Updated Oct 21, 2022, 3:07pm EDT
North America

One Good Text With Robert O’Brien: Russia Should Worry About China

This text exchange first appeared in Semafor Principals, the daily newsletter on Washington power by Steve Clemons and the Semafor team. You can sign up for Semafor Principals here.


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The Text

In a text to Semafor’s editor-at-large Steve Clemons, President Trump’s last national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, had an ominous warning for Russia. If China succeeds in retaking Taiwan, he predicted, it will then come for thousands of miles of territory that Russia absorbed after the 1860 Treaty of Peking during what is referred to in China as the “Century of Humiliation.”

“The PRC will not be satisfied with Taiwan. There is much more to come,” he wrote.

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Steve’s view

O’Brien’s text comes with fascinating historical scaffolding and the argument that Taiwan is not the end of China’s dreams of getting back to even with the rest of the world.

History is filled with wars sparked by resentments over humiliation. World War II was thought to be a product of Germany’s resentment of humiliating terms at the end of World War I. Vladimir Putin frequently mentions his own personal desire to restore Russian status and prestige on the world stage after decades of Western-imposed humiliations after the fall of the USSR.

But while history is a function of constant renegotiation as winners and losers, sometimes history is frozen because the consequences of undoing it are so formidable. The complex, ambiguous architecture of the U.S. relationship with Taiwan, which Henry Kissinger established, created many such obstacles.

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Room for Disagreement

China’s Ambassador to the U.S., Qin Gang, told me in an interview on Al Jazeera English’s The Bottom Line, that China has no interest in forcefully reuniting with its brethren in Taiwan, and looks forward to doing it peacefully, even if Taiwanese leaders don’t.

His view: The U.S. is the one destabilizing the status quo with provocations like Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.

The ambassador invoked Aaron Burr, in the Broadway play Hamilton, lamenting after killing Hamilton that “there was enough room in the world for both Burr and Hamilton.” Qin said he hopes that the U.S. would learn in time that “there was enough room in the world for China and the U.S.”

It was unclear to me whether Ambassador Qin saw China as Burr, who survived, or Hamilton, who died.