Our struggle against the Soviet Union offers vital lessons for how to confront the aggressive totalitarian threat that Beijing now represents.
Nothing has contributed more to the global retreat of democracy than the resurgence of the world’s leading authoritarian countries—most of all the People’s Republic of China.
The Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo warned prophetically in 2006, at the very beginning of this democratic decline, that China’s rise as a dictatorship would be a “catastrophe for the Chinese people” and “a disaster for the spread of liberal democracy in the world.” But nobody listened to him because the West fully supported China’s spectacular economic growth, believing that it would promote the country’s liberalization. As we know, however, it had the opposite effect of reinforcing the regime’s belief in the superiority of its state-driven economic model while also financing a parallel surge in military spending that has grown nearly fivefold in the last two decades.
Beijing fed the Western penchant for self-delusion about its intentions by following Deng Xiaoping’s dictum to hide its strength and bide its time. But when Xi Jinping took over a decade ago, he threw caution to the wind and adopted a far more confrontational policy toward the United States and other countries that he called the “great rejuvenation.” In addition to restoring strongman rule, radically centralizing power, tightening repression, and imposing a comprehensive system of digital surveillance, Beijing launched vast infrastructure and development projects to expand its influence in the Global South, took aggressive actions in the South and East China Seas that alarmed its Asian neighbors, formed a “no limits” strategic partnership with Russia just weeks before Putin invaded Ukraine, and conducted menacing military exercises and cyberattacks targeting Taiwan. On the hundredth anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 2021, Xi drove home how much more bellicose China had become when he warned that anyone who dared to bully it would “find their heads bashed against a great wall of steel forged by over 1.4 billion Chinese people.”
China’s aggressiveness has caused many analysts to conclude that a new Cold War has broken out between China and the United States. The Biden Administration has acknowledged as much, at least implicitly, when it asserted in its latest National Security Strategy that the “post–Cold War era is definitively over and a competition is underway between the major powers to shape what comes next.”
There are many differences between this new Cold War and the old one—not the least of which is that China is far wealthier and more integrated into the global economy than the Soviet Union ever was. But recognizing the similarities has the advantage of providing a framework for countering a “rejuvenated” China. While highlighting the dangers we face, those similarities should also remind us, in the way the Cold War ended, that there’s light at the end of the tunnel, but only if we have the wisdom and political will to take the actions that are needed to preserve peace and security and deter aggression.
Three basic policy concepts that guided the West during the Cold War remain particularly relevant today to defending Taiwan—the epicenter of the U.S.-China confrontation. The first is the concept of containment that the United States carried out through a comprehensive and vigilant policy of military deterrence designed to prevent Soviet expansion and keep the Cold War from becoming hot. The second is the concept of “mellowing,” which George Kennan described in his famous “X essay” in Foreign Affairs as the process by which the inherent flaws of the closed Soviet system would gradually erode the regime’s ability to maintain absolute control. The third is the battle of ideas, which is the political and ideological competition between democratic and totalitarian systems.
Regarding the first concept of containment, Matthew Pottinger, the former U.S. deputy national security adviser, said during a visit to Taiwan last month that that the formula for effective deterrence is “capability times credibility.” Underscoring the importance and urgency of deterrence in a recent essay, he and his coauthor John Pomfret warned that Xi Jinping should be taken seriously when he said in four separate speeches last March to the National People’s Congress and its political advisory body that China is preparing for war to conquer Taiwan and thereby “complete reunification.”
It is widely believed—including by the Taiwanese foreign minister—that the PRC could launch an invasion as soon as 2027, when it will have completed its military-modernization program. The time has come for Taiwan and its principal allies, the United States and Japan, to accelerate efforts to build the capability to repel and defeat Chinese aggression. This deterrence is the best way to prevent an invasion from happening in the first place.
What needs to be done—and why it must be done without delay—is spelled out in a recent article by the scholar, and former coeditor of this journal, Larry Diamond and Admiral James Ellis, the commander of the aircraft-carrier battle group that led the successful U.S. response to the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1996. A central point of their analysis is that deterring the mainland’s aggression against Taiwan is more than a moral issue of defending a small democracy against a much larger totalitarian state. Defending Taiwan is a vital U.S. security interest, and Japanese defense strategists increasingly believe that an attack on Taiwan would pose an existential threat to the security of Japan.
“Existential” is a word that Diamond and Ellis frequently use, since they are convinced that the subjugation of Taiwan would have devastating consequences for the future of global peace and democracy in the world—something that is often overlooked in discussions of the danger facing Taiwan.
A successful invasion would shatter U.S. credibility throughout the Indo-Pacific and beyond. It would give China control of not just the South and East China Seas (sea lanes through which a third of global trade passes), but also of Taiwan’s vital semiconductor industry on which the U.S., Japanese, and European economies heavily depend. Perhaps most dangerously, it would enable China to transform Taiwan into a huge military hub from which it could project power in all directions—northward toward Japan and South Korea, southward toward the Philippines and other countries in Southeast Asia, and eastward toward the Pacific Island states. In a word, the conquest of Taiwan would enable China to “Finlandize” Japan and other countries in Asia and Europe, forcing its will upon them in a manner similar to the Soviet Union’s treatment of Finland during the Cold War.
Given the enormity of the global stakes involved, Taiwan will not be alone in trying to deter China. Diamond and Ellis recommend many specific steps that the United States and Japan need to take to ramp up their military capabilities and increase joint training and exercises with Taiwan, while also making clear to Beijing the enormous risk it would be taking in attacking Taiwan. But they also stress that Taiwan cannot assume that the United States and Japan alone will be able to deter China from aggression. For deterrence to be effective, Taiwan must convince Beijing that it “will mount a fierce, determined, and creative resistance (in the spirit of Ukraine) that will enable it to hold out until support arrives from the United States and its allies.” This will require a rapid transition to an asymmetric fighting force of small, mobile, and survivable systems that can resist airborne and amphibious invasion. It will also require Taiwan to amass stockpiles of weapons and critical resources, above all energy, in the event China tries to strangle it into submission with a naval blockade.
The scale and urgency of mounting credible deterrence are so great that it would be easy to disregard the other two Cold War concepts I raised: mellowing and political competition. These concepts acknowledge that China can change over time. Encouraging reform should remain part of a containment strategy, even if the prospect of a political opening in China may now seem far-fetched. It’s true that Xi seemed to have cemented his supreme power at the Twentieth Party Congress last October when he ended collective leadership and packed the Politburo and Standing Committee with his party loyalists. But as Minxin Pei noted at the time, that’s exactly what Mao did at the Ninth Party Congress in 1969, which led to a brutal succession struggle, a devastated party, and eventually a rival taking power who introduced market-based reforms that Mao considered an abomination. Pei calls this an example of the “paradox of power,” which is the inverse relationship between the amount of power amassed by a strongman and the security of his rule. Unchecked power and seemingly absolute political supremacy, Pei writes, “may be a curse disguised as a blessing,” because it fosters political overreach, vicious factional battles, and debilitating state dysfunction.
There are examples of the “paradox of power” in Chinese history that long predate the recent period of communist rule. China scholar Perry Link has called the Communist dynasty one of the three “violent paroxysms” in Chinese history, with the other two being the Qin dynasty in the third century B.C.E and the Sui dynasty almost 850 years later. They share a number of characteristics with the present regime: They centralized political power using violence to secure control, maintained large armies and deployed them against neighboring states, levied massive corvées to build ambitious construction projects like the Great Wall and the Grand Canal, burned books and killed scholars, and (most importantly for this essay) were short-lived. The underlying strength of Chinese civilization outlasted both the Qin and Sui dynasties. The CCP is no exception: Although Orwellian surveillance technologies give the current Communist dynasty additional means of control unavailable to its predecessors, Link claims that the “ethical foundations of Chinese civilization” would also outlive the CCP.
Francis Fukuyama wrote that strongman rule is inherently precarious because the “concentration of power in the hands of a single leader at the top all but guarantees low-quality decision making, and over time will produce truly catastrophic consequences.” It remains to be seen how catastrophic Xi’s errors have been, but they are significant. At a time of economic slowdown and record youth unemployment in China, he launched a systematic crackdown on the private sector (accounting for two-thirds of the Chinese economy), which targeted big tech firms like Alibaba and Tencent and led to a US$2 trillion plunge in the market value of Chinese companies listed overseas—all for the purpose of strengthening CCP control over the economy. His belligerent assertions of Chinese power abroad has provoked a backlash that has driven the United States and Japan closer together and spurred the deepening of security ties between Asia and Europe—a fact which was demonstrated by the attendance of the Asia Pacific Partners (AP4), a new union of Asian democracies, at the 2023 NATO summit in Vilnius.
As bad as these and other policy failures have been for China, they do not compare with Xi’s disastrous management of the pandemic. The drastic lockdowns associated with the zero-covid policy triggered the largest protests in China since the 1989 Tiananmen uprising. Even worse was the CCP’s response: In December 2022, it lifted all covid restrictions without any preparations whatsoever—no vaccinations or stocking hospitals and drug stores, nothing—leading to as many as two-million deaths and virtually everyone contracting the disease. The impact of this catastrophe for China is still not fully understood, but it goes beyond the immediate suffering and death.
In this regard, I refer to Professor David Ownby of the University of Montreal, who interviewed Chinese intellectuals—from liberals and New Confucians to the highly statist New Left—during a trip to Beijing and Shanghai in May. Much to his surprise, as he reported in a podcast, he uncovered a profound, pervasive sense of disillusionment and anger at the incompetence and utter cynicism of the CCP. Almost everyone he spoke with—the only exceptions being a few New Left “celebrities,” as he called them—felt that the abrupt end of the zero-covid policy had upset their lives, “mark[ing] their souls” in ways they couldn’t forget even more than six months later. It was as if they were in mourning, Ownby said. As a young journalist said to him, “You’d like to think your government cares a little about you, but no. I have to rethink everything I thought I knew.” These intellectuals are not alone in their visible fury and alienation from the system: Ownby told a Chinese professor over lunch that it seemed as if millions of Chinese were experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder and were like “walking time bombs.” He replied, “Yep, that’s pretty much it. Everyone in this room, at some level, is living that.” Although it was too early to know if this was a turning point, Ownby reported feeling that there was definitely an “existential crisis” in China.
It’s clear that the situation in China has changed drastically since the early days of the pandemic when Xi and his “wolf warriors” boasted about the superiority of their top-down, authoritarian system to messy democracy. The idea of authoritarian competence doesn’t sell as well today, and it’s not only because of the disastrous consequences for Russia of Putin’s genocidal invasion of Ukraine or the protests that have gripped Iran since the September 2022 killing of Mahsa Amini for the “crime” of not wearing a hijab. The idea of authoritarian competence has now been thoroughly trashed in China as well. So the time may be right to pursue that third Cold War concept: the battle of ideas.
It is the responsibility of democrats in Taiwan and China and their allies around the world to begin to develop strategies for how to conduct such a battle. But a quiet dialogue with the Chinese intellectuals published on Ownby’s website, Reading the China Dream, would be useful, as would discussions with Chinese entrepreneurs. Ownby said that the intellectuals he knows like to get out of the confines of the university and speak with businesspeople, who are well informed from years of fighting battles in the real world and know how the system works.
As intellectuals and others in China try to recover from the current moral crisis and think through an alternative to Xi’s “China Dream”—which is really a warmed-over version of Maoism—the most important thing Taiwan can do is remain a model of freedom and democratic governance. One of the very first things that Xi did upon taking power in 2012 was to issue the communiqué called Document Number 9 to “conscientiously strengthen management of the ideological battlefield.” It directed party cadres to intensify the struggle against political “perils,” including constitutional government, civil society, universal values, and free media—all of which are core principles of liberal democracy. The communiqué repeatedly referred to these principles as “Western” and warned about their “infiltration” into Chinese society—something Xi clearly fears. Taiwan’s democracy shows that these principles are perfectly compatible with Confucian culture and are, in fact, universal. This is a powerful message of a different kind of dream, and it has the potential to capture the imagination of the Chinese people. At a time of great danger, it is a source of hope. It also underscores why the future of freedom depends on the preservation of freedom and security in Taiwan.
Carl Gershman is the founding president of the National Endowment for Democracy. This essay is based on an address he delivered on 18 July 2023 at the twentieth anniversary celebration of the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy.
Copyright © 2023 National Endowment for Democracy
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