China has experienced two successive natural disasters — the ice storms that hit central China earlier this year and the devastating earthquake that ravaged Sichuan Province — even as its people awaited the Beijing Olympics. However, these disasters have not hindered the normalization of relations with China’s neighbors, and the rapid and transparent reporting of the quake was an impressive demonstration of the nation’s self-confidence.
The way the Sichuan disaster has been handled has been in stark contrast to the 1976 Tangshan earthquake. An increasingly confident China could offer a new challenges to cross-strait relations.
First, the response capabilities of Chinese authorities have improved. When the ice storms hit earlier this year, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) visited Hunan and Guangdong provinces to direct disaster relief.
However, the delay in reconnecting the north-south transportation network was frustrating. The power remained out for prolonged periods in many areas and the emergency response and disaster prevention capabilities left much to be desired. However, China’s emergency response since last Monday’s disaster shows obvious improvement.
Second, the government’s ability to manipulate nationalist sentiment cannot be overlooked. Hosting the Olympics is key to Beijing’s efforts to raise its international standing. With less than 100 days to the opening of the Games, the Tibetan unrest and human-rights organizations’ obstruction of the torch relay damaged China’s international image, aroused nationalist anger and even incited boycotts of foreign companies.
But China managed to pacify public resentment and recover its image. This shows that Beijing’s ability to control nationalist sentiment and public opinion should not be underestimated.
Third, China’s strategy of constructing external stability did not change as a result of internal pressure. Instead, China and Japan have recently issued a fourth joint communique that clearly stipulates that they shall pursue peaceful coexistence, and downplays Japan’s historical responsibilities.
This demonstrates that the Chinese government is capable of building a safe environment conducive to a long-term peaceful rise despite nationalist sentiment.
Moreover, with the signing of a free-trade agreement in April, New Zealand became the first developed country to recognize China’s full market economy status. This was a breakthrough for China. A similar agreement with Australia can be expected.
All this indicates that although China has suffered a series of challenges, its capabilities in disaster response have rapidly improved. While under considerable internal pressure, Beijing has still been able to maintain its composure while handling foreign affairs. Taiwan should not underestimate Beijing’s ability to deal with pressure from political variables.
In contrast, on the eve of the transition of power, Taiwan is stuck in a political storm. The Ministry of National Defense hurriedly released a national defense report ahead of the transition, showing the importance the government placed on domestic affairs. Surprisingly, the incoming government has been unable to prevent such shortsighted behavior. On the whole, although Taiwan has not yet shown itself in an awkward plight, its inability to respond to external circumstances is an undeniable.