Fostering trade beats making war every time

Sep 23, 2022
Shipping containers stacked
Image: iStock

It is over a month since Nancy Pelosi’s vexing visit to Taipei and China’s disapproving response, which included large scale air and naval exercises around Taiwan. This ill-omened stopover by the third-ranking person in the US political hierarchy ineptly created, amongst other things, further acute doubt about Washington’s continuing commitment to the one-China principle.

Many commentaries emerged after these events. Certain Western media outlets argued that in East Asia and South East Asia there was a lack of support expressed for China’s response. This anxious line of argument was aimed at trying to bolster stale claims that the US was enjoying renewed backing for amplified, confrontational meddling in the region.

In fact, the support most conspicuously lacking across the entire region was for Pelosi’s reckless visit. Overt backing was close to non-existent and criticism was widespread. Current senior office holders typically expressed their disapproval by maintaining a stony silence – sometimes accompanied by declamations that all (especially the US) should lower rather than elevate geopolitical tensions. South Korea’s new President purposefully avoided meeting Pelosi altogether.

Others, more freely able to speak, were intensely critical. The respected Singaporean commentator and former senior diplomat, Kishore Mahbubani, said that Pelosi’s visit was reckless and dangerous and fundamentally self-serving. Moreover, she was “utterly indifferent to the fact that her actions will create in the long run steps towards World War III”. Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said that the visit had made Taiwan less secure. Former Malaysian Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, said after the Pelosi visit that the US was seeking to provoke a war with China over Taiwan. Then there is an excuse, he went on, “for the US to help Taiwan, even fight against China and sell lots of arms to Taiwan.”

Professor of modern Chinese history and politics at Oxford University, Rana Mitter, put his finger on a primary reason for the clear regional exasperation related to this presumptuous stopover. “It’s very important”, he argued, “that conditions are created for stable, free and open trade and interaction between all peoples in the region. Recent events remind us all that peace and prosperity go hand in hand”.

He may well have had in mind the graphic, bloody reminder of the centrality of this peace-based foundation for building better living conditions evidenced by the terrible conflict in Ukraine. Once again, Europe has found itself pitched into a major military struggle. This grim replay of Trans-Atlantic militarised conflict resolution serves as a compelling lesson about what, above all, to avoid.

According to Investopedia, China has been the largest trading nation in the world for almost a decade. Total exports in 2019 were estimated to be US$2.64 trillion. China has benefitted immensely from this rise – and so has the rest of the globe, not least China’s regional neighbours. Despite many challenges, including the COVID pandemic, this region in Asia has become, as Professor Mitter says, the most economically dynamic area of the world.

It is apt, here, to recall former President Jimmy Carter’s observation, in 2019, on the American way of sustaining that Rules Based International Order which suits US interests so uncommonly well. The US, he said, was “the most warlike nation in the history of the world” due to its desire to impose American values on other countries. He also highlighted how the US had only been at peace for 16 years since it was created as a nation in 1788. According to a Brown University study in the US, America has wasted around US$6 trillion on fighting wars in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and other nations since 2001. Meanwhile, China, Carter observed, had not wasted a single penny on war since 1979.

This is the reality that East Asia and South East Asia have experienced over the last four decades – and value so much. There are geopolitical tensions between ASEAN States and China and elsewhere within the region, of course. But all these states have witnessed the huge benefits that have flowed from enhanced trade and development (and avoidance of military conflict) thanks, above all, to the extraordinary, peaceable rise of China.

Even the two Pacific-region states that (avidly encouraged by Washington) are most argumentative with Beijing, Japan and Australia, have benefitted immensely from trade with China. Australia, directly as a consequence of its China trade, broke the OECD record for uninterrupted growth stretching over a period of around 30 years.

Kishore Mahbubani recently argued that, “Australia’s strategic dilemma in the twenty-first century is simple: it can choose to be a bridge between the East and the West in the Asian Century – or the tip of the spear projecting Western power into Asia.”

As it happens, fresh evidence has revealed just how favoured that spear-tip role is – and how weirdly twisted Canberra’s Sino-antagonism has become over the last several years. Recently, there have been leaks from meetings, in April, 2020, of the powerful Joint Parliamentary Committee on Intelligence and Security and the National Security Committee of the Australian government. According to these verified revelations, the former Prime Minister Scott Morrison took a decision, on April 20, to “up the ante with Beijing”, adding that, “the time has come [for Australia] to be more strident in its language about China’s conduct”.

At almost the same time, the then Australian Foreign Minister, Marise Payne, issued an incendiary call for a forceful, non-WHO, global inquiry into China’s handling of the COVID pandemic. This precipitated a further major nosedive in the relationship with Beijing, which delivered zero benefit to Canberra – apart from getting a tick for pleasing the Trump administration in Washington at that time.

A little over a year later, in mid-2021, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, of Singapore, intelligently advised Prime Minister Morrison that, “There will be rough spots [with China] …you have to deal with them. But deal with them as issues in a partnership which you want to keep going and not issues which add up to an adversary which you are trying to suppress”. All subsequent behavioural evidence suggests that this advice was comprehensively ignored by Morrison.

Still, all the more attentive regional players in this crucial area understand that, as Christine Loh recently argued, we have entered the Age of the Great Reset of the established world order: this is the long-term pivot to Asia that truly matters most. Moreover, Professor Lau Siu-kai lately observed that, while some countries in the Asia-Pacific region might be sympathetic to Taiwan, they all support the one-China principle and see the conflict across the Taiwan Strait as an internal Chinese dispute (“Taiwan will increasingly be seen as US’s strategic liability).

Thus, as the dust has settled on Pelosi’s wayward visit, we can see how it has confirmed in the minds of almost all regional parties that the last thing they want to see is any sort of enhanced, inflammatory attempts aimed at imposing the American-tilted version of international order in East Asia. This strategy may be appealing to Washington as it resentfully struggles to come to terms with China’s extraordinary success in transforming itself but it has scant appeal within East Asia itself, where trade has proved, continuously over the last four decades, why it beats war every time. Even in Canberra and Tokyo, this penny must surely drop. Eventually.

Republished from the China Daily Hong Kong Edition

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