China’s Difficult SummerA series of far-reaching setbacks for China’s leadership appears to open the door for foreign countries to start treating Taiwan with equanimity. Whether they will do so is a very different matter. But the door is open to change
The last few months have not been kind to China’s leaders. Things started going south for them in early August when the formerly fawning international commentariat widely panned them for a series of dubious moves on economic policy, including a botched attempt to bludgeon a falling stock market into submission and their hasty devaluation of the Renminbi. A further blow occurred the following month when the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) candidate for Taiwan’s president effectively imploded, pulling the rug out from under their longstanding strategy to take control of the island-nation. The bad electoral news accelerated for them in early October when China-skeptic Hillary Clinton solidified her lead for the Democratic Party presidential nomination in the U.S. and their own favorite — former Florida governor Jeb Bush — stumbled badly on the campaign trail. Then, later in the month, they really hit the skids. This happened after the U.S. Navy humiliatingly called their bluff in the South China Sea, demonstrating to all and sundry that they are not yet ready to play in the big leagues when it comes to the projection of offshore naval power.
Bad stuff, to be sure, all of it. But is there any meaning here for Taiwan? Of course there is. It is found in the ironclad fact that supposedly sagacious Chinese leaders have finally been revealed as far less than omnipotent — not only on Taiwan, but on other issues as well. This opens the door for foreign countries and other international actors to begin treating Taiwan with the equanimity it deserves. Whether they will do so of course is a very different matter. But the door is open to change.
Of all the Chinese setbacks, the one in the South China Sea is by far the most important. On Oct. 24 the U.S. guided missile cruiser Lassen sailed close to five islands off the Philippines coast that China has been dredging into existence as part of its program to impose its sovereignty in the area. The move followed months of serious Chinese saber-rattling, including repeated warnings that anyone with the temerity to test Chinese resolve on the islands issue would be subject to a “head-on blow” from the Chinese military.
So what did the Chinese do to respond to the Lassen’s supposedly provocative foray? The answer is: very close to nothing. The Chinese Defense Ministry limply averred that China expected the U.S. “to conscientiously handle China’s serious representations [and] immediately correct its mistake,” which by any objective yardstick, was not exactly a “head-on blow,” or for that matter, any other kind of blow either. Indeed, given that the U.S. will almost certainly begin to replicate its Lassen sail-by on a fairly regular basis, it was precisely the kind of humiliating climb down that China must surely avoid if it if it really wishes to scare its foreign interlocutors into believing its military and political might has now reached the point where no one can challenge it with impunity.
Aside from Lassen sail-bys, China should also be concerned about the flaccid impression its economic bungling has created within the international financial community, which more and more is jettisoning its once rock solid faith in the country’s economic future in favor of a far more skeptical viewpoint. Among other things this has been expressed in the community’s refusal to continue accepting the reliability of China’s economic statistics, including its still robust (though steadily declining) GDP figure. Combined with the humiliating Lassen climb down — not to mention the problems emanating from the Taiwan and U.S. electoral trends — all of this strongly suggests that rather than seeing China as some sort of unstoppable superpower juggernaut, the international community would be far better served seeing it for what it really is: a wounded behemoth struggling to work its way through deep-seated political and economic problems.
Unfortunately however, this has not yet happened. Relentlessly intimidated by Chinese threats of retribution if they somehow stray out of line on issues of interest to Beijing, too many otherwise self-respecting countries (and too many companies and financial institutions as well) shamelessly kowtow to China’s leaders when there is really no reason for them to do so. Nowhere is this more evident than on the question of Taiwan, which China has successfully branded as a wild-eyed renegade province, badly in need of early re-absorption into the welcoming bosom of the motherland. It may well be that many of them see this for the transparent fiction that it is, but at least in public, they continue to tow the Chinese line, fearing that to do otherwise, they will pay a heavy price for their supposed disrespect.
Given China’s still considerable power, it would probably be unrealistic to expect that this will change anytime soon, recent reverses or not. After all, China still has the second largest economy in the world, and its military is still robust enough to deal with all but the most powerful foreign adversaries. While many might wish it otherwise, it is still a force to be reckoned with.
That having been said, China’s long-term prospects are not nearly as bright as many people think they are. In almost every important category — political stability, economic performance, military readiness — it is facing serious problems. This has obvious implications for the international community, which up until now has treated China with a ridiculously outsized deference. The sooner it begins to realize just how wrong-headed on this it has been, the better it will be for everybody, including for the people of Taiwan, who surely deserve better from it, both now and in the future.
Peter Enav was head of The Associated Press bureau in Taiwan from April 2005 to April 2014.