Cross-Strait Developments and Implications for Northeast Asia:
Views from the Region
Institute of International Relations – Brookings forum
National Chengchi University and the Brookings Institution held a panel on the future implications of cross-strait détente for the region today, where speakers discussed the reactions of Hong Kong, China, Japan, South Korea, Russia and Taiwan to recent developments in the Taiwan Strait. Mr. Richard Bush III, former director of the American Institute in Taiwan and current director of the Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies (CNAPS) at Brookings, acted as moderator. Former Taiwanese envoy to Washington Joseph Wu (吳釗燮) attended. (Picture: from left, Alexander Lukin, James Tang, Chung Jae-ho, Richard Bush, Liu Fu-kuo, and Liu Shih-chung.)
“Nobody knows where [cross-strait] efforts will lead. It might not work out,” Bush said in his brief opening remark before turning to the panelists, who each gave a 7-10 minute presentation on how the cross-strait talks are seen in their countries and what they could imply for the region.
First in line was Richard Weixing Hu, professor of international relations at University of Hong Kong and visiting fellow at CNAPS (2007-2008). Hu argued that starting with President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤), Beijing was very open minded and pragmatic about Taiwan, while pointing to the desire, on Beijing’s part, to move from the “internationalization” of the Taiwan issue to “internalization,” which could be interpreted as meaning that China seeks to further portray the Taiwan question as a domestic matter rather than one that should involve the international community.
Taiwan is divided, Hu said, with the “other Taiwan” — the part of the country that does not feel represented by the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) “peace” bid — comprising large numbers of Taiwanese who have never visited China and therefore know very little about it and how it has developed in recent years.
While, in Hu’s view, Taiwan and China have made a “good start” in improving relations, future success hinges on reciprocity. Taiwan’s bid to join the World Health Assembly as an observer in May will be an indicator, and Beijing must find creative ways to give Taiwan more international space, especially as the region enters a “crucial stage” in architecture building.
The second panelist was Chung Jae-ho, professor of international relations and director of the Institute for China Studies at Seoul National University, who argued that diminished tensions in the Taiwan Strait could free up the US and China so they could devote more energy to resolving the crisis in the Korean Peninsula. While the likelihood of conflict in the Taiwan Strait has diminished, Chung said, the Korean Peninsula is heading in the opposite direction. Improved relations between Taiwan and China also makes it less likely Seoul would have to deal with a “Taiwan contingency” as to how it should react if war broke out in the Taiwan Strait, which could force its government to make hard — and possibly divisive — choices (remaining neutral, favoring China, siding with the US, and if so, what would be the nature of that support, etc).
Chung also mentioned that during his remarks yesterday, Taiwanese Vice President Vincent Siew (蕭萬長) mentioned the need for Taiwan to develop alliances with more countries or regions, such as the US and the EU, but did not mention South Korea, which, when it switched diplomatic relations from Taipei to Beijing in 1992, nevertheless retained the designation “mission” for its representative office in Taiwan (the highest status for an NGO), something Chung argued should be acknowledged.
After Chung came Alexander Lukin, director of the Center for East Asian and Shanghai Cooperation Organization Studies at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, who said that Moscow’s policy on the Taiwan Strait has been consistent: No support for Taiwanese independence, recognition of “one China,” and hopes for a peaceful resolution. Lukin, who as a Moscow official visited Taiwan in the early 1990s, bemoaned the status of trade relations between Russia and Taiwan (about US$3 billion annually, versus US$43 billion with China) and claimed that Taiwanese officials had, on the one hand, failed to recognize the importance of emphasizing trade relations, while on the other mistakenly pursuing diplomatic relations with Russia, sometimes with attempts to lure senior Russian officials to create the illusion of diplomatic ties, he said. “There is no reason why trade with Taiwan should only be US$3 billion,” Lukin said, hinting that more intimate trade relations should precede, and in time perhaps influence, diplomacy.
“Most Russians don’t even know where Taiwan is,” he said, while later adding, somewhat philosophically, that “Taiwan is a great place, but its greatness exceeds its territory.”
Taiwan can go in two directions, Lukin said: Either it becomes a prosperous country separate from China, or its democracy, as part of a future “unified” China, helps improve China and the lives of its 1.3 billion people. While in his view the latter option would be of greater benefit to humanity, the choice is for Taiwan’s 23 million people to make.
Masahiro Matsumura, professor of international politics and faculty of law and political science at St. Andrew’s University, Osaka, came next, with a more cautious perspective on the implications of warming relations in the Taiwan Strait. There is “growing uncertainty” in Tokyo about the impact of closer ties between Taipei and Beijing with regards to the future regional “power balance,” Masahiro said, adding that Japan had adopted a “wait and see” strategy. Still, with Taiwan as Japan’s No. 4 trade partner, and given the historical, cultural and emotional baggage between the two nations, Japan is torn and has had to reconcile its “neutralist” approach to Taiwan, adopted after it abandoned claims on the island at the San Francisco Treaty of 1952 — that it has no say as to whom should have claim over Taiwan — with security considerations and the need to ensure freedom of the seas in Taiwanese territorial waters. The prosperity of Taiwan and its democracy are of significant importance for Japan, he said.
In a crisis in a Taiwan Strait, Japan would likely “piggyback” on the US and limit its activities to intelligence and support operations while avoiding direct confrontation with China. He said, however, that the current economic crisis could hamper Washington’s ability, or desire, to confront China militarily over Taiwan, which would present Tokyo with a hard choice of either coming to Taiwan’s assistance, which would necessitate a rewriting to Japan’s Constitution, or adopt an accommodating strategy.
Next came James Tang, professor of social sciences and University of Hong Kong, who said that opinion polls in the Special Administrative Region have historically shown 80 percent support for Taiwanese unification with China, with a steady 10 percent strongly supporting an independent Taiwan. Tang also pointed to high support for President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) in Hong Kong, given his family connections there. Still, the Hong Kong government remains cautious about its approach to Taiwan, and there are growing apprehensions that closer economic ties between China and Taipei could have an adverse effect on Hong Kong’s economy, especially in the air travel sector. Tang also observed that while statistics show a great number of Taiwanese flying to Hong Kong annually, those numbers are deceiving, as many only use it as a transit to fly to China proper, meaning that the economic impact of Taiwanese flying to Hong Kong is much smaller than the number of visits would indicate.
Tang said Hong Kong and Taiwan share similar challenges in dealing with Beijing, while adding that closer Taiwan-China relations could nevertheless create opportunities for Hong Kong to act as a “middleman” or in the financial service sector. He also pointed to opportunities for closer Taiwan-Hong Kong cooperation in the fashion and entertainment industries.
Last but certainly not least came two speakers from Taiwan, with Liu Shih-chung, an advisory committee member at Taiwan Thinktank and CNAPS visiting fellow (2008-2009), turning to the domestic challenges arising from the Ma administration’s efforts to forge closer ties with China. Aside from an “ABC” policy (“anything but Chen [Shui-bian (陳水扁)]), Liu said, Ma's cross-strait strategy relied on four pillars.
First, Liu said, was Ma’s “fast-track” cross-strait normalization, with his government immediately launching cross-strait talks after coming into office in May. Liu said that Ma appeared to have construed his electoral victory as Taiwanese giving him a mandate.
The second pillar resides in gaining and maintaining the support of key allies like the US, who for the most part have welcomed his cross-strait policies.
The third pillar, Liu said, is the “institutionalization” of cross-strait talks and reciprocity in “goodwill” and accomplishments.
The fourth leg of Ma’s strategy is highly contingent on the third, as it involves gaining and maintaining domestic support. Adding a twist to Richard Hu’s “one China, two Taiwans” concept, Liu said there existed instead “two Chinas, one Taiwan” — the People’s Republic of China, the Republic of China and Taiwan. Taiwan, he said, has many voices, which by default makes it difficult to please everybody, and Ma’s impression that he has some kind of “mandate” to turn things around may have disconnected him from certain swaths of Taiwanese society, which Liu said could be addressed by Ma embarking on another “long stay,” such as the one he held during his election campaign. Another recommendation was that Ma explain to Taiwanese that he does not intend to “sell out” Taiwan, a perception that has only grown given the lack of transparency that has characterized much of the cross-strait exchanges to date.
Liu was also of the opinion that Ma had fain proceed with caution and perhaps adopt the approach of former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝), which called for a more patient strategy. “Ma appears to be too hungry,” Liu said, and his chances of re-election could be jeopardized if his efforts fail to bring deliverables to Taiwanese, in other words, if two or more of his pillars crumble. “The next year will be crucial for his re-election chances,” he said.
In closing remarks, Liu Fu-kuo, research fellow at the Institute of International Relations (IIR) at National Chengchi University in Taipei, said that Taiwanese need to take a close look at what they expect from China and integrate those views to present a unified front. The main opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party, he said, is itself divided, has been unable to present a clear platform, and its leadership under Chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has been put into question.
Given all this, “there is a need for caution,” he said. “We are vulnerable.”
As for Bush, who may have been tapped for a senior position in the administration of US president-elect Barack Obama, his comments were extremely cautious and noncommittal (even turning down interview requests throughout his stay in Taiwan), which leads me to believe that he wants to avoid saying anything “controversial” that could hurt his chances of appointment.
Overall, panelists reflected optimism in their respective countries for ongoing cross-strait talks, except in Japan, which for obvious geopolitical reasons sees no advantage in seeing Taiwan join the Chinese camp. There was general consensus, even among strong supporters of cross-strait rapprochement, that Beijing must find ways to give Taiwan more international space, and that failure to do so would jeopardize the project. It is obvious, however, that the greatest impediment to Ma’s cross-strait talks lies at home — the very stuff of democracy.
There is a great need for debate of this sort in Taiwan, especially under the current circumstances, where things are changing so fast they often give rise to more questions and fears than answers. Today’s forum was a great step in that direction, and the IIR’s Liu informed me that NCU would organize more forums in future. It was also very encouraging to see Brookings, a somewhat left-leaning institution, engage Taiwanese academia and policymakers, which historically has been the almost exclusive territory of right-wing American think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute, or hawks like Paul Wolfowitz and John Bolton, whose support for Taiwan is very much the end result of an even stronger opposition to China rather than enthusiasm for Taiwanese democracy.