China has been a given a timely reminder that its drum-beating, if
not quite saber-rattling, over Taiwan is not cost-free. The joint U.S.-Japan
declaration that they had a "common strategic objective" in peaceful resolution
of the Taiwan straits issue was unusual but underlined just how much both attach
to maintenance of a status quo that Beijing wishes to change through a mix of
economic, military and diplomatic pressures.
While Japan and the United States remain
in principle committed to One China, emphasis on peaceful resolution inevitably
means that unification can only come about when the people of Taiwan consider
the price of de facto independence too high. That is clearly a long way off so
long as either Japan or the United States is willing and able to prevent
unification by force.
China has predictably reacted by
denouncing the statement as interfering in China's internal affairs - which,
from Beijing's perspective, it undoubtedly is. The question is how far China is
now prepared to go in risking upsetting relations with the United States and
Japan in pursuit of its nationalistic agenda.
The joint statement must be viewed
against the background of increasing Japanese concerns at China's strategic arms
development and its military build-up opposite Taiwan. Indeed, as Japan emerges
from hiding behind the skirts of U.S. power in the western Pacific, it may in
time become the most important determining factor in the Taiwan strait equation.
Japan already has a formidable navy and increasing military spending is clearly
aimed at countering any attempt by China to control the vital sea lanes, the
Luzon and Taiwan straits, into and through the South China Sea.
The Japanese are keenly aware that Taiwan
lies as close to Japan's southernmost Ryukyu Island as it does to mainland
China, and is even closer to the northernmost Philippine islands. They also fret
at China's so-called "historic" claim to almost the whole South China Sea and
its reefs and islands despite the size of the sea and the existence of other
littoral states - Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. Meanwhile,
Japan and China are also at loggerheads over their seabed demarcation in the
East China Sea, where there are also hopes for hydrocarbons.
As for mainland Chinese, they often
prefer to forget that Taiwan was only settled by ethnic Chinese after the
arrival of the Dutch in the 16th century, and that its current prosperity owes
much to the education and infrastructure it received during 50 years of Japanese
rule. China's leaders in the past have not always given unification with Taiwan
high priority. For Mao, it mattered because his enemies, the United States and
Chiang Kai-shek, were there. For Deng Xiaoping, it was an issue to be resolved
Unification should not be allowed to get
in the way of China's modernization and economic growth. But if now it is to be
se seen as a symbol of that modernization, the fruit of economic and military
power, a clash with the strategic interests of others is inevitable.
It is not at all clear that China is in a
position to alienate either Japan or the United States. Its high dependence on a
saturated U.S. import market makes it vulnerable in one direction. As for Japan,
the China market has provided a big economic boost. But the more nervous it
becomes over China, the less inclined it will be to invest there, particularly
in the higher technology production that China still badly needs.
The worst outcome for China would be to
see its development stalled by a breakdown in relations with the United States
and Japan well before it has acquired the power necessary to impose its own
solution of the Taiwan issue.
The U.S.-Japan statement is also
significant because it has been made at a time when China's cooperation over
North Korea is being sought. The two countries may have finally come to the
belief that China's has overused its alleged influence over Pyongyang. The
results to date suggest either that Beijing's influence is small, or that it is
not prepared to use it.
The statement is also a timely reminder
to Europe (and indirectly to Russia) that the commercial benefits of advanced
weapons sales to China carry long-term risks. For myopic Europe, Taiwan may be a
small and distant place, but it has the potential to be the pivot of East Asian
All in all, the statement could help
bring a refreshing degree of realism to the Taiwan straits issue.
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