Behind Elon Musk’s hot takes are his strategic irons in the fire

Elon Musk has made geopolitical moves more substantial than recent statements on Ukraine and Taiwan. Photo: .AFP
Elon Musk has made geopolitical moves more substantial than recent statements on Ukraine and Taiwan. Photo: .AFP

Summary

  • Society has to contend with the reality of outsize power in the hands of select individuals such as Musk, which might not always be wielded for the greater good.

Elon Musk’s foray into geopolitics has led to consternation in Ukraine, glee in Beijing and bemusement in the United States. Even if his suggestions for an early, negotiated end to the war in Ukraine and for a compromise on Taiwan, which China is bent on annexing and the US is committed to defending against Chinese aggression, are self-serving, their pragmatic character should not be lost sight of. Nor the emergence of an individual voice from outside the realm of politics that can resonate in the world’s power centres, thanks to that individual’s wealth, status as a business genius and the power of social media, which he has mastered.

Last week, Musk tweeted a possible solution to the war in Ukraine. A neutral Ukraine, Russian control over Crimea, and fresh plebiscites in the Don Bas region for residents to decide whether they wish to be citizens of Ukraine or of Russia — these were the elements of Musk’s peace plan for Ukraine. Later in the week, in an interview to the Financial Times, Musk suggested that Taiwan could enter into an arrangement like Hong Kong’s with China, with greater autonomy than in the specific One Country-Two Systems framework offered to Hong Kong when it reverted to China after completing a 99-year lease to Britain. In essence, Musk suggested that Taiwan should accept Chinese sovereignty over its territory, while retaining a degree of autonomy. The Chinese were quick to welcome the suggestion, and Taipei, no less prompt in rejecting it.

Musk has a major production centre for his Tesla electric cars in China, and the Chinese market for electric vehicles is larger than the combined electric vehicle sales of the rest of the world. And for storage battery-based electric vehicles, in contrast to those powered by fuel cells, China is the biggest source of materials and components. If the tensions between China and the US over Taiwan boil over into economic sanctions, leave aside outright hostilities, Tesla’s business would take a hit. So, rather than giving free rein to any saviour complex, Musk was exercising good business sense when he suggested one way to realise the One China policy endorsed by most nations, including the US and India.

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Ironically, even Taiwan — under the Kuomintang, the party led by Chiang Kai-shek, the loser in China’s civil war that ended in 1949 with the victor, the Communist Party of China, led by Mao Zedong, proclaiming the People’s Republic of China — used to claim there was only one China. The Kuomintang held that Taiwan, converted out of the island of Formosa, to which Chiang Kai-shek’s forces had fled after losing the civil war to the Communists, was the real China and that the mainland was a rebel region.

Peaceful unification of the two Chinas is the most desirable outcome for the rest of the world, although Taiwan’s emergence as a strategic supplier of advanced logic chips, made by Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corporation, has made it difficult for the US to concede Taiwan as Chinese territory, even if the Taiwanese want such an outcome. Taiwan is a key member of the Chips 4 alliance announced by the US recently, comprising, apart from the US and Taiwan, Japan and South Korea. The political establishment in the US is unlikely to look kindly on Musk’s foreign policy ventures that are at odds with national policy.

And, besides, the people of Taiwan should have the ultimate say on what kind of a state and, indeed, which state they should be a part of. Musk does not give much room for the voices of 22 million people in Taiwan, when he proffers his neat solution to the Taiwan problem.

The world stares at recession and a rise in poverty thanks to the ongoing war in Ukraine and western sanctions on Russian energy and food. Fuel shortage and disrupted supplies of food have contributed to a spike in inflation in different parts of the world, to combat which central banks are raising interest rates, killing growth. Ending the war helps global growth, which the businessman in Musk clearly appreciates and desires.

Musk has made geopolitical moves more substantial than making statements, too. He had made his high-speed broadband network based on low-earth orbiting satellites, named Starlink, available to Ukraine, after the war started. Ukrainians depend on Starlink not just for regular Internet access but for battlefield purposes: reconnaissance, communications and targeting. The kit needed to access the satellite-based network has been made available for free, up to 80%, according to Musk.

Therefore, Ukrainians were mighty upset with Musk’s adoption of a solution to the Ukraine conflict that more or less articulated Russia’s demands on Ukraine. President Zelensky sought a Twitter poll on how many people preferred a pro-Ukraine Musk to a pro-Russian one. Most of his followers disapproved, surprise, surprise, of Musk’s peace-making venture.

Musk has other strategic irons in the fire, as well. After the Iranian authorities shut down the Internet to prevent anti-hijab protests growing and morphing into an anti-regime rebellion, the Biden administration lifted its sanctions on export of satellite communication gear to Iran. Musk promptly announced that his Starlink would be accessible in Iran.

Further, Musk’s unlisted venture, SpaceX, is the only means for America’s space agency NASA to transport its astronauts and kit to the International Space Station, which will remain operational into 2024. As late as 19 days ago, Americans had to hitch a ride on Russia’s Soyuz rocket to ferry their people to the ISS.

It is remarkable that one private individual has concentrated such strategic salience within himself and his enterprises, and is not hesitant to wield the resultant clout to express opinions that run counter to his government’s. The development is noteworthy, both for the technological progress that has made this phenomenon possible and for the robustness of the freedom of expression American political institutions support — at least for an exceptionally talented and wealthy maverick like Elon Musk.

Society has to contend with the reality of such outsize power in the hands of some select individuals, which might not always be wielded for the greater good. When Musk tweeted about new cryptocoins, funds flowed into the specific coins figuring in his tweets and the broader category of cryptocurrency itself. In the crypto winter that followed, a lot of people who drew their enthusiasm from celebrity endorsements lost their money.

Whether the public’s discernment needs to be fortified with regulation to shield against celebrity prowess to influence public opinion is up for debate, clearly.

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