As US President Barack Obama visits Beijing this week to attend the annual APEC meeting, it is good to reflect on US relations with East Asia — and with Taiwan and China in particular.
Relations between the US and China are tense because of China’s increasing belligerence on a number of fronts: It has thrown its weight around in the South China Sea, making claims to large tracts of water within the “nine-dash line,” upsetting its neighbors; it has acted confrontational in the East China Sea vis-a-vis Japan on the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) — known as the Senkakus in Japan — while declaring an air defense identification zone over the region; it is increasingly repressive in Tibet and East Turkestan [Xinjiang], while it has mishandled the developments in Hong Kong by not living up to its promise of universal suffrage in the upcoming election of the chief executive in 2017.
In the meantime, relations between Taiwan and China still have the appearance of outward calm and stability. Cross-strait exchanges and negotiations are still going on, but are increasingly overshadowed by Beijing’s underlying political designs becoming obvious: It wants to incorporate Taiwan just like it incorporated Hong Kong in 1997. In a meeting with a visiting pro-“unification” delegation from Taiwan, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) said: “The ‘one country, two systems’ [policy] is the mainland’s guiding principle for resolving the Taiwan question and the best way to achieve national ‘reunification.’”
The problems with this statement are that the so-called “one country, two systems” policy has never had any traction in Taiwan and that China’s handling of the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong has shown Taiwanese that their hard-won freedoms would significantly diminish if the nation would continue to move in China’s direction. In other words, as I emphasized earlier, Hong Kong is a mirror for Taiwan (“Life in the KMT’s alternate reality,” Sept. 10, page 8).
So, against this background, what message should Obama carry to Beijing?
One, that the US will continue its forward presence in East Asia and that it will continue to support freedom, democracy and human rights. Those are the US’ “core interests.”
Two, that peace and stability in the region can be achieved only if China respects its neighbors and does not encroach on their territories and interests. Allowing neighbors such as Taiwan to determine their own futures would be in China’s own interests.
Three, that human rights in China are also a key variable in US-China relations: Violations in Tibet, East Turkestan and Hong Kong cannot be argued away as “internal affairs,” but must be on the front burner as essential elements in determining whether the US and China are on good terms with each other.
In the meantime, the US can do much more in enhancing relations with Taiwan: It should help create the much-needed space for Taiwanese to make a fully free choice on the future of their nation — without outside interference or pressure from China. It can do this by moving more aggressively to welcome Taiwan into the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). It can do this by removing some of the outdated, self-imposed guidelines that inhibit a more normal relationship between the US and Taiwan. And it can do this by being more supportive of Taiwan’s membership in international organizations.