The Big Ideas

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Niall Ferguson | Stanford University

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'A Taiwan Crisis May End the American Empire' Niall Ferguson
'A Taiwan Crisis May End the American Empire' Niall Ferguson
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Henry Kissinger & Premier Zhou Enlai

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Niall Ferguson | Stanford University

March 21, 2021
BIG IDEA | ‘No matter what other issues Kissinger raised — Vietnam, Korea, the Soviets — Zhou steered the conversation back to Taiwan, “the only question between us two.” ’
‘Fast forward half a century, and the same issue — Taiwan — remains Beijing’s No. 1 priority.’
‘Several years ago, I was told by one of Xi’s economic advisers that bringing Taiwan back under the mainland’s control was his president’s most cherished objective — and the reason he had secured an end to the informal rule that had confined previous Chinese presidents to two terms.’
‘America’s losing — or not even fighting for — Taiwan would be seen all over Asia as the end of American predominance in the region we now call the “Indo-Pacific.” ’

Taiwan is the most dangerous flashpoint in the world and the biggest point of contention between the U.S. and China.

  • As flareups big and small happen during the Biden administration, keep Niall Ferguson's comments in mind.

China often warns other countries, especially the United States, not to meddle in its ‘internal affairs.’

  • The biggest 'internal affair' the U.S. meddles in – and has for some decades – is Taiwan.
  • China has accurately viewed the U.S. as the primary reason it has not been able to ‘recover’ Taiwan.

Dr. Ferguson connects a past event with the situation today that demonstrate China’s unbroken obsession with Taiwan:

  • ‘Fifty years ago this July, Henry Kissinger, flew to Beijing on a secret mission that would fundamentally alter the global balance of power.’
  • ‘In his opening remarks, Kissinger listed no fewer than six issues for discussion, including the raging conflict in South Asia that would culminate in the independence of Bangladesh.’

‘Premier Zhou Enlai had just one issue: Taiwan.’

‘Fast forward half a century, and the same issue — Taiwan — remains Beijing’s No. 1 priority.’

  • ‘Several years ago, I was told by one of Xi’s economic advisers that bringing Taiwan back under the mainland’s control was his president’s most cherished objective — and the reason he had secured an end to the informal rule that had confined previous Chinese presidents to two terms.’
  • ‘It is for this reason, above all others, that Xi has presided over a huge expansion of China’s land, sea and air forces, including the land-based DF‑21D missiles that could sink American aircraft carriers.’

If Mr. Xi were to attack Taiwan it is of course catastrophic for the island. But what about the U.S.?

  • America’s 'losing — or not even fighting for — Taiwan would be seen all over Asia as the end of American predominance in the region we now call the “Indo-Pacific.” ’
  • ‘It would confirm the long-standing hypothesis of China’s return to primacy in Asia after two centuries of eclipse and “humiliation.” ’
  • ‘It would mean a breach of the “first island chain” that Chinese strategists believe encircles them, as well as handing Beijing control of the microchip Mecca that is TSMC (remember, semiconductors, not data, are the new oil).’

‘As a student of history, to quote Kissinger, I see a very dangerous situation.’

  • ‘The U.S. commitment to Taiwan has grown verbally stronger even as it has become militarily weaker.’
  • ‘When a commitment is said to be “rock-solid” [as Secretary Blinken has said] but in reality has the consistency of fine sand, there is a danger that both sides miscalculate.’
  • Or that one side will grow overconfident and impatient - and attack.

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