ASEAN wary of change in status quo in Taiwan strait

Taiwanese flags are seen as tourists walk past in Taiwan’s Kinmen islands on August 11, 2022. (Photo by Sam Yeh / AFP)

For years ASEAN has benefited from its ambiguous relations with Taiwan, while enjoying formal ties with mainland China. But the ongoing tensions in the Taiwan Strait might create a new normal that could affect the status quo of the regional geo-political landscape, Thai scholars said at a recent seminar.

Beijing apparently wanted to encircle Taiwan to block the free flow of goods and services. This has been worrying for East and Southeast Asia, they said at a seminar hosted by Chulalongkorn University’s Institute of Asian Studies (ISA) on August 11.

Professor Ukrist Pathmanand of the ISA said ASEAN countries should heed the warning of Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsein Loong who said that the situation was unlikely to improve soon and any miscalculation or mishap could easily aggravate matters.

ASEAN foreign ministers, at their annual meeting early this month in Phnom Penh, issued a statement voicing concerns over the threat of regional volatility. They called for maximum restraint and urged the parties to refrain from provocative action. The regional grouping said it stood ready to play a constructive role in facilitating a peaceful dialogue between all parties, including through utilizing ASEAN-led mechanisms to de-escalate tension, to safeguard peace and security.

However, the ASEAN Regional Forum, a consultative body for security matters, of which major powerhouses the US and China are members, did not specifically mention the Taiwan issue in its statement after the meeting on August 5. It simply called for self-restraint and urged all stakeholders to refrain from the use of force, adhere to the principles of preventive diplomacy, and promote confidence-building measures.

Cross-strait tensions boiled over when US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taipei on August 3, defying warnings from China, which prompted a strong reaction from Beijing. It not only started live fire military drills in the Taiwan Strait but also applied economic pressure by banning the import of more than 2,000 items from the island.

Complex relations

ASEAN as an international organization and its members have a complex relationship with China and Taiwan; they enjoy formal diplomatic ties with Beijing and intensive economic links with Taipei.

China became a dialogue partner of the group in 1996 and acceded to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia in 2003 — the first dialogue partner to do so — to respect the sovereignty of one another. Relations between the two sides were upgraded to a strategic partnership in 2018, a level of relationship the US is seeking as well.

China has military ties with Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, but has territorial disputes with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei over the South China Sea.

Taiwan enjoyed strong economic ties with many ASEAN members long before the mainland. Last year, its exports to ASEAN totalled US$70 billion. Integrated circuits manufactured in Taiwan account for 39.8 percent of imports by Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines combined, compared to only 14.2 percent from the mainland, according to Taipei’s Economic and Cultural Office.

Taipei opened economic and cultural offices in eight ASEAN member countries, except Laos and Cambodia, to facilitate economic, social and cultural ties.

However, such economic ties could not match the rapid growth of China as the mainland has overtaken the US and Europe to become the largest trade partner of ASEAN since 2009. Bilateral trade value rose to US$516.9 billion, accounting for 25 percent of total ASEAN foreign trade, according to the ASEAN Secretariat. Chinese investors from the mainland have become one of the leading investors in the region in recent years.

Different interpretation

Samarn Laodumrongchai, a senior researcher at the ISA, said cross-strait tensions have risen from time to time due to the different political systems followed by the mainland and the island. While China is ruled by a single-party regime with an objective to unify the country, Taiwan has a multiparty system, notably led by the Democratic Progressive Party, which rejects Beijing’s unification idea, he said.

The US factor is also important, he said, adding that China flew 150 warplanes near the island in October last year after a phone call to Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen by US President Joe Biden.

Arm Tungnirun, ISA’s director of China Studies Center, said at the same seminar that all stakeholders including Beijing, Taipei and Washington referred to the so-called “One China” and wanted to maintain the status quo but with different interpretations.

The scholar, an expert on China affairs, said mainland China and the island both agreed on the principle of one China, but have a different view on what China means. While Beijing means People’s Republic of China, Taipei wanted to see China as the Republic of China, he said. In other words, Beijing rules the mainland but cannot run the island effectively and Taipei rules the islands but cannot run the mainland effectively, Arm added.

The US has recognized the regime in Beijing since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1979 and has viewed Taiwan as a part of China since then. US President Biden called China President Xi Jinping in late July to reaffirm that there had been no change in Washington’s policy, but strongly opposed unilateral efforts by China to change the status quo, Arm said. However, in President Xi’s view, the status quo only means that both sides of the Taiwan Strait belong to one and the same China, he added.

Panelists at the seminar agreed that the ambition of both Beijing and Taipei to assert their respective identity and divergence of views on One China and the status quo could further aggravate tensions, while all stakeholders and international communities see no clear solution to the problem.

By Thai PBS World’s Regional Desk


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