Should America Give Up on Taiwan?

As China rises and is becoming more assertive in its region, America’s security commitment to Taiwan may well become more problematic in the near future. Should the United States simply give up on the island?

Increasingly, China and the United States will have to coordinate trade and security policy as the two are economically interdependent and both have an interest in preventing nuclear proliferation on the Korean Peninsula and conflict in the South China Sea.

China still regards Taiwan a renegade province and has scores of missile fielded across the Taiwan Strait. America’s longtime alliance with the island nation could hamper progress in Sino-American relations. Read more “Should America Give Up on Taiwan?”

Rethinking American Commitment to Taiwan

Although relations between China and Taiwan have steadily improved in recent years, with the two countries signing a free-trade agreement this summer, for instance, America’s support for what Beijing continues to regard as a renegade province is still likeliest to cause a future confrontation between the two great powers.

Tensions became evident again last January when the United States approved a $1 billion arms sale to Taiwan that was heavily criticized in China. In the whole of the South China Sea region, China and the United States clash repeatedly. With concern about China’s naval ambitions mounting both in Washington and the region, supremacy over the Strait of Taiwan will likely be more hotly contested in the years ahead. Read more “Rethinking American Commitment to Taiwan”

China, Taiwan to Sign Free Trade Accord

China and Taiwan are expected to agree to a preliminary free-trade agreement later this month in a effort to normalize relations across the Strait after more than six decades of bickering and mistrust.

According to The Economist, the proposed Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) calls for cuts on 539 categories of Taiwanese exports to China over the next two years with scope for more to follow. The paper describes the agreement as “the cornerstone of the China-friendly policies of Taiwan’s president, Ma Ying-jeou.” Critics allege that the president’s foreign policy is geared toward ultimate reunification with the mainland.

Following Ma’s election in May 2008, relations with China rapidly improved. His government allowed regular charter flights to take place between the two countries to bring in Chinese tourists and it eased restrictions on cross-Strait investments.

Taiwan is hoping that the ECFA deal will herald its future inclusion in international free-trade arrangements; something China has so far opposed and prevented.

Last January Beijing initiated a free-trade accord with the member states of ASEAN; the Taiwanese exports included in the ECFA are from some of the industries most threatened by that agreement. The Taiwanese government is likely to try to reach similar arrangements with nearby Southeast Asian countries in an effort that will boost the economic integration of the region and decrease the likelihood of future conflict.

The opposition has reason to be suspicious though. While Taiwanese negotiators did not get everything they asked for, “the terms of the deal still seem remarkably sweet for Taiwan,” according to The Economist.

The 539 categories of Taiwanese exports are worth $13.8 billion, while Taiwan in turn will reduce tariffs for only 267 categories of Chinese exports, worth $2.9 billion. What is more, China has gone beyond its World Trade Organization requirements by dropping tariffs on various Taiwanese agricultural and fishing products, and Chinese negotiators said they would never push Taiwan to return the favor.

“China’s largesse is clearly political.” Beijing prefers Ma’s moderate Kuomintang over the more independence leaning Democratic Progressive Party while it has to cope with an Asian naval race and mounting tension in the region. As Robert Kaplan wrote in April, China feels “boxed in,” particularly from the sea, where it faces a chain of nations from South Korea to Japan to the Philippines to Indonesia and Australia, with implicit backing from across the Pacific, which are watching China’s rise with skepticism — indeed, sometimes outright fear.

In order to address that perceived threat from the high seas, Beijing is preparing to envelop Taiwan “not just militarily but economically and socially,” according to Kaplan.

Amid high unemployment figures, Ma’s popularity is slumping however. “Economic success has not trickled down to many Taiwanese,” knows The Economist, “and for them the ECFA is an abstract idea of frighteningly radical engagement with China.” Ma will have to prove to his voters that the China deal will benefit Taiwan directly before the presidential elections in 2012.

The Geography of Chinese Power

Writing for the International Herald Tribune, Robert D. Kaplan makes good geopolitical sense again. This time, he describes “China’s blessed geography,” so obvious, according to Kaplan, “that it tends to get overlooked.” But it is essential nonetheless. “It means that China will stand at the hub of geopolitics even if the country’s path toward global power is not necessarily linear.”

China’s foreign policy is not inspired by a missionary spirit to spread faith or ideology. Abroad, China only seeks to secure its interests which, oftentimes, take the shape of mineral resources. Read more “The Geography of Chinese Power”

Tension? What Tension?

“Asia has emerged as a diplomatic hornet’s nest,” according to The New York Times, “even beyond the perennial threat of North Korea.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in the midst of it all, trying to defuse “tension” between the United States, China and Japan. What is going on?

American commentators continue to dread a confrontation with China even as both powers are growing more interdependent every day. In spite of China’s economic ties across the region, there is fear moreover that East Asia is becoming something of a powder keg, about to explode any minute now.

There is real tension, of course. Although China and Japan are quickly becoming each other’s most important of trading partners, militarily they compete. The strong American military presence in Japan as well as its reluctance to sell the F-22 fighter airplane to Japan are complicating factors in a triangular relationship that is intricate to begin with.

The new Japanese government meanwhile is delaying the relocation of a American military base on the island of Okinawa despite Clinton’s demand that they “follow through on their commitments.” Three times, the secretary indicated that Washington is not open to compromise on the issue but Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama campaigned for moving the base off Okinawa or even out of Japan altogether, reasoning that Japan should pursue a foreign policy more independent of the United States — exactly because of its sometimes bellicose language toward China.

Then there’s Taiwan. Its president, Ma Ying-jeou, has been pursuing a more conciliatory policy toward China which still likes to consider the island a renegade province of the mainland. While 1,500 missiles stand aimed and ready to fire across the Strait, Taiwan is a healthy, capitalist democracy which, for the time being, is not stressing the matter of de jure independence. Rather, China and Taiwan are in negotiation to reduce import and travel restrictions between the two countries: a necessary move for Taiwan considering the recent creation of a Southeast Asian free-trade zone that makes the island less attractive as trading partner to China.

The United States is bound by law to arm Taiwan, however, and a recent sale of missiles met with strong Chinese disapproval. Sino-American relations are still shaky but as Clinton said last Tuesday, “America’s future is linked to the future of this region, and the future of this region depends on America.” Obama was even happy to call himself a “Pacific president” and for good reasons: East Asia is fast becoming the new core of the world economy while politically, its integration can be fragile at times. American involvement is able spark discontent but it also helps smooth over differences by providing great power leadership to those nations fearing Chinese domination.

The political discord should not be exaggerated. Today’s tension springs from relatively minor disagreements and will, in the end, be resolved.

Sino-American Relations Still Shaky

While the current administration realizes that China is little threat to the United States, last year’s Impeccable incident, when the US Navy’s ocean surveillance ship was harassed by Chinese vessels in the South China Sea, came as a harsh reminder that the two superpowers don’t always get along.

Moreover, the two continue to clash on human rights, Taiwan, and China’s reluctance to push for sanctions against “rogue states” as North Korea and Iran. China’s accidental empire is a matter of concern for many Asian states, India foremost among them, and it is in part responsible for the Asian naval race.

In the United States, there are plenty of commentators who dread China’s military expansion while politicos typically fail to understand why the country is so hesitant to pursue a more aggressive foreign policy when it could be in the interest of the United States. The red giant appears to be waffling more than usual on the issue of Iran recently, rescheduling meetings and refusing to pledge anything concrete.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on a trip to Hawaii, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand and Australia, tries to pretend that nothing is out of the ordinary. “Everyone’s aware that China is a rising power of the twenty-first century,” she said Monday. “But people want to see the United States fully engaged in Asia, so that as China rises the United States is there as a force for peace.”

“Fully engaged” referring to a $1 billion arms sale to Taiwan, heavily criticized by Chinese officials last week. Clinton doesn’t expect any trouble though. “What I’m expecting is that we actually are having a mature relationship.”

Asked about Iran, Clinton proposed to push for “smarter” sanctions, targeting specific groups within the regime rather than the Iranian economy on the whole. “It is clear that there is a relatively small group of decisionmakers inside Iran,” she said. “They are in both political and commercial relationships, and if we can create a sanctions track that targets those that actually make the decisions, we think that is a smarter way to do sanctions.” Something the Chinese may be more willing to accept, perhaps?