Bush/Qian/NE Asia SCMP March 26
The meeting between President Bush
and vice-premier Qian Qichen has naturally received extensive coverage.
But in terms of impact on the evolution of events in northeast Asia
it may not have been the most important bit of recent diplomatic travel.
Indeed, it may hide the growing complexity of relations in the region.
The new US administration and China
are probing the strengths and weaknesses in each others' stated positions.
With the more hawkish members of the Bush team, headed by vice-president
Dick Cheney and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld seeming for now to
be the dominant policy force there is an outside possibility of serious
mis-steps over Taiwan and the missile shield creating a major rift in
relations with China.
More likely the Cheney/Rumsfeld combination
is driven by an appreciation of real politik, and the need to start
out with a well defined forward position and not be brow beaten by Beijing
rhetoric. At the same time these experienced and hard-nosed operators
are unlikely to sacrifice complex US national interests to ideology
or a black and white view of China. Secretary of State Colin Powell
will continue to counsel caution in all things.
At the end of the day, both sides
probably have too much at stake to witness a major breakdown. The US
has economic and missionary (spread of market economy and democracy)
interests in engagement with China. China is not prepared to sacrifice
modernization goals on the altar of reunification or in pursuit of strategic
The danger to relations probably lies
more in the trade tensions, always susceptible to popular opinion in
the US, that would come from prolonged US recession than from the arms
issues, which are negotiable in private. More important than the Qian
trip to Washington may prove the recent visits of Russia's President
Putin to Seoul and Hanoi, and that of South Korea's Kim Dae Jung to
Washington. These are reminders of how the interests of US friends and
erstwhile enemies are shifting.
Let's start with Mr Putin. His latest
Asian travels follow hard on visits to Pyongyang and Tokyo and the improvement
of relations with China, and his determination, such as through arms
sales to Iran, to show that Russia will not tolerate US efforts, whether
on its own behalf or that of Israel, to tell it how to conduct relations
with immediate neighbours.
It is easy to dismiss Putin's travels
and more activist foreign policy as a personal public relations exercises,
to project to the voters that the nation will not be bullied by the
US and show that Russia is again playing an international role in Asia.
Russia has no money, no ideology and little trade or technology to offer.
Its strategic forces are of little use and its Far East fleet is in
abysmal condition. Its presence at he Cam Ranh base in Vietnam is token.
Yet Putin knows that Russia cannot ignore its Asia/Pacific interests
and has two things that others need: arms and energy resources. Its
potential strategic and blue water naval capability is also viewed with
interest by those who want big players in the region in addition to
the US, whose long term commitments to the area are not so clear, and
China, whose ambitions are all too clear.
Putin has driven a small wedge between
Kim Dae Jung and a US which has grown more cautious about "sunshine"
diplomacy towards Pyongyang. Meanwhile the Koreans are unenthusiastic
about the missile shield. This is partly because US use of the North
Korean threat as justification for it complicates its opening to Pyongyang,
partly because it is of limited practical value in defending the South
from the North, and thirdly because it is so opposed by China and Russia.
Seoul is grateful to China, and a lesser
extent Russia, for their influence on Kim Jong Il. Korea's economic
relations with China are increasingly important and it sees strategic
as well as economic possibilities in developing a relationship with
Russia which began with Mr Gorbachev's visit a decade ago. On his recent
visit to Washington, President Kim was polite enough to fall in line
with the US. It still needs US troops, and Korean voters remain wary
of the North But South Korean interests are a lot more complex than
they were even one year ago, let alone a decade.
The Russians meanwhile are making
friends with China by selling arms which in turn raise the likelihood
of a Taiwan straits arms race. Russia needs the money and influence
its arms provide, but it is unlikely to see China as a permanent friend.
Meanwhile its cementing of relations with Hanoi through arms and other
deals, further participating in Vietnam's offshore oil industry and
likely to renew its presence at Cam Ranh Bay.
These are reminders that, from a distance,
it shares the desire of the smaller littoral states of the South China
Sea that the sea should not become a "Chinese lake". That's where its
marginal interests intersect with Japan's key interests. Japan is simultaneously
nervous of China's growing influence, wary of Korean reunification.
It resents US presumptions and lectures but is both nervous of a gradual
reduction in the US presence and nervous of vigorously backing the missile
shield. But it is nervous of Russia too, for historical reasons. Beset
with domestic difficulties, Tokyo seems to have little idea how to respond
to a Bush administration whose make-up and statements suggests more
concern with Japan than either Clinton or Bush senior displayed.
For all its dithering Japan is still
by far the most important economic players in the region, and its naval
capability far ahead of anything that China is likely to achieve for
at least two decades. Its sense of need for an improved US counter to
China's growing strategic arms makes the missile shield. more likely.
The most likely alternative to a close US-Japan relationship is not
a Japan-China alliance but Japan's development of its own strategic
Meanwhile the one thing that China,
Korea and Japan are all interested in is the oil and gas deposits of
Sakhalin. From a strictly economic viewpoint, Sakhalin probably presents
the best major new external source of energy to help meet China's needs.
It certainly makes more sense than a pipeline from Kazakhstan's huge
The Sakhalin field is very close to
Japan and is interesting for Korea which is energy import dependent
and wants to expand its physical presence in the region. Russia meanwhile
needs the money and ways of reviving its Far East economy. But do the
neighbours trust the Russians enough to rely on them for as a major
energy source? Western Europe has in fact been buying Russian gas for
years. But given Russia's past, its disorderly present, Putin the gas
salesman still has a job to do.
The current equation is not very comfortable
for Taiwan, which is also feeling the economic pull of the mainland.
Russia's ship and plane sales to Beijing, the Korea/China relationship,
the political fragility of much of southeast Asia, Japan's lack of leadership
all work against it. It will get some arms from Mr Bush, but probably
not the advanced destroyers equipped with the Aegis radar system that
many believe could set back the mainland's ability to mount an invasion
or sustain a blockade for perhaps two decades.
However it is likely to get enough
new weaponry to preserve its de facto independence for several more
years. Taiwan in time may be able to turn the region's new complexities
to its advantage. Amid all these cross currents, one optimistic element
is clearly visible. Almost all parties - even perhaps Pyongyang -- are
giving weight to economic issues. All sense both long term economic
opportunity and short term fragility. China for instance is playing
a long term international game knowing that the day when it can impose
a Monroe doctrine on NE Asia is still far away.
Meanwhile its has domestic economic
and social priorities. which would be setback if its rhetoric on the
US and Taiwan were to be taken at face value. With the technology bust
Taiwan is feeling vulnerable to the mainland and to a global downturn
and Korea to the US. Russia needs to sell it gas to all comers. In the
longer run, uncertainty is increasing but for now economic insecurity
may translate into uneasy mutual accommodation. ends.
TOP OF THE PAGE