Sun, Apr 08, 2018 - Page 6 News List

Thinking through the US’ ‘closer ties’

By Strobe Driver

The intensity and pace encircling Taiwan has included US President Donald Trump signing the Taiwan Travel Act, the imposition of tariffs on Chinese exports to the US — from which Taiwan has not been excluded — and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) once again threatening to invade if Taiwan declares independence.

Regardless of whether the act leads to greater US-Taiwan diplomatic freedom, a single issue underpins the political maneuverings: China’s rise must be stopped at all costs. Why else would a nation that has long benefitted from free trade and the global free market — especially since the end of World War II and the Bretton Woods agreement — seek to stop world trade from taking place?

The answer, of course, is that when ground is being lost to a competitor, the situation must be changed regardless of what was in place.

However, the US behaving as powerful actor and then aggrieved participant does have a history that can be easily traced in West-East trade relations, as it has happened before in the Asia-Pacific region. In the mid-19th century (circa 1853), the US Navy sent a squadron of “black ships” into Edo — now Tokyo — Harbor and demanded that Japan “throw open its doors” and trade with the West.

To be fair, this action was not solely the US’ doing, as England and the Netherlands — and to a lesser extent France and Russia — encouraged the US to act on behalf of mercantilism. All, however, did want a share of the spoils.

What happened next? According to Noam Chomsky’s World Orders: Old and New, Japan got better at exporting goods than the aforesaid nation-states could ever have imagined thanks to its ability to quickly mechanize and industrialize, and through its due diligence.

What did the three main actors do? They did what powerful nation-states have a penchant for doing when “threatened”: They reacted with force.

They shut down the free-trade “advantage” that Japan had gained fairly, and sweated and toiled for. The Japanese found the situation inexcusable, as it was Commander Perry who had threatened to open fire on Edo Harbor if the Japanese refused to engage in free trade. In short, they saw it as a dishonorable act. The denial of export markets would drive a substantial number of Japanese into desperate poverty and would help sow the seeds for the Japanese Imperial Navy to mount a “revenge strike” on Pearl Harbor in World War II.

So, trade wars are not new to the Asia-Pacific region, with the most recent trade war causing varied comment that warrants examination.

One reaction has been that Taiwan would be better off “going it alone,” that the nation faces many problems by having such a powerful neighbor as China. A variation of this reaction proposes closer ties with the US, while the most worrying variation includes commentary in the Taipei Times that Taiwan does not need allies (“Diplomatic allies are unimportant,” March 28, page 8).

A “so what” factor has been included in the commentary: China is threatening, but “so what” because Taiwan can cope. While this might be historically linked to Japan having been able to survive and, to some extent, prosper, the circumstances of such revitalization no longer apply in a globalized 21st-century world.

Taiwan, as a robust nation-state, does have a strong history of holding out against China — as Japan did against the aggression of the West — but Taiwan’s geography presents its own set of advantages and vulnerabilities, of which the nation’s strategic planners must be acutely aware.

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