Cross-strait optimism 2, with a twist

Jonas Brown continues his report on an all day conference last week at the Carnegie Endowment:

The third panel discussed cross-strait relations in a regional context.  Yann-Huei Song, a research fellow at Academia Sinica in Taiwan, highlighted the complexity of Taiwan’s position in the region.  Taipei must negotiate tense multilateral conflicts in the East and South China Seas while simultaneously maintaining a pro-U.S. orientation and developing delicate cross-strait ties with Beijing.  He suggested that President Ma’s East China Sea peace initiative could be applied in the South China Sea and that Taiwan’s role in ICAO and other international organizations provide a precedent for Taipei’s participation in devising a South China Sea code of conduct. 

Chyungly Lee, research fellow at the Institute of International Relations and professor at National Chengchi University in Taiwan, observed that American “rebalancing” had succeeded in strengthening regional organizations in the Asia-Pacific, leading to more action-oriented coordination between states, with a particular increase in functional security cooperation.  This trend has benefitted the entire region as well as the US, suggesting that greater participation by Taiwan in regional organizations and agreements would only enhance these benefits. 

Michael Auslin, director of Japan Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said that a paradigm-shift has occurred in cross-strait relations since the end of the Cold War.  Cross-strait relations were initially the focus of US interests in the region and a key rationale for the “Asia pivot,” but cross-strait rapprochement has brought Taipei into the mainstream of regional politics.  Ma’s approach to Beijing resembles that of other regional leaders: defusing tensions while also attempting to maintain a balance of power.  Regional dynamics—not the US role—are now the central factor influencing cross-strait relations. 

Renmin University professor Canrong Jin emphasized Beijing’s satisfaction and optimism regarding both cross-strait relations and China’s role in the region.  With the exception of China’s dispute with Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, a sense of calm and promise pervades in Beijing, despite a widely held, anxious perception that right-wing nationalism is on the rise in Japan.  Anxiety about American “rebalancing” has eased because U.S.-Russia relations and the struggling U.S. economy are both viewed as checks on American assertiveness in Asia. 

Commentator Michael Swaine, senior associate at CEIP, questioned the tendency by many observers to view cross-strait relations as an indicator of Chinese and American positions on other issues.  He noted in particular the—in his view—unsubstantiated talk about risk to US credibility in the region should the US shift its position on cross-strait relations or the East/South China Sea territorial disputes.  This line of reasoning reminds him of Vietnam War-era domino thinking.  More highly nuanced, contextualized scholarship is needed in this area, Swaine said.

The fourth panel covered “Domestic Developments in Mainland China.”  Chih-Chieh Chou, a professor at National Cheng Kung University, outlined the dilemmas faced by the current government as it tries to maintain stability while enacting the political reforms necessary to transition to an innovation-based economy.  Chou expressed cautious optimism about China’s macroeconomic growth and political reform.  He noted areas of progress, such as the growing space for civil society activity, but also acknowledged daunting challenges, including the urban-rural gap, high income inequality, lack of government transparency, and tight government control over resources. 

Chung-Min Tsai, a political science professor at National Chengchi University, said it is still too early to assess Xi’s leadership.  He questioned the usefulness of Xi’s “Chinese Dream:” Will it lead to concrete, widespread improvement in quality of life, or to is it an empty government fantasy that will simply highlight the chasm between the Chinese people and their government? In an analysis of China’s political and economic trajectory much less optimistic than Chou’s, George Washington University professor David Shambaugh described a sclerotic political system, with no evidence of meaningful political reform and little sign of a successful transition toward an innovation-based economy.  He agreed with Tsai that the “Chinese Dream” is an “empty vessel” but suggested that its open-endedness could be positive, allowing for a bottom-up interpretation by China’s intellectual community. 

Fan Li, director of the World and China Institute in Beijing, observed steps toward economic liberalization under Xi—including the creation of the Shanghai Free-Trade Zone and greater freedom for private businesses—but contrasted this economic progress with the absence of political reform cited by Shambaugh. 

Commentator Kenneth Lieberthal, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, reemphasized the fundamental contradiction between recent attempts to both strengthen the private sector and centralize political power. Recognizing the complexity of his domestic challenges, Xi has made de-escalation of tensions with the U.S. the touchstone of his foreign policy, so that he can concentrate on consolidating his personal control and revivifying the Communist Party.

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