Many people underestimated Donald Trump, and found to their dismay that he had outsmarted them, not because he was extra smart but because he was just being himself. Even sophisticated pollsters were way off the mark. After his electoral victory, he spoke and sounded inclusive and presidential. But recently he again behaved like an insensitive ignoramus when he spoke with Taiwan’s president in apparent disregard of his country’s decades-long observance of the One China policy. Whether or not he was manipulated to take the call and did not know any better, the fact is he barreled through and was not apologetic when Beijing protested.
Whose is the One China policy, anyway? It is the policy of mainland China, foisted upon the world to align world thinking according to China’s purposes. Why has China not taken Taiwan by force as it has constantly threatened to do? While Taiwan has lost its technological edge as China swiftly modernized its military, the Taiwanese are capable of a war of attrition that could be politically damaging and risky for the mainland. Besides, the mainland is actually Taiwan’s biggest trading partner, so there are economic considerations as well.
Now, Trump is using the Taiwan card to poke China in the ribs, possibly with the bigger picture being the US response to China’s increasingly assertive claims in the West Philippine Sea despite the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling favoring the Philippines.
Psychological warfare plays a great role in any conflict. In this war of minds, China wants everyone to accept the idea that there is only one China. When superpower America apparently doesn’t buy in on the idea, it infuriates Beijing.
Actually, China need not be so sensitive. Countries with superpower aspirations should realize that hegemony need no longer be territorial. For example, astute use of the internet has given a group like the Islamic State a global reach. The homegrown terrorism that it inspires is the way the IS demonstrates its worldwide clout. Thus, mental hegemony is the best kind because it is the least expensive and the most lasting.
Materially, money fuels hegemony. China has poured huge amounts into South America, Africa and Asia to help assure it of natural resources and markets to sustain its growth. That’s also why it initiated the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which rivals the US-dominated World Bank and the Japan-dominated Asian Development Bank.
Being the world’s second biggest economy, China can very well take advantage of the natural forces of globalization to establish its hegemony without being too belligerent.
It would behoove China to project itself in more benevolent terms and not push an illusory One China or always claim “indisputable sovereignty” over the South China Sea. These concepts are China-centered and Middle-Kingdom-like and, ironically, invite not just verbal dispute but also war. The United States is less brazen with its “spreading democracy” and “safeguarding the Free World” propaganda. Even imperial Japan had enough sense to call its militaristic expansionism a “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.”
As for us, while we may not yet be able to physically assert our rights in the West Philippine Sea, if we can make China believe that it is there illegally, then the strategic victory shall be ours. Now that our fishermen can once more fish in traditional fishing grounds without interference from the Chinese coast guard, this tiny toehold can eventually expand to a foothold all the way to a full assertion of our exclusive economic rights. Creeping tactical victories can amount to an overall strategic victory.
Victory, like hegemony, begins in the mind. Even a seemingly brainless act like taking a congratulatory telephone call from the Taiwanese president, as Donald Trump did, can begin to show whether the Chinese tiger is real or made of paper.
Roderick Toledo is a freelance communication projects manager.
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