Earlier this month, the annual APEC summit took place in Bali, Indonesia, closely followed by the ASEAN summit in Brunei. These meetings were attended by member nations’ highest level representatives, and were a good opportunity for leaders to exchange views on the important issues of the day.
This year, the US’ presence took a nosedive when US President Barack Obama was unable to attend due to the US government shutdown fight with US Congress. This is regrettable, as Obama had promised that the US would be “back in Asia.”
Now it remains to be seen if these circumstances, together with the “sequestration” budget cuts, do not force his rebalancing to Asia to run out of steam.
However, the main issue I would like to focus on here is how Taiwan fared in Bali. It is not a member of ASEAN, so there were no representatives present in Brunei, but Taiwan is a member of APEC, so it did have representatives in Bali.
However, at the heads of state meeting, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) was nowhere to be seen: For years, China’s objection has forced Taiwan to send a lower level of representation. This year the nation was represented by former vice president Vincent Siew (蕭萬長).
No doubt Siew is an able economist, but the fact remains that Taiwan, and APEC, are allowing themselves to be forced by a dictate from one member state. So, there certainly is an element of unfairness in Taiwan’s lack of participation at the appropriate level.
Some in Taiwan were pleased with the fact that Siew met Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) and exchanged views on cross-strait relations. While it is much more preferable to have such talks than to have hostilities, it is important that such talks are based on equality, equity and mutual respect.
That is where things become muddy: Does Xi consider Siew an equal? Not likely. From his perspective he is talking to a representative from a local government. Does Xi have respect for Taiwan as a free and democratic nation? Not really: In fact, just this summer he issued “Document No. 9,” in which he said that things like “Western constitutional democracy” should be eradicated.
So, how should we interpret Xi’s statement in Bali that “the longstanding political division between the two sides ... should not be passed on generation after generation.”
He added that he was willing “to engage in reciprocal negotiations on bilateral political issues with Taiwan under the ‘one China’ framework.”
This may sound nice and conciliatory enough to the untrained ear of a casual bystander, but it has all the characteristics of an ultimatum, belying arguments that China is showing patience and is “in no hurry.”
The problem is that Xi insists on his “one China” framework, which limits Taiwan’s options to forge its own future as a free and democratic nation. So, was the close encounter in Bali a step in the right direction for Taiwan?
Nat Bellocchi served as chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan from 1990 to 1995. The views expressed in this article are his own.