And the walls around China come down

Asia Times

BEIJING - It might well have been a simple coincidence, but even coincidences have their role in history, and often they are very important.

All Chinese newspapers flashed on their front page on Tuesday the picture of Japanese premier Junichiro Koizumi bowing to a wreath of flowers at the Marco Polo bridge in Beijing where the Japanese attacked the Chinese in 1937, starting the invasion of China. Koizumi expressed his "heartfelt remorse and apology" [daoqian, the same word China demanded but did not receive from the US over the EP3 "spy" plane that landed on Hainan island on April 1] for the invasion and "the millions of Chinese killed in the wartime aggression". President Jiang Zemin called Koizumi's gesture "meaningful" and these two events - the Japanese statement and the Chinese response - could well signal a new turn in bilateral relations.

In a separate development on October 5, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co (TSMC), the world's largest contract microchip maker and in more than one way the very flesh and blood of Taiwan's industrial world, announced that it had officially opened an office in Beijing. It was a significant, even if symbolic, step in the re-unification process.

In other words, China is making significant inroads in softening relations with antagonists to its east. A relationship of new trust could be built with Japan and the trend drawing Taiwan to the mainland is possibly gaining speed.

The bombing of Afghanistan to China's west seems to provide Beijing with a good opportunity to make use these new windows opening to the east. The "China threat" theory has been shelved for the time being at least, and there is more than one kind of collaboration going on between China and the US. This weakens the idea that Taiwan could rely heavily on the US to stop the drift toward unification.

There is a historical precedent for that. Nixon's trip to China in 1972 created the first conditions that eventually lead to the normalization of ties with the US in 1979 and that left Taiwan more isolated. Certainly the new US-China collaboration won't mean that Washington will forsake Taiwan, as in the '70s the recognition of the People's Republic went together with the Taiwan Act that bound the US to protecting the island.

However, all that occurred at a time when no bilateral economic force was at work. Now the political pressure on Taiwan is even more significant as industries are looking forward to developing the potentially huge mainland market and when young Taiwanese professionals dream of a well paid job in Shanghai. In a way, each bomb dropped by the US on Afghanistan - an action that receives approval, albeit wishy-washy, from Beijing - tells the Taiwanese government the US has less of a stake in defending Taiwan.

Furthermore, there is the sandwich argument. The US has a presence in the east in Japan, Korea and Taiwan. Now it is also in the west; in Pakistan, where its re-entry was also facilitated by China, and it will be in Afghanistan and in some of the ex-Soviet Central Asian republics. It could turn out that, in return for China's support for the US bombing in Afghanistan, China gets squeezed by the US on both sides. This simple prospect could well destabilize the political environment in China, where anti-Americanism could be played up to oppose the on-going political reforms motivated by Jiang's theory of the Three Representatives.

But this is not happening. What is taking place seems to be very different: a possible crumbling of the potential wall of containment around China. Japan's new overtures are fundamental because they open the possibility of a strong partnership between the two largest economies in the region. Such a partnership could re-launch the faltering Asian economies and give a ray of hope to stagnating Japan.

On its west, China is keeping good relations with Pakistan and is trying to further mend fences with India. Moreover, in the following months it is possible that Beijing could come up with some form of deeper involvement in Afghanistan that could give it a say in a future Afghanistan settlement.

Thus, the Afghan war and the meeting between Jiang and Koizumi are contributing to shaping a new political geography of Asia, where the US presence is broadened but not at the expenses of China, which is no longer considered a threat.

Of course, this will come true only if Pakistan holds firm and is not destabilized by internal pro-Taliban forces. If that were to occur, it would be an altogether different ballgame for everybody. (2001-10-10 Asia Times)


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