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The US needs to tell Xi about Taiwan

The US needs to tell Xi about Taiwan

China’s President Xi Jinping has embarked on one of the actions most likely to gain him exposure in the global media, namely a visit to the United States during which he will of course meet with President Barack Obama.
The trip started on a positive note with a massive deal with Boeing and handshakes with Mandarin speaker Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook.
The optimism is likely to continue as Xi continues his march on the White House in the midst of photo opportunities and assertions that China’s enormous economic progress does not pose a threat to the world’s current main superpower, the US.
While in the short term, such might be the case, Washington would do well not to underestimate China’s growing military might, now coupled with economic prowess. Decades ago, the huge country was hidden behind a Bamboo Curtain, a hard-line communist giant with bizarre practices such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.
After US President Richard Nixon visited and Mao Zedong was succeeded by Deng Xiaoping, reform became the main drive, firing up enthusiasm for China only to be tempered by the 1989 Tiananmen massacre.
It only took some years before a new China craze came to life, this time based on the strong advances in living standard registered by the citizens of the Asian country. China became a paradise on earth for business in the West, both as a source of cheap goods but also as a market for everything from high tech to high fashion.
While repression against Tibetan and Xinjiang independence movements and Chinese dissidents continued unabated, the general perception was one of a China that was valuing economic development over ideological purity and that would eventually evolve into a kind of Singapore, a mix between authoritarianism and democracy.
Xi was initially seen as a potential reformist, due to his younger age and his studies in the US, but that impression has not lasted, at least not in Asia. His aggressive stance toward the Philippines over islands in the South China Sea and Japan over the Diaoyutai Islands also claimed by Taiwan upturned his image into that of a bully.
Observers in the US have also noticed this less-than-kind face of Xi’s, but the question is whether the Obama Administration is prepared to speak out, risking a backlash from the mighty Chinese economic machine. While some sputtering has been observed, few expect an imminent collapse, especially since most of the rest of the world is still mired in a sluggish economy.
Xi will put on his best face, smile during his meetings with business leaders and politicians, and hoping to avoid more embarrassing issues of human rights, censorship, hacking, and copycat manufacturing practices. While those topics might still come up in sessions behind closed doors, where the media are not present to report anger and disagreements, the whole atmosphere to the outside will look bright and optimistic.
On the surface, Taiwan does not seem to be playing a major part in this year’s Xi extravaganza. China will no doubt mention its One China policy, and the US will respond by emphasizing it also has a One China policy, though one that is softened by the Taiwan Relations Act, which allows for the sale of defensive weapons systems to Taiwan, something Beijing finds totally unacceptable.
The Obama Administration should do well to take note of Xi’s image here in Taiwan before it makes any concessions to Beijing. From Taipei’s viewpoint, the new Chinese leader’s image is not that of a US-educated reformist, but that of a hard-line expansionist and militarist who is not afraid of taking unfriendly unilateral measures.
Recent examples are the introduction of an electronic card which functions as a special passport for Taiwanese visiting China and the new air routes in the middle of the Taiwan Straits. In both cases, the administration of President Ma Ying-jeou indicated it was displeased following criticism from public opinion inside the country, but little was done to persuade China it should go back on its steps.
At present, the Kuomintang government is still continuing on the same path, claiming there are no problems, and promising to go ahead with a high-level cross-straits meeting despite the lack of response from Beijing over the electronic card.
Washington should take note of those developments, and if it cannot do so on its own, then Taiwan’s government should pass on the message about the real Xi.
Taiwan is at an important crossroads, with a return to power of the Democratic Progressive Party likely through democratic elections scheduled for January 16, 2016. Not only is DPP leader Tsai Ing-wen the frontrunner in the presidential poll, but the same day could also see her party gain control of the Legislative Yuan for the first time ever.
The last time the DPP governed, from 2000 to 2008, China reacted with a host of unsympathetic measures, including an Anti-Secession Law and the rapid installation of missiles targeted at Taiwan.
While Tsai has strongly moderated traditional party views and several local DPP government leaders as well as former Premier Frank Hsieh already visited China over the past few years, it remains to be seen whether Beijing will take the hint.
Tsai has emphasized the importance of a status quo for Taiwan’s status as an independent and sovereign nation. While that could be interpreted as calling a halt to the drift toward seeping Chinese influence during the Ma Administration, it could also be seen as a promise that there will be no move toward the de jure declaration of Taiwan Independence, which China would see as a cause for military action.
Beijing needs to stop pushing for the 1992 Consensus and ranting against the DPP’s Taiwan Independence clause if it wants to earn the goodwill of the Taiwanese people.
The US can play the role of a good listener and tell China about Taiwan’s true intentions.
The Obama Administration has already come under fire from some inside the US for its concessions to Iran and Cuba, so it should be unlikely to go too far in making a similar mistake with China.
President Obama should try and dispel the dark clouds now hanging over the future of Taiwan-China relations, and immediately restate US determination to favor peace and stability.
A free and democratic Taiwan should not be the target of unilateral aggressive actions from China, and the US needs to tell Xi that it will stand by the island.


Updated : 2021-03-04 09:11 GMT+08:00