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China’s Regional Relations – A “Provocative” Taiwan and Troubled Ties with Vietnam but Sino-Japanese Ties on the Rise?

Updated On: Dec 28, 2007

As 2007 draws to a close, the year’s end provides a preview of the upcoming challenge for China’s foreign policy.

Even at the end of the year, there is no reprieve for cross-straits relations as Taiwan’s outgoing President pushes ahead with a referendum for seeking UN membership despite warning that this move is deeply provocative.  The referendum is to be held at the same time as the upcoming presidential elections in March 2008.

The warning for Taiwan came from the highest levels by its closest and most important ally, the United States (US).  US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had called Taiwan's referendum on seeking UN membership a "provocative policy".  "It unnecessarily raises tensions in the Taiwan Strait and it comes with no real benefits for the people of Taiwan on the international stage. That is why we oppose this referendum," Rice said in Washington at a press conference.

However, Taiwan's outgoing President Chen Shui-bian rebuffed criticisms from the US that his move is deeply provocative and raised tensions with China.  "There is absolutely no provocative policy but only a policy that respects public opinions...It is not Taiwan that is acting provocative today, it is China," Chen said. "Taiwan is not a part of China or a province of the People's Republic of China. But China has adopted the 'anti-secession law' to provide a legal basis to use force against Taiwan and it currently targets Taiwan with more than 988 missiles," he added.

Democrat People’s Party (DPP) presidential hopeful Frank Hsieh stressed that the vote for the referendum was endorsed by more than two million Taiwanese people. "A great task is usually very difficult to accomplish and this is a test of the endurance and faith of the Taiwanese people," Hsieh said.

Opposition presidential candidate Ma Ying-jeou expressed concern for US-Taiwan ties if the DPP government continues with the vote. "The US has repeatedly voiced its concerns over the DPP's referendum plan...Taiwan-US ties are faced with a huge impact which we cannot afford to underestimate," said Ma of the main opposition Kuomintang (KMT). "If the US deems Taiwan provocative, if would be negative in terms of (maintaining) Taiwan's security in the future," he warned.

The other challenge that China is managing at the year’s end is with Vietnam. A war of words between China and Vietnam over a disputed chain of islands in the South China Sea intensified with Beijing’s announcement that an anti-China protest in Hanoi had damaged bilateral ties. “Things happened in Vietnam recently which damaged the relationship between the two countries,” foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang told reporters after two recent demonstrations outside the Chinese embassy in Hanoi and consulate in Ho Chi Minh City. “We hope the Vietnam government takes effective measures to control the situation in order to avoid damaging the relationship,” he said.

Several hundred Vietnamese staged rare public demonstrations near the Chinese Embassy in Hanoi to protest China’s claim over the uninhabited but potentially resource-rich Spratly and Paracel islands afterChina’s legislature recently ratified a plan to create a symbolic administrative region called Sansha to manage three archipelagos, including the Paracels and the Spratlys. The protest started December 9 afterChina set up a county level government unit which covers 2.6 million square kilometres, mostly ocean, including the disputed isles.

“We want to send a message first to China: that the Vietnamese people are brave and undaunted,” the event’s organizer, who declined to be identified, told RFA’s Vietnamese service.  “Second, we want to tell our own government that it must share information with the Vietnamese people. We found out about this most recent dispute with China over the Spratlys and Paracels only through overseas media,” he said.

Stirring up further anger with Beijing, Nguyen Thanh Tai, leader of the Communist Party Youth League in Hanoi, met with protesters and told them that there was “no doubt” that the Spratlys and Paracels belonged to Vietnam. “You have shown your heart to the country,” he told them, adding that he would order the Youth League to “form a group” to join with them in the demonstrations. Another issue likely to stir up Beijing’s unhappiness is that the demonstrators, mostly university students, chanted “Down with China” and “Long Live Vietnam” and the fact that Vietnamese police let the protest continue for about an hour before breaking it up.

Before Beijing had simmered down after the first rally, a second one broke out. About 300 demonstrators in the capital Hanoi and 100 in the southern hub of Ho Chi Minh City were prevented from rallying outside the embassy and consulate of China by hundreds of police. The groups of protesters, most of them students, marched through the centre of the capital, shouting anti-Chinese slogans and singing patriotic songs in the latest display of anger over the long-simmering dispute.

While China is managing its relations with Taiwan gingerly along with Washington’s aligned worldview and with Vietnam, it is gearing up for what is perhaps the most important and groundbreaking visit by the Prime Minister of its most important East Asian neighbour – Japan. Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda is known to place importance on Asian diplomacy, especially with Japan's relations with China.

China is placing great premium on this visit as the new Chinese ambassador to Japan welcomed this in his first news conference in Tokyo, ahead of Mr Fukuda's trip to China later this month and Chinese President Hu Jintao's planned visit to Japan in 2008. Cui Tiankai, Chinese Ambassador to Japan, says: "Sino-Japan ties faced difficulties during the past few years. We have overcome this. Both our countries' common hope is to stabilise ties in the long run. During Prime Minister Fukuda's trip to China and President Hu Jintao's trip to Japan, we hope the top leaders will exchange views on the future of bilateral ties."

A shorter term purpose of the visit is for Fukuda to take up the dispute over gas exploration rights in the East China Sea — a long-standing obstacle in Japan-China ties — and urge China to make a political decision to compromise. Hopes are not high on this but the symbolic act of raising the issue at such high levels has the purpose of giving the settlement process some impetus. Many politicians on both sides are realistic about resolving this issue and urge reality check on the process.

For example, trade minister Akira Amari said it will be hard for Japan and China to reach any agreement on the issue during Fukuda's trip. "I feel there is extremely little likelihood (of reaching an agreement) when the prime minister visits China," Amari said. "If we are to reach an accord during talks between national leaders, it is necessary to have (our) differences almost completely resolved at working-level talks. We have yet to reach that stage."

Other issues on the agenda include the nuclear drive of North Korea, climate change and environmental cooperation. (27 November 2007)

Sources:

Taiwan's presidential candidates jostle to win Japan's crucial backing (Japan Times, 22 Dec 2007)

Japanese PM Fukuda's trip to China to stabilise ties in the long run (Channelnewsasia, 21 Dec 2007)

Fukuda's point of no return (Japan Times, 21 Dec 2007)

Fukuda to visit Beijing on Dec. 27; no East China Sea progress expected (Japan Times, 19 Dec 2007)

ChinaJapan prepare for Japanese PM's visit (People’s Daily, 18 Dec 2007)

Vietnamese in second anti-China rally over disputed islands (Herald Sun, 16 Dec 2007)

Tensions Rise Over South China Sea Islands (Radio Free Asia13 Dec 2007)