In the wake of the US President’s decision to pull out of any engagements in Asia surrounding the APEC summit in Bali last week, critics of the US rebalance to Asia policy have exploited his absence as evidence of US regional strategic bluster.
For the most part, the Chinese media avoided the temptation of hubris, taking a more conciliatory tone and played up the central role of China’s regional economic engagement at the summit. Chinese leaders will have recalled the abrupt departure by Hu Jintao from the G8 summit in Italy in 2009 as insurrection broke out in troubled Xinjiang.
The US has been very quick off the mark with rebuttals, proclaiming the Asia pivot to be firmly rooted in Washington DC’s foreign policy. Standing in for the President, Secretary of State Kerry’s presence in Bali was a notable exception to his predisposition for the quagmire in the Middle East, viewed by many as another counterweight to the Asia pivot.
World attention in Bali has focused on the windfall presented to Chinese President Xi Jinping, allowing China to steal centre stage. Xi has made a whirlwind circuit through the region on a state visit to Jakarta, then on to Kuala Lumpur before returning to Indonesia for the APEC summit.
China is now Indonesia’s second largest trading partner, with bilateral trade amounting to US$66 billion in 2012. During the state visit, both countries agreed to increase bilateral trade by a further $15 billion by 2015.
In Malaysia, China agreed a five-year plan to boost bilateral trade to US$160 billion by 2017. With these kinds of figures thrown into the mix of China’s increasingly dexterous Southeast Asian diplomacy, it’s difficult to imagine how the US couldn’t have been upstaged at Bali. But the US, facing the looming shadow of debt default as the shutdown continues, has put on a brave face, confident that a final deal on the Trans Pacific Partnership can be achieved by year end.
Another casualty of the paralysis in Washington is its stake in Taiwan. While acrimony between China and Japan lingered beneath the veneer of economic engagement at the summit, the cross-strait relationship between Taiwan and China appeared to demonstrate new momentum. Heralded as a milestone meeting, Xi Jinping’s discussions with Vincent Siew, Taiwan’s senior envoy and former Vice President, added a new twist to the debate over China’s strategic intent in the Asia–Pacific.
Xi called for an end to institutionalised procrastination over Taiwan’s reunification with China, describing Taiwan and China as ‘one family’. He insisted that the time is right for political discussions on the cross-strait relationship, without the conditional tones which infused statements on the same issue under Hu Jintao’s leadership.
Aside from the showcase handshake between Siew and Xi, another sign of acceleration in the thaw in cross-strait relations was a meeting between the head of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, the Taiwanese executive body tasked with managing relations with the People’s Republic, and the head of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office. Both bodies have served as rubber stamp outfits over the years, while the real business has been conducted behind closed doors within the Kuomintang-Communist Party ‘party-to-party’ framework, initiated by Hu Jintao and Lien Chan in 2005 and fast-tracked after the KMT regained power in 2008. At the Bali meeting, both bodies formally referred to their respective official designations. It’s rumoured that significant progress may have been achieved in the establishment of representative offices in Beijing and Taipei.
China’s economic integration of Taiwan in recent years is a good example of how Beijing is courting ASEAN member states. With China’s burgeoning economic clout in the neighbourhood, Taipei, Seoul, Tokyo and ASEAN member states are beginning to hedge their approaches to the US. Some of these approaches seem ad hoc at best, others more developed into what resembles coherent strategy.
A confidant of Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou and former National Security Secretary General, Su Chi best sums up the predicament of US friends and allies on China’s littoral as: ‘the tail wagging two dogs’. The biggest question mark is whether or not Xi Jinping will sacrifice the hitherto sacrosanct cross-strait status quo in order to pursue the reunification agenda with as much vigour as China’s other core concerns.
The lingering fissure in the integrity of the motherland is apparently of such pressing concern for the Chinese communist party that an additional tenth dash recently appeared off Taiwan on Chinese maps showing China’s maritime territorial demarcation. Crucial to any political progress across the strait will be military de-escalation and the offer by both sides of military confidence building measures. Former Premier Wen Jiabao had hinted in 2010 at de-targeting the PLA’s missiles pointed at Taiwan but it appears the opposite has happened. The PLA’s strategic rocket force known as the second artillery corps has now deployed its new anti-ship ballistic missiles across the strait.
Taiwan is still China’s greatest concern, and the issue has driven the modernisation of the People’s Liberation Army for the last decade. A few years ago, defence analysts in the US warned that the military balance across the strait was tipping in favour of the PLA. According to Taiwan’s 2013 National Defense Report released on 8 September, China will be able to successfully invade Taiwan by 2020. And as Chairman of the Central Military Commission, Xi may also feel emboldened by the decline in Taiwan’s defence spending.
Traditionally, Taiwan has kept the US in the loop on important junctures in cross-strait relations and Washington has been careful not to engage with Beijing on such issues over the head of Taipei. Post shutdown, as the White House resuscitates its rebalance to Asia, Congress would be well advised to review its commitments under the Taiwan Relations Act.
Alexander Neill is a Shangri-La Dialogue senior fellow for Asia-Pacific Security, at the International Institute for Strategic Studies-Asia, Singapore. Image courtesy of Flickr user Adam Fagen.