In the middle of last month, US President Barack Obama made a three-stop tour with a primary focus on East Asia: He first attended the APEC summit in Honolulu, then flew to Australia and finally headed to Bali to attend the East Asia Summit.
At the APEC meeting, Obama pushed the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a multilateral economic and trade agreement intended to boost free trade across the Pacific. In Australia, he strengthened US-Australian defense and security cooperation and announced that about 2,500 US Marines would be stationed in Darwin, while in Bali the main theme was freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.
These moves signal a renewed US emphasis on East Asia. The Obama administration is talking about a strategic “pivoting” away from the Middle East, where the US is winding down its engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan, toward East Asia.
This pivot to Asia recognizes that the region is an important driver in the global economy. By making this move, the US also recognizes that for the US economy to grow and prosper, it is essential to have a stable security environment. By beefing up its economic and security presence in East Asia, the US wants to ensure stability in the region.
This stability is being threatened by an increasingly belligerent China, which is throwing its weight around at the expense of its neighbors, particularly those that border the South China Sea and the island groups between Japan and Taiwan. By making moves on both the economic and the security fronts, the US is creating a multilateral economic and security network that is designed to provide a strong foundation for the TPP.
What implications do these developments have for Taiwan? The increased US presence is good for Taiwan because it ensures safety and security in the region, in particular freedom of navigation in the all-important sea lanes surrounding the island. Being an export economy, Taiwan is highly dependent on free navigation through these waterways.
However, the new US approach also presents a valuable multilateral framework for the region, of which Taiwan needs to be an integral part. Taipei’s policy over the past few years has over-emphasized its bilateral ties with China, at the expense of its relations with other key democratic countries in the region, such as the US, as Japan and South Korea. This imbalance can now be redressed by strengthening economic and security relations with democratic friends and allies.
Thus, Taiwan needs to redouble its efforts to be included in preparations for the TPP and in multilateral discussions on strategic issues, such as freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. Taiwan is an important link in the chain of countries stretching from Japan and South Korea in the north to Indonesia, Australia and New Zealand in the south.
The importance of Taiwan as a key link in this chain also needs to be recognized by the other countries in the region and they need to be more inclusive of the nation as talks on the TPP and regional security get underway. Too often, China’s perceived sensitivities leave Taiwan in limbo.
A May 2005 Businessweek article about Taiwan’s economic prowess titled “Why Taiwan Matters” said: “The global economy couldn’t function without it.”
This remains true today, but even more importantly, it is a vibrant democracy and its continued existence as a free and democratic nation is key to safety and security in the Asia-Pacific region. And that is what Obama’s pivot is all about.