It must have been a bad past few weeks for Beijing officials to basically tell the US to get the hell out of the region — but that’s exactly what it did last week during two days of negotiations on maritime safety between Chinese and US officials, when it requested that the US phase out and eventually end maritime surveillance in the region.
The meeting, called in response to a series of near-accidents off the Chinese coast earlier this year, came at a time when China was least expected to be flexing its muscles before Washington. After all, with US President Barack Obama still new in office and his China policy just shaping up, Beijing has everything to gain from treading carefully, especially when Washington is courting its help in resolving the global financial crisis.
Some could argue that this is an indication of Beijing’s growing self-assurance, or simply the result of rising Chinese nationalism under President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤). This is unlikely, however, because China isn’t sure-footed enough yet to order the US around, and many are still undecided as to whether the US and China are strategic partners or strategic competitors. It is surprising that Beijing officials would risk undermining the budding relationship with a US administration that is widely seen as more amenable to China’s objectives than its predecessor.
Beijing’s hardening stance is the result of something else altogether: its sense of weakness on a core issue — Taiwan. Starting with the administration of US president Bill Clinton, Beijing has realized that the road to unification with Taiwan would have to pass through Washington, especially when cross-strait dialogue under then-president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) of the Democratic Progressive Party was at an all-time low. From late 2001 onwards, China’s charm offensive in the US was effective and managed to isolate Taiwan. It soon became evident that Taiwan’s isolation was contingent on warm Sino-US relations.
What derailed this carefully tuned minuet wasn’t careless policy or growing friction; rather, it was the immediate environment — over which China has no control — that changed and is now forcing a policy realignment. First came Typhoon Morakot, which devastated southern Taiwan earlier this month. Soon afterwards, US military aircraft, helicopters and officers were for the first time in many years officially setting foot on Taiwanese soil, which had an important symbolic impact on Beijing’s perceptions. To add insult to injury, the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, has been invited to visit Taiwan, something that would have been inconceivable prior to Morakot.
Another factor is internal conflict in Myanmar pitting government forces against a faction of the Kokang militia, which has forced between 10,000 and 30,000 refugees to cross over from Shan State into China’s Yunnan Province in the last few weeks. Beijing has long dreaded the impact of large refugee inflows from neighboring countries on its internal stability, as well as the potential for those conflicts to result in the deployment of international forces within the region.
That Morakot and conflict in Myanmar, in addition to unrest in Xinjiang, would occur almost simultaneously has made Beijing less confident of its ability to determine the future course of the region. It has also made it more aware that despite its well-crafted — and so far successful — policy of ensuring stability along its border and in the region, some variables remain out of its control. As all these developments have invited — or risk inviting — intervention by outside forces, Beijing will want to ensure that it is the sole regional power upon which smaller players can rely. One way to achieve this, of course, will be to pressure the US to leave.