Recently there have been media reports that high-ranking German officials are contemplating sending a warship through the Taiwan Strait and bandwagoning with the Trump administration’s increasingly anti-Chinese posture in the Asia-Pacific region.
The last time the Germans sent warships to fight China was under Kaiser Wilhelm II, who dispatched his troops to smash the Boxer Rebellion, and urged the expeditionary force commander to be a “modern version of Attila the Hun.”
The Boxer Rebellion was a Chinese uprising between 1899 and 1901 to protest occupying imperial foreign powers that had carved up China into spheres of influence, and in response the Eight-Nation Alliance – a multinational military coalition of American, German, French, British, Austro-Hungarian, Italian, Japanese and Russian troops – invaded China in the name of humanitarian intervention to protect their respective citizens.
In 1900, the military alliance marched from Tianjin into Peking and crushed the Qing Imperial Army as well as the Boxer Rebellion, precipitating the end of the Qing Dynasty a decade later in 1912.
The Chinese never forgot this intervention and their Century of Humiliation.
Arena for Franco-German rivalry?
Now under President Donald Trump, it seems the US is reconstituting an anti-China multinational military alliance for the 21st century.
France has already sent a warship through the Taiwan Strait in April to demonstrate its military prowess and leadership in the European Union, and in response Berlin is feeling the pressure to up the game against its chief rival within the European Union.
In an article originally published in Politico by Wall Street Journal columnist John Vinocur, he argued that German military involvement would win Trump’s approval and dispel “wide disrespect elsewhere for its hide-under-the-bed routine,” adding that “launching a naval in-your-face operation off the coast of Taiwan” could combat the US notion that Germany is an irresponsible and noncommittal ally.
Vinocur also cited French criticism of Berlin running a “non-combat” army, with Sciences Po professor Zaki Laidi writing last month that Chancellor Angela Merkel “has done absolutely nothing’’ to change Germany’s role as a rich global bystander protected by the US.
However, pitting Berlin against Paris in a beauty contest to win Trump’s approval, and using the Taiwan Strait as an arena for Franco-German military rivalry, is not exactly in the interest of the Taiwanese people.
Moreover, even if European powers are interested in safeguarding their Asian export markets and seek military involvement to maintain regional stability and security, piggybacking on Washington’s increasingly anti-China posture is likely not the right point of entry for Germany or France into the Asian maritime domain. Instead, the EU would need to carve out its own niche perhaps in mediating between Washington and Beijing.
Threat perception gap
There also seems to be a threat perception gap between Taipei and Washington regarding Beijing.
After a recent trip to Taiwan, visiting Taipei in the north and Kaohsiung in the south, this author did not get the sense that the Taiwanese give much daily thought to a Chinese invasion. The economy is relatively strong and people are busy working and enjoying their lives, and it seems Western media and Taiwanese-Americans are the ones more worried than the average Taiwanese about a Chinese military takeover.
I asked local Taiwanese and “mainlanders” (外省人 wàishěngrén) their views on China – people ranging from taxi drivers to night-market street vendors, store cashiers, corporate executives and a former defense official in the Chen Shui-bian administration – and the majority held a surprisingly sanguine view of China.
Some even went as far as to say that if China were to take over, all they would have to do is change the flag and life would continue as usual, while others appreciated gains from China’s economic rise but were cautious about preserving democratic rule on the island.
As reported last year in the South China Morning Post, there has been a gradual shift in Taiwanese perception of cross-Strait relations over time. China is no longer the poor and backward country that it was during the last cross-Strait crisis in 1995-96, and the impressive pace of China’s modernization, rising living standards, increasing commercial, educational and cultural exchanges over the past two decades have made it more attractive to the island’s population.
Admittedly, Beijing remains committed to bringing Taiwan into the fold over the next 25 years, and while it may prefer to do so peacefully, all options remain on the table if bellicosity rises in the 2040s. As such, Beijing will do its utmost to charm, cajole, and persuade Taipei to rejoin in the next decades.
This may not be far-fetched, given that Taiwan’s economic interests could eventually lead to voluntary unification, with some observing that “if the political situation gets better … I think we’ll end up jumping over there on our own.” In the meantime, the EU could perhaps consider establishing a maritime presence and cooperative security role with regional powers to deter any potential military aggression should they arise, whether in the Taiwan Strait or elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific region.
However, joining Washington now to ratchet up tensions in the Taiwan Strait would unnecessarily revive China’s memories regarding the Century of Humiliation, and endanger the safety of the Taiwanese population caught in the crosshairs of worsening Sino-US tensions.
If the West truly cares about Taiwan, then it needs to stop disappearing the 23 million lives on the island by referring to them as a “bargaining chip,” “card,” or “chess piece” against China, and remember that these people will be the ones facing the bayonet end of any rash China policy the Trump administration pursues.