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11/04/2007 | China: The Continued Rise of the 'Responsible Stakeholder'

Stratfor Staff

Taiwan's opposition Kuomintang elected Wu Poh-hsiung as its new chairman April 7, replacing former Chairman Ma Ying-jeou, who resigned amid accusations of corruption.

 

Immediately following the election, Chinese President and Communist Party of China Chairman Hu Jintao sent congratulations to Wu, while Chinese state media reported matter-of-factly about Wu's election. Beijing's response to Wu's accession is part of the ongoing shift in how China manages Taiwan, and reflects deeper tactical changes in China's overall foreign-relations strategy.

Taiwan's main opposition Kuomintang (KMT) elected Wu Poh-hsiung as its new chairman April 7, replacing former KMT Chairman (and current presidential candidate) Ma Ying-jeou, who resigned in February after being indicted on corruption charges. Wu's election was greeted with congratulations from Communist Party of China (CPC) Chairman (and Chinese President) Hu Jintao. In response, Wu pledged to uphold the April 29, 2005, consensus reached by the CPC and KMT, which calls for cross-Strait dialogue and economic cooperation, as well as a cessation of hostilities between the two sides.

The cordial messages flowing between the CPC and KMT -- something that, before a few years ago, had not been seen since the united front days that ended in the early 1940s -- are part of a shift in Beijing's management of Taiwan. China is attempting to use dialogue and rewards rather than threats and punishment to keep Taipei from abandoning the status quo and moving toward formal independence. From Beijing's economic offerings to Taiwan to its regularized dialogue with the KMT and its offshoot, the People First Party (PFP), Beijing is pursuing a more internationally acceptable -- or at least more public relations-friendly -- path toward influencing the upcoming Taiwanese legislative and presidential elections. This pattern extends beyond Taiwan as China seeks a more active and less confrontational manner of exerting political influence throughout the world.

In early 2004, as Taiwan prepared for a presidential election that would ultimately bring the Democratic Progressive Party's (DPP) Chen Shui-bian back for a second term, Beijing began taking a much gentler tack in dealing with Taiwan. Rather than the saber-rattling of the 1990s, Beijing signaled that it was less interested in who the next president would be than in what the next president would do. Internal competition inside the CPC and the top Chinese leadership led to a series of statements in late 2003 effectively threatening Taiwan not to do anything that could be perceived as a move toward independence -- including holding a referendum. But as Hu solidified his control and policies, and as the ineffectiveness and counterproductiveness of the threats became obvious, there was a pronounced change in the rhetoric coming from Beijing.

During the following years, although there was the occasional outburst from Beijing when it was provoked by Chen or when it felt it needed a domestic shot of nationalism (like the 2005 anti-secessionist law, which seemed rather watered-down in its final form), the Chinese government generally adopted a cooperative approach with Taipei -- or, more accurately, with the opposition KMT and PFP.

In a two-prong approach, Beijing courted the KMT and PFP, hosting delegations from both parties and announcing during these visits new economic and social concessions for Taiwan. These included the opening of Chinese markets to Taiwanese agriculture, which undercut some of the farming support-base for Chen and the DPP. The KMT and PFP, in turn, used these concessions to show the Taiwanese business community how beneficial the parties could be for Taiwan's economic future. And with the trade surplus between Taiwan and China reaching $107.84 billion in 2006, Taiwanese businesses are eager to maintain the status quo and continue reaping the profits from business deals with China.

While Beijing wooed the KMT, PFP, Taiwanese farmers and the business community, it also criticized Chen and the DPP for trying to throw a wrench into economic relations and stability in East Asia. In essence, Beijing painted any Chen move toward independence or a Taiwanese identity as an attempt to undercut the economic prosperity of Taiwan, based on its trade and investment relationship with China. To top it off, Chen's actions could always spark a military confrontation.

The latest message of congratulations from Hu to Wu is a continuation of this two-pronged policy, as are Beijing's comments to academics and think-tanks around the world that China is afraid Taiwan will move toward independence this year. These messages are being sent to Washington through official and unofficial channels in an attempt to paint Taipei -- not Beijing -- as the potential destabilizer, as well as the real security threat to East Asia. China hopes to convince Washington and other Taipei allies to rein in Chen and reshape the playing field as Taiwan heads toward elections.

But China's new diplomatic approach is not limited to its relations with Taiwan. Beijing has taken a much less confrontational approach toward the United States since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and has been particularly pleased to see what it reads as Washington's shifting attitude toward the kinder, more helpful China. Both former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick and U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson have backed the "responsible stakeholder" approach to dealing with Beijing -- offering China the international political recognition it desires in return for Chinese influence in areas where Washington has little leverage, such as North Korea, Myanmar and Zimbabwe.

And China is starting to play along, albeit slowly and with minimal impact thus far. In addition to increasing its participation in U.N. peacekeeping operations, China is beginning to publicly pressure (if ever so slightly) the likes of North Korea -- and, more recently, Sudan, where Chinese envoy Zhai Jun called on the government to be more "flexible" regarding a U.N. plan to send peacekeepers into the troubled Darfur region. Beijing's public (though minor) chastisement of its ally in Khartoum is just the latest in a number of small steps designed to show the United States how useful and friendly China can be as an international partner -- rather than a competitor or opponent.

But, as in its relations with Taiwan, China always makes sure to let Washington know it is prepared to take a harder-line approach if necessary. China's January anti-satellite missile test was a small but significant reminder that, despite China's lagging military technology, it still has the ability to hurt the United States if Washington decides to interfere militarily in Chinese affairs. Yet, even this event was quickly turned by China into a call for international cooperation on bans of space-based weapons, in another effort to paint Beijing as the internationalist rather than an international antagonist.

For now, Beijing is satisfied with the results of its kinder, gentler approach. China is quietly expanding its international influence, and wants to ensure that its growing involvement in energy and extractive industries in Africa and Latin America, for example, does not backfire and draw the same negative attention U.S. or European actions have drawn. For China, a more active global role has brought the need for new policies of interaction. And, for now, China's policy is to portray itself as nonthreatening, nonconfrontational and cooperative. So long as this continues to allow China to achieve its goals, Beijing will avoid too large a show of force. But, as with the anti-secessionist law, Beijing is still dealing with internal factions, and this -- perhaps more than anything else -- has the potential to derail the continued rise of the "responsible stakeholder."

Stratfor (Estados Unidos)

 


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