The rapid rise of China's power and influence in world affairs, especially around her periphery in Asia, prompts a steady stream of commentary warning of PRC efforts to push the US out of Asia and achieve dominance.
In contrast, actual Chinese behavior in the region and in improving relations with the US seem to underscore strong awareness by Chinese leaders of the difficulties involved in China competing directly with the superpower. Recently disclosed private deliberations of senior Chinese leaders revealed that Party leader Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) recognized China's relative weakness in Asia in the face of US global dominance and the "accelerated strategic eastward movement" of US power, notably under the George W. Bush administration. He and other senior leaders argued that US power and the US importance to China's development required a flexible and accommodating Chinese posture that would keep China-US relations on an even keel.
The power and policies of the George W. Bush administration indeed did change the Asian situation in important and sometimes negative respects for Chinese interests, especially after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the US. Chinese leaders nonetheless reacted with restraint and moderation -- helping to set the stage for a significant upswing in US-China relations over Asian and other issues. American specialists have different views about what factors were most important in causing the favorable turn in China-US relations in 2001 to the present year, but they tend to agree that the improvement in US-Chinese relations has reinforced Beijing's moderate trend in policy toward Asia.
Some specialists -- myself included -- believe that the Bush administration's effective use of power and influence in Asia, its firmness on Taiwan and other disagreements, and an initial downgrading of China's priority in US foreign policy prompted Beijing to reverse course and work assiduously in offering concessions and removing irritants to seek better US ties. In the view of these specialists, an assertive Chinese posture with pressure tactics directed against the US and US interests in Asia risks friction and worsened China-US relations, calling negative attention to China at a time when the US superpower seems prepared to confront its enemies.
A second view explains the improvement in US-China relations largely on the basis of a change in Bush administration attitudes rather than a change in China's approach, as Sept. 11 drove the US to work constructively with China against terrorism. This view holds that this change in attitude has put Chinese leaders in an ever more influential position in Asian and world affairs and they are loath to risk that position with a more assertive and potentially disruptive Chinese stance toward Asian affairs.
A third school of thought says Chinese concern over Bush's firmness and maneuvering was low, and Chinese moderation and accommodation came from a judgment that amid strong economic growth and unchallenged political dominance, the Communist Party-led Chinese government was making significant gains in its global standing, notably around its periphery in Asia. This confident Chinese leadership appears unlikely to resort to an assertive or aggressive stance that could disrupt the many recent gains in relations.
Looking to the future, though the US and China have more common ground in Asia, they differ over Taiwan, how to secure stability in Korea and ultimately which power will be paramount in Asia. The Chinese military buildup has focused on Taiwan and the possibility that US forces might assist Taiwan. A range of security, political, economic and other issues make the US bilateral relationship with China by far the most contentious and complicated US relationship in Asian or world affairs. Growing China-US common ground in Asian affairs will help US-China relations develop in agreeable ways and reinforce China's moderate approach to the region. But the clash of long-term US-China interests in the region -- particularly the continued PLA buildup targeted at Taiwan and US forces that might help Taiwan -- suggest that a major breakthrough toward strategic cooperation is unlikely.
This great power balance in Asia provides important opportunities and challenges for Taiwan. It inclines the PRC's leaders to avoid aggressive or harder-line tactics in the mix of carrots and sticks that makes up China's recent approach toward Taiwan; to follow a more disruptive course would undermine the influence and advantage Beijing has been seeking with its ongoing approach toward the US on the one hand and other Asian powers on the other. It buys time for Taiwan to determine effective ways to deal with China and other prevailing conditions and to determine its future. Much depends on the ability of Taiwan's leaders and populace to turn prevailing conditions to Taiwan's advantage. This presumably will involve reviving the economy, promoting effective governance and prudent defense, while consolidating relations with the US and managing tensions in cross-strait relations to the advantage of Taiwan's future security and development.
A serious weakness is political disunity in Taiwan, seen in the fractious positions of competing forces, notably the "pan-blue" forces of the KMT and PFP and the "pan-green" forces led by President Chen Shui-bian's (陳水扁) DPP. More importantly, the political division seems to reflect a deeper division among Taiwan's leaders and people. In particular, many in Taiwan have come to see prevailing conditions as working against the nation as a government and society independent of the PRC. There is no consensus on Taiwan on these kinds of issues. This makes it difficult to mobilize domestic resources and opinion in a concerted effort to protect Taiwan's future and interests vis-a-vis the PRC.
Other new democracies, notably including the US, have gone through periods of division and weakness before coming together in broad compromises for the overall good of the society and country. History looks back favorably on those political leaders who have had the courage to put aside partisan interests and seek to work out arrangements with their political opponents that meet the common good. Effective deal-making, compromising and leadership have been in short supply in the politics of Taiwan recently. It is no exaggeration to say that Taiwan's future depends on them.
Robert Sutter has been a visiting professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University since August 2001.
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