As the saying goes: “Those whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.”
One day before handing over the EU presidency to Portugal on Dec. 30 last year, German Chancellor Angela Merkel signed the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment with Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平).
Beijing and Taiwan’s pan-blue media greeted the news with wild jubilation, declaring it a second crushing trade deal victory after China signed on to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) on Nov. 15 last year.
However, Taiwanese should know that the day before the Chinese Communist Party and the EU inked the agreement, US president-elect Joe Biden’s national security adviser-designate Jake Sullivan posted the following message on Twitter: “The Biden-[US vice president-elect Kamala] Harris administration would welcome early consultations with our European partners on our common concerns about China’s economic practices.”
The EU’s snub of Biden’s transition team has reportedly gone down badly in Washington.
Xi and Merkel have lobbed a stun grenade into Washington, the impact of which is comparable to the convulsions caused by the British government’s disregarding of then-US president Barack Obama’s opposition to Britain joining the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in 2015. The AIIB incident roused Washington from its slumber and forced US policymakers to engage in serious introspection over its erroneous long-standing policy of engaging China. This led to Obama’s “pivot to Asia” and “rebalance to Asia” policies, and a determination to contain Beijing’s hegemonic ambitions.
Therefore, one can see that containment and “decoupling” are not exclusively “Trumpian” ideas, but were in fact initiated by the Obama administration and the Democratic Party. US President Donald Trump’s administration simply enacted the policies with more enthusiasm and gusto.
If the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment compels the incoming Biden administration to more completely understand the reality of the threat posed by China, dispense with past appeasement policies toward Beijing and to formulate a “pivot to Asia 2.0” policy, this would be a game-changer for Taiwan and other free democracies around the world.
The EU-China trade pact is not the first grenade Xi has tossed into Biden’s in-tray. On Nov. 15 last year, once Xi was confident that Biden had won the US presidential election, he signed up to the RCEP.
The daring and bold Xi then used an APEC meeting to announce that China would pursue membership in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. Still not finished, Xi dispatched Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi (王毅) to Japan to discuss a tripartite free-trade agreement between China, Japan and South Korea.
He has also stated that he intends to complete negotiations for a Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific by 2040. The mask is off: Beijing is maneuvering to become the undisputed hegemon of the Asian economy. The question is if Biden would roll over that easily.
Very soon, Beijing’s domineering behavior might well push Biden further to the right on China and spur his administration to beef up the framework behind the Obama era’s “rebalance to Asia.” This would allow a “liberal democracy economic co-prosperity alliance” to quickly form and resist the grouping of authoritarian economies led by China.
China’s leaders are famous for their strategic cunning and willingness to play the long game. Why, then, did Xi rush to sign the RCEP and EU-China bilateral investment treaty after Biden had been confirmed as the next US president?
In both cases, Beijing made concessions to get the deals over the line. Both pacts had been in the works for years, so why the sudden rush? Was it an initial show of strength to knock Biden off balance?
It is even more perplexing when one considers that China could quite easily follow Deng Xiaoping’s (鄧小平) maxim of “concealing one’s strength and biding one’s time” for another decade before going “full-hegemon.” There was no need for Xi to aggravate Washington by launching the AIIB in 2015.
After the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) suffered a significant setback in the November 2018 local elections, Xi, believing that public opinion in Taiwan had shifted toward unification, jumped the gun and proposed a Taiwan version of Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” formula. This allowed the DPP to get off the back foot and go on the offensive, and it paved the way for the party’s crushing victory in last year’s presidential and legislative elections.
History appears to be repeating itself with the RCEP and China’s bilateral investment treaty with the EU. Historians will record that the EU-China treaty marked a key inflection point that allowed liberal democracies to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Both politically and economically, the EU-China treaty bodes well for Taiwan.
Huang Tien-lin is a former advisory member of the National Security Council and a national policy adviser to the president.
Translated by Edward Jones
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