21 January 2009

China-Taiwan Rapprochement

The single most expensive geopolitical situation driving the United States Defense Department's budget is the concern that mainland China might invade Taiwan, and that the U.S., to defend its Taiwanese ally, might have to go head to head against the full force of the increasingly sophisticated and large Chinese military.

Preparing for this possibility is a very important justification for the U.S. Navy's budget. There are few other world threats that justify a Navy of the scale currently in place. It is also an important justification for the Air Force's force structure.

Apparently, however, these tensions have defused greatly over the last few years.

There is now direct postal service, commercial air transport, and, most recently, shipping between China and Taiwan. Also, Taiwan businessmen are investing in China.

And, in early January the China News Agency announced that representatives of China and Taiwan were are expected to meet after the Chinese New Year holidays to hammer out the technical details of several agreements to be signed during the third round of high-level, cross-Taiwan Strait talks. According to Straits Exchange Foundation Chairman Chiang Pin-kung, the new set of agreements will address issues such as cooperation on financial supervision and regulation, prevention of double taxation, intellectual property rights protection, and cooperation on combating crime.

These "semi-official" talks have seen unprecedented agreements between China and Taiwan, certainly a means of "defusing" the previous, danger-fraught relations between the two.

It also appears that the Chinese military, which has expanded and grown more sophisticated over the last few years, may be focusing more on protecting Chinese access to foreign oil resources, and less on keeping open the option of invading Taiwan militarily. One of China's most recent military engagements was to add its Navy resources to the international group of ships firing shots in anger to protect shipping from Somali pirates. This shipping matters to China because much of its oil supply travels this route from Sudanese suppliers.

The surprise is not so much that this is happening, as that it is happening now. China has been liberalizing its economy, and curtailing the worst abuses of its authoritarian political system, ever since the end of the Cultural Revolution, the arrest of the "Gang of Four" and the death of Mao in 1976. Progress has come sometimes in spurts and paused at other times, but it has not stopped.

Unlike almost all of the rest of the world, China has not adopted wholesale either the Continental European political and legal model, or the Anglo-American political and legal model.

Instead, China has organically established its own legal system that differ from Western models right down to core concepts like "what is property," and has conducted almost all of the political liberalization that has taken place within a single political party, within the bounds of strict restrictions on the public expression of ideas.

There is much about the Chinese model which is undesirable. Its economic growth is fueled in part by artificially propping up the American dollar vis-a-vis the Chinese currency, producing trade deficits and creating an unsustainable situation. Its coal driven economy is a global environmental disaster. China makes wider use of the death penalty than any other country on Earth, and provides only weak protections for the accused in its criminal justice system. China still comes across as unpredictable, inscrutable and somewhat corrupt in its international trade dealings. Limits on expression impair the Chinese quality of life, mutes the ability of its political economy to secure progress, and can allow legitimate grievances to fester until they get out of control.

But, the Chinese model isn't necessarily fatally flawed either. China is more democratic now (with a little "d") than it was when it received the wake up call embodies in the Tiananmen protests. China has weathered the past thirty-two years without any further episodes of Stalin/Mao class repression, or a civil war (or even serious insurgency) in a country with many regions that hunger for independence.

The Chinese have chafed under harsh centralized policies like the "One Child policy," crude imposition of harsh criminal penalties and restrictions on free speech. But, China has been more open to change that nations following the Soviet model that ultimately collapsed, and has been less repressive the regimes those of Saudi Arabia, Sudan, the Taliban, Iran, Pol Pot's Cambodia, Kazakhstan, the Soviet Union, North Korea, the Nazi regimes, Cold War Albania, or its own regime under Mao. China has for the past generation avoided than perils of weak government found in most of Africa, the perils of anarchy found in Somalia, and the temptation to overextend itself on a military front exhibited by Imperialist Japan and the Nazi regimes. China has maintained civilian rule with less military influence than Turkey, most of Latin America, and a host of other emerging democracies which have been ruled from time to time by military juntas (including currently industrialized democratic countries like South Korea, Greece and Spain).

The re-establishment of Chinese supremacy in Hong Kong, in 1997, and in Macau, in 1999, produced a small step backward in each former Western colony's political economy. But, China has refrained from crushing the basically Western economic systems that have contributed to economic prosperity in these former colonies, in either place. These experiences appears to have calmed the worst case scenario fears of Taiwan about what might happen if it were more closely integrated politically with the mainland.

Neither the Chinese elite, nor the common people of China, are so isolated from the rest of the world that they cannot see the way that the winds of political and economic change are blowing. Official Chinese new reports are mind numbing for their indirectness, and official Chinese diplomatic P.R. is sometimes laughably inept. But, China is not indifferent to its international reputation.

The Chinese elite does not have a "free society" as a priority. But, it does want its people to be more prosperous materially, does want its people to be predominantly happy with their lot in life, and does want its country to earn international respect through extraordinary accomplishments from its Olympic performances to its space program to its reputation for respecting human rights.

The modern, developed world is still holding its breath when it comes to China. This nuclear power with growing military might is not governed according to the values or principals of the West, and could easily be drawn into a dangerous nationalist fury if provoked.

But, the possibility that the international community can calm the waters long enough for China's system to come into secure harmony with the rest of the world, and for its backward neighbor North Korea to collapse under its own inadequacies, before either country winds up in a bloody modern war, is looking more likely than ever.


Michael Turton said...

Most of this is a misreading....

The US is committed to defending Japan and its territories by formal treaty; China claims the Senkakus which the US and Japan have actually conducted wargames in. It also claims scattered islands belonging to other nations, some of which (the Philippines) the US is more or less allied to, as well as an entire state of India, parts of other neighboring states, etc. It dreams of more.

Hence the US fleet is not there merely for the Taiwan scenario, but for containment of China's larger territorial designs, of which Taiwan is the biggest, but only the first step. The US has a de facto but never articulated containment policy on China.

"Tensions" have not "defused". That is a shallow media reading. The current ruling party in Taiwan shares the same Chinese nationalism as the CCP and is allied to it in suppressing democracy and independence here. Tensions remained suppressed, not defused.

China further uses the concept of "Tensions" to attack the democracy side here in the media. To put the concept of tensions in perspective, there is $200 billion in taiwan investment in China, and the busiest air route on earth is between a city in China and a city in Taiwan. Tensions occur only in the media, and only to help China paint the democracy side as "radical". The source of tension is not "Taiwan and China" but China's desire to annex Taiwan. The kind of tension that exists between China and Taiwan is the kind that existed between Czechoslovakia and Germany in 1938.

The talks between Taiwan and China are thus talks between two parties, one of which wants to sell out the island, the other which wants to annex it, but both aware that less that 10% of the population here wants to be part of China at present.

And make no mistake, teh military is aimed at Taiwan, squarely. 1400 missiles currently point at us.

China may allow its citizens more personal freedom, but the ability to buy Versace is hardly the same as democracy. It should also be noted that business investments in China have not made any sympathy for China among locals.

China wants to take over, not enter, the international system. Its "alternative" to the international system is the nightmare of colonialism and imperialism, and racial superiority, that made the 20th century such a nightmare.

Yes i know US no better etc etc.


Michael Turton said...

Sorry that should be

TAIWANESE business investments in China have not generated sympathy for China in Taiwan. Quite the opposite.

Should also note that the purpose of claiming that Taiwan provoked China and raised tensions, was to lever pro-Taiwan party out of power because it was negotiating firm on Taiwan markets in China and limiting China's effect on Taiwan economy. Now that pro-China is in power, China is already moving Taiwanese shippers out of key markets, such as gravel....

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

Thank you for your insight Mr. Turton.

Certainly, the defense of Japan and South Korea from Chinese and North Korean military threats are also drivers of the U.S. military budget, although the U.S. has not taken a significant role in the low level Chinese military conflict with India in the Himalayas. But, Chinese ambitions towards South Korea and Japan have been much more muted, and North Korea is not nearly so potent a military threat as China. Any military threat China poses to the Phillipines is even more remote. (A China invasion of North Korea, which it sees as in its sphere of influence, would probably do more good than harm.)

Fourteen hundred missiles aimed at Taiwan seem to me to be an empty threat, even if that assertion is accurate. The alure of Taiwan is a wish to take it, not to destroy it. In the same vein, nuclear missiles have been less important than expected in modern war, in part, because leveling a city and killing everyone in it, and laying the area hit to waste for decades, turns out to be an exceedingly rare military objective.

Obvious, you are more pessimistic about Chinese intentions and the extent to which Taiwanese cooperation is voluntary rather than a product of undue influence. History could prove you right.

But, I do believe that China is changing for the better step by step, and your comment does not really rebut that trend. The fundamental dynamic of the regional diplomacy remains basically the same. Can war or other serious mishaps be held at bay long enough for China's system to mature enough for the rest of the world to trust it and be comfortable with it.

We are not in the darkest hour on that score right now.