Sleepwalking towards war: will America and China heed the warnings of twentieth-century catastrophe?

Jun 27, 2024
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“The United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. The United States Government does not challenge that position.” – Shanghai Communique, United States government, 1972

In his essay, Sleepwalking Towards War, eminent Yale scholar Odd Arne Westad provides a compelling insight into today’s tensions between the United States and China. Locating the geopolitical landscape of the rising power of China with the declining power of the United States, Westad traces the structural roots of the conflict and makes an analogy with the events and attitudes that led Britain and Germany to disastrous war in 1914.

The heart of the essay is Westad’s focus on the vexed problem of Taiwan. Ironically the issue that most consider the Gordian knot presents the most interesting potential solution to the threat of war. Westad cites the 1972 Shanghai Communiqué, where President Nixon and Chairman Mao agreed to the One China Policy.

The central wording of the Communiqué, is essential reading – particularly as it is so poorly understood in Australia and the United States. It says:

The United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. The United States Government does not challenge that position. It reaffirms its interest in a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves. With this prospect in mind, it affirms the ultimate objective of the withdrawal of all US forces and military installations from Taiwan. In the meantime, it will progressively reduce its forces and military installations on Taiwan as the tension in the area diminishes. The two sides agreed that it is desirable to broaden the understanding between the two peoples. To this end, they discussed specific areas in such fields as science, technology, culture, sports and journalism, in which people-to-people contacts and exchanges would be mutually beneficial. Each side undertakes to facilitate the further development of such contacts and exchanges.

Westad proposes that the principles and intent of the Shanghai Communiqué be revisited by the parties. To prevent misunderstandings and the drift towards conflict Washington could say that it will under no circumstances support Taiwan’s independence. In return, Beijing could declare that China will not use force unless Taiwan formally takes steps toward becoming independent. Such a clear affirmation of the original agreement would make a war over Taiwan much less likely. It may also lead to a more substantial détente between the great powers.

The full version of Odd Arne Westad’s, Sleepwalking Towards War: Will America and China Heed the Warnings of Twentieth-Century Catastrophe? can be viewed below.

 

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