What comes after a change in international order? How can we even conceptualise this question? Rather than debate the language and meaning like a post-modernist, it is better to use recent anecdotes like a historian. To begin to answer the question, to hone our thinking, to establish something about the range of possibilities, I like to use the memory of an old tyrant — Saddam Hussein.
In 2003, an American-led coalition invaded Iraq and deposed Saddam. In 2006, he was hanged as men around him triumphantly shouted the name of an old Shia rival’s son — Muqtada al-Sadr. At that moment, if you activated your time machine, went 30 years into the past, then told Saddam that he would be hung by Shia militants whilst a mostly American force occupied his country, Saddam would have questioned your mental faculties. In other words, if delivered without the context provided by intervening decades, the circumstances of his own death would have made no sense to Saddam.
Rightly so. In 1986, Iraq was fighting Iran. Saddam had a massive military. He was on good terms with the West. His Arab neighbours were lending him vast sums of money. The USA was powerful but distant and balanced by the USSR. How could it possibly be that Saddam would be toppled by a future American president and that the Arab world and the USSR would stand by and watch?
To someone who knows what happened to the USSR, to Iran, to Kuwait, to the Arab world, to the Twin Towers, it all seems comprehensible. We know what happened. We see the sequence of events, with each subsequent move dependent on the previous. Saddam’s fate isn’t surprising in hindsight, yet to Saddam in the 1980s, it would seem incredible. Could anyone have predicted Saddam’s hanging a generation in advance? Not with any assumptions that were logical back then, certainly.
It is with such surprised men as Saddam in mind that I ponder the staggering changes potentially awaiting the Asia-Pacific this century. Each change momentous change will be facilitated by a bare minimum of alterations at any given moment. Yet, the international order might look entirely different within a period identical to that from Saddam’s zenith to his execution. One of those seemingly minor alterations revolves around Taiwan.
Let’s assume for a moment that Chinese leaders really do plan on invading Taiwan within the period of Xi Jinping’s dictatorship, as all indications suggest. Let’s also assume something I usually do not (simply because it is plausible and commonly believed); that the USA will attempt to stop this future Chinese invasion. If the USA and China fight over Taiwan, I believe the USA will lose. However, I may be wrong in war, much falls to chance, and many unexpected winners and loser could be created in a war that will test many unproven military systems, doctrines, and political wills.
Thus, with just three sequential events to ponder (an attack on Taiwan; American intervention; American defeat), we can now imagine the world as it will be. Is it possible that the American military would be so mauled that the Asia-Pacific is reduced to de facto Chinese vassalage? Would American losses lead to a fundamental realignment of the U.S. political-economic-industrial system? Would India have remained neutral or chosen an opportune time to settle a longstanding border question? Either way, what would be the consequences of this? Would China be deterred or emboldened to advance on its mountainous territorial claims? Would Beijing attempt to reorder the security system of central Asia? And what of Russia? Should Ukraine and Eastern Europe not be concerned about Russian designs, and should they not be more concerned if NATO’s major backer has been humbled or distracted?
Would places as far away as Australia and New Zealand now be as exposed to Chinese coercion by drones, missiles, mines and warships, just Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Gaddafi’s Libya, Assad’s Syria and other regimes were all exposed to aerial punishment by a global power with few constraints? What relationship with China would be requested or demanded of these far-flung, underpopulated, resource-rich Pacific states, with their large ethnic Chinese populations already resident within?
Most pundits and politicians refuse to engage in such thinking because the concept of Chinese aircraft punishing, say, New Zealand in a trade dispute seems outlandish in the current environment. But remember, this is not your world in which this happens. This is your future world, the kind that neither you nor Saddam can ever fully understand. The strange intricacies that have led to this hypothetical Chinese domination, their losses, their technological leaps, their confidence and their anger, all of it, it’s still a mystery today. But something is there. Waiting.
To reverse the model, we can imagine a Chinese defeat, or even a Chinese Pyrrhic victory, one which so badly damages China’s military and society that its victory is given a different meaning. An unstable government, social upheaval, civil war, decades of Chinese insularity, it’s all within the range of possibilities, as is a quiet time of licking wounds, a time when China would be powerless to halt a new, stronger, more dedicated alignment against it. Critically, in this latter scenario, the world would still be very different to now and very different from our first scenario.
Compound these troubles with the thought that machines will continue their advance towards centrality in industry and life. Population and environmental pressures will persist. Some economic problems may not be resolved and instead will simply increase the strains on society and political parties. Some future virus could intervene unexpectedly, accelerating trends or stifling innovation, and with continued advances in nanotechnology, virology and genomics, threats from the microscopic world cannot be discounted. So it is that unexpected layers are added to unforeseen events, all of which will be completely understood with a mere decade or two of hindsight, but which you are totally ignorant of for now.
It is with this mindset that I worry so much about the breakdown of the current international order. Although the so-called “Taiwan question” should worry anyone who cares about the fate of millions living in a peaceful liberal-democratic state, the fact that Taiwan sits at a nexus of power means its fate might have such broad consequences that the entire world is altered. It is strange to think that the literal life and death of people in Lithuania and New Zealand might be determined, two or three decades previously, by events in the Taiwan Strait, but this is precisely what tends to happen in the course of history.
Saddam’s fate was sealed by a combination of his own hubris with Kuwait, a handful Saudis, Soviets and Americans in Afghanistan, lax airline security, American party politics and media, changes in the oil market, and even the fate of a lone American pilot, a certain George H.W Bush, who was the only one of nine companions rescued from a watery grave in 1944. By such equally odd confluences of events and personalities will your fate be determined, and mine too, and you will probably not think it strange when it happens because you will be present for the preceding events.
Hence, I am often asked what will become of Australia, Japan, China, ASEAN, India or the USA after Taiwan is attacked by China. I am forced to concede that much will depend on the manner of that attack, the damage done, the technologies proven, the idiocy or cleverness of certain leaders too, and all of that comes long before the decisive hand of chance intervenes, as it surely will. What comes after Taiwan is no more comprehensible or predictable now than the fatal hangman was to Saddam three decades prior, which is why it matters so much. It is also why so many people feel comfortable ignoring the unknown future, for many people trust luck and hope that the dice will fall their way.
With the knowledge of a thousand Saddam-like misfortunes to tell cautionary tales, I hear those who say that “Taiwan doesn’t matter to us,” and I imagine similarly indignant dismissals made by experts for hundreds of years. Some shared a fate like Saddam’s.
He won’t be the last.