Written by Ian Inkster.
Image credit: 外務省/ Facebook.
Liz Truss led her charge into Taiwan on 16 May with the notion of Britain backing a Taiwan move to join the Pacific trade block, the CPTPP, against the present neutral position of the British Tory government under Rishi Sunak. This immediately provoked the Chinese to label her ‘sinister’. The point being that this was merely a Trussian wedge into her major provocation, that there is a ‘fatalism in the free world that somehow a Chinese takeover of Taiwan is inevitable’. Dangerously, Truss seems to have failed utterly (and almost certainly deliberately) to distinguish commercial and political, even military, aggressions, and to that extent, the danger of such an intervention should, of course, be noted.
If we are to consider the distinctions between soft, commercial, and hard power as of some use in analysing our world, the corollary is to acknowledge distinctions between soft, commercial, and hard aggression, and not to fall into any trap that takes American logic into its present blending of them into an increasingly messy anti-Chinese perspective. Within the G7, France at least seems to see this distinction as vital, and Sunak may follow this more clearly in the coming months. The G7 as a whole has formulated some idea of ‘derisking’, but how far that remains or moves beyond rhetoric is problematic, to say the least. In the last week, Sunak’s public pronouncements in the G7 have, if anything, somewhat hardened, and the Chinese will be hearing this much louder than the Truss calls from Taiwan. Hopefully, Taiwanese government leaders are well aware of this level of distinction.
Nancy Pelosi and other supposedly significant Taiwan provocations turned out slender and of little long-term impact except amongst a few non-elected executives in the White House and various shadowy denizens of Washington more generally. The same can already be said of Liz Truss, for her visit immediately fell on the stormy political waves of Ukraine, and the G7 meeting in Hiroshima and the likely more telling news of the defence pact between Britain and Japan planned as a significant boost to British military strength in the Asia Pacific region and proposed alongside new plans for semiconductor partnership. All this is of direct interest to both China and Taiwan. Sunak has now advocated ‘bold and pragmatic collective action’ against nations going against IMF and G7 policies on political grounds whilst ignoring precisely that interchange when it is in reverse.
In terms of China’s present global trajectory, such issues are of far more danger to both sides of what is now being seen as a new cold war, far greater the likely causes of externally provoked behaviour in the near future, than specific visits and irritations from individual political publicists such as Liz Truss and Nancy Pelosi. However, what might be emphasised here is that such random walks are a sign of the increasing loss of safe diplomatic trajectories amongst the leading powers. However much diplomats bever away to soften, resolve and placate, the political manipulators – including the Presidents and the Prime Ministers – are more likely to throw such plans into disarray at a moment’s notice, indeed often seemingly without warning at all.
As in Britain, the cries of such individuals are most often not supported by their fellow party colleagues and in this case are perhaps more likely to spur politics in Taiwan than in China. For China, the difficulties associated with global trust must seem to be growing fast, and this is surely true for the views of many politicians and peoples around the world. The seeming assumption in the Western media that the globe is in accord on such NATO/western perspectives as escalating the arming of Ukraine, on anti-Chinese commercial and political strategies, and so on, is not warranted.
The Ukraine war has, in fact, allowed neutral nations to negotiate improved commercial deals, and European nations certainly recognise that Africa, with its increasing share of Chinese commercial activity, South America, and key players in the Indo-Pacific, including India itself, have contrary perspectives that centre upon their own commercial and development needs.
Secondly, we must hope that the Chinese continue to separate political rhetoric originating mostly in the need of the present and past US regimes to maintain a quiescent civil society at home in the face of a mess of domestic policy pottage, from the underlying commercial tensions throughout a post-endemic world startled by the Russian attack on Ukraine. The position of Taiwan lies centrally in this potent flux, and requires a strong DPP governance to sustain the major positions – a maintenance of status-quo through this ruckus and a continued attachment to the economy’s major sources of growth, which are the crucial foreign trade and high tech linkage, with trading parties as widely located as possible and most certainly including what will be a China growing faster than the other major nations.
No Taiwanese government at present should possibly be thinking in terms of choosing between increasingly aggressive sides in a new cold war – Taiwan must, with other sensible places, maintain a distinction between commercial antagonism and military aggression, and I am suggesting they may well be in the global majority on this. Perspectives of the West are not perspectives of the globe. The debate on semiconductors and high-tech trade with Taiwan is a sure indication that the USA will be protecting its economic interests rather than Taiwan’s ‘national’ interest, when real choice has to be made; else, why not plan now for a move towards Taiwan-USA cooperation located more in Taiwan than in the USA? A more normal, low-risk world could surely live with Taiwan in the midst of a complexity of component high-tech in which both China and the USA are productively involved. There is no actual zero-sum there. But we live in neither moderation nor modesty at present.
Most everything else that complicates this stems from an American regime that continues to attempt to minimise its internal economic and social problems by avoiding hard home economic policy and directing its media and civilian attention towards fears of the seemingly unknown and foreign. An underlying simple fact is that the 2014-19 percentage rates of annual growth of GDP amounted to 2.4 for the USA, 1.9 for the Euro area [19 members], 3.4 for the world at large; as against 6.7 for both China and India. The large US national debt is increasingly owned by the two giants of East Asia, Japan, and China, one stridently capitalist, the other correspondingly communist. Her biggest foreign traders remain her border nations of her own continent, Mexico, and Canada. The imbalances and contradictions of a petrified political economy are surely obvious and must mark a world in a fractious transition. The global problem behind the Western rhetoric is the failure of US productivity and growth and the resulting inability for either Republicans or Democrats to grasp the prickly nettles of good domestic policy and reasonable foreign policy.
As worrying, whilst world estimates of measures of economic freedom derived from research institutes and think tanks located within the USA itself (including annual data from the Conservative Heritage Foundation and the Central Intelligence Agency, both Washington) show a certain world constancy through the global troubles and high-risk period since 2020, the levels for the USA have declined significantly whilst China has remained stable although of course at a lower level.
And what of Taiwan in the region without the help of Liz Truss? Given the ambiguity of the USA concerning the CPTPP, I would continue to suggest more effort be put into an associate membership of the newer RCEP, signed by video conference on 15 November 2020. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, initiated by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), included the ten members of ASEAN—Brunei-Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. But it added the six countries with which ASEAN has free-trade agreements—Australia, China, India, Japan, Korea, and New Zealand. India dropped out for technical trade reasons, leaving a total of 15 members. This may well become more penetrable for Taiwan once the global system passes through the present heat wave of abrupt aggressions.
It is clearly unfortunate that Taiwan is excluded from this group because of Chinese opposition and possibly because of its non-nation status. The latter fact makes it easier for otherwise quite disinterested nations to agree with Chinese opinion. The irony, of course, is found in the political economy rather than the political ideology – China is by far Taiwan’s biggest trading partner.
Given the natural economic advantage that Taiwan could argue as being the fundamental reason for joining, then the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ position that RCEP membership involves too much ‘practical difficulty’ might at least be questioned and returned to. If the RCEP is to follow its own opening statements about ‘commitment to economic recovery’ and, ‘an open, inclusive, rules-based set of trade and investment agreements,’ it surely is the time to come back to this, especially as the much bigger case of India shall be under debate in the next months.
If we are right in our analysis that growth of trade will be paramount from now on, then Taiwan exports represent 63% of its economy compared to 29% for the world at large and 12% for the US, 30% for the UK, 43% for South Korea, and 47% for Germany. Expanding trade with the large traders of RCEP seems to be the best strategic option for growth through a new opening of the world economy. Three of Taiwan’s major trading partners are leading RCEP members, potentially themselves on the verge of a new and hopeful partnership (China, Japan, and South Korea). There is a contrast between Western media noise and global processes.
Taiwan has performed remarkably as both a society and in the economy during the COVID months. For this reason alone, it is in a much better position than most nations to begin full recovery. This will be better attained through the new world trading system that is beginning to form. But this – in turn – depends on a combination of sound economic guidance and a process of international diplomacy (more stable in the post-Trump years) that depends less on public rhetoric than on determined, rational persuasion.
Perhaps in a somewhat cooler world of a continuing China-Taiwan status quo, the business of Taiwan’s membership in regional economic growth and trading blocs can be considered without provoking Chinese condemnation. Joining either the CPTPP or the perhaps more useful RCEP requires no help from Truss. It requires some overall quiet in a world where risks can be estimated and reduced, a return to diplomacy amongst key Western nations, particularly the United States. In turn, a good step forward would be for Taiwan to request special status membership of important groupings in its region rather than to leap into a position that forces contradictions between such memberships and the greater question of national recognition and independence. Fight the battles that can be won.
Professor Ian Inkster is a global historian and political economist at the Center of Taiwan Studies, SOAS, University of London, and a Senior Fellow in the Taiwan Studies Programme at the University of Nottingham, UK. Previous work includes authorship of thirteen books on global dynamics and history, focusing on industrial and technological development, and the editorship of History of Technology since 2000. Forthcoming books are Distraction Capitalism: The World Since 1971 and Invasive Technology and Indigenous Frontiers. Case Studies of Accelerated Change in History with David Pretel. Contact: twitter@inksterian.
This article was published as part of a special issue on ‘Liz Truss’ visit to Taiwan‘.