China seems to have taken to heart the famous foreign policy dictum of former US president Theodore Roosevelt — “Speak softly and carry a big stick” — at least with regard to its neighbors.
Roosevelt’s foreign policy sought to achieve US hegemony by mixing peaceful negotiations with military threats.
Although China’s ultimate goals for the Asia-Pacific region are undoubtedly hegemonistic, Beijing is, for the moment, using economic and non-military tactics to slowly bring Asia-Pacific and ASEAN countries into its sphere of influence. Nowhere is that more evident than in Taiwan.
Taiwan was first sucked into China’s economic sphere of its own accord — big business owners that sympathized with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) moved their factories to China to take advantage of cheap labor. Later, China gave Taiwan little choice as its economy grew far beyond the scope of what Taiwanese policymakers had originally foreseen. In the latest round of economic determinism, Taiwan has been netted like a fish by China’s Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement.
Economic hegemony has been quickly followed by a media onslaught in support of Chinese interests. A number of the CCP-sympathizers — Want Want Group chairman and chief executive Tsai Eng-meng (蔡衍明) and Fubon Financial chairman Daniel Tsai (蔡明忠) are just the biggest and best known — have spearheaded the drive to dominate the Taiwanese media, spouting their view of a “one China” future that denies past massacres and paints a rosy picture of China’s current leaders.
These are all instances of China “speaking softly,” but what about the “big stick?”
China has never backed down from its stance that it has the sovereign right to annex Taiwan. The Taiwan Strait issue is an internal matter and is not the business of the rest of the world. Beijing even legalized this stance with its “Anti-Secession” Law in 2004, and has been rapidly modernizing its military for more than a decade.
As China’s soft-spoken hegemony grows, so does its big stick. Beijing will officially spend more than US$100 billion on its military this year, yet another double-digit increase in its annual expenditure, and that sum only goes on hardware and staff payrolls. If research and development into new weapons is factored in, China’s military spending would likely be double that figure.
Concrete examples of its growing military might include its first aircraft carrier, an increasingly assertive submarine fleet, a newly developed stealth fighter, a highly sophisticated missile force and probably the biggest and best army of computer hackers the world has ever seen. China has even entered the space race, becoming the third nation to put a person into space after Russia and the US. Those are big sticks indeed.
However, the real issue is: How long will China continue to walk and talk softly? With such a big stick at its disposal, China will soon reach the point where it can take whatever it wants. Why wait for economic and media power to do the trick when conquest can be achieved in a couple months with planes, submarines and missiles?
That being said, China is, if anything, patient. And if the Chinese continue to tread lightly, while building the biggest, baddest military machine in the neighborhood, nobody will notice, until too late, that they have become the region’s Big Brother.