THIS TOM PLATE COLUMN APPEARS COURTESY OF THE SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST, WHERE IT FIRST APPEARED 9 NOVEMBER: China’s new focused diplomacy, as viewed in an off-balance U.S., is close to remarkable. After all the past foreign-policy fog, through which it was sometimes hard to see where Beijing stood, we now have the Xi Jinping road show taking all sorts of stands at all sorts of splashy stops. It is an amazement of activity. Today in the U.S., there may be almost as many think tanks, from Washington to Santa Monica, trying to parse Xi’s new chess moves as pollsters tracking our many presidential candidates!
In recent weeks, you saw China’s president in the U.S., addressing its business best and richest, then bopping to D.C, for formal state visit, etc.; in London, hobnobbing with the Queen, then all but being knighted by seal-the-deal Brits; then Xi quick-stepping and happy-speaking in Hanoi (people there clapping not so loud); and in Singapore, shaking hand to hand, meeting mister-to-mister, with Taiwan’s leader, all in seeming respect.
Activity is not the same thing as achievement, of course. You can trot around the globe until your eardrums feel permanently popped and yet wind up with little more to show for it other than yet more frequent-flier miles and business cards. Personal diplomacy that’s solely personal won’t go sticky unless a nation’s core interests are behind the smiles. China’s president and his glamorous wife Peng Liyuan, as much as they may relish the high life of first-class travel, are on a serious, if sometimes entertaining, mission to hike China’s diplomacy to the next level.
Geopolitically speaking, the Taiwan impasse is one of the toughest on the diplomatic discord list, as it is the declared core interest of the People’s Republic of China to lure, or compel, Taiwan to accept the sovereignty of Beijing. Maybe half the people on the substantial island of Taiwan oppose integration, and maybe the other half support it – as (no maybes here) do countless Mainland inhabitants, hoping for a kind of ‘come-home-again’ sequel to the unforgettable 1997 Hong Kong hand-back.
Since 2008, Taipei and Beijing have been not getting into one another’s hair, all things considered. One plus has been the Obama administration’s inclination to keep its nose mainly out of it – and our annoyingly preachy voice mainly down. That has helped a lot: U.S. diplomacy is sometimes best when publicly it says least (we are not always good at this). A related plus was the programmatic pragmatism of the greatly under-appreciated President Ma Ying-jeou. Taking office in 2008, and immediately seeking out trade, tourism and other easy connections, Ma managed to downplay the icy-dicey stuff, particularly the fraught matter of sovereignty. But in Taiwan’s politics, as so often in life, no good deed tends to go unpunished for long: Ma can expect to leave next year after two terms with pitiful public-opinion ratings – and the probability of his presidency ignominiously falling into the hands of the opposition whose independence party platform places Taipei directly at odds with Beijing and could try to undo everything Ma has achieved.
China President Xi would love to see his Singapore handshake somehow scare up the necessary votes to help Ma’s Kuomintang party. Ah, but Beijing’s track record is not good: the Mainland’s last run at Taiwan voters, by un-subtly shooting off rockets in the island’s very general direction before the 1996 election, only insured a romp for the very candidate Beijing loathed. Xi’s weekend play in Singapore was far more subtle and statesmanlike, and commendable. Beyond the January election, which every expert says is lost to the anti-integration opposition (and Xi knows this too), the Chinese president has now laid down a minimum standard of cross-strait diplomatic conduct – and one of his own making. Hold back no applause: Sure, it’s a charm offensive, no question. But it could help.
Regarding speculation that Xi timed the pulling of the Singapore rabbit out of his hat in anticipation of the Taiwan election: maybe. But it’s just as possible the Chinese are focused on the unfolding American election. Taiwan has been a campaign issue in the U.S. before, notably in 1960 when Quemoy (Kinmen) and Matsu came up. Taiwan could come up again, but Xi’s extension of respect to the leader of Taiwan puts his government in better position to claim its rise remains peaceful, even over this issue. The “one-minute handshake”, as dubbed by the media, produced photos from Singapore’s Shangri-La Hotel that offered a lot better image of China than missile tantrums.
In 2002 then Chinese Vice President Hu Jintao bluntly warned America: “If any trouble occurs on the Taiwan question, it would be difficult for China-U.S. relations to move forward, and a retrogression may even occur.” Everyone knows that U.S. military backing of Taiwan annoys Beijing no end, but Xi’s decision to shake that off, for the time being anyhow, suggests that quality relations with the U.S. remains the higher priority. The Democratic Progressive Party may well triumph in January, but Beijing is placing the bet that if China-U.S. relations do deteriorate over new Taiwan tensions, the fault will be seen to rest with neither Xi nor Ma’s party, but with people inside Taiwan who refuse to accept the reality of the 21st century.
In fact, Tsai Ing-wen, DPP opposition leader, actually condemned the Xi-Ma meeting. This is unconscionable. China’s rise proceeds apace, whether you like it or not. Everyone has to adjust positions accordingly – and preferably peacefully. No one will get everything they want.
Columnist and Asia Media International Founder Tom Plate, the Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, is the author of the book ‘In the Middle of China’s Future’ and the “Giants of Asia’ book series.