Wednesday, January 29, 2014

US pivot chafes at vital Asian ties

Beijing and Taipei this week announced the beginning of their first ever government-to-government talks. It is to some extent a mutual recognition of each other's standing, and as well as a sure-footed step in the process of reunification - so important for the People's Republic of China - it sets an important precedent for any future government in Taiwan.

Even if the opposition Democratic Party of Taiwan were to come to power at the next presidential election, the new president could hardly dismiss the continuation of these talks even as the party wants to proclaim a unilateral independence of island, which is de facto already independent but de jure part of one China. In fact, although the talks are a step in the process of re-unification, they are also the biggest diplomatic achievement ever wrested by a Taiwanese force from Beijing. This will be the historic legacy of the current nationalist president, Ma Ying-jiu, both for the goal of a united China and for the purpose of securing Taiwanese interests.

In the same days, the main South Korean news agency, Yonhap, reported that about 100 relatives of former North Korean second in command Jang Song-thaek, including women and children, were killed on the orders of North Korean leader Kim Jong-eun. Kim, a nephew of Jang and not yet 30, had already executed Jang and some of his closest associates in the largest, most senseless and most blood-curdling political purge since the end of the Cold War. The purge bodes ill for North Korean intentions about South Korea. If young Kim can slaughter so easily some his closest kin, including his mentor, one can only imagine what he could do to a patently sworn enemy. Yet Seoul failed to react.

The gesture with Jang was domestic but carries important foreign implications. Jang was somewhat close to China, a country which had initially also opposed Kim's promotion as supreme leader in Pyongyang.

Yet Beijing, usually very sensitive about political insults, decided to largely ignore the episode. The only reaction could be found in an article by Central Party School professor Zhang Liangui, [1] who modestly argued that the remains of Chinese volunteers killed in the Korean war and buried in North Korea should be repatriated. The argument was reasonable and supported by the fact that the US also brings home for burial all the bodies of its soldiers killed around the world.

Yet the reaction from North Korea was furious. A spokesman from the North Korea embassy [2] retorted that Mao himself ordered those bodies buried in North Korea and among them is the body of Mao's son, Mao Anying. In a way, North Korea was accusing China of going against Mao, and possibly Pyongyang was extremely annoyed by the fact that Zhang Liangui quoted the US tradition as one reason for repatriating the bodies.

The other annoying fact for Pyongyang was that Zhang said North Korea is in economic difficulties and thus cannot attend to the cemetery properly. To this the spokesman replied that the tombs are in splendid order. Zhang was hinting that the North Korean economy should be reformed, and Pyongyang answered that everything is in order.

Bringing back the bodies would also symbolically mean a breaking or loosening of the bond that has linked North Korea and China since the 1950 war. In any case if Zhang's argument was the Chinese official reaction, it was insignificant compared to the bloody purge carried out by young Kim. Moreover, China and South Korea reactions were muted compared to the international outrage aroused by the purge.

A growing pace of convergence in analyses on Pyongyang is apparent in Beijing and Seoul. Both seem to agree that Pyongyang's actions, however despicable, leave little room for sudden and dramatic reaction - a course advocated in some Western circles.

The relationship with North Korea is certainly the biggest problem for the South, and the convergence with Beijing on this strengthens bilateral ties immensely. Similarly the relationship with the mainland is of paramount importance for Taiwan. In both cases, for South Korea and Taiwan, politics is upheld by a growing commonality of economic interests, as bilateral trade and investment with Beijing are pillars of both economy.

In a time when the United States is re-examining its strategic rebalancing to Asia, Washington may want to pay close attention to these developments. South Korea and Taiwan ties with America are extremely important, but these governments would be very unhappy if they were to be forced to make a choice between US and China. In that case the broad US goal of "containing" China (or whatever you want to call in a politically correct jargon the process of trying to check China) would run against the specific and urgent political necessities (for Seoul) of bottling explosive North Korea and (for Taiwan) of finding a more viable bilateral modus vivendi.

Even without South Korea and Taiwan, the number of China neighbors who feel antagonized by Beijing's behavior is ample. This week China's Navy patrolled the James Shoal, which are disputed with Malaysia, and in the same hours Chinese ships entered waters around the Senkaku islands, disputed with Japan.

The Philippines has its own long list of claims with China, and Vietnam would be happy to push Beijing back in the South China Sea. But without South Korea and Taiwan any anti-Chinese cordon could soon become extremely weak. A political defeat of the US-backed Philippines (for instance) could reflect badly on the US in Asia, a region where "face" is extremely important. Therefore, how far can the US push/support anti-Chinese moves that are voided by the pro-Chinese stand of some US regional allies (South Korea and Taiwan)?

However, the successful weakening of the first version of the Pivot to Asia does not mean that Beijing can push on its sea borders unhindered. In fact, it is just the opposite. Chinese pushes against the Philippines or irking the US creates problems not only for China (something that Beijing may decide to solve internally) but also for China's new friends - South Korea and Taiwan, which are torn between Beijing and Washington and Manila.

This is something that has potential to hurt Beijing. In modern global diplomacy everybody speaks with anybody, and anybody's actions have an impact on everybody. Therefore embarrassment from new friends, plus resistance or more coordinated actions from neighbors could make Beijing trip and stumble in its eastern and southern seas, especially if its actions are fueled by hubris.

All in all, it is a very subtle game and it can be won or lost on details. In theory, this should help China, whose strategy, newly acquired wealth and huge manpower are better equipped to act on local policies and details. However, political know-how, old ties and local nuances are also at play for Japan or America. While many Chinese officials have badly tarnished the Chinese image in the region by being rough and heavy-handed, both sides have enough clout perhaps to stall each other, and to avoid stalemate, or worse, some change in direction is necessary from both sides.

Francesco Sisci is a columnist for the Italian daily Il Sole 24 Ore.”Joyo News”

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