Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Did China test Obama?

The recent typical furore about US sales of weapons to Taiwan should have been par for the course, but this time it provoked a particularly angry threat of outrage from Beijing.

Why?

Well for starters China sees itself as bigger, more powerful and more important on the international stage than it has ever been. Having eclipsed Japan as the world's second biggest economy, it now is flexing its power more openly. In part this is due to domestic nationalism, as can be seen by the large numbers of Chinese online willing to defend their authoritarian government, not out of love for the government per se, but out of nationalism. China is, after all, a country of considerable national chauvinism.

However, China also knows the nature of US-Chinese relations since the Taiwan Relations Act in 1979 in the US made it national policy to supply arms to Taiwan. So why now?

My view is that it is a test of the Obama Administration. The dove like instincts of the Administration are simply being tested to see if there is a change from the Bush Administration.

China's wildest dream would have been for Obama to halt the supply of arms to Taiwan or delay it. Either would have been a disaster for Taiwan, and caused a panic on the stockmarkets and among the population there.

What was done is that a package negotiated by the Bush Administration has been allowed to proceed with one major change - no submarines. Taiwan had been promised submarines by the Bush Administration, and instead will receive Black Hawk helicopters, not exactly a substitute.

Taiwan has long sought new generation F-16s, to supplement those sold under the previous Bush Administration, but these were denied also.

So the Obama Administration has not followed business as usual, rather a watering down of business as usual. It passed the "test" as China showed its outrage by cutting military ties with the US, and threatening commercial sanctions on US companies supplying Taiwan. Most of those firms will not be concerned since they do not supply China in any case, but Boeing's role in the Chinese airline sector is substantial. That is where China could inflict some pain, although Airbus would be well aware of this and price accordingly to reap the rewards of any symbolic smarting inflicted upon Boeing.

China will hope that it can scare the Obama Administration into withdrawing more from providing Taiwan military assistance, for that is what it can hope for. China has no serious plans to invade Taiwan, for it knows such maneouvres would cost it dearly in foreign investment, trade access and international relations with more than a few neighbours. However, it keeps the threat of force to "reunite the motherland" there to keep Taiwan "in its place", and it is useful for nationalist rabble-rousing in the event of the need for a distraction.

Nevertheless, Taiwan (or more legally correct the "Republic of China" government temporarily exiled in Taiwan) deserves US support to defend itself. It is today a vibrant and open liberal democracy, with the rule of law, free speech and individual freedoms widely respected. It has changed a lot since the days of Chiang Kai Shek's authoritarian rule. Beijing will continue to treat its renegade province as such as long as the Communist Party holds a monopoly on power, for now it is up to the US to continue to provide sufficient support for Taiwan's free democratic government to deter attack from the mainland.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Taiwan has the expertise to develop its own weaponry. So why not?