Wednesday, March 22, 2006

End to the China Lobby

One of the enduring features of the American political landscape since the end of World War II was the China Lobby. The China Lobby was committed to defending the Kuomintang, or Nationalist regime of Chiang Kai-shek, when he was in power on the mainland and later to defending Taiwan, where he took refuge in 1949, from being taken over by the Communists.

For many years the China Lobby was as powerful and influential in Washington as AIPAC, the Israeli lobby is today. But the China Lobby today is a pale reflection of its once domineering presence. In fact, the Washington establishment, while still publicly voicing undying formal support for Taipei, is turning downright hostile to the island and its leaders.

President George W. Bush was potentially the most Taiwan-friendly president in decades. Soon after he took office, he said the U.S. would do “anything it takes” to ensure Taiwan’s de facto independence from the mainland. In its first year the Bush administration raised Beijing’s ire by approving a $18 billion arms acquisition deal with Taipei, the largest arms sale package in a decade. It was a powerful sign that Washington remained committed to Taiwan’s defense.

Six years later, relations are seriously strained. It is probable that President Bush dislikes Taiwan’s President Chen Shui-bian almost as much as he dislikes South Korea’s President Roh Moon-hyun. And he dislikes Roh almost as much as dislikes North Korea’s Kim Il Sung. And he says he loathes Kim. So that should tell you something.

But what about the Taiwan Relations Act? Doesn’t that act commit the U.S. to defending Taiwan in any confrontation with China? Well, not exactly. Many in Washington are taking a closer look at the 1979 law and finding that, lo, it does not commit the U.S. to go to war under any circumstances. It commits Washington to “enable” Taiwan to defend itself and to maintain sufficient “capabilities” nearby to defer any Chinese adventurism.

Recently, Sen. John Warner (R-Va), an establishment figure if there ever was one, issued a blunt warning to Taiwan: “If a conflict with China were to be aided by inappropriate and wrongful politics generated by the Taiwanese elected officials, I am not entirely sure that this nation would come full force to the rescue.” The words, hardly noticed in Washington, reverberated through the Chinese community.

There can be little doubt that the U.S. has lived up to its side of the bargain. In addition to the arms authorization package, dating back to 2001, the U.S. continues to maintain a strong military capability in the region. Indeed, it is shifting more naval resources to the Pacific. In recent years Washington has also strengthened its position through agreements with Japan that appear to tie that country closer into supporting any defensive actions in the Taiwan Strait.

Meanwhile, Taiwan has been agonizingly slow in expanding and modernizing its own defenses. Five years after it was first authorized, the Taiwan legislature has yet to appropriate the money needed to purchase the weapons. The weapons package has been defeated more than 40 times, even though the cost has been pared to about $14 billion. It has become a kind of political soccer ball to be kicked and head-butted in the game of Taiwan domestic politics. .

Washington has also become increasingly irritated with President Chen Shiu-bien relentless efforts to move Taiwan along the road to independence. Chen has resurrected all of the old pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party tropes, including rewriting the constitution (which conceivably could define Taiwan as an independent Republic of Taiwan), re-applying for admission to the U.N under the name of Taiwan and, most provocatively, proposing to abolish the National Unification Council.

The NUC was established in the early 1990s when the Kuomintang Party governed Taiwan. It makes eventual reunification under mutually agreeable terms official policy. The council has been a dead letter since the DPP gained power in the historic 2000 election. It has no members and a derisory budget. Still, symbolically it has importance, which was on reason why Washington has been warning Taipei not to dismantle it in total.

For Beijing there are two main things that could, in theory, persuade the mainland to attack. One would be any action that moved Taiwan from de facto to de jure independence, such as formally changing the name to the Republic of Taiwan. The other might come if Beijing calculated that Taiwan had swung decisively toward independence, even without a formal declaration. That’s why, for Taiwan’s own safety, it is important that the parties remain open to the notion of reunification at some vague future time.

In past two or three months, Washington has sent a steady stream of messengers to Taipei to urge Chen to tone things down. It culminated in the recent visit by former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, an unusually high-ranking visitor for Taiwan, who urged Taipei to spend more on its own defense. In deference to the Americans Chen modified his position slightly, deciding merely to “suspend” the NUC rather than abolish it outright.

Chen’s public approval ratings range from 10 to 20 percent depending on which poll one reads. His party suffered devastating losses in December’s local elections. It is considered almost certain the Kuomintang will wrest the presidency back in the presidential election in 2008. Taipei mayor Ma Ying-jeiu is widely expected to be the standard bearer. Looking at all this Chen decided that the best defense was a strong offense.

He is clearly calculates that taking such bold moves might provoke Beijing into doing something threatening, which would rally more voters behind the DPP. That is what happened exactly ten years ago this month (March) when Beijing lobbed ballistic missiles near the island’s northern tip. Since then Beijing has learned to play a shrewder game. It is wooing Taiwan, especially the business class, with more incentives. Taiwan enjoyed a trade surplus of some $58 billion last year.

But Beijing walks a pretty narrow line. If it seems too threatening, it strengthens anti-China forces on Taiwan. If it is too passive, it undermines its own position that Taiwan is a part of China. It is thought that Beijing’s action a year ago this month to adopt a law promising to use force to prevent Taiwan from declaring independents – the so-called anti-secession law – was as much to stiffen its own backbone as it was to intimidate Taiwan.

The Kuomintang leader has promised that if he wins the next presidential election in 2008, which seems likely, he would shift Taiwan sharply away from the confrontational, policies followed by President Chen. There is no doubt who Beijing will be rooting for. Washington too. But the election is still a long way off, and there is plenty of time for more mischief.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Fun at the National Peoples Congress

China’s National Peoples Congress doesn’t get much respect. The un-elected parliament meets for ten days in March in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People to hear mind-numbing speeches from the nation’s leaders and pass laws, usually by acclamation.

Only occasionally do any besides professional China watchers pay attention to the proceedings. Last year, the NPC made news by passing an “anti-secession law” aimed at discouraging Taiwan from declaring independence. This year’s big theme, redressing rural grievances, was kind of a yawner.

But when they are not condemning Taiwan, the delegates do debate smaller issues. And when you gather 3,000 NPC deputies and about 2,000 members of the Chinese Peoples Political Consultative Conference, an advisory body that meets concurrently, they are bound to come up with some interesting ideas.

This year the combined delegates tabled some 4,898 proposals, ranging from dropping Mao Zedong’s portrait from the nation’s currency to getting younger news anchors on the national television news programs to mandating edible toothpicks.

Deputy Nan Shunji of Jilin province submitted the toothpick proposal. Unsuccessful last year in getting the congress to ban use of wooden disposable chopsticks, the director of a local paper mill turned her attention to toothpicks. “We waste a lot of natural resources at the dinner table,” she said.

Indeed, most Chinese pick their teeth after meals, and collectively consume some 200 billion a year. She proposed a law requiring that they be made out of corn flour, so that they can be digested after their use -- or buried where they are easily degradable. Jilin province produces a lot of corn.

For years the picture or profile of Mao Zedong has graced the front of most of China’s bank notes. CPPCC delegate Duan Huijin proposed dropping Mao and adding Deng Xiaoping, architect of the nation’s market reforms, and Sun Yat-sen, father of the Chinese republic.

“We owe our sustained rapid economic growth and constantly rising international status over the past decades to Deng Xiaoping,” he said. “Dr. Sun has been admired by Chinese all over the world and deserves a place on the [renminbi] notes,” said Delegate Hu Zhibin.

Whether or not the Chinese change the design of their currency, they apparently have no plans to change the value. Premier Wen Jiabao told a press conference at the Congress flatly that Beijing has no plans to further revalue the yuan this year. Beijing made a small change last year.

Concerned about the growing wealth gap as it applies to population control, CPPCC Delegate Yang Kuifu wanted to impose strict birth control on the rich. Wealthy private businessmen and other celebrities find it easy to pay the “social maintenance” fee to get around the national one-child-only policy.

But simply imposing fines or administrative punishments doesn’t work anymore, Mr. Yang said. He proposed a law that would restrict personal credit for private businessmen who choose to have more than one child.

Delegate Miu Shouliang thinks that chubbiness is a sure sign of corruption, so he promoted a law regulating the weight of civil servants He figures that overweight cadres spend too much time being wined and dined at fancy restaurants. A businessman from bustling Shenzhen near Hong Kong, he probably know what he’s talking about.

Li Yinhe, a famous Chinese sociologist and member of the CPPCC advisory body, once again tried and failed to pass a law permitting same-sex marriages in China. She has proposed such legislation three years running without success.

Other proposals (hat tip to Asiapundit) would force the Chinese national television system to replace the current crop of aging news anchors with younger, fresher faces; regulate beauty contests to limit the value society places on outward appearances and ban children from acting in commercials.

Do any of these private-member proposals ever stand a chance of becoming law? Well, last year’s congress did enact a regulation prohibiting lip-synching at rock concerts. Who says the National People’s Congress proceedings are boring.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

The Emerging Confucian World Order

China perplexes. America knows how to deal with nuclear-armed countries, like Britain and France, that are clearly friends and allies. It learned through painful trial and error how to deal with a nuclear-armed country, the Soviet Union, that was clearly an adversary. But how does one deal with a nuclear-armed country, China, that is neither a fast friend nor a clear adversary?

In groping to define a coherent policy toward China, it is probably inevitable that policy makers, pundits and academicians fall back on familiar templates. The one that comes readily to mind is the Cold War paradigm, which demands a cordon of democracies to contain China. John Mearsheimer, professor of political science at the University of Chicago, writes, “China’s neighbors are certain to fear [China’s] rise and they will do whatever they can to prevent it from achieving regional hegemony. In the end, they will join an American-led balancing coalition to check China’s rise, much the same way Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and even China joined forces to contain the Soviet Union.”

But will they? The fundamental weakness of the Cold War model lies in the fact that it is hard to put one’s finger on what exactly needs containing. Unlike the old Soviet Union China’s communist leaders are not trying to export communism or any other ideology. From a historical perspective the communist threat of the 1960s and 1970s as experienced by Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore has receded. There is still a vicious “Maoist” insurgency in Nepal and a weak communist insurgency in the Philippines. But Beijing disavows the former and ignores the latter.

Nor are China’s leaders actively hostile to democracy, so long as it is practiced in somebody else’s country. The notion then that the Asian democracies have a natural affinity that will cause them to band together in some kind of anti-Chinese coalition is a fantasy, unless Beijing actively seeks to undermine their institutions. China’s president Hu Jintao is pleased enough to speak before democratic assemblies. While President George W. Bush was extolling democracy in the abstract at a convention center in Japan during his trip to Asia late last year, President Hu was addressing the heart of Korean democracy, the National Assembly, and getting a standing ovation!

If the Cold War model doesn’t work, how to define future of Asia? The Chinese have their own template that comes under the general heading of hepin jueqi or “peaceful rise.” It is a term that Premier Wen Jiabao first used at Harvard in late 2003. But peaceful rise is nothing more than a slogan. If this seems anodyne and feel-good, there is another model to put forth. Call it the Emerging Confucian World Order, or to be more exact, the re-emergence of the Confucian World Order, since in fact Asia is simply reverting to the order of nations with China at the center that existed before the era of European colonialism.

As it did during the Ming Dynasty years, the height of the tributary system, China confers the boon of trade with the nations on its periphery and receives tribute in return. No boon was more welcome in Southeast Asia than Beijing’s decision to during the 1997-1998 Asian Financial Crisis to maintain its currency’s peg to the dollar, resisting the temptation to snatch trade advantages from neighboring state by devaluing. Recently, it signed a free-trade agreement with the ten countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and tolerates a $20 billion trade deficit with them. Meanwhile, it gracefully accepts “tribute” from South Korea in the form of its conferring “Market Economy Status” on China, the first country with more than $100 billion in trade with China to do so.

The growing animosity between China and Japan can easily be read in Confucian terms. Ostensibly, the discord is rooted in interpretations of Asia’s modern history. In China’s view, Japan has not shown sufficient remorse for its aggression during World War II. This, it is said, is reflected in how the war is portrayed in its history books and in the regular visits that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi makes to the Yasukuni Shrine. Japan’s apologies for its wartime actions constitute a modern version of the kowtow. The Prime Minister’s regular visits to the Yasukuni Shrine are for Japan the anti-kowtow.

But then Japan never was a model vassal. The current war of words echoes sentiments going back to the 14th century when the Chinese Emperor Hung-wu addressed the Japanese sovereign as, “you stupid eastern barbarian.” To which the Japanese Ashikaga shogun replied in kind: “Heaven and earth are vast; they are not monopolized by one ruler.” China and Japan that have been rivals for hundreds of years. It should not be surprising that they are still jockeying for primacy. In Confucian terms somebody has to be “big brother” and the other has to be “little brother.”

On the other hand, Korea was a model tributary state for 500 years, stretching from the late Ming to the end of the Qing Dynasty. The Koreans paid their annual tribute even more regularly than the other tributary states, such as Vietnam, Myanmar and Thailand. No other country in Asia, not even Japan, was so completely absorbed into the Confucian system. Today South Korea is moving perceptibly into China’s orbit. The only question is whether this trend is reversible. The six-party talks aimed at disarming North Korea of nuclear weapons seem to be accelerating this trend, and by clinging to them, the Bush administration may be pushing this development along. Seoul’s position in the talks is much closer to Beijing’s than it is to Washington’s.

The political tectonic plates in Northeast Asia are clearly shifting, perhaps for the first time since the beginning of the Cold War. The rift that is opening and rapidly widening runs through the Sea of Japan with China and the two Koreas on one side of the divide; Japan, the U.S. and possibly Taiwan on the other. Many are reluctant to give up the Cold War template because the alternative seems to leave little place for the United States. A taste of what is to come was the East Asian Summit in Kuala Lumpur, capital of Malaysia, late last year from which Washington was pointedly excluded. It will be in America’s interests to give way gracefully, maintaining the good will of the countries that make up the continent of Asia while maintaining a significant offshore presence through its continuing alliance with Japan and other bases in the Pacific.