Pursuing peace and stability is key to socioeconomic development. This is particularly true for Taiwan, China, Japan and South Korea. These modernizing states are all keen to avoid an unnecessary arms race.
However, the escalating North Korean nuclear crisis has not only complicated regional security dynamics, but also provoked a new arms race in the Asia-Pacific region.
Though sympathetic to North Korea’s rationale for using nuclear weapons as a deterrence against US invasion, China is deeply worried about the danger of confronting another unpredictable crisis without resolving the current one.
By drawing on its own experience of developing atomic bombs in the Maoist era, China still considers North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s frequent nuclear maneuvers to be tolerable.
Instead of supporting international sanctions against it, China continues to flex its economic muscles to bring North Korea to the negotiation table.
In doing so, China seems to have missed a golden opportunity to assert absolute leadership in Northeast Asia. its failure to have North Korea denuclearize itself reveals Beijing’s rapidly declining influence over Pyongyang.
On the other side of the negotiation table, the US is running out of patience. The administrations of former US presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama turned to China for diplomatic assistance to marginalize North Korea. However, the new US President Donald Trump administration finds the old tactic to be counterproductive, only giving Pyongyang plenty of time to improve its nuclear capabilities.
In this new geopolitical climate, South Korea embraced a US-implemented Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in an effort to intercept incoming North Korean ballistic missiles at altitudes of up to 150km. This new system strengthens South Korean defenses and deepens the alliance with Washington.
China publicly opposed THAAD deployment because the powerful radar system would enable the US and South Korea to monitor vast areas of Chinese territory, including Beijing and Shanghai.
In response, Beijing mobilized citizens to protest against South Korean businesses. The widespread boycotts of Lotte Co in Chinese cities was part of a larger propagandistic campaign that also ridiculed K-pop singers and entertainers.
Since the 2000s, China’s robust economic growth has offered numerous opportunities for South Korean entrepreneurs to expand and make profits. When Seoul decided to import the US missile defense system, Beijing’s warning was loud and clear: If South Korea does not suspend THAAD, more South Korean enterprises would find it hard to operate in China.
This geopolitical development has two important lessons for Taiwan:
First, as a middle-state power and a de facto independent entity, Taiwan should strive to gain diplomatic flexibility and pursue its own agenda amid the US-China and China-South Korea rivalries. Rather than being at the mercy of regional powers, Taiwan should balance the need to maintain security ties with the US with the pursuit of business links with China.
Second, Taiwan should follow in South Korea’s footsteps. Besides acquiring advanced defense systems from abroad, it ought to implement a viable security strategy that improves foreign technologies to enhance conventional defense and deterrence. Only by doing so will it be possible to uphold a balance of power across the Taiwan Strait.
Joseph Tse-Hei Lee is a professor of history at Pace University in New York.
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