weapons in 1958, before adding: “I do not believe the participants were more stupid or thoughtless than those in between or in the current cabinet.”
It was the publication of the Pentagon Papers 50 years ago this month that rocketed Ellsberg to notoriety and acclaim and led to the Nixon administration branding him as “the most dangerous man in America”. The classified documents he leaked demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt the sheer futility of American aggression in Indochina.
What remained secret for decades thereafter was the fact that Ellsberg had also photocopied loads of documents unrelated to the Vietnam War, focusing primarily on contemplation of nuclear warfare in the highest echelons of government. It wasn’t until 2017 that Ellsberg comprehensively shared his knowledge in a volume titled The Doomsday Machine, and in even greater detail on his website.
The island has changed a great deal since Chiang’s death.
Some of the material had been declassified in the intervening decades, but not the Taiwan Straits analyses — and Ellsberg, now 90, has lately been daring the authorities to prosecute him once more. (His attempted prosecution in the early 1970s was dismissed by a judge on account of criminal behaviour by the White House.)
His wish is unlikely to be fulfilled — even though the authorities have pursued whistleblowers with a vengeance since the advent of the Obama administration, among them Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, Reality Winner and Julian Assange.
Sadly, it goes almost without saying that those seen as dissidents fare even worse in China. There is no dearth of evidence to back up the perception that under Xi Jinping, the authoritarianism of the People’s Republic has become more assertive, both at home and abroad.
Among the most obnoxious manifestations is the campaign against the Uighurs in Xinjiang province which has lately provided China’s adversaries (including several with an established record of brutality towards their own minorities) with a cudgel to wield against Beijing.
Equally deplorable at a different level is the intimidation of Taiwan, including routine violations of its airspace, and a defence ministry spokesman’s declaration back in January that “those who play with fire will burn themselves, and Taiwan independence means war”.
Taiwan — previously known as Formosa and the Republic of China — has effectively existed as an independent state since it was occupied in 1949 by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist forces, after they were driven out of the mainland by the Mao Zedong-led Communists.
Both sides at the time pursued a “one China” policy, and until 1971 it was Taiwan that occupied China’s slot on the UN Security Council. That absurd situation was rectified after the US-China rapprochement 50 years ago, spearheaded by ping-pong diplomacy and Henry Kissinger’s secret visit to Beijing via Islamabad — facilitated by the fact that by then, far from being allies, China and the Soviet Union were undisguised adversaries.
Among the consequences for Taiwan was that it ceased to be recognised as a state by most countries. The island has changed a great deal since Chiang’s death in 1975, evolving from a volatile dictatorship into a fairly stable bourgeois democracy with economic successes to match, aided in recent decades by a reasonably accommodating relationship with China, based on trade and tourism.
Alongside that, Beijing has been prone to allergic reactions every time there’s so much as an implied reference to Taiwan as a separate state. Just last week President Xi told a gathering of the party faithful that China must improve its international image and “help foreign people realise that the Communist Party really strives for the happiness of the Chinese people”. Here are three steps Beijing could consider. One: if an overwhelming majority in Taiwan seek a declaration of independence, it will give its blessing. Two: reverse the repression in Xinjiang and elsewhere, and encourage the Uighurs and other minorities, if they so desire, to take the lead in implementing China’s new three-child policy. Three: let Hong Kong be Hong Kong, at least for the time being.
None of these would be an easy measure for the Communist Party to contemplate, but try to imagine how far even one of them would go towards rehabilitating China’s image and making it that much harder for its adversaries to portray it as a power aspiring to replace American hegemony with its own variant.
Published in Dawn, June 9th, 2021