t is well known that the last conflagration fought by mankind was not global until the Japanese attack on the Pearl Harbor base and the subsequent entry of the United States into the conflict. Mutatis mutandis, the current war in Ukraine, while directly affecting the whole of Europe and indirectly the whole world, is not yet a world war. It will be as soon as the inevitable power struggle breaks out between the United States, hitherto the dominant superpower, and China, the emerging superpower that has already begun to challenge its supremacy.
In view of the planetary geopolitical scenario, the most likely flashpoint for the outbreak is Taiwan, where the detonation will mark the beginning of the many regional and local conflicts that will cascade under the cover of this generalised all-out war. To wage it, China must not only be convinced of the justice of its claim to the island but also that it can defeat the United States, whose credibility as a great superpower is at stake in Taiwan. It is not enough to be a superpower; it must also be perceived as such by the rest of the world. All empires or supremacies in the world began to cease to be so when neighbouring countries or powers doubted that the hegemonic power had the capacity to exercise it.
China has long sought to displace the United States in Asia’s maritime space, where it has established itself as the dominant power and thus the guarantor of fluid trade and communications in the Pacific Ocean and between the Pacific and the Indian Ocean. Beijing’s latest actions in this regard have been the Pacific Islands Forum, on the one hand, and on the other the meteoric acceleration of its land, space and naval rearmament, while increasing pressure on Taiwan, which it is already urging peremptorily to reunify with Beijing.
Despite proclamations of pacifism, the truth is that China, both in its language and its actions, is increasingly showing a much more aggressive face. It was Mao Zedong who advocated what he himself called a “strategy of offensive deterrence”, i.e. achieving geopolitical goals through cooperation and dialogue in which it was understood without much fuss that opposition would come at a high price. Consequently, Beijing’s first goal is total dominance over the East China Sea, where it disputes with Japan over the sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands. The second is to turn the South China Sea into an inland lake, for which it has already built artificial islands and military bases in disputed territories, especially with Vietnam and the Philippines. At the same time, the so-called Vision for Common Development, with which Foreign Minister Wang Yi described the diplomatic operation around the ten Pacific Forum island states, has the undisguised aim of removing them from Western influence.
Diplomatic counter-offensive and military pre-emption
All of this has precipitated a counter-offensive that for the time being is limited to diplomatic gestures and military pre-emption, be it the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) between the United States, Japan, India and Australia to “guarantee a free and open Indo-Pacific”, the AUKUS Pact (Australia, United Kingdom and United States), or the controversial visit to Taipei by the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, who is being blamed for breaking the statu quo in the region.
In reality, despite the White House’s supposed displeasure, Pelosi’s presence has merely rubber-stamped President Joe Biden’s proclamation that he will defend Taiwan, even militarily. That adverb is a big word, with a clear addressee, which is none other than China, namely his counterpart, President Xi Jinping. That he and his brand new White Paper, pompously titled The Taiwan Question and the Reunification of China in the New Era, alternate carrot and stick does not convince those concerned. Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, her armed forces and her large parliamentary majority are all too aware of the (bad) example of Hong Kong, where the famous “one country, two systems” model has been blown to bits by the new Security Law, which has unceremoniously liquidated the entire opposition, introduced strict censorship and provoked massive emigration into exile.
For Xi Jinping to propose to Taiwan a prosperous and supposedly secure integrated development zone, a special administrative regime, with the promise of full respect for its social system, way of life, private property and even religious beliefs, is not believed on the island. Here again is the latest example in Hong Kong, with the prosecution of Cardinal Zen, who is accused, along with five parishioners, of setting up a humanitarian fund suspected of being part of the Democratic Front, a human rights organisation critical of Beijing.
Japan’s rearmament and, again, the nuclear threat
Faced with the likely scenario of China wanting to take the island by force, its traditional adversary in the region, Japan, wants to shake off the straitjacket of Article 9 of its Constitution, which prohibits it from declaring war and severely limits its military capabilities. This was the work of the assassinated former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose legacy has been taken up by both the current head of government, Fumio Kishida, and an overwhelming majority of the parliament elected on 10 July. There is a general consensus in both Japan and South Korea that China’s expansionist ambitions must be contained.
The main doubt, however, arises in the United States itself, where reports and warnings to the White House are already multiplying. Of these, the most forceful are those advocated by Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley, who advocate that “the United States should behave as if it were on the brink of a major war against a nuclear-armed superpower rival”. Before them, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines warned just a couple of months ago that “there is a definite threat of a Chinese attack on Taiwan”.
Of course, there are many other hot spots around the globe, but right now the closest to ignition temperature is on the island of Formosa.
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