Asian states should pay tribute to a peace-seeking China, but not as tributaries
DIRECT flights between Taipei and the mainland, the first in nearly six decades, are the latest signs of less tension and greater stability. This is not only in cross-straits relations but the wider region. Much, arguably, has to do with China.
Back in 2004, my friend and well-known analyst Dr Eric Teo recognised China’s growing influence and foresaw a future in which Asian states would be its tributaries, echoing an old pattern of peaceful regional hegemony. His views were controversial, and still are.
In contrast to a Sino-centred Asia, some hope for more equal relationships without any state dominating, or that the United States will continue to stabilise the region, as it has since the end of World War II.
Others agree that China is rising, but see this as an inevitable competition with the United States, Japan and India that may lead to tension and conflict. In contrast, while cautious of China’s power, Dr Teo believed it could indeed be a benevolent actor and a factor for peace. Sadly, he died last August, much too early. However, emerging events this year seem to support his argument.
In a number of developments, China has shown itself to be a regional influence and one that prefers peace and dialogue over conflict. Indeed, its actions have been a major factor for peace in North-east Asia. Last month, a deal was reached with Taiwan to reduce tensions and allow direct cross-straits flights and more visits by mainland tourists. New President Ma Ying Jeou from the Kuomintang (KMT) took a different stance from his predecessor Chen Shui Bian, who had been frozen out from dialogue with Beijing. In his inaugural speech, Mr Ma called for a “new era of cross-strait relations”.
But it was Beijing that played the major role by receiving visits from successive KMT chairmen Lien Chan in 2005 and Wu Pohhsiung after Mr Ma’s election victory. President Hu Jintao also agreed to formally meet Vice-President-elect Vincent Siew at the Boao Forum, China’s annual showcase. Such steps prepared the way for the deal last month. Yet, while it leaned towards Mr Ma, China managed, unlike past years, to avoid stirring up nationalist sentiments.
Relations between China and Japan have also improved. Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda visited Beijing last December. Former Japanese Premier Junichiro Koizumi’s visits to the Yasukuni shrine previously triggered five years of testy bilateral relations and a moratorium on high-level visits.
Again, China must be credited. Mr Hu’s visit to Tokyo in May this year was the first by a Chinese leader in 10 years. He and Mr Fukuda agreed that “long-term cooperation for peace and friendship” is “the only choice” left for the two countries.
A third longstanding regional issue has been North Korea. The possible nuclearisation of the Korean peninsula has been dealt with in a six-party framework, in which the US is the main inquisitor. Many, however, credit China with perhaps having the greatest influence on Pyongyang. Significantly, when North Korea agreed to submit an account of its nuclear programme, it was handed over to China.
It was also China which hosted the breakthrough talks last year that secured the initial agreement to offer North Korea energy, aid and diplomatic concessions in return for disabling its main nuclear facility and unveiling its past nuclear activities.
After decades of tension over historic divides and future ambitions, strident nationalism and potential nuclearisation, is peace coming to North-east Asia? And, in major part, is it a Chinese-led peace? It is premature to declare peace. Many more steps remain.
In Sino-Japanese ties, these range from the question of history text books to competition for resources and influence. While the reciprocal visits have normalised ties, there is as yet no real reconciliation. When China accepted Japanese assistance for its quake victims, an initial proposal to deploy Japanese self-defence force planes to deliver provisions was later turned down.
Similarly on Taiwan, while improvements can be expected, especially on economic ties, there are limitations. Mr Ma faces years of an inculcated Taiwanese identity. Beijing cannot risk being “soft” on Taipei, given its own nationalism.
North Korea’s account of its nuclear programme, which comes six months late, has been met with a guarded welcome from the US. Further delays and differences may be expected. Another factor is South Korea, where political protests have surged over perceptions that the new Lee government is too close to the US and too tough on its northern kin.
It may also be too much to suggest that it is a Chinese-led peace. The US remains a critical player, both directly and indirectly, with Tokyo and Taipei. But it is fitting to recognise the larger and more positive role that China has played, especially recently at a time when the Chinese have had to address the tragedy of their recent earthquake.
China has faced many criticisms over Tibet. It has, however, shown a different face in dealing with these sensitive cases, to promote stability as a foundation for peace.
Asians are not ready to be tributaries of China, as my late friend Dr Teo provocatively suggested. But more and more, we have to give tribute to the peaceful role this emerging giant is playing in the region.