China is sailing into a sea of troubles
Public opinion holds some sway in Hong Kong and Taiwan and is beyond Beijing’s control
During the most recent Taiwan Strait crisis, from 1995 to 1996, the US sent an aircraft carrier to the region, in response to China’s military intimidation of the Taiwanese. Since then, Beijing has adopted much subtler tactics, relying on burgeoning economic and travel ties to draw the “rebel province” gradually back into its orbit. The election of a pro-independence president in Taiwan would suggest these tactics had failed.
In the past 20 years, the military balance in the Taiwan Strait has probably tilted towards Beijing but it would be a bold Chinese president who put this proposition to the test.
In all this jostling for influence, China’s strongest card remains the power of its economy.
Almost all the nations of Southeast Asia do considerably more trade with China than with the US. But that makes the TPP potentially threatening to China.
Some Chinese analysts have even called the TPP “an economic Nato”, since they see it as an alliance aimed explicitly at isolating China. America says that eventual Chinese membership remains a possibility. And it is clear that many of the signatories of the TPP, including Singapore and New Zealand, would genuinely like China to join the new trade bloc. They do not like the economic or the political implications of excluding Beijing.
But the US and Japan, the two biggest signatories of the pact, are more sceptical. Some of the provisions of the TPP, such as commitments on labour and environmental law, and on cyber space, might have been designed to make it hard for China to join.
Long-term exclusion from the TPP could make China less attractive as a production base, just at the time when rising costs are eroding the country’s competitiveness.
Issues such as the South China Sea and the TPP — however difficult for Beijing — are, at least, largely about government policy. The questions of Hong Kong and Taiwan are more unpredictable, and therefore dangerous, because they involve something Beijing cannot control: public opinion.
In both Hong Kong and Taiwan, there is growing evidence that the young are less and less inclined to treat Beijing’s edicts with respect. Hong Kong, which is now part of China, had its “umbrella” movement in 2014, demanding free elections. Taiwan has the “sunflower” movement, which also rose up last year in protest over a new trade agreement with China.
These are fiercely difficult problems for Mr Xi. But they are also problems of Beijing’s own making. By insisting with such ferocity on stale political formulas, such as “rebel province” and “one country, two systems”, the Chinese government has boxed itself into a corner.
Meeting the president of Taiwan is a powerful symbol of flexibility. But if Mr Xi really wants to calm his sea of troubles, he needs to change the substance of Beijing’s approach to Taiwan and Hong Kong.