The Roman writer Aelian, in his treatise On the Nature of Animals (De Natura Animalium), collects many interesting facts related to the habits and behaviors of the creatures of the land, sea, and air. It is unfortunate that he felt compelled to write in Greek instead of Latin, but I suppose this is a decision forgivable for an educated Roman long steeped in Greece’s literary and rhetorical heritage.
There are two bits of information in his book that recently caught my attention. The first is his description (I.2) of a fish known as the parrot wrasse. This fish, he says, is the most lustful of all fishes, and that “its insatiable desire for the female is the reason why it gets caught.” Skilled fishermen know this, and use this fact to ensnare them. They accomplish this in this way. When a fisherman captures a female parrot wrasse, they attach a line to her lip and trail the fish through the sea from their boats in areas where the species is known to congregate. They also attach a lead sinker to the female wrasse; the lead weight they hold on the boat, but the line they toss in the water, which trails behind the female wrasse.
The fishermen then attach a weel to the side of their boat: a weel is a slotted trap for fish, usually fashioned from slender pieces of wood. The mouth of the weel is turned toward the captured female wrasse, as it is being towed through the water on a line as bait. The male wrasses, “like young men who have caught sight of a pretty girl, go in pursuit [of the female wrasse], mad with desire,” with each male trying to get as close to the female wrasse as possible. So fixated are they on the object of their affection that they do not realize they are being baited and led to their own ruin.
The fishermen on the boat gradually pull in the line attached to their bait; and, slowly and by increments, the two “lovers” (i.e., the female and male wrasses) are brought closer to the mouth of the weel. When the fish are in position, a fisherman drops the lead weight into the mouth of the weel, which, being also attached to the female wrasse, pulls her into the trap. And since the males follow her so slavishly, they willingly dive into the trap with her as she plunges downward into it. Once they are inside the weel, they cannot escape; so are the male parrot wrasses caught, helpless victims of their obsessive desire.
There is another fish that behaves the same way, and it is called the sargue. It inhabits the shallow waters along the shoreline, moving among rocks and crevasses. According to Aelian (I.23), it has a particular affection for goats; if a goat feeding along the shoreline happens to step into the water, the sargue follows it and frolics around it. The fish can even apparently smell the goats through the water. This “lovesickness” of the sargue is the weakness that fishermen use to capture it.
How is this accomplished? A fisherman will drape a goatskin from his body and walk in the shallow waters where the fish lives; to entice the sargue even more, he will sprinkle the water with barley “soaked in the broth of goat meat.” This bait is too tempting for the sargue to resist; it consumes the barley and slavishly follows the goatskin-draped figure, no matter where the fisherman walks. He then snares them with a long rod to which is attached a sturdy hook. So is the sargue—just like the male parrot wrasse—led to its own destruction by the object of its obsessive desire. And just as this happens in the cases of these two species of fish, so it also occurs with individuals and states.
These examples came to my mind recently with the news of a visit by a high-ranking U.S. government official (Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi) to the island of Taiwan. The visit provoked a furious overreaction from mainland Chinese Communist Party officials, who have long maintained that Taiwan is an inseparable part of China, and should therefore fall under their own immediate control. The temper tantrum from Beijing was likely a ploy to test the waters and gauge the response of the Americans; but the final outcome exposed more the hypersensitivities and weaknesses of Beijing than it did any lack of resolution on the part of the United States. The Chinese Communist Party imagines that its hysterical fixation on Taiwan is a source of strength, when in fact it represents a weakness that can and will be used against it.
It is important at the outset not to fall into the frame of reference set up by one’s adversary. The idea that Taiwan is an inseparable part of greater China is historically dubious. Before the early 17th century, mainland China exercised no significant control over the island. Scholar Michael Rubin, in his essay Is Taiwan Part of China?, carefully traces the history of the island from ancient times through the early modern period. He notes: “Chinese leaders might hope that repetition will breed acceptance, but the historical reality is that the ‘One China’ concept is a lie. While American policymakers in pursuit of compromise and détente with the PRC [People’s Republic of China] have wavered over the decades in their commitment to Taiwan, the reality is that mainland China’s historical and legal claims to Taiwan do not stand up to scrutiny.”
Rubin reviews the complex historical record and concludes:
Beijing may dispute Taiwan’s sovereignty and the legitimacy of its government, but two facts remain: First, periods in which governance in Taiwan is distinct from the mainland are greater than the time the two have had united authority. And second, the People’s Republic has never had sovereignty in Taiwan. Ironically, on this, the Taiwanese can use Mao’s words against Beijing. In a 1936 interview with journalist and author Edgar Snow, Mao treated Taiwan as distinct from China. “It is the immediate task of China to regain all our lost territories, not merely to defend our sovereignty below the Great Wall,” he said.
We do not, however, include Korea, formerly a Chinese colony, but when we have re-established the independence of the lost territories of China, and if the Koreans wish to break away from the chains of Japanese imperialism, we will extend them our enthusiastic help in their struggle for independence. The same thing applies to Formosa.
Precedent undermines the “One China” concept for other reasons. Ethnic arguments do not support China’s claims. The Arab League has 22 members; both the international community and most Arab leaders rejected former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s concept of Arab nationalism. Both Albania and Kosovo have ethnic Albanian populations, while Romania and Moldova remain separate countries despite their common ethnicity. Few countries recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea, notwithstanding Russian President Vladimir Putin’s argument that its population is Russian. Conversely, for Beijing to use ethnicity as the basis for its claim to legitimacy over Taiwan would undermine the logic of its claims to Inner Mongolia, Tibet, and Xinjiang.
Pronouncements and proclamations are one thing, but power is something else entirely. In the game of international politics, states will do whatever their power permits them to do. As historians have long observed, legal and historical arguments carry little weight when compared to the irresistible gravitation pull of military and economic power. As China’s economic and military strength increase, so will its acquisitive desires against its neighbors. The authoritarian regime in Beijing believes that its obsessive fixation on Taiwan serves useful purposes. It is used to stoke domestic nationalistic fervor and support for the regime; it is used to justify increasing military expenditures; it is used to intimidate foreign rivals and extract concessions; and it is used as a pretext to extend the PRC’s claims of sovereignty over all of the South China Sea, to the exclusion of other nations’ legitimate interests.
Yet it often happens that what appears to be strength and resolution may in fact be frailty in disguise. While the PRC sees its obsession with Taiwan as a source of strength, it is in fact a source of weakness. For when one wants to influence an opponent’s behavior, one does not chase after that opponent: he finds pressure points. He finds something that matters to his opponent, and he squeezes. The PRC’s fixation on Taiwan—so pathetically displayed during Speaker Pelosi’s recent visit—is not a source of strength, but in fact a debility that can and will be exploited. Just as the parrot wrasse and the sargue are lured to their ruin by fishermen aware of their impulsive inclinations, so may the Beijing regime be enticed into a fatal trap by its acquisitive mania over its Taiwanese neighbor.
Read more about leadership, conflict, and the fates of nations in the new translation of Sallust’s Conspiracy of Catiline and War of Jugurtha: