In the past few years, almost all of East Asia’s fully fledged democracies have changed leadership – but this has gone rather unnoticed by European observers who are focusing on China alone.
In every case, change in leadership has led to a different foreign policy. Power in Japan has already changed hands twice since 2006: Yasuo Fukuda, the old-timer, former finance minister and Asianist, has made it very clear that he wishes to paper over historical and strategic disputes with China.
In South Korea, Lee Myung-bak, who ran his campaign on liberalizing the economy and making sure North Korea delivers on its commitments on denuclearization, is now entering office. Still committed to the Sunshine policy principle with regard to the North, he’ll nonetheless be more predictable to his neighbours than his predecessor was.
In Taiwan, the Kuomintang and its presidential candidate, Ma Ying-jeou, delivered a stunning blow to Chen Shui-bian and his party in recent legislative elections. Ma and his main opponent, Frank Hsieh, are now competing for the middle ground, while Mr. Chen is using inflammatory initiatives to mobilize voters.
In Australia, Labour leader Kevin Rudd, a mandarin speaker, has succeeded the conservative John Howard. Visiting Beijing, Australia’s foreign minister has reportedly assured his hosts that Australia would pull out of the quadrilateral security dialogue with India, Japan and the United States. And the government has also backed out of a commitment to sell uranium to India – a change sure to please China.
These changes have powerful implications which Asia’s partners should consider. First, if there was a dream by conservative Republicans in Washington, and advocates of a strong Japan in Tokyo, to create an alliance of Asian democracies as a counterweight to China’s rise, that dream is over for the time being.
Japan wants to engage China and could even be worried about a Chinese economic slow-down; Australia races to Beijing for economic benefits, even if baffled by the audacity of a Chinese corporate raid on Rio Tinto. Taiwan will play for a middle course with Beijing, even if Ma Ying-jeou is no pushover; while South Korea needs Chinese goodwill to keep the pressure on the North. And all of them are concerned about one of the Democratic contenders for the US presidency, Barack Obama, who has expressed support for an even closer engagement with China.
Japan, Taiwan and Australia are, at least, likely to explore every way in which they can improve their relations with Beijing. That means distancing themselves from present-day Washington, but also competing with Europeans for successful deals in China. China has succeeded internationally in avoiding any semblance of a democratic “front” that would hamper its own rise. Europeans are not going to be very distinctive in their quest for soft engagement and profitable business deals with China. This is a global race. Those who harbour reservations, citing the need to defend human rights and the rule of law, are losing out fast.
How China uses this tide will be interesting to observe. At the very least, Chinese analysts have lost their key argument about the unpredictability and the irrational nationalism of democracies, when China was able to paint itself as a stronghold of stability and moderation. Fukuda, Lee and Ma sound – and in fact look – like restored Confucian icons.
Will China seize the opportunity and pursue key compromises on sensitive issues – Taiwan, maritime borders, divided Korea? Will it relax its political controls which stem from regime insecurity? Or will it merely use the moderation of its partners and the evident absence of any strategy of encirclement to further advance narrowly defined interests?
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.