What made you kowtow, Mr Bush?
by Philip Bowring
SCMP December 14
It is no wonder that Premier Wen Jiabao is so pleased with his visit
to the United States. President George W. Bush's public admonishment
of Chen Shui-bian's proposal to extend the scope of Taiwan democracy
with a referendum was a major diplomatic victory. The question now is
whether there will be a sequel. Has Beijing offered up something substantial
in return? Or is this an illustration of a fundamental weakness of the
US - Mr Bush can start patriotic wars in poor countries, but must he
now kowtow to China? He did not have to go beyond well-worn but useful
phrases about Taiwan. But he did. Why?
There will doubtless be much discussion about whether the US ambiguity
over Taiwan has been altered by Mr Bush's statement. One can argue whether
the Taiwan move for a referendum represents a departure from the status
quo. But once cannot argue against the fact that Mr Wen is feeling triumphant
and Mr Chen has been humiliated by the US.
It remains to be seen how the Taiwan public responds. My own guess is
that although many in Taiwan feel his manoeuvring on the referendum
issue has been ill-advised, Mr Chen could benefit from resentment at
the hypocrisy of a US administration which preaches democracy but often
practices the ruthless pursuit of sectional political or business interests.
The business interests which have such an influence on the Bush administration
have evidently been persuasive in the president's willingness to please
Mr Wen at Taiwan's expense.
The question now is whether the US will get anything specific from
China. There is talk of more pressure on North Korea. But China has
been making efforts there for some time and its leverage over the prickly
North Koreans is limited. It is possible that China has promised that
it will do something sooner rather than later to respond to legitimate
concerns about its undervalued currency. Revaluation would not significantly
hurt if other Asian nations with even bigger surpluses do the same -
which they almost certainly can be persuaded to do. Indeed, it is something
of a puzzle why the US has been berating China over its currency policy
but not doing the same with the other East Asian countries whose surpluses
and exchange reserves are proportionately much bigger.
East Asian revaluations will not do much for the US trade deficit until
America's debts, domestic and foreign, finally cause the deep recession
needed to restore current-account equilibrium. However, they could be
claimed as a victory in an election year when China trade could be an
But maybe Mr Wen has offered nothing specific in return for Mr Bush's
words on Taiwan. Perhaps, in the face of tensions with Europe, a Middle
East quagmire and growing international cynicism about the "war
on terror", Washington is gradually returning to former president
Bill Clinton's view of China. It may be going too far to regard it as
a "strategic partner" but it is no longer the strategic competitor,
as defined by the Bush administration prior to September 11, 2001. If
so, it may expect a friendly but neutral stance from China on a variety
of issues in return for putting Mr Chen in his place.
There is a Chinese view which, in a way, mirrors this. China is usually
better than the west at long-term thinking. One theory which has some
traction in think-tank circles is that perhaps sooner, rather than later,
America will lose its hegemonic power over money - the dollar standard,
reserve currency power which enables it to run US$1.5 billion a day
in deficits with the world. That would cause a depression in the US
which would be very damaging to Asia-US trade, but would, according
to this theory, do even more damage to Europe-US relations, which are
already endangered by differing Middle East interests.
For China, that means staying friendly with the US while making every
effort to reduce its trade dependence on America by building relationships
in East Asia and with eastern hemisphere suppliers of raw materials,
such as Australia and Russia.
Where that might leave the Taiwan issue is anyone's guess. It depends,
perhaps, on whether Beijing simply uses its stance on Taiwan as a bargaining
counter on other issues, or believes its own propagandist version of
Taiwan so much that wider national interests are sacrificed to historical
mythology. Common sense and economic interests have the upper hand at
present. But ignorance of Taiwan's past is the norm. Most mainlanders
believe it has been an inalienable part of China for thousands of years.
In fact, when the Dutch got there in about 1620, it was almost entirely
populated by Malay-speaking people, kin to those of the Philippines,
who remained the majority until the 19th century. The Dutch "imperialists",
who needed labour to grow sugar cane, were responsible for much of the
early settlement of mainlanders from Fujian. Geographically, Taiwan
is as close to the northernmost Philippine and southernmost Japanese
islands as it is to the mainland.
Modern Taiwan also may have more reason to like the Japanese, who brought
education and railways, than the mainlanders who ruled it - another
piece of history which is unacceptable to the jingoist mythmakers who
love to hate the Japanese.
Hopefully, a stronger, more self-confident, freer, more democratic
China will re-examine the mythology and acknowledge why Taiwan feels
as separate from the mainland as Ireland does from England. Until then,
the best that can be hoped for is that cross-strait battles remain on
the level of semantics.
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