Mon, Jun 03, 2019 - Page 6 News List

John J. Tkacik On Taiwan: The New Southbound Policy and China’s ‘united front’

On Friday last week (May 24), I was pleasantly surprised when the State Department’s senior diplomat for East Asia and the Pacific, acting Assistant Secretary W. Patrick Murphy, explained to journalists in Australia that “China is attempting to reduce Taiwan’s diplomatic relations in the region and that’s kind of heavy-handed.” About a third of the countries with embassies in Taipei are in the Pacific region, yet China is pressuring all to abandon Taiwan. Secretary Murphy was crystal clear: “Our encouragement to countries that have relations with Taiwan is to maintain the status quo. It has contributed to stability, particularly across the Taiwan Strait, and economic prosperity for all concerned.”

A year ago, the Trump White House similarly ordered America’s ambassadors in Latin America and the Caribbean to do the same. Indeed, the US even seemed prepared to sanction countries that abandoned Taiwan. So too, on the Tuesday before (May 21), President Trump met with the presidents of three Pacific Island nations in “free association” alliances with the United States. Their consultations were couched in terms of China’s expanding influence in the Pacific. US Senior Administration officials briefed reporters that President Trump is “directing, really, an unprecedented level of focus on the Pacific Islands, and that’s in recognition of the fact that the United States is a Pacific nation with immutable strategic, economic, cultural, and people-to-people links to these islands.” President Trump specifically praised the “Pacific Islands Forum.” (Three months ago, the three nations signed a joint communique to the PIF secretariat calling for China and Taiwan to be treated as diplomatic equals in the region. The President of the Federated States of Micronesia, the only country that doesn’t recognize Taiwan, also signed.) I have no doubt that Taiwan was a part of President Trump’s consultations with his Pacific counterparts.

Why is the United States so anxious? Chinese militarization of the Pacific, Secretary Murphy stressed, would be as destabilizing as its ongoing and vigorous militarization of the South China Sea. “It gives rise to tensions by changing the status quo and then the possibility of conflict,” he added. Washington has long been aware of Beijing’s pressures on the Solomon Islands government in Honiara. Up until April, Honiara was poised to derecognize Taipei in favor of Beijing. To Washington’s relief, former Solomon Islands Prime Minister Rick Hou’s party was defeated in elections, and the new Prime Minister, Manasseh Sogavare, appears content to retain ties with Taiwan. Secretary Murphy, acknowledging that China is now the Solomons’ biggest export market, reminded the Australian press corps that the United States also has “strong diplomatic relations” with the Solomons, seeming to encourage Premier Sogavare to stick with Taiwan.

Of course, Secretary Murphy did not publicly vent Washington’s fears, shared by Australia’s re-elected Liberal/National government, that China badly wants deep-water naval and space tracking bases throughout the Pacific. For decades, Washington has outsourced its Pacific and Oceania strategy to Canberra and Wellington, only to watch as Australia and New Zealand became careless of China’s silent takeover and its consequent threat to America’s vital naval and maritime interests there.

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