Last Saturday, November 7, a historic summit meeting was hosted by Singapore. For the first time since World War II, the leaders of China (Xi Jinping) and Taiwan (Ma Ying-jeou) discussed their bilateral relations directly.
Most commentators focused on the bilateral implications of the summit.
However, it seems to me that these are of secondary interest and importance.
In many respects China and Taiwan are already one country – though not (yet) politically or militarily. They share the same culture, language, historical legacy, social and political foundations, and the same ethnicities – even the same vision of China’s greatness. Throughout my visits to Taiwan in recent years I’ve become aware of the pride Taiwanese feel toward China’s achievements – domestic and worldwide. To be sure, never in history has China’s profile been as high as it is today. Yet, Beijing still considers Taiwan a renegade province and, at times, the two were engaged in a number of military confrontations reflecting mutual hostility.
Although a state of war no longer exists between the two, the Chinese threat does, including hundreds of missiles aimed at Taiwan.
When I asked students in Taipei if they are concerned about the threat from China – still officially a rival if not an enemy – they laughed. There is no widespread sense of anxiety in Taiwan. Coming from Israel (which some Taiwanese defense circles consider a model), I was amazed by the lax security measures. Visiting defense and government facilities in Taiwan (though always accompanied) I was never asked to provide any identification or produce my passport. When I asked domestic security officials how they cope with the flood of thousands of mainlanders who arrive in Taiwan every week on regular flights by agreement, they implied that they had given up.
Taiwan is already integrated into the Chinese economy to a higher degree than ever. Many Taiwanese have opened businesses in China. Many Taiwanese students flock to Mainland China universities, where the level of higher education has been upgraded over the last years while tuition fees and the cost of living are still low compared to Taiwan’s. In other words, Taiwan is already part of China in practical terms. In fact, the recent Xi-Ma summit could not have been organized otherwise; it was made possible because of the improving relations between China and Taiwan.
Allegedly, this improvement could be undermined by the forthcoming Taiwanese election on January 16.
Some commentators implied that the Xi-Ma summit was intended (by both presidents) to affect voters in Taiwan so as to ensure the continued rule of the KMT, whose attitude toward Beijing is more lenient than that of the opposition DPP (which is poised to win the forthcoming election according to public opinion polls). This may have been one of both sides’ incentives behind the summit – but it is of marginal significance. The clock can no longer be turned back, and the DPP is undoubtedly aware that independence is, and has always been, out of the question. Already in 1979 when Israel – before it had diplomatic relations with Beijing – considered selling fighter jets to Taiwan, Richard Holbrooke, US assistant secretary for East Asia, advised Israel to avoid weapon sales to Taiwan “so as not to irritate China. History,” he concluded, “is on China’s side, not Taiwan’s.”
Reunification with Taiwan has always been high on Beijing’s agenda. In the 1990s I met Chinese scholars in Beijing with tears in their eyes when mentioning Taiwan. Yet a timetable for reunification has never been given. It seems that there is no rush, and my feeling is that – at least for the time being – Taiwan’s unofficial separation from China actually serves Beijing’s interests better than official reunification – not only in terms of economic and technological relations but also in foreign policy ones: Taiwan is Beijing’s instrument, a scapegoat, for criticizing the US.
Under these circumstances, the Singapore summit was primarily symbolic. It underlined and legitimized bilateral processes that have already taken place and is, therefore, less interesting and important.
It seems to me that much more interesting and important – and much less discussed, if at all – are the regional implications.
The meeting may be a first step – and not just symbolic – in recognizing China’s predominance in East Asia, at the expense of the US. Over the past few years, Washington has indicated its interest in consolidating its East Asian presence using its “pivoting” and “rebalancing” policy, as well as its Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). From the very beginning I have had doubts about the feasibility of these policies. Relatively speaking, the US is a newcomer in East Asia, arriving there in the mid-19th century, whereas “China” has been there for three millennia. China, the second economic superpower in the world, has already overtaken the US in several parameters, and in a few years – given its economic growth rate, which considerably exceeds that of the US – will undoubtedly become the leading economic superpower – and perhaps the leading superpower, as many already believe. In fact, most East Asian countries are already integrated into China’s economy more than into the US economy, and most of them have already joined Beijing’s recently initiated Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Consequently, the TPP’s chances of success are limited, at best.
Also, given the cuts in its defense budget, Washington will find it increasingly difficult to maintain its military presence in East Asia in the face of Beijing’s opposition and adverse public opinion not only in East Asia, but also in the US. And, despite media and academic reports about the US “withdrawal” from the Middle East, and its “oil self-sufficiency,” it seems that the US will remain dependent on Persian Gulf oil for a long time to come and is not likely to withdraw.
Shale oil or tight oil is not going to solve US energy problems in the long run.
West Asia (the Middle East) rather than East Asia (the Far East) has always been – and still is – the real “pivot” in world history and international affairs. In fact, the budget of the US Central Command (CENTCOM) that covers the Middle East and Central Asia) is still considerably higher than that of its Pacific Command (PACCOM).
In this perspective, the Xi-Ma summit may signal the beginning of a strategic shift in East Asia. Washington’s protection of Taiwan against China has become more qualified than ever before and its “betrayal” since the late 1960s and accommodation with China have not been forgotten.
Taiwan (as well as Japan, South Korea, and Southeast Asia) may also consider accommodating China, not because it is the best policy but because there is no choice.
Unlike the US, whose base is in North America, China is, and with few exceptions has always been, the main power in East Asia. Unlike the Western colonial powers, the US included, China has nowhere to withdraw to and will not only remain in East Asia, but will become increasingly stronger, notwithstanding its economic “slowdown.” Even at 6 percent growth, well below its current growth rate, China’s economy duplicates itself every 10 years. The sooner East Asian countries come to terms with this reality, the less painful the outcome will be.
Taiwan may be the first, but certainly not the last. The author is professor emeritus of Asian Studies and Political Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the University of Haifa.