German troops marching over a rail bridge
Warm welcome: German troops re-militarize the Rhineland 1936 (Image: Imperial War Museum)

History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes

In March 1936 the Germany’s Army reoccupied the Rhineland region of Western Germany. The Rhineland had been demilitarized under the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, to create a buffer region between Germany and France in the aftermath of the Great War of 1914-18. For Nazi Germany in March 1936 the “retaking” of the Rhineland was a hugely symbolic event, and its relative lack of reaction from other powers emboldened German Chancellor, Adolf Hitler who’s armies moved on to invade Czechoslovakia almost exactly three years later, setting the World ablaze in another global conflagration.

However, as the Great War had illustrated, it takes more than one event, one leader or one country to create a World War; it tends to be a culmination of multiple factors that cause the worst outcomes. A year after German troops reoccupied the Rhineland, Japan mounted an invasion on a politically divided China. Japanese imperial troops mounted an attack on the fractured forces of the nationalist Kuomintang and the insurgent Communist Party, which (temporarily) allied to resist it, in a conflict against Japan that raged from 1937 to 1945.

The temptation is to be mesmerized by Russia and its invasion of Ukraine - a country divided by an 8 year civil war and run by an (at the time) unpopular government - but it is also worth thinking further East, to other, apparently disconnected events, that make the global situation more uncertain than just the direct byproducts of the first “tank war” in Europe since 1945.

Now it is Russia, rather than Germany taking on unfinished business on its Western flank in Europe, and it appears China, rather than Japan, is intent on dominating the East China sea. It has unhappy echoes of the late 1930’s.

China and Taiwan - the Unfinished Civil War

Taiwan (the Island of Formosa) had been under Chinese imperial control since the 17th Century. It was ceded by Imperial China to the Empire of Japan under the Treaty of Shimonoseki after the first Sino-Japanese War in 1895: a strategic byproduct of Japan’s invasion of the Korean peninsular. This added to the pressures on the imperial Qing Dynasty of China, which had in prior decades already suffered the humiliations of losing both Opium Wars (1839-42, and 1856-60) and control of Hong Kong (ceded by the Qing to the British in 1841). By the time the Qing administration had been further knocked by territorial losses to Imperial Russia in the Sino-Russian War of 1904-5, the light was fading on centuries of imperial rule. Despite belated attempts at reform the Qing Dynasty and the imperial throne itself was deposed by a revolution in 1911, resulting in the abdication of the last Emperor Puyi, and the creation of the Republic of China.

It was this Republic of China that was riven by internal divisions when Japan attacked it in 1937. The mainstream Kuomintang (KMT) and revolutionary Chinese Communists (CCP) had been fighting each other since 1927 but allied - not always coherently - to resist the Japanese invasion. Global power politics played a hand, and the KMT was backed by the US and the CCP by the Soviet Union. The CCP tended to be more successful in their military operations than the KMT, and when the Japanese surrendered to the Western Allies in late 1945, the friction between the two groups reignited in violence. After several more years of conflict in which the KMT suffered a series of reverses the KMT and its leader Chiang Kai-shek escaped to Formosa in 1949, leaving mainland China to the victorious CCP.

The mainland became the Communist People’s Republic of China (PRC), and the nationalists remained the exiled government of the Republic of China (ROC) in Taiwan.

Nancy Pelosi Visits

Despite the warm rhetoric of the US and others, the ROC is diplomatically recognized by only a handful of countries (14 to be exact, mainly in the Caribbean and Latin America, but also including the Embassy of the Holy See (Vatican); compared with the 172 foreign embassies hosted by the PRC). The USA continued to recognize the ROC in Taiwan until 1979 and then cut its formal recognition in favor of the PRC on the mainland, and now has no formal diplomatic relations with the ROC.

The US may not have an embassy but it does have a significant presence in the form of the American Institute in Taiwan, a unique body mandated by the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979; a “strategic ambiguity” that is more complex and subtle than the foreign policy stance of the Pope, it would seem.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visits Taiwan
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visits the Republic of China, Taiwan (Image: Office of the President)

However, Taiwan is the United States’ eighth-largest trading partner, a globally important manufacturer of microchips, and the United States is Taiwan’s second-largest trading partner (ironically after the PRC, which is the largest). With this background in mind, the visit of House of Representatives Speaker, Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan last week was strange for at least three reasons:

  1. as Speaker Ms Pelosi has no formal role in US foreign policy - which is the preserve of the President,

  2. Ms Pelosi made her visit a matter of days after the 95th anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army of the PRC, and in advance of the Communist Party Congress, which occurs only every 5 years, so appears overtly provocative, and

  3. her visit was not sanctioned by President Biden, despite them being members of the same political party (Newt Gingrich visited Taiwan in 1997 but was not of the same party as Democrat President Clinton); in fact it is more likely that Biden politely tried to stop Pelosi’s visit, albeit it he could not be seen to be doing so.

The Speaker has therefore ignited more tension between the US and PRC - one must assume deliberately - but it is not clear for what strategic purpose. The PRC responded in predictable manner, by increasing the number of its military air sorties in to or near ROC airspace ; but it also engaged in a new escalation by commencing a series of live-fire exercises in the waters around Taiwan itself.

The PRC Arms Itself

The PRC exercises around Taiwan resulting from Speaker Pelosi’s visit differ in nature from the type of exercises that have gone before:

  1. they must have been long-planned: it is logistically impossible that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was not already planning to conduct live-fire exercises,

  2. the exercises simulated an assault on Taiwan, in the waters off Taiwan: very different from most military practice, which take place in training areas within the exercising military’s own control or with the permission of a close military ally, usually far away from the intended target, (watching the PLA forces operating so close has been extremely instructive - and slightly alarming - for the US and its regional allies; and no doubt the reaction of Taiwanese forces has been instructive to the PLA),

  3. they have not, so far, triggered a full blown diplomatic crisis: despite the PRC cutting some of its military liaison with the US as a result of its fury at Speaker Pelosi’s visit, the situation has not yet escalated in to a full blown diplomatic crisis, in part because of the relatively muted reaction of the Biden Administration.

The PRC increased its defense budget by 7.1% this year to Yuan 1,45 trillion ($230bn), despite its economy being under pressure from “zero covid” lockdowns, reduced domestic demand and some food inflation (2 - 6% depending on the food - still modest compared with the inflation seen in the G7 economies). This is still dwarfed by US defense spending of circa $700bn. However, in context, the Chinese defense budget has more than doubled in the last decade.

The Creation of AUKUS and Japan Rearms

In September 2021 the governments of the US, UK and Australia announced the creation of an “enhanced trilateral security partnership called “AUKUS” - Australia, the United Kingdom and United States”, much to the chagrin of other countries with historic ties to the Indo-Pacific region, notably France. The military pact is more like a series of agreements starting with the US and UK helping develop nuclear powered submarine capability for Australia and extending to collaboration on a number of other security related capabilities, including cyber, AI, quantum computing (useful for a number of things) and “additional undersea capabilities” (which is likely to be a euphemism for undersea drones or UUV’s, Unmanned Underwater Vehicles).

The late, great Shinzo Abe, who was so tragically assassinated on 8 July, had as Prime Minister of Japan urged rearmament as a priority, in a rejection of the constitutionally imposed pacifism since the Second World War. His quiet urging led to Japan converting helicopter carriers to fully fledged aircraft carriers, and in October 2021, two locally stationed US Marine Corps F-35B’s landed on the deck of JS Izumo, the first operational aircraft carrier Japan has had since the end of the Second World War.

The US has its largest permanent overseas military presence in Japan; as it nearly invariably has been since 1945. More than 55,000 military personnel occupy around one hundred and twenty bases throughout Japan’s islands, including a large part of Okinawa. The US has another 26,000 troops stationed in South Korea. As I write the USS Ronald Reagan carrier strike group is bobbing about on the South China Sea: the USS Ronald Reagan is a Nimitz class nuclear powered super-carrier, accompanied by cruiser USS Antietam and destroyer USS Higgins and - one would have to assume - one or two nuclear powered submarines, lurking darkly beneath the surface, listening.

Wake Up Call

With war in Europe and military rearmament in East Asia, Western politicians - distracted by inflation and domestic issues - should have a more strategic eye on the risks of an increasingly confident PRC and an increasingly frustrated Russia.

  • The EU should abandon its idea of building its own army, in favor of the newly invigorated NATO,

  • the UK, France and Germany should fulfill their commitments to increase spending on defense,

  • the G7 should engage much more positively with the G20 members who are inclined to be friends with - or at least not judgmental of - Russia and the PRC, including India, Turkey, Brazil, Pakistan, Mexico, and South Africa.

As slowness to build military capability and strong diplomatic relationships proved in the 1930’s, mistakes now will prove costly in years to come.

Further Reading