“The eruption of this conflict at the time of Russia’s involvement in Ukraine would have some positives for China, as the world’s attention is turned elsewhere” – says professor Jakub Polit, a historian from the Jagiellonian University in Cracow who specializes in the Asian affairs.
Tomasz Kolanek: Which continent is the “hottest” today, and why is it Asia?
Prof. Jakub Polit: I’m not entirely convinced that it is Asia, since everything points to the fact that there is a lot more fighting going on in Africa. However, Asia has one “advantage” over the unfortunate Black Continent, namely, the fighting in Africa is not posing a threat of unleashing a global conflict.
Asia, on the other hand, has several points that carry such a threat. Surprisingly, the “hottest” of these, contrary to popular belief, is not at all the Middle East and the ongoing Israeli-Arab conflict there. A much more explosive territory is the Korean Peninsula, where the interests of as many as four powers intersect: China, Russia, the US (which has bases in South Korea), and Japan.
In addition to this, one can still mention the issue of the Indian subcontinent, namely the India-Pakistan conflict. Just a reminder that both of these neighboring countries have nuclear weapons and border or nearly border Communist China, which also has such weapons.
Three countries, three political-cultural-religious systems: Islam, Hinduism, and communism. What if one of the leaders of Pakistan, India or China rearranges something in his head and simply presses the “red button”?
No one knows what will happen then, because a real nuclear war hasn’t happened yet. The events of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were unilateral nuclear strikes against a country without these weapons.
If a nuclear war were to break out on the Indian peninsula, it would be the first bilateral nuclear clash in history. The pathetic side of using this ultimate nuclear argument would probably be that it would not determine the outcome of the conflict. Both the number of warheads possessed by Delhi and Islamabad, the primitiveness of this equipment, the vastness of the territory of both adversaries, the extent of “human material” on both sides – all this would only indicate that this kind of shelling would entail a terrifying number of casualties, but could not change the balance of power between the two sides.
At that point, would either China or Russia step in to take advantage of this, or to profit from the two tigers’ conflict?
This seems extremely unlikely. Russia has the conflict elsewhere for the time being and certainly could not take advantage of the situation. But as I understand it, the question is somewhat theoretical. Russia does not share a border with India, and Pakistan is also quite far away. So it would have to play the role of a “crouching tiger”.
Chinese intervention, on the other hand, can only be imagined in one case: if Pakistan, which has been China’s regional ally since at least the 1960s, was close to being crushed and most of its territory threatened with occupation by Indian forces. Such a turn of events, however, is unlikely. The Indian army would almost certainly get stuck in Pakistani territory. Moreover, I suspect that there would be diplomatic, economic, and political intervention by Muslim countries on the side of an Islamic Pakistan.
The Indian Peninsula is one potential global conflict. Another is China-Taiwan. We’ve been hearing that a war will erupt for decades, and so far there is none…
I have indeed done some injustice to the political leadership in Beijing. Among all these foci of possible conflict, I did not mention the Taiwan Strait.
In recent months there has been a flurry of events perhaps somewhat coincidental, such as: the visit of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan – which was the first visit by a politician of this stature in many years, the bellicose rhetoric that took place in Beijing, President Biden’s declaration that he would defend Taiwan, etc.
After all these events, the temperature of the conflict in the Taiwan Strait has risen very seriously. I hope, if anything can be reasonably predicted, that these are, however, only aggressive political declarations devoid of military preparations.
The eruption of this conflict at the time of Russia’s involvement in Ukraine would have some positives for China, as the world’s attention is turned elsewhere. However, it seems that the negative factors would prevail. Why does China need a ravaged, perhaps even nuclear-armed, Taiwan? It is part of Beijing’s strategy to have the entire island fall into their hands like an overripe fruit.
Perhaps to further destabilize the world? After all, 80 % of semiconductors and microprocessors are manufactured in Taiwan. Many experts believe that the PRC’s destruction of Taiwan will mean a small apocalypse for the rest of the globe.
You are right, but the question arises: from which point do we look at the phenomenon itself – is the glass half full or half empty?
Taiwan, if not a monopolist, is overwhelmingly in possession of most of the technical solutions you mentioned. On the other hand, the question must arise in Beijing as to whether the world, and in this case mainly the US and its allies, would really allow the communist authorities in Beijing to carry out such an operation.
Let me repeat: Taiwan is a relatively small organization. Its population is sizable by European standards, but almost insignificant from a PRC perspective. What is interesting about Taiwan is its geographic location and economic stature. And this is where the whole dog is buried. Desolating Taiwan, turning it into a battlefield or at least intimidating its people to the point that they start fleeing en masse to other countries, moving their assets, companies, connections there is the last thing that would pay off for Beijing.
So I don’t think the PRC will decide to invade. Rather, it is dreaming of a solution similar to Hong Kong: the US selling off the island and agreeing to a “one country, two systems” formula, which would then be quietly dismantled.
The thing is, however, that the US is unlikely to agree. Hong Kong was a British colony, which London could theoretically manage as it wished. The Republic of China in Taiwan is a separate country and the decision-making center is located there.
In the China-Russia conflict, which side cares more about confrontation?
Officially, there is no conflict between Russia and China…
Sorry! Not China-Russia, but Japan-Russia! A slip of the tongue…
Maybe it was a Freudian slip of the tongue, because the alleged Russian-Chinese friendship is in fact lined with so many fears that it basically amounts to distrust.
As for the Japanese-Russian conflict: it seems that neither side cares about confrontation, because Japan is not the main adversary for Russia, nor Russia for Japan.
After all, all of Russia’s fury and its various historical wounds are associated with the US – a country that, in the Russian mind, has stripped it of its superpower status. This is an absurd claim, since the country that has relegated Russia to a secondary status is China.
As for Japan: its main threat is the PRC, while an increasingly depopulated, bankrupt, and militarily disgraced Russia is in some distant background.
Undoubtedly, contradictions in the interests of Japan and Russia exist. The Kuril Islands are only their most glaring expression and a kind of anomaly. Moreover, it is the only territorial conflict between the two superpowers, the existence of which is admitted by both sides. However, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Russia is dangerous to Japan as an ally of China, as a possible partner in Beijing’s various political maneuvers. This shows the role of the irrational factor in politics: the rules of the political game say that with two neighbors potentially dangerous and at odds with each other, one should support the weaker neighbor against the stronger one. Russia should therefore support Japan and try at all costs to win its friendship against China, e.g. by renouncing at least some economically worthless and only partially militarily useful islands of the Kuril Archipelago. However, the opposite is true: Russia emphasizes and cultivates its friendship with China, while at the same time endangering the Japanese in various ways.
The reasons are also irrational. The fact that Japan is an ally of the US, that it celebrated the fall of the USSR in contrast to China, that it is an ideological opponent of communism, that it has an environmental tilt due to its allergy to nuclear weapons and various sad adventures with typhoons and tsunamis, etc.
Someone will say that these are trifles, only that it would take a great deal of effort from both sides, especially from Russia, to overcome these “trifles”.
If most of Europe is organized as an entire unit, and even doubled in strength, since the EU is one force and NATO the other; if North America has its own free trade organization, and the U.S. remains on good terms with its neighbors; if South America is not experiencing violent border conflicts after all, and the two candidates for leadership there, Brazil and Argentina, are in a state of relative equilibrium, there is nothing of the sort in Asia. There is no strong regional alliance. There is no major supranational economic organization, and the only one that exists, the ASEAN organization of states, contains no superpower in its membership, but is a true ethnic melting pot that includes Confucian and communist Vietnam, Catholic, and free-market Philippines, and Muslim and authoritarian Indonesia, among others.
Asia is indeed the most dangerous and unpredictable continent.
One more point: the Sino-Indian rivalry. China considers the U.S. to be its main ideological enemy, but a closer competitor is India, which as we speak already has a larger population than the PRC, and this gap will grow wider and wider.
A third war… Excuse me: a nuclear war will break out in Asia?
I hope that neither you nor I will have to check whether it will, and what will happen then. One would like to maliciously say that since we Europeans caused and survived World War I and World War II, although here the Japanese are also co-responsible, in World War III it would be useful for us to sit on the spectator’s bench and see the destruction of others.
However, it is not that simple. The world is getting smaller and events even in very remote regions of the world can have repercussions for us as well. I would prefer that World War III be played out only in the fictional scenarios of computer games, however given the harmfulness of such forms of entertainment, perhaps it would be better if it wasn’t at all.
This interview was published in October 2022 in “Do Rzeczy” magazine.