(2021) The two biggest threats facing the world in the 2020’s are Climate Change, and Taiwan. Both are dangerous, but climate change is more of an existential threat than any conflagration in the Taiwan Strait.
The world’s leading climate scientists are all in agreement — we are going to suffer more serious consequences in the years to come; it is just a matter of to what degree.
The well funded doubt-and-disinformation campaigns, similar to the campaigns undertaken by the Tobacco Industry (sometimes referred to as the pioneers of Fake News) have been very effective in slowing down the transformation of our carbon based economy to a green economy. Nevertheless, the public is charting a new course, and with Millennials and even Gen Zs increasingly influencing the political agenda around the world, it won’t be just about limiting CO2 emissions anymore; our whole relationship with the planet, ourselves, and other species will need to be transformed. Interesting times ahead, but in the meanwhile we will also have to face the consequences of our actions to date.
We know what to expect from a warming planet. Areas around the equator will be affected the most. Crop failures and droughts, the likes of which we have not seen in a long time (not unlike pandemics) are not unlikely scenarios. This would result in large population displacements and create an unfathomable number of refugees. These ‘threat multipliers’ as they are referred to in military speak would in turn put massive strain on already strained neighbouring countries, possibly creating armed conflicts and more failed states. Predictably, wealthier, and less affected countries would seal their borders and restrict immigration for their own survival and to maintain their own internal stability.
Food prices would skyrocket as food exporting countries would restrict and cease exports to feed their own. Food expenditure as a percentage of household income would increase dramatically even in advanced industrialized countries that had previously been used to low food prices (as a percentage of household income). Self-reliance would become the new rallying cry as globalization and all its benefits would be severely diminished. We unfortunately just witnessed the effects of export-curbs in action during Covid on the supply of masks, personal protective equipment, and medicine.
Walls could go up everywhere – the US-Mexico border would be completed and hermetically sealed. Mexico could in turn seal its borders with Guatemala and Belize, and so forth. Europe and other regions of the world would also seal themselves off or create ‘bubbles’ for group security with neighbouring countries or allies. Areas of the Middle East and South Asia could become uninhabitable due to the high heat and humidity combo. Floods, forest fires, and smoke would add to the misery and cause further population movements.
This is the true existential threat to our times.
Taiwan is the other dangerous situation. The issue of Taiwan (The Republic of China), where Chinese nationalists led by Chiang Kai Shek established themselves, after losing mainland China to the Communist People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, just won’t go away.
China is hard set on reunifying Taiwan (population 24 million) to the mainland. It is a top policy priority for China and is considered unfinished business from the Civil war. It has the backing of its 1.4 billion people, and its leadership has stated, in no uncertain terms, that it will use force if necessary.
In 1984, Deng Xiaoping told, the then US Defense Secretary C. Weinberger, that although they were unable to invade and take Taiwan by force, they did have, “the military power to blockade”. That was then. In the 2020s, China has both the means and the ability to both blockade and invade.
James Fanell, former Director of Intelligence and Information Operations US Pacific Fleet believes that China will invade some time before 2029/2030. He argues that it took about twenty years for the world to forget about Tiananmen, and similarly it would take the world the same amount of time to forget about a forced takeover of Taiwan. Since the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has set the year 2049 as a very important date, the year in which modern China (PRC) will be celebrating its one hundredth year, and what it calls the Great Rejuvenation; a 2029 (or sooner invasion) would give the world enough time to forget and move on.
There are a few factors holding the PRC from launching an invasion now. An invasion would cause casualties and is not the preferable option – these are after all Chinese people also, despite increasing numbers (especially the younger generation) self-identifying as Taiwanese. An invasion would also cause an international backlash at the use of force on a democratic island, and no doubt some sanctions. This at a time when China is already engaged in a trade war and dealing with some image issues. There is also the possibility of an invasion failing, after all Taiwan’s defenses are not negligible. An failed invasion would be disastrous for the CCP.
And so the status quo may hold for now, but the situation could change over the next few years.
The United States’ policy on this issue so far has been one of strategic ambiguity. It has and continues to arm Taiwan, much to China’s objections, but is in fact not likely to interfere in a Chinese military invasion of Taiwan. The 1979 US-Taiwan Relations Act does not bind the US to defend Taiwan militarily, nevertheless in the aftermath of an invasion, the US cannot be seen to be doing nothing either, and therein lies the danger to the rest of the world.
Tensions would most certainly escalate in an already tense zone. The pivot to Asia would take on a new meaning. China’s neighbours would likely move closer to the US – recall Russia’s Baltic neighbours after the Crimean annexation. These tensions would exacerbate the myriad South China Sea maritime border and freedom of navigation disputes. In short this could trigger Cold War 2, an unpleasant and dangerous prospect indeed, as those who can recall growing up with the fear of nuclear annihilation can attest. A new cold war would result in a breakdown of global cooperation and international trade and new proxy wars making the world a far more dangerous place.
It is in all our interests that a new cold war be averted so that we can collectively focus on the more dangerous and bigger issue of climate change.