Share This

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Rumblings of change

Map showing ASEAN member states Legend ██ ASEA...Image via Wikipedia


With the fast-rising giant that is today’s China, few established things can be assumed to be the same.

EVENTS that have become established through routine tend not to create a fuss, whatever the contentious issue may be.

However, when routine events produce surprising results, the implications may multiply exponentially. Such is the case with annual US arms sales to Taiwan, and China’s angry reactions to them.

Even though different years may see different combinations of disagreements between Beijing and Washington, the arms sales drama played out between the two capitals over a largely silent Taipei is an annual soap opera worth noting for the scale of its implications.

US plans to sell Taiwan US$6.4bil (RM20.3bil) of weapons last year strained relations between Beijing and Washington badly. Not only was this the largest amount in nearly 20 years, it came together with several other disagreements at the time.

The result was that Beijing suspended military relations with the US from January, besides considering sanctions against private US arms makers involved. The sale was a left-over from the preceding Bush administration’s policy that the Obama White House had tried to usher through.

This year it was “arms sales to Taiwan time” in Washington again. Taiwan had asked for a considerable package, but the US had been having second thoughts.

Taipei had sought a range of new weapons including a new fleet of F-16 jet fighters. But this time Washington said no, mindful of Beijing’s ire.

Instead of the new F-16s, Taiwan will instead get US$5.85bil (RM18.5bil) of “upgrades” for its existing fleet. That in turn led to some bipartisan criticism of the Obama administration in Congress.

Interestingly, Taiwan did not complain about the downgraded weapons sales. Instead it officially congratulated Washington for “going ahead” with its arms sales programme, all too aware of its weak position in the strategic triangle.

For China, any US military aid to Taiwan is still military assistance that could be used to attack the mainland, so Beijing protested all the same. But the atmosphere this time has become less antagonistic.

Just as the US had said no to Taiwan, albeit within limits, China’s protests were largely limited to news media commentaries and defence establishment statements. Both the US and China have come to a new understanding of each other’s concerns and their mutual interests.

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi assured US businessmen in New York that bilateral relations would continue to grow, right after asking Washington to stop the jet upgrades. Those upgrades were not going to stop, especially when they were already a softer alternative to the full-blown sale of new F-16s, and China seemed satisfied enough with that.

Military might

The other issues at stake this year include China’s own military development, of which China watchers in the US are taking due note. However, a more significant factor for the US is a possible run on the dollar given that so much of US wealth, and loans, lies in China’s hands.

For its part, China is arranging for its next president, Xi Jinping, to visit Washington later this year. That means no souring of relations with the US is to be advised.

The US itself is gearing up for a presidential election next year. Washington is therefore understandably on its toes for now in regard to its relations with a fast-rising China.

All of this seems to leave some of the smaller countries in East Asia somewhat disoriented. Accustomed to US military and diplomatic dominance in the region for more than half a century, any sign of the US receding into the Pacific distance can be disconcerting for them.

This applies particularly to those countries that had hosted US military bases for decades.

Two days ago, the Philippines tried to form an Asean front by establishing a panel of legal experts in dealing with China’s claim over disputed islands in the South China Sea. The government of President Benigno Aquino III has consistently been active on this issue, notwithstanding the limited response it has received.

One reason for the apparent lack of Asean enthusiasm for Aquino’s plans is that he is trying to tackle a huge and long-established issue as Asean’s youngest leader with no clear direction.

Another reason is that Manila is sending confusing if not also conflicting signals over the issue. Last week the Philippines announced that Aquino would bring the issue of the disputed islands to Japan on his visit to Tokyo.

Japan has no involvement with claims to disputed islands in the South China Sea, although like the Philippines and Taiwan it has a security arrangement with the United States. Those arrangements vary in their terms and degree of US obligations, so taken together they are asymmetrical and non-comparable.

There is a sense in Asean that if disputes within Asean have yet to be solved within and by Asean, they are unlikely to be solved outside Asean.

To compound the confusion further, President Aquino was in Beijing from late last month to early this month soliciting for Chinese investment in the Philippines. From 2009 to 2010, bilateral trade grew more than 35%.

Aquino then said the trade was mostly in China’s favour, and he would like to balance it. He is more likely to succeed there than in competing claims over territory.

A current strand of opinion among US strategic thinkers is that the Philippines is beginning to see China as a “big brother” substitute for the US in East Asia. But given Manila’s actions and policies so far, nobody is likely to know what the Philippines wants to do, least of all Filipino lawmakers themselves.