A dose of realism
| Philip Bowring International Herald Tribune
Tuesday, February 22, 2005
Hong Kong China has been a given a timely reminder that its drum-beating, if not quite saber-rattling, over Taiwan is not cost-free. The joint U.S.-Japan declaration that they had a "common strategic objective" in peaceful resolution of the Taiwan straits issue was unusual but underlined just how much both attach to maintenance of a status quo that Beijing wishes to change through a mix of economic, military and diplomatic pressures.
While Japan and the United States remain in principle committed to One China, emphasis on peaceful resolution inevitably means that unification can only come about when the people of Taiwan consider the price of de facto independence too high. That is clearly a long way off so long as either Japan or the United States is willing and able to prevent unification by force.
China has predictably reacted by denouncing the statement as interfering in China's internal affairs - which, from Beijing's perspective, it undoubtedly is. The question is how far China is now prepared to go in risking upsetting relations with the United States and Japan in pursuit of its nationalistic agenda.
The joint statement must be viewed against the background of increasing Japanese concerns at China's strategic arms development and its military build-up opposite Taiwan. Indeed, as Japan emerges from hiding behind the skirts of U.S. power in the western Pacific, it may in time become the most important determining factor in the Taiwan strait equation. Japan already has a formidable navy and increasing military spending is clearly aimed at countering any attempt by China to control the vital sea lanes, the Luzon and Taiwan straits, into and through the South China Sea.
The Japanese are keenly aware that Taiwan lies as close to Japan's southernmost Ryukyu Island as it does to mainland China, and is even closer to the northernmost Philippine islands. They also fret at China's so-called "historic" claim to almost the whole South China Sea and its reefs and islands despite the size of the sea and the existence of other littoral states - Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. Meanwhile, Japan and China are also at loggerheads over their seabed demarcation in the East China Sea, where there are also hopes for hydrocarbons.
As for mainland Chinese, they often prefer to forget that Taiwan was only settled by ethnic Chinese after the arrival of the Dutch in the 16th century, and that its current prosperity owes much to the education and infrastructure it received during 50 years of Japanese rule. China's leaders in the past have not always given unification with Taiwan high priority. For Mao, it mattered because his enemies, the United States and Chiang Kai-shek, were there. For Deng Xiaoping, it was an issue to be resolved by history.
Unification should not be allowed to get in the way of China's modernization and economic growth. But if now it is to be se seen as a symbol of that modernization, the fruit of economic and military power, a clash with the strategic interests of others is inevitable.
It is not at all clear that China is in a position to alienate either Japan or the United States. Its high dependence on a saturated U.S. import market makes it vulnerable in one direction. As for Japan, the China market has provided a big economic boost. But the more nervous it becomes over China, the less inclined it will be to invest there, particularly in the higher technology production that China still badly needs.
The worst outcome for China would be to see its development stalled by a breakdown in relations with the United States and Japan well before it has acquired the power necessary to impose its own solution of the Taiwan issue.
The U.S.-Japan statement is also significant because it has been made at a time when China's cooperation over North Korea is being sought. The two countries may have finally come to the belief that China's has overused its alleged influence over Pyongyang. The results to date suggest either that Beijing's influence is small, or that it is not prepared to use it.
The statement is also a timely reminder to Europe (and indirectly to Russia) that the commercial benefits of advanced weapons sales to China carry long-term risks. For myopic Europe, Taiwan may be a small and distant place, but it has the potential to be the pivot of East Asian power relationships.
All in all, the statement could help bring a refreshing degree of realism to the Taiwan straits issue.