Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Xi-Ma summit has changed the status quo

This piece first ran on Asia Times and reposted on New America Media
My good friend, a university mathematics professor and keen observer of Taiwan politics, pointed out to me that by virtue of the Xi-Ma historic summit having taken place, the goal posts of Taiwan’s status quo has already moved a step farther from independence.
China's President Xi Jinping and Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou face a gaggle of media before their closed-door talks
China’s President Xi Jinping and Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou greet each other at Singapore
Up to now, the leader from Beijing would not agree to meet the leader from Taipei because that would imply a meeting of equals. In Singapore last Saturday, that meeting actually took place thus breaking the ice once and for all.
The summit was expected to be largely symbolic and no concrete developments were to come out of the meeting. In fact, the two sides found common ground where both Xi and Ma urged the other party to strengthen the cross-straits relations based on the 1992 consensus.
Of course, from Xi’s perspective the important part of the 1992 consensus is that both sides recognize that there is one China and Taiwan is part of that China. In Ma’s view, yes one China but according to each side’s interpretation. The opposition party in Taiwan, the DPP, and its leader, Tsai Ing-wen, does not accept the existence of the 1992 consensus at all.
According to the hundreds of journalists present to witness the historic event, the meeting was warm and cordial. At the scheduled time, both leaders strolled toward each other, smiling broadly and Xi was first to extend his hand.
The handshake lasted well over a minute as both men turned slowly to the right and left to give all the photographers a vantage point. This was a far cry from Xi’s stiff body language when he awkwardly shook Japan’s Prime Minister Abe’s hand earlier in the year.
Xi’s public remark was brief and in generalities. He said blood is thicker than water and tragedies of the past must not be repeated. Let this meeting be symbolic of both leaders turning a new page together in the cross-straits history.
Ma’s remarks followed and his was longer and spent a good part of it reviewing the accomplishments under his administration: 23 cross straits agreements related to economic cooperation, 40,000 students now studying across the straits, 8 million tourists visiting the other side (about half from the mainland to Taiwan and half in the opposite direction), and bilateral annual trade has now exceeded $170 billion with the trade surplus going to Taiwan.
Some specific accomplishments also came out of the closed-door conference between the two sides. Ma proposed installing a hot line across the straits and increasing the nature and frequency of bilateral exchanges. Xi agreed and delegated to China’s Taiwan Affairs Office for implementation.
Ma also asked for more access for Taiwan to the international community, heretofore severely limited by Beijing as the only sovereign government of China. Xi agreed to review on a case by case basis. In turn Xi indicated that Taiwan would be welcome as a member of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and participate in his One Belt, One Road initiatives.
Before the summit, Tsai Ing-wen, who is expected to win the next presidential election by a landslide, opined that the Xi-Ma summit would be considered historic if Ma is treated with equality and mutual respect and Taiwan keeps its current status without any preconditions. Otherwise, it would be merely a meeting.
To no one’s surprise, Tsai immediately dismissed the summit as “failure on all counts” after the conclusion of the closed-door conference by the two parties.
Assuming that Tsai wins the election and takes over the Taiwan government next year, she may yet come to appreciate the legacy Ma has left for her—the legacy being a bridge for future leaders to meet and confer.
The last time the DPP was routed from power, Chen Shui-bian was the sitting president and he had badly mismanaged Taiwan’s economy. Tsai knows full well she will face the same fate if she also fails to keep the economy humming. To do so, she will sooner or later have to work with Beijing.
In the 1990’s, Taiwan’s economy was comparable to the mainland and Taiwan businesses and manufacturing concerns were collectively the largest group of foreign direct investments in the mainland. Beijing welcomed these investments and granted the Taishang (Taiwan businessmen) most favorable terms.
Lee Teng-hui, then president of Taiwan, was worried that Taiwan was putting all its eggs in the mainland basket. He urged Taishang to diversify and put their factories elsewhere in Southeast Asia, anywhere but in China.
Many listened to Lee’s advice and invested elsewhere such as Philippines and Vietnam. Lacking the advantage of cultural affinity and common language, most of those investments ended in the red. The negative experiences only serve to affirm their focus on China.
Today, China’s economy is about 20 fold larger than Taiwan’s. Taishang’s presence and success on the mainland is far more important to Taiwan than to China. If Tsai attempts to roll back Taiwan’s economic integration with China and diversify Taiwan’s economic interests away from China, she will likely stumble just like Lee Teng-hui did.
I believe the day will come when Tsai will have to forego her separate dream and seek to join Xi’s China Dream. Then she will be glad to travel on the bridge to China that Ma built.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Taiwan and China set to take a positive step forward

This piece first posted in Asia Times.
An historic summit is about to take place between Ma Ying-jeou, leader of the ruling party of Taiwan, and Xi Jinping, leader of the ruling party on mainland China.
Chinese President X i(R) and Taiwan President Ma
China’s President Xi Jinping (L) and Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou
The meeting in Singapore on November 7 will be the first time a leader of the KMT party meets leader of China’s CCP in 66 years since the KMT lost their hold on the mainland and relocated the Republic of China to Taiwan.
The announcement for the Xi-Ma summit has the feel of a “Hail Mary” pass — from American football terminology. The impression of a last minute desperation heave is because Ma’s term of office is nearing its end and his likely successor Tsai Ing-wen from the opposition party, DPP, with her generally negative attitude about the cross-straits relations, is hardly the person Xi would like to partner for ice-breaking across the Taiwan Straits.
Both sides denied that this was a last minute, hastily arranged meeting or that it was called in response to the rising tension over the South China Sea.  It took months for the two sides to agree on how to address each other so as not to incur any implied recognition of Taiwan’s sovereignty status. They finally agreed to call each other “Mister.” After their meeting, they will have a “no-host” dinner together and split the bill.
According to spokesperson for Ma, he had proposed such a meeting over two years ago to be held on the sidelines of an APEC summit but Beijing had demurred.
The generally accepted explanation was that Beijing did not wish to give any appearance of recognizing Taiwan as a separate sovereign state. Holding the meeting now with a few remaining months before Ma leaves office is subject to a number of mutually non-exclusive interpretations.
Having returned from successful state visits to the US and UK, Xi Jinping is confident in his role as a globetrotting leader and comfortable in his skin as a diplomat. Seems the right time to begin the meeting with Taiwan from the top.
Since Ma took office in 2008, he has worked hard to improve the cross-traits relations. Even though he has failed to articulate the importance of a close relationship with the mainland to the people of Taiwan, Xi can expect Ma to appreciate the importance and can anticipate that their conversation will be fruitful.
It is also important to break the no meet/no speak embargo and begin the precedence of a cross-straits summit now than wait for the next Taiwan administration.
Tsai Ing-wen of the DPP is expected to become the next leader of Taiwan after the election next year. Given her less than cordial attitude about the mainland, any summit could be icy and unproductive if they occur at all. To initiate precedence breaking first meeting under Tsai’s administration would be a daunting task.
Despite the preferential trade agreement Beijing has extended to Taiwan under the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA), many in Taiwan especially among the younger generation have not appreciated the benefits of being economically integrated with the mainland.
By establishing a platform of more direct dialogue after the summit in Singapore, Beijing will have future opportunity to talk more directly with the people of Taiwan and persuade them of advantages of a closer relationship.
Tsai has grudgingly accepted the notion of having such a summit provided the results of the meeting do not go into a “black box,” i.e., kept secret and undisclosed to the public in Taiwan.
She has expressed concern that this could be a last minute surprise maneuver reminiscent of the assassin bullet that grazed Chen Shui-bian’s belly and changed the outcome of the election of 2004. (The alleged assassination attempt garnered Chen enough sympathy to win him the election with the thinnest of margins.)
Ma sought to assure the Taiwan people that the purpose of the meeting in Singapore is to “consolidate cross-strait peace and maintain the status quo.” He promised that the summit would produce no agreements or joint declarations.
In their closed-door session that will last about one hour, Xi should take the opportunity to say to Ma, “Mr. Ma, in a few months you will become the senior statesman in Taiwan. I hope you will take advantage of your status being above the fray of politics to explain the importance of the economic linkage across the straits to the economic well-being of Taiwan.
“Through your past efforts to strengthen the ties with the mainland, Taiwan’s economy is strong. Tell the people of Taiwan that if and when they decide that they do not wish to be part of China, we would have to withdraw the favorable economic terms given to our brethren to date. The consequences for Taiwan would be disastrous.”
When Eric Chu, KMT candidate for president, heard about the impending Xi-Ma summit, he said, “Both sides of the strait must continue to engage with each other and promote cooperation to achieve a win-win situation based on peaceful development.”
Win-win is the foundation of Xi’s global diplomacy. Chu’s remark should be music to his ears. Too bad Chu is running far behind Tsai and is unlikely to be the next Taiwan leader and move cross-straits relations forward toward win-win engagements.

Friday, November 6, 2015

The world sees Uncle Sam in a hospital gown

This was first posted in China-US Focus and re-posted in Asia Times.

More than two centuries ago, King George III of England dispatched his emissary to China to call on the imperial court and seek an audience with the emperor. Lord McCartney, the envoy, was to urge Emperor Qianlong to open up China for increase trade.
England was weary of paying for Chinese tea, silk and porcelain with silver, the hard currency of the day. Qianlong looked at the samples of British products McCartney brought along as gifts and declined to open up China. The emperor didn’t think China needed the goods made with western technology that he regarded as mere gadgets.
Qianlong did not live long enough to see that he made a big mistake. Who knows what would have developed had he agreed to open China to free trade. Instead, the British unilaterally imposed their version of open trade by selling their opium grown in India to China for their silver.
Two hundred and some thirty years later, things have changed. The modern day version of China’s emperor, Xi Jinping, didn’t stay home to say no to the British envoy, but personally went to London to say yes to Great Britain. As much reported elsewhere, “yes” came in the form of tens of billion dollars of economic deals including the financing and building of a nuclear power plant.
On their end, the royal family and government leaders in London went all out, rolling out the red carpet and the royal state coach ride for Xi with Queen Elizabeth. I can’t recall any U.S. president accorded a similar honor in recent memory.
This could presage a long-term bilateral friendship but it was not born overnight. For the last 5 years Chinese investments in the U.K. has been increasing annually at a phenomenal rate of 85% per year. The accumulated investment of over $40 billion in U.K. makes up one-third of China’s total investment in Europe.
China’s investment in U.K. is expected to double and double again over the next decade. Obviously, Britain has benefited significantly by collaborating with China. The prime minister Cameron and Exchequer Osborne clearly understand that the economic future of the bilateral relationship will keep U.K. on the right side of history.
Professor Zhang Weiwei recently visited San Francisco at the invitation of the Committee of 100 to speak at the forum co-organized by The Commonwealth Club. The topic of the forum was how China and the U.S. can avoid conflict. Zhang said to the audience that bilateral trade between China and the U.S. is nine fold larger than China with U.K. Surely the potential benefits of bilateral collaboration would be that much greater than the case with U.K.
If China and U.K. can collaborate, why not the U.S. was more or less his rhetorical posit. Zhang is Director of the Centre for China Development Model Research at Fudan University. As New York Timesreported, Zhang is a highly respected thinker in China and the leaders in Beijing follow closely his books analyzing China’s place in the world.
Indeed, a number of highly regarded observers of the international arena have suggested that the U.S. take a page or two from Britain’s book of diplomacy in dealing with China. After all, the U.K. has been playing the Great Game for a long time, even before McCartney’s visit to China. The U.S. has assumed the role of a world power relatively recently, since after WWII, and has much to learn that nuanced diplomacy is not a blunt instrument.
As a strange way of parlaying the positive feelings of Xi’s state visit to Washington mere weeks earlier, the U.S. follow-up response was to dispatch a missile-firing destroyer in South China Seas to within the 12-mile zone of one of the islands being enlarged by China and claimed as its territory. The U.S. position was that they cannot allow militarization of the islands and thus become a threat to freedom of navigation.
China’s position was that dredging and filling the island and erecting lighthouses to aid safe navigation did not constitute militarization. Other neighboring countries have been doing the same long before China began. Furthermore, in the long history that China has staked their ownership of the South China Sea, freedom of navigation has never been an issue.
South China Sea is a huge body of water with plenty of room for unimpeded sailing. China’s islands would become a threat to freedom of navigation only for ships intent on running aground. The U.S. had no legitimate basis for claiming that freedom of navigation was at risk.
In my view, the U.S. has taken unilateral military action acting like the bully in the neighborhood. What was their point in making this provocation?
Some say the U.S. naval exercise was to send a message to the Asian signers of the Transpacific Partnership that they have cast their lot with the right ally and that the American military will be there to protect their security.
On the other hand, America’s ongoing and rapidly spiraling out of control record in the Middle East does not instill anyone with confidence that the U.S. knows what it’s doing.
Shock and awe of Iraq by the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld team created the power vacuum that opened the way for the IS radical state. With the possible exception of tiny Tunisia, the Arab Spring under the Obama/Clinton watch has led to millions of refugees on the run with some dying every day.
The present Obama administration has been on the sideline stupefied by the disintegration of Ukraine and has hardly been able to keep the Boko Haram from committing a litany of atrocities in sub-Sahara Africa.
The U.S. is clearly failing in its role as policeman of the world. Yet with unfathomable reasoning, America would compound the mess they are already in by taking the American brand of my-way-or-the-highway exceptionalism to South China Sea where there was no conflict—at least not until Uncle Sam came barging in.
The U.K. has seen the error in following Washington’s lead. Tony Blair, the prime minister who followed George W in invading Iraq, now publicly acknowledges his mistake and apologizes to the people of Britain.
Another clear departure from Washington by London was to ignore the White House urging and to lead a large contingent of developed countries in becoming founding nations of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, an idea proposed by China. U.K. opted for the opportunity to make economic investment over paths to conflict.
At the same time as Xi’s visit to U.K., Huawei announced collaboration with the University of Manchester to take graphene from the lab to commercialize into products for mobile applications. Manchester is the recognized world leader in graphene technology and they express delight in working with “a leading global technology brand”—a brand only recently rudely rejected by U.S. Congress.
Graphene is a space age material with as yet untapped potential in civilian and military uses. The mutual trust between China and U.K. is no mere window dressing. Needless to say, such collaboration with any U.S. entity would have been out of the question.
I asked Professor Zhang how China would implement their “one belt, one road” initiative. He said China would select the most reliable partners for the first round of infrastructure investments. Because the projects would be based on the win-win principle, both parties would be equally motivated to make sure the investments succeed. The success of the first series of projects would convince others not to miss out on other projects to follow.
The U.K. obviously understands China’s win-win principle and has positioned to become China’s best partner in the West. Soon it will be obvious to other countries when it’s their turn to choose between being part of China’s economic collaboration or being part of the America’s global chain of military bases.
Uncle Sam struts around the world proselyting the merits of American exceptionalism thinking that he is wearing a full-body armor. The rest of the world just might see that it is only a hospital gown.