In 1972, before then-US president Richard Nixon’s visit to China, US national security adviser Henry Kissinger was expounding his “balance of power” theory. This saw the US working with China to keep the Soviet Union in check over the next 15 years. Another 20 years on, the US president has changed tack, teaming up with Russia against China.
This rotation of the triangle of relations between the three powers took place almost 20 years later than Kissinger had predicted, but now we have US President Barack Obama’s administration concentrating once more on US-Russia relations: They recently signed the first nuclear weapons pact between the two countries in two decades. The US has clearly decided its best bet is to lean toward Russia to keep China under control.
The past few years had seen the US neglect its relations with Russia in favor of strengthening trade ties and following excessively China-leaning policies. As China has gone from strength to strength, however, Beijing has invested heavily in building up its military capability while ignoring international law and grabbing resources and markets using unfair and dishonest practices. This has aroused suspicion from other countries, and it is against this backdrop that Obama has seen fit to repair ties with Russia as a way to prevent China from getting too big for its boots.
China’s unfair competition, and the worsening conditions it is offering foreign investors operating there, has soured US companies’ marriage of convenience with China. Beijing’s arrogant nationalism has put other countries on their guard, too. The change in US-Russia relations over the course of the previous year has only emphasized China’s isolation on many major international issues. This shift in the balance has forced Beijing to rethink its attitude, and to gradually take a more cooperative stance on things such as the nuclear questions in Iran and North Korea, as well as the revaluation of the yuan. Nor did Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) dare stay away from the Nuclear Security Summit earlier this week in Washington.
The first shift in the balance of power between the three put paid to the myth long harbored by Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) of a unified China under his auspices as Taiwan’s interests were sold down the river to secure a united front between China and the US against Russia. This did not have Chiang or his successor, Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國), rushing back into the arms of China, however: They favored a pragmatic reliance on the US while remaining independent by following the “innovation to protect Taiwan” policy.
The shift we are seeing now is happening in a context in which Taiwan has already been democratized and has remained politically distinct from China. President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has chosen to risk Taiwan’s stability, its most precious asset — democracy notwithstanding — by blindly seeking out and accepting so-called “eventual unification,” which will see Taiwan swallowed up by China.
As we have seen, Chiang Kai-shek and his son refused to be sold out by the US and placed their eggs in the “innovation to protect Taiwan” basket. Although the “innovation” side of things was somewhat wanting, the idea of “protecting Taiwan” was warmly received by the public. We have seen a reversal of the situation this time around: Now, it is not the US who is selling Taiwan out, it is Ma himself, openly turning his back on the fundamental consensus surrounding the idea of “protecting Taiwan.” He has submitted to the conditions placed on him by Beijing and tied Taiwan to China. Whatever you might have thought of Chiang Kai-shek and his son, I’m afraid we are now saddled with Ma and his circus.
James Wang is a journalist based in Washington.
TRANSLATED BY PAUL COOPER
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