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Books on Taiwan

Update No: 084 - (26/01/11)

Core Interests
Chinese President Hu Jintao was in Washington this month (January) and naturally, his presence in the US capital, along with every word said by him and by US President Barack Obama was watched, analyzed and reanalyzed by government leaders, academics and journalists alike in Taipei. For the most part ordinary people went about their daily lives unconcerned.

The three day state visit resulted neither in concessions by either side (at least not publicly) nor policy changes but it did provide an opportunity to revisit the baseline of the relationship and look at what might have changed since the two leaders last met in 2009 at the height of the GFC. What has changed? Very little it seems.

Hu’s visit to the USA was a return bout for the trip by Obama to Beijing in 2009. Prior to, as well as during his visit, Hu came under unprecedented personal attack from Congressional leaders concerned at China’s human rights record, its military build-up and refusal to rule out military force to integrate Taiwan into the PRC. More than anything less, this beating of the pro-Taiwan drum - naturally making front-page news in Taipei - shows the effectiveness of Taiwan’s lobbyists on Capitol Hill.

For America of course, Taiwan is only one of a number of issues on the agenda, and pretty far down the list at that. A number of tensions have developed in the US-China relationship in recent years, mostly over trade and the over-valued Chinese currency; these are the core issues from America’s perspective and while China’s human rights record as well as its posture visa-a-vis Taiwan were sure to be addressed (and they were), Washington is in no position to dictate the terms of the engagement.

From the White House perspective, pre-visit briefings suggested that the Taiwan issue would be kept as low on the agenda as possible knowing that US arms sales to Taiwan touched a raw nerve with Beijing. The USA was clearly focused on the strategic vision - how will the relationship with China develop over the next 10-20 years as China further develops as an economic global superpower and continues to build up its military arsenal.

For it’s part, China has defined Taiwan, along with Tibet, as being within its own core interests and back in 2009 the wording of the communique appeared to reflect US acknowledgement of that fact:

The two sides agreed that respecting each other’s core interests is extremely important to ensure steady progress in US-China relations.

Because of that statement, Obama was criticized at the time by Pro-Taiwan activists for kowtowing to China and subsequently Chinese officials have used it as proof of US support for China’s claim of sovereignty over Taiwan.
Since then China has redefined its core interests to include not only Taiwan and Tibet but the entire South China Sea, despite the claims of other contiguous states (including Japan) many of whom have claims of their own to some island groups and most of which are contested by others - including China (see postscript below).

Over the past two years and under the presidency of Ma Ying-jeou and the KMT which regained office in 2008 after eight years of rule by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the confrontationist and antagonistic stand of Taiwan’s government towards China that had characterized the relationship previously, has been replaced by one that is not only cooperative but which has gone a long way to integrating Taiwan’s economy into that of China through a series of formal agreements. In doing so, many in Taiwan believe that Ma has compromised Taiwan’s integrity.

Ma sees engagement with Beijing as a purely economic exercise while at the same time leaving no doubt about his pro-China sentiment. Political dialogue can come later, according to him. China unsurprisingly sees things in a different light with the economic agreements being the first step towards eventual integration of Taiwan province with the mainland. “Eventual” in this context has a much shorter timeframe for China than for Taiwan.

Taiwan was indeed discussed in Washington. At the White House meeting between the two leaders, Obama said that the US was committed to a ‘one China’ policy based on the (1979) Taiwan Relations Act that requires the US to provide Taiwan with defensive weaponry. Obama welcomed the easing of tensions across the Taiwan Straits and praised the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) signed between Taipei and Beijing last June through their respective organizations, set up to manage cross-straits ties.

Obama’s support for the peaceful progress of relations across the Taiwan Straits was seen in a positive light by Taipei officials, anxious to glean any straw from the grain that was being thrown around. The issue of “core interests” was not touched upon in the joint statement issued this time around although Hu did make reference to these interests in his speech. Among Taiwan’s community of observers, interpretation - even of a non-event - was a matter of conjecture with many seeing the non-inclusion of the reference as an indication that the two sides agreed to disagree, while others took the view that since the US had conceded the issue two years ago there was no need to mention it again. This latter view is perhaps too pessimistic a position and overlooks the fact that since 2009, China has shifted the goalposts. There is no way that the United States would acknowledge China’s claim to the entire South China Sea.

Taiwan is in danger of spending too much time looking at the trees and failing to see the forest. To the United States, Taiwan is no more than a blister on the heel of a difficult but important relationship. The real issue was set out clearly enough in Obama’s welcoming statement:

“We welcome China’s rise, I absolutely believe that China’s peaceful rise is good for the world and it’s good for America. We just want to make sure that that rise occurs in a way that reinforces international norms and international rules, and enhances security and peace, as opposed to it being a source of conflict, either in the region or around the world.”

Both sides have set their course. China is on the record as stating that its political system will not change as it allows the country opportunity to marshall resources quickly in aid of development. Neither will it relent on the issue of greater personal liberty nor will it entertain any external threat that could undermine its strategic goals. There is threat in that statement but also hope: China is focused on development and will not change its lens. China wants stability and order especially in its own region. As long as Taiwan recognizes this, it may have more freedom to manouvre at least in the short to medium term than it currently believes.

And that surely is Taiwan’s core interest.

While China’s articulation of inclusion of the South China Sea among its ‘core interests’, is relatively new; Chinese maps for decades have shown its southern boundaries as hugging the coasts of Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines - allowing these states no more than a 200 mile economic zone - everything beyond belongs to China - or so the claim goes.

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