When Philippines President Benigno Aquino III visited Washington on June 8 the South China issue was very much on the table. During the 11th Asia Security Summit — the Shangri-La Dialogue — recently held in Singapore, US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta expressed the US’ intention of returning to the Asia-Pacific region, saying that it expects to have 60 percent of its impressive naval fleet operating in the Pacific by 2020.
The US’ stated intention to return to the Asia-Pacific region as part of a strategy shift is sure to elicit a response from China. Any countries or areas caught between these two world powers will have to think about how they are to avoid being sandwiched between them and which of the two parties to side with. Of course, there is no way Taiwan can remain above the situation and how it develops, and we may well find ourselves facing even more grueling and painful choices and decisions than other countries or regions have to.
For a long time now we have actually played a relatively insignificant role in the region, remaining mostly neutral in what can be a precarious and fickle area.
What are we to do now given the increased tensions that are sure to emerge between Beijing and Washington as the US is planning a return to the region as a strategic power?
As part of the US’ new strategy of re-engagement with the Asia-Pacific region it has taken steps to deepen its strategic cooperation with countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam. Taiwan, due to its location as part of the first island chain, forms a tripartite relationship with Washington and Beijing, albeit in a marginal capacity until now. However, it is possible to discern from the US’ maneuverings that Washington is quite reluctant to see us associate ourselves too much with China within this tripartite relationship and equally, Beijing has indicated that it does not want us too close to Washington, either.
Sandwiched in between Beijing and Washington, it looks from first appearances that the only option for Taiwan is to continue favoring the US in political and military affairs while being more pro-China when it comes to trade — the traditional balance we have maintained until now. However, in practical terms, this model is not that suitable for dealing with issues such as the South China Sea sovereignty disputes, the development of the East Asia economic region, the question of how to share natural resources in the South China Sea, or the problem of the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台).
Taiwan’s location on the margins actually affords us the ability to assume a balancing role in the strategic relationship between Washington and Beijing. With the signing of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement we now have closer trade relations with China. On the face of it, Washington announces that it welcomes this peaceful cross strait development, but in actual fact is extremely uneasy about the potential of our becoming more involved politically with China as a result of the deeper reliance on trade that we have with them.
Washington is now willing to restart negotiations on a trade and investment framework agreement, which, despite coming with certain conditions attached — such as our lifting the ban on imports of US beef with ractopamine residue — is actually part of the US’ strategic plan to re-balance the situation by preventing cross-strait trade relations becoming what they see as excessively close. In fact, there have been other instances, such as Japan’s willingness to sign an investment agreement with us so quickly, that can be regarded part and parcel of this re-balancing plan.
If Washington really wants to avoid Taiwan becoming more politically involved with China, it really needs to take certain strategic steps to that end. These would include supporting Taiwan’s participation in major international organizations beyond just APEC, such as the ASEAN Regional Forum. In addition, it should sell us advanced weapons that would allow us to engage in asymmetric warfare with China.
If Beijing does not want us to favor Washington politically, it should cut us some slack. It could, for example, allow us to participate in a number of international organizations, those perhaps of a relatively low-level political nature. It could even enter into talks with us about signing a cross-strait South China Sea resources exploitation cooperation framework agreement, one that does not impinge upon questions of sovereignty.
In dealing with the strategic competition between Beijing and Washington, Taipei has to use its influence as a counterbalance between the two powers to ensure that relations between them continue to develop and in the process enhance Taiwan’s international and regional role.
Lee In-ming is vice president of the China University of Science and Technology.
Translated by Paul Cooper