I write from Taipei, in Taiwan. I am speaking at and chairing a portion of the East Asia Peace Forum, the purpose of which is discussing and exploring peace in East Asia and the possible neutrality of Taiwan.
Three hundred people are participating, fifty of them from overseas and neighbouring countries, many of them parliamentarians and very senior academics. Sherry Chen, the first South African MP of Chinese descent and her husband, Vincent Lin and I are the only Africans.
The Taipei Times headline today was: “Beijing shake-up to result in increased restrictions,” foreshadowing stronger Chinese action against Taiwan. China is adamant that Taiwan is not an independent country; Taiwan is a province of China. It applies constant pressure, saying Taiwan is not independent and never will be.
Taiwan states it is an independent entity, a nation of nearly 25 million people, with the world’s 22nd largest GDP, entitled to recognition as such. Taiwan was recognised by most of the world until President Nixon and Secretary Kissinger decided to bring China into the power equation by moving closer to both Russia and China than those were to each other. Thereafter, most of the world recognised China that imposed its One China policy, with Taiwan no longer able to maintain official diplomatic ties with most of the world. Taiwan is mainly served by interest offices or trade offices in most countries. South Africa, under Mandela, followed suit in the late 1990s.
For all the years, an uneasy peace continued between China and Taiwan, with China prepared to tolerate Taiwan’s existence – provided it did not seek to declare independence, and with the USA effectively guaranteeing Taiwan’s existence.
American hegemony in the Pacific is under attack. The so-called Pax Pacifica, described by Harvard’s Professor Graham Allison, existing after the Allied victory in World War II, is no longer unchallenged. Pax Pacifica provided the security and economic framework within which Asian countries have produced the most rapid economic growth in the world.
It must be clear why the Pacific Ocean is one of the most significant points of contestation in the world. It is the largest of the Earth's oceans. The countries of the Western Pacific Ocean comprise one of the most strategically important regions and the most economically dynamic region in the world. Its combined GDP, China and the USA included, has grown to over 50% of world GDP. Its population of over 4.5 billion people, constitutes more than 60% of the world’s population.
In terms of the geo-strategic outlook two facts collide: an unprecedented naval and air defence build up by Beijing and renewed American interest in Asia, suggesting an arena of contestation unmatched since Japan’s aggressive expansion eighty years ago. It will require strenuous efforts to defuse; will the Trump administration will be able to contain China or achieve with it the détente that eluded President Obama?
Professor Nouriel Roubini, professor of Economics at New York University’s Stern School of Business, says disputes between China and several of its neighbours over contested islands and maritime claims are the tip of the iceberg. As China becomes a greater economic power, competing directly with America, it will become increasingly dependent on shipping routes for its imports and exports, implying the need for a blue- water navy ensuring that China’s economy cannot be strangled by a maritime blockade.
In fairness, one needs to emphasise that what China considers to be a defensive imperative could be perceived as aggressive and expansionist by its neighbours and the US. And what looks like a defensive imperative to the US and its Asian allies could be perceived by China as an aggressive attempt to contain it.
However, historically, whenever a new great power has emerged and faced existing power, military conflict has ensued. China’s re-emergence as a great power that will overtake the US at some point in the next decade as the largest economy in the world, not only in terms of purchase price parity but also in absolute terms means it is not surprising that China will demand revisions to rules established by others.
General Jim Mattis, US Secretary for Defence, started a year ago: “The world order is under the biggest attack since World War II and that is from Russia, Terrorist groups and from what China is doing in the South China Sea.” China is staking territorial claims, competing with other countries, like the Philippines, Japan, Vietnam and others, using force to claim island shoals and outcrops and building airports and landing strips. Where international arbitration found against China, it ignored the arbitral award, attacking the decision, and threatening withdrawal from the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS).
The Trump administration’s new National Security Strategy has four pillars:
- to protect the US homeland;
- to promote American prosperity;
- to preserve peace through strength; and
- to advance American interests.
It has always been in America’s interests to preserve and protect its Pacific Ocean sphere of influence; although it has chosen “strategic ambiguity” in a Taiwan attack by China, many regard it is unthinkable for the USA to cease being the guarantor of its ally, Taiwan’s, existence.
There is a good deal of uncertainty within Taiwan about the future and some at the conference are discussing the possibility of Taiwan adopting a policy of neutrality. Many others regard this as naïve, believing Taiwan’s best defence lies in aligning its policies closer to USA defence policy and strategy, especially that under the Trump administration, taking strenuous and hugely costly steps to match China’s build-up of its defensive and offensive capabilities.
Whatever the outcome of deliberations in Beijing, Washington DC and Taipei, the standoff between China and Taiwan continues and the world has not heard the last of this issue.
Douglas Gibson is a former opposition chief whip and former ambassador to Taiwan. This article first appeared in The Star.