Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Article - Pragmatism trumps ideology

By Peter Kwong (IHT)
Wednesday, July 2, 2008

During the past few weeks, while the eyes of the world were focused on the Sichuan earthquake, Asia was shaken by events of even greater magnitude: China's rapprochement with her two longtime hostile neighbors, Taiwan and Japan. This new spirit of pragmatism is promising to reshape the political dynamics in the Pacific Rim region for many years to come.

In mid-May, Ma Ying-jeou was elected president of Taiwan in a landslide, on a platform of improving ties with China. His first act as president was to dispatch Wu Poh-hsiung, chairman of the Nationalist Party, to meet with the Chinese Communist Party chairman, Hu Jintao. It was a historic encounter between the top officials from two parties that were bitter rivals for most of the 20th century.

The two leaders agreed to begin commercial flights between Taiwan and the Chinese mainland, so that tourists and businessmen can travel without having to go through third countries. The real purpose of the rapprochement is to release the direct economic exchange across the Taiwan Straits from the high pressure-cooker environment of military confrontation.

This breakthrough was remarkable considering that just a month earlier Taiwan's ex-president Chen Shui-bian, leader of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, was pushing for the passage of a constitution that would legitimize Taiwan's independence, and petitioning for a referendum on the island's entry into the United Nations under the name "Taiwan." Chen's stance provoked threats from the People's Republic of China to use force to invade the island. And Chen's rhetoric has been blamed by many for the island's economic slowdown.

President Ma Ying-jeou's approach is to set politics aside and focus on trade and investment. He has proposed measures to ease the limits on Taiwan's industrial investment in China and open Taiwan to Chinese investment and real-estate development. The island's regulatory authorities are planning to enable currency convertibility between Taiwan and China, and allow Taiwan's brokerage firm clients to invest in the China's stock market.

There is much at stake. China is Taiwan's biggest trading partner and favorite destination. Taiwan is already deeply enmeshed in China's trade networks and supply chains. An estimated 1 million Taiwanese now live and work on the mainland. Taiwanese companies have tied their fortunes to China and invested some $150 billion in factories making electronics, toys, and textiles and real estate projects, ranging from hotels to apartment complexes, extending across the coastline from Guangdong to Shanghai. Many believe that a détente would accelerate economic growth even more as long as there is an understanding of maintaining the status quo - Taiwan won't raise the issue of "independence" and mainland China won't push for "unification."

For 60 years, the United States has played the role of protector of Taiwan as a separate entity from mainland China. Since the Cold War, Taiwan has been a critical security partner of the United States - and her close allies Japan, South Korea, Canada and Australia - in containing China. Taiwan's current bilateral approach with China threatens the stability of this alliance. But, as Taiwan's top China negotiator points out, it neither threatens the United States nor stability in the region.

Japan has evidently come to the same conclusion, reaching an agreement with China over exploration of offshore gas fields located in the East China Sea - an area that Japan until now considered its exclusive economic zone, which led to numerous naval confrontations between the two countries. Now they have decided to ignore matters of sovereignty and pursue cooperation and mutual benefit.

In today's Asia, economic pragmatism trumps ideological divisions. Globalization, long championed by the United States, has pushed the Cold War mentality of military alliances into obsolescence. Even the United States, with its litany of complaints over domestic human right abuses, Tibet and Darfur, keeps its economic ties with China developing unabated. Since 2000, U.S. exports to China have risen 400 percent and Chinese exports to the United States have tripled.

Even if it wants to carry on dictating the Cold War strategic agenda in the Pacific, Washington is so bogged down in the Middle East that it is hardly in the position to do so. Ideologically, Abu Ghraib and domestic surveillance have pretty much disqualified the United States from lecturing the China on democracy. But ironically, Taiwan can teach China a thing or two.

Starting in 1949 as a one-party dictatorship under Chiang Kai-shek, Taiwan has transformed itself over half a century to a multiparty democracy. According to a Freedom House report, in the two main categories of political rights and civil liberties, Taiwan is a "free country" on par with the United States and Japan, and in the subcategory of freedom of speech and religion, it receives the highest possible score.

Closer ties between China and Taiwan could expose the Chinese people to multiparty democratic ideas, and certainly to a tolerance of political diversity.

Who knows? This may lead to a future federation of China as "one country, several systems" with Hong Kong and Taiwan, and even Tibet involved.

Peter Kwong, a professor of Asian American studies at Hunter College, is co-author of "Chinese America: The Untold Story of America's Oldest New Community." Distributed by Agence Global.

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