Friday, May 13, 2005
We in the west – despite our ritualistic advocacy of democracy – do appreciate the decision by Beijing officials to clamp down on the anti-Japan protests, clear out the streets, order people to leave the incendiary anti-Tokyo chat rooms, and cease acting as if China were some sort of genuine democracy where real political demonstrations are freely allowed.
The truth is that, for a while there, we in the west were getting uncomfortable. It was beginning to look as if East Asia was pretty much the same old place – an ancient land of such intense national hatreds that true stability and prosperity were just an illusion. Would another war in Asia be just around the corner?
Perhaps that looks less probable now. My own guess is that nothing serious will actually occur until after 2008. Why is 2008 so special? A couple of obvious reasons come to mind. First, Beijing is to host the summer Olympics that year. This may be the biggest deal to come along for China in its effort to relate like a normal country to the outside world.
It represents a gem of an international public-relations opportunity for Beijing, assuming that it handles the complicated staging with competence; there are no wars in the way at the time; the mainland has not invaded Taiwan; and relations with its neighbours are at least civilised, if not all warm and cosy.
Thus, it is necessary for Beijing to keep tensions and everything else under control so that China can present its best and nicest face to the world between now and 2008.
There is a second reason why 2008 is so significant to Beijing. This is the year that incumbent Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian has to leave office. Like American presidents, he is limited to two terms. Beijing thinks of Mr Chen about as fondly as US President George W. Bush thinks of Osama bin Laden.
Beijing is betting the house that Mr Chen’s would-be successor, a candidate from the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, will not get elected. It would do almost anything to see that happen. And so Beijing is planning its 2008 campaign against the DPP.
The past few weeks have seen more visits of prominent Taiwan politicians to the mainland since … well, since ever. Beijing appears to have decided that if it cannot beat the DPP the way that Mr Bush toppled Saddam Hussein – by invasion – it will beat Mr Chen the way that the late, legendary former Chicago mayor, Richard Daley, used to keep control – by trying to rig the election.
Beijing will befriend anyone who does not belong to Mr Chen’s pro-independence party. It will do whatever it can to isolate the DPP in the same way that it has isolated Taiwan in the world community.
What this means is that Beijing will probably seek to give less priority to any issue that has the ability to lead to friction with anyone who might want to help the Taiwan independence movement. Possible pro-independence fans of the first order are right-wing sectors of Japan that retain ties to the island. These elements have money, they hate the mainland and they would love to kick up a little dust with Beijing.
These groups must be closely watched by the Japanese government, led by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. These are the people who have the kind of reverence for the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo that conservative Catholics have for the Curia (the papal court).
In fact, if you were President Hu Jintao , you might even calculate that Mr Koizumi’s visits to the shrine, which honours Japan’s dead from the second world war – including war criminals – are actually in China’s strategic interest, however morally repugnant they are in Beijing. Anything that strengthens Mr Koizumi’s hand with his hardcore right wing is a plus for China.
Tom Plate, a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy, is the founder of the Asia-Pacific Media Network.
Copyright the UCLA Media Centre