The world is at a crossroads, because there are so many uncertainties about the future.
The global economy is in distress. In Europe, the debt crisis makes the recovery of the EU from the current recession problematic. Japan’s economy has been stagnant for two decades and it is unclear whether it will ever emerge from its economic doldrums. In the US, it is not clear whether a dysfunctional government beset with partisan bickering can address the intractable budget and trade deficit problems and set the country on the course of economic recovery.
Many observers believe that China will soon replace the US as the world’s largest economy and some believe that China will also overtake the US and become the dominant military power around the globe. The world will enter a dark age if China, with its disregard for the sanctity of human life and disrespect for basic human rights, were to again wield its power as the new Middle Kingdom.
Regardless of who wins the US presidency, Washington must decide whether it will continue to lead the coalition of democratic states and to advance peaceful change and democracy around the world, or accept the US’ decline as inevitable and simply attempt to manage the transition in a less painful manner.
Mitt Romney vows that his victory next month would “ensure that this is an American, not a Chinese century.” After decades of complacency, it is not certain that the US can deliver on that promise.
China is increasingly assertive in the South China Sea and in its quarrel with Japan over the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台), also claimed by Taiwan, which are covered by the US-Japan mutual defense treaty. Despite its rhetoric about peaceful resolution of territorial disputes and freedom of navigation on the high seas, the US risks loss of credibility if it fails to support the Philippines, Vietnam or Japan when push comes to shove with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
Given the large cutback in the US defense budget, can the US bolster its naval and air military presence in East Asia sufficiently to cope with the PLA’s growing capabilities? There is uncertainty about the US’ resolve and ability to remain a major power in Asia for the long haul.
In China, a new leadership will assume power at the 18th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress, now scheduled for Nov. 8, two days after the US presidential election.
We know that Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (習近平) and Chinese Vice Premier Li Keqiang (李克強) will lead the new politburo. What we do not know is where they will take China.
Will the CCP under Xi try to redress the economic imbalance that favors state-owned enterprises at the expense of the private sector and emphasizes exports versus consumption? Will it concentrate on dealing with corruption, environmental degradation, income disparity and the lack of a social safety net, or will it continue on the path of military buildup, territorial expansion and competing with the US for world leadership?
Whichever direction Beijing takes, what is certain is that the CCP will spare no effort to consolidate its monopoly of power and to annex Taiwan.
How would Taiwan’s military and people react to this? Will Washington acquiesce in such a betrayal of democratic values?
There are no clear answers to these questions. There are great forces that shape world events, such as the spread of democracy after World War II, the rise of China and the revolution of rising expectations in the Islamic world. The US can try to channel these forces toward the direction of peace and freedom, but it cannot always control them.
The US can be most effective when it holds fast to its founding principles, that freedom and democracy are universal values and that it has a unique responsibility to build a world that is safe for democracy.
In that spirit, the US needs to ensure the Taiwanese people’s right to determine their own future and to help protect Taiwan’s security. In so doing, it will be enhancing its own homeland security.
Taiwanese-Americans have a special responsibility to explain to their fellow Americans the grave threat to the US posed by a rising China.
Li Thian-hok is a freelance commentator based in Pennsylvania.