Changing geopolitics of NE Asia (SCMP May 7)


The past few have weeks have been extraordinarily newsy ones for the geopolitics of North east Asia, so its worth trying to step back just a little and discriminate between news which will leave a lasting impact and that which makes good headlines..

First, take note of a tiny item almost drowned in the daily flood of travel news: the start of direct air links between Taiwan and Russia. This may be just the beginning of some minor commercial relations. But it is also further evidence of Russia's revival of interest in its Pacific neighbourhood, and a reminder that several powerful nations other than China and the US have more than a passing interest in the future of the island republic.

The irony here is that sales of sophisticated Russian weapons to China have increased the threat to Taiwan and are partly behind the US decision to sell destroyers, submarines and airborne early warning systems to Taiwan. But whilst Russia's immediate international and commercial agenda requires helping China's military buildup, its longer term interest, like that of Japan, lies in disputing China's claim that the Taiwan strait and much of the South China Sea are its territorial waters.

China itself delivered a reminder of that claim with its minor April 17 harassment of three Australian naval ships which passed through the 100-mile wide straight on their way from Pusan for a visit to Hongkong. China claimed the ships were in its waters, which now seem to include the whole strait just as Chinese maps claim the whole sea up to the shores of Borneo and Mindanao. This is just the kind of signal of an expansionist China which will alarm all neighbours, Japan in particular. Beijing is in effect saying: If we had the firepower we would make these seas into a Chinese lake.

In that sense the Australian ship incident, a deliberate act, was more significant that the US spy plane. It was clear from the beginning that the plane incident was an accident. It was an accident waiting to happen, perhaps, as symbol of a fundamental disagreement over the extent of Chinese sovereignty. But nonetheless, after an initial flurry of rhetorical outrage fanned by extremists on both sides, the matter could be settled because both sides understood the context of the incident. Beijing seems to have been particularly keen to get it off the front page. It has scant way of satisfying nationalist sentiment generated by the incident and knew that the bigger the plane incident became the more arms the US might supply to Taiwan.

The incident did however raise consciousness about the nature of the US-China relationship and perhaps forced the new administration to clarify its own mind at what is still an early stage. The notion that China was a "strategic partner" of the US was always a piece of Clintonesque feel-good nonsense. That partnership ceased with the collapse of the Soviet threat, lingering on only in mutual interest in keeping the North Korean strategic arms issue from getting out of hand.

Ultimately China wants to replace the US/Japan alliance as the dominant force in east Asia. That is obviously not an immediate goal but the Bush characterization of the strategic relationship as "competitive" is accurate enough, even without taking account of China's ability to send nuclear-armed missiles to the mainland US.

The US interest is in preserving the strategic status quo which has kept the NE Asian regional peace for nearly 50 years. That inevitably means preserving the status quo over Taiwan, at least until such time as Taiwanese wish otherwise - not something which looks likely to happen for at least a generation. Bush will have done a service if with his statements, the arms sales and the missile shield he makes it clear to China that non-voluntary reunification with Taiwan cannot be part of a realistic medium term agenda for Beijing. That may be hard for the leadership to swallow but better to recognize it now that dream dangerous dreams.

There is of course some cost to Taiwan arms sales and the missile project. They reduce US leverage on China and Russia to limit sales to Pakistan, Iran etc. But Pakistan seems to have got most of what it wanted anyway. As for America's Israeli-inspired attempt to keep Iran isolated, it has been, from the US perspective, a monumental failure, benefiting the Russians, the most reactionary of Iran's Ayatollahs and the foreign rivals of US oil companies. It remains to be seen whether the Bush administration will have the wisdom to focus on core US strategic interests and not dissipate US strength by trying to have the last word in all situations.

Even in east Asian not all asects regional status quo can be maintained. Bush got off to a bad start with its hard line stance towards North Korea embarrassing Kim Dae Jung and his "sunshine" diplomacy. Pyongyang seems to have trumped that with on official visit from the Swedish Prime Minister, accompanied by EU External Relations Commissioner, former Hongkong governor Chris Patten and by unilaterally extending a missile test moratorium. North-South rapprochement will be a bumpy affair but will probably happen.

Combined with rising local nationalism, it clearly suggests that the days of US ground troops in Korea are numbered. But Korean rapprochement will both reduce China's leverage over the US, and increase US preference for high tech strategic weapons rather than costly on the ground presence. That will suit the Japanese well enough. Whether or not new prime minister Koizumi survives long enough to make real changes in his country, Japan's new generation is at once less susceptible to US influence than the old LDP guard but also more suspicious of China.

Sooner or later the Japanese economy will recover, at which point once can expect more attention to defence issues. In this context, for Beijing to make such a fuss about Lee Teng-hui's recent brief visit has played into the hands of those who think Japan has an obligation as well as self interest in helping Taiwan maintain its de facto independence.

But US/China strategic competition is still very different from enmity. The US and China have a huge mutual interest in preserving the economic linkages that have blossomed over the past two decades. These have played a crucial role in China's modernisation and social development, perhaps justifying the US ideological expectation that trade and a more open economy would lead to prosperity and social freedoms, if not to Jeffersonian democracy.Eventually they may even lead to a formula acceptable to Taiwan.

The immediate challenge to US-China relations seems likely to come from trade conflicts than strategic issues, on which China is for now too weak to challenge the US. China is still not a WTO member. Recession looms in the US, next year if not this year. The trade deficit with China is so large both absolutely and as a proportion of two way trade as to make an easy target for the protectionist forces which are sure to gain ground in a recessionary US. The anti-globalization (read, anti-trade) coalition in the US was gaining ground even as the economy boomed. Meanwhile the US must accommodate closer relations with its Latin neighbours.

A serious crisis in US-China commercial relations in the next two years cannot be ruled out which would have huge negative consequences for global and especially Asian trade and investment links. It could undermine many assumptions of four decades of US-led globalisation. So just as it is right for Bush to underline the importance of the strategic status quo so he must beware of the dangers to the economic status quo.

The liberalising global trends which have done so much for China have also contributed to a US trade problem which cannot be ignored. On way or another, be it through recession, currency devaluation or protectionism the deficit will be forced down. Bush must stand firm against any attempt to single out China for trade retaliation to right the imbalances, so threatening both global trade disruption and a Chinese economic reform movement based on the assumption of the supremacy of market economics over gut nationalism. Economic security is part of strategic security for both, and for their Asian partners. Keep economic relations on an even keel and the rest will follow.  






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