Matthew Hooton: Loose words raise risk of war


Don’t ditch your shares and rental property for gold and diamonds just yet.

Listen to some, and war between China and the United States sounds imminent. The theory goes that as soon as February’s Beijing Winter Olympics are over, President Xi Jinping will order the People’s Liberation Army to free the people of Taiwan from the yoke of democratic oppression. It’s based on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine immediately after the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.

Xi’s goal would be to complete the unification of China that began with Mao’s 1949 defeat of the Kuomintang, the 1950 invasion of Tibet, and Deng Xiaoping and Zhao Ziyang’s peaceful negotiations with Margaret Thatcher and Anibal Cavaco Silva to resume the exercise of China’s sovereignty over Hong Kong and Macau.

Xi would get to order a new portrait to overlook Tiananmen Square from atop the Heavenly Gate of Peace.

The story, being pushed mainly by military hawks in the United States and Australia, involves President Joe Biden coming to Taiwan’s aid with boots on the ground but a deal with China to leave nuclear weapons in the shed. We’d have our first peer-to-peer war between great powers since Hitler took on Stalin, costing the lives of 15 million soldiers and 24 million civilians.

Yet even that would be mild compared with the plot twist of Xi, Biden or their successors losing patience and trying for a quick win using intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

With no military allies except North Korea, China would have to fight alone. The US would build a wider alliance, including Britain, Japan and New Zealand’s only ally, Australia.

Everyone knows New Zealand would back that side, at least with intelligence, special forces and logistics.Russia would sit it out.

War gamers in Washington and presumably Beijing find China always comes out on top. But Xi doesn’t get his liberation parade through Taipei, except surrounded by rubble. His economy is devastated, along with the rest of East Asia, the US, and thus Australia and New Zealand.

The only winner is Russia, whose relative power is radically enhanced. Supported by his allies Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and probably Iran and Syria, Putin grasps his last chance of hegemony to his south and southwest.

The US security guarantee having failed in East Asia, Nato is weakened and Europe is forced to look east. Putin’s investments to destabilise the Washington-Beijing relationship, most especially Donald Trump’s election, all pay off.

This is an outlook so bleak that swapping the shares and rental property for gold and diamonds wouldn’t be enough. Better to cash up, ignore Covid, and buy that Aston Martin Speedster for one last road trip across North America and Europe.

Yet, for that very reason, the whole scenario can probably be discounted and it certainly makes no sense to provoke China by talking it up.

Xi is not the cuddly, friendly, progressive Chinese leader the west thought it saw in Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, but he hasn’t become China’s paramount leader by being irrational. If Khrushchev and Kennedy didn’t blunder into nuclear war in 1962 and Reagan and Andropov in 1983, then Xi and Biden will manage it too.

For that very reason, Xi may calculate Biden would keep his own military out of the fight, backing Taiwan only with intelligence, advice and materiel.But Xi still couldn’t expect a walkover. His amphibious invasion would be across waters five times wider than Eisenhower overcame from England to France in 1944.

Moreover, 21st century satellite and other intelligence technology means the strategic and tactical surprise when the allies landed in Normandy is now impossible. A failed invasion attempt would not just mean the end of Xi’s presidency but also his life, and perhaps China’s existence as a unified state.

This raises the most important point: There is no known intelligence suggesting an invasion is being planned, let alone of the unprecedented manufacture of military equipment required.

As a new superpower, China is rapidly growing and modernising its military, which is scary enough. But that is very different from actual evidence of preparations for a specific operation, let alone one as complicated,historic and risky as crossing the Taiwan Strait.

Invasion talk is coming more from politicians and retired generals in Washington and Canberra than from Beijing. The US military and its nuclear arsenal have kept the world safe from peer-to-peer war between great powers for 75 years.

For those lucky enough to live under a US security guarantee, war has become something that kills only professional soldiers, who our taxes pay and support reasonably well, plus foreign soldiers and civilians “in a far-away country … of whom we know nothing”.

But militaries arebureaucracies too. No less than monstrosities like MBIE (Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment), KiwiBuild or Auckland Transport, they become thirsty for new projects when existing ones end, even in abject failure. Even if only idle speculation by insufficiently occupied generals and defence ministers, care is needed, lest the war talk itself encourages Xi.

Despite deliberate misinterpretation of their recent remarks, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta have made it clearNZ will be more vocal in criticism of Xi’s China. They allowed a revised version of Act deputy leader Brooke van Velden’s condemnation of China to pass unanimously in Parliament.

Equally, they have made it clear that they are committed to our military alliance with Australia, our Five Eyes partners and our wider network of democratic friends.

But they judge correctly that criticism of China should not be through Five Eyes media statements for fear it is misinterpreted in Beijing as an emerging anti-China alliance.

Instead, they argue criticism of China should be by way of bilateral communications or wider groups than just the Five Eyes, including the EU, Japan, South Korea and India.

This will and does upset China but that’s too bad. Some of what they do and say upsets us. It’s not a reason to sound the drums of war or try to forcibly resolve the standoff across the Taiwan Strait. While there will be tension, bad behaviour, incidents and even crises in the South China Sea, reason will surely prevail in Beijing, Taipei and Washington.

If I’m right, you can stick with shares and residential property. If I’m wrong, the road trip in the Aston Martin is the best bet.

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