People who love peace, freedom and human rights should not forget the words of German pastor Martin Niemoeller (1892-1984) about the Nazis, paraphrased at the New England Holocaust Memorial in Boston:
“First they (the Nazis) came for the communists, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a communist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I continued not speaking out.
Then they came for the Catholics, and I continued not speaking out – Because I was not a Catholic.
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Did the policy of appeasement 80 years ago, in 1938, advocated by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and French Premier Edouard Daladier in the face of Adolf Hitler’s aggressive expansionism, actually stop him in his tracks or encourage him? Does appeasement amount to patching up a quarrel and reconciling different parties, or is it just another word for nursing evildoers in one’s midst? Does appeasement in the end lead to war or to peace?
When China speeded up the building of artificial islands on reefs in the South China Sea around 2015, democracies around the world, including the United States, never showed up to stop them from filling up the first plot of land, burying the first bar of steel, pouring the first bag of cement.
As a result, today we see those reefs transformed into islands, airport runways, military installations for military personnel. If today, people still half believe China’s brand of “give them an inch, and they’ll take a mile” nationalism, if one still believes one can put the situation right by trying persuasion, if they still naively believe that there will be a day when China’s hunger for territorial expansion will be satiated, then they should be prepared for Communist China repeating Nazi Germany’s tragic history.
The most fearful element is that China’s military rise and economic rise go hand in hand. China’s military ambition is often wrapped inside a disguise of economic interest. Because of this, South Korea, which lies in front of the tiger’s mouth, has given China ambiguous signals while playing it safe. Several countries sinking into the swamp of the Belt and Road Initiative have begun tasting the bitter fruit of military matters hidden under the sugarcoating.
How should democratic countries behave in the face of China’s military and economic rise?
First of all, do not assume that because you are located far away from China, its ambitions will not affect you, and that if there is a profit to be made, it doesn’t matter whether you are following its siren song. Anybody not blind can see that China’s 21st-century rise is not peaceful but military, that it is a country which has locked up Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo until the eve of his death and which regards the South China Sea decision by the International Court of Justice in The Hague as a piece of waste paper. China’s rise didn’t come through technology, but by imitation and theft, it’s a country which lacks any regard for intellectual property rights and patent rights. China’s rise didn’t come through a free-market economy, but it’s a country which sees hostile takeovers and state interference as normal methods and which wants to see the Third World move from economic colonies to military colonies. If this kind of China does not reform thoroughly, it will always pose a threat to the free world.
Secondly, with a balance of power by Congress and reviews by public opinion, no matter how much United States President Donald Trump tries to turn traditional democratic practices on their head, there is no way he can go it alone. In contrast, Communist China’s Xi Jinping wants “Xi Jinping Thought” to be written into the Constitution and wants presidential term limits to be abolished, while media or individuals who dare to say the word “no” are bound to be silenced. Bearing this background in mind, out of U.S. President Trump, who wants to “Make America Great Again,” or Chinese leader Xi Jinping who wants to overtake the U.S. leadership position, which one is the more dangerous, which one might cause a global disaster, it’s all too clear. China’s threats against the airlines of democratic nations to change Taiwan’s name to “Taiwan, China” clearly reveals its one-sided bullying attitude that “what I say, goes.” Aren’t the countries which played along with China for commercial profit and spoiled it worried that one day, China’s pointless provocation will be targeting them?
Thirdly, because of its shame and guilt about World War II, Japan has been unable to break ranks with China, which knows no shame. Facing China, which continuously criticizes Japan for its role in the war, Tokyo should finally understand how to drop the burden and do away with the never-ending self-blame. In 1979, Japan started giving China development aid loans, but after 20, 30 years, enough is enough. This should be the time to stop the self-blame and use a new approach to face China.
Germany, which managed to work its way out from under the shadow of the Nazi regime thanks to transitional justice, has also begun to realize the threat from China. The country sees the Chinese takeover of technology firms damaging to its economic and security interests, and even to its national security. Those views are without a doubt right, but Germany has still to take a clearer stance and voice clearer opinions on Chinese territorial ambitions in the South China Sea. Reproaches by Great Britain, France and Australia have not moved from the stage of comments to concrete action yet, but this is obviously not enough for a country like China, which is used to conflicting statements and to watching other countries’ actions while listening to their words. Only concrete and continuing actions will help!
The U.S. might finally have seen through China’s ambitious plans. Maybe it has understood what it would mean if China were to break through the first island chain through Taiwan, or maybe it will reassign China from a strategic partner to a strategic competitor or rival. On the one hand, the U.S. has rolled out a number of laws improving relations with Taiwan, while on the other hand it has delivered China’s military and economic ambitions a sharp warning by sending warships through the waters of the South China Sea and by declaring a trade war with tariffs. The facts prove that when you counter an aggressive China, the carrot will not work, the only thing China is afraid of is this method of hitting where it hurts. Only a stick can wake that country up from its communist dream of dominating the world.
Of course, the U.S. can do even more and even better. Recognizing Taiwan (of course not the Republic of China) is a country, and immediately establishing diplomatic relations with it, turning Taiwan into a strong ally of the U.S. in the community of democracies. Both sides should protect the right of free passage for ships from around the world in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. Isn’t that a beautiful sight to behold?
Chang Kuo-tsai is a former deputy secretary general of the Taiwan Association of University Professors and a retired assistant professor at the National Hsinchu University of Education.