Monday 23 May 2016

East Asia edges towards limited war (Sunday Guardian)

Despite several of its members being jailed or proceeded against on corruption charges, the group within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) led by former President and CCP General Secretary Jiang Zemin is continuing its efforts at discrediting current Head of State and party chief Xi Jinping. For the Jiang group, whose members have collectively been estimated to be worth $380 billion in undeclared assets (mostly overseas), to unseat or at the minimum weaken into ineffectiveness Xi Jinping has become a matter of survival. Each month, more of its flock are falling into the anti-corruption nets spread across China by the present government, which has lately also been investigating assets held in locations such as Vancouver, Adelaide, San Francisco and London by nominees of members of the group, usually in the names of close family members, several of whom have during the previous 16 years acquired foreign passports. Of the top 200 members of the group, it is suspected within the relevant CCP agencies that more than half this list are also, secretly, citizens of foreign countries, exactly the same situation as in India, where undeclared foreign passports are held by several thousand high net worth individuals who are from the business, official and political streams. 
Among the most effective ways in which President Xi is being boxed in is through the influence of the Jiang group on People’s Republic of China (PRC) media, a field of activity in which there are numerous individuals who have become wealthy owing to the “envelope culture” encouraged during the tenure in office of Jiang Zemin, who dominated both the CCP as well as the government from 1989 to 2003, and who used his influence and affluence thereafter to ensure that the power of his successor, Hu Jintao, was diluted by Jiang’s powerful nominees in the State Owned Enterprises (SOEs), the economic ministries, the military and the security services. None of these could get reformed during Hu’s ten years in office (2003-2013), although he himself was in favour of changes that would make China grow faster in the future. The Jiang group bears a resemblance to some of the 2004-2014 economic and political czars of the UPA in India, in that it favours imports over local goods and has strong links with the financial agencies headquartered in the US and the EU that are responsible for the 2008 global economic crash, besides the steady impoverishment of the lower and middle classes since the 1990s in every country where they have a dominant influence, especially the US. During the period in office of the UPA, much of India Inc morphed from international tigers taking over foreign enterprises to becoming agents of such enterprises in India, where during the previous decade, much of large industry is now in the control of foreign enterprises, sometimes openly but usually through well-tended routes such as Participatory Notes and the Mauritius channel. 
The Jiang group has promoted a jingoistic crescendo of noise in large sections of the Chinese media, including newly popular online entities. These play to the hyper-patriotic sentiments of several tens of millions of Chinese citizens by advocating a policy of force and dominance against other countries in Asia, even while challenging the US militarily in the continent. As a consequence of the misrepresentation of facts by analysts and commentators close to the big money interests within the group, an atmosphere of siege is getting created in China. The people of what will soon be the world’s largest economy are being repeatedly told that they are being “encircled” by neighbours such as Vietnam, the Philippines and India, and that “pre-emptive action” needs to be taken to ensure that such countries do not inflict damage on the PRC first. The creation of a hyper-patriotic spirit gets added on to unrealistic estimates of China’s present capability to change policies in other countries in order to constrain the diplomacy of President Xi. It will be recalled that the Jiang group had engineered border incursions into India at the precise time when the two most consequential leaders of Asia, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping, were meeting on 17 September 2014 in a cordial atmosphere in Gujarat. It is not an accident that members of the Jiang group have extensive networks with influential individuals and institutions within the NATO bloc, and that the policies it clandestinely promotes are designed to sour relations with countries that are seeking to balance ties between Beijing and Washington. Indeed, President Barack Obama’s best card in much of Asia is the unease created by the muscle flexing indulged in by those party influentials backing the Jiang group, who are seeking to ensure that the policy of conciliation adopted by Deng Xiaoping to such beneficial effect over two decades be abandoned in favour of a policy of confrontation with neighbours and with others. 
The tinderbox that East Asia is becoming as a consequence of the hyper-patriotism and calls to war indulged in by Jiang group members under the guise of protecting national interest since Xi Jinping took office in 2013, is nowhere more exemplified than in the Taiwan straits. The geographically small but economically huge nation, whose 23 million people have just elected to office a brilliant and soft-spoken female leader, Tsai Ing-wen to the Presidency of the Republic of China (Taiwan), has been the focus of the Jiang group within Mainland China. A word of mouth campaign is raging across the PRC that the “soft” policies towards Taiwan of President Hu that have been continued by President Xi have “lessened into insignificance” Mainland China’s role in Taiwan. The reality is the opposite, with the Mainland accounting for nearly half of tourist arrivals and half of the island’s exports. During the period in office of Hu Jintao and his interlocutor in Taipei (former President Ma Ying-jeou), links between the Mainland and Taiwan have expanded exponentially, to the benefit of both sides. So deep has such context become that the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which has won both control of the Legislative Yuan as well as the Presidency in the just-concluded elections, has shifted its stance from a push towards formal independence into backing for the status quo. In her inaugural address when taking over the nation’s highest office on 20 May, Tsai Ing-wen went as far as to acknowledge and affirm support for the “1992 Consensus”, a theoretical construct invented by KMT strategist Su Chi that has become the foundation for relations between Taipei and Beijing ever since. This goes that “both sides will adhere to the One China principle, but differ from each other on the meaning of One China”. Breaking with DPP orthodoxy, which regards the “1992 Consensus” as the thin edge of a wedge unifying the RoC and the PRC, Tsai in her inaugural address made it clear that she accepts the formulation and will work within its confines. This was an act of political courage, given that several of her supporters reject the “1992 Consensus” in toto, and seek a Taiwanese unilateral Declaration of Independence, an action certain to lead to war with the PRC.
The Jiang group has been dismayed by Tsai’s pragmatism, as it had hoped that the anti-Mainland hawks would carry the day within the new DPP administration. Instead, Tsai has chosen a Cabinet where nearly half are independent of party, being domain experts. Of the other half, the proportion of KMT-leaning individuals is about the same as that of those that are tilted towards the DPP. This is in contrast to the previous KMT administration, that was almost entirely comprised of KMT loyalists with near-zero representation from those affiliated in any form with the DPP. Should Beijing respond to Tsai’s outstretched hand of peace in a conciliatory manner, the effect on Taiwanese society would be to boost feelings of kinship with the Mainland and to carry forward the process of linking the Taiwanese as well as the Mainland economies closer together, even while both sides trade extensively with other parts of the globe. It needs to be borne in mind that the coming to power of the DPP in 2000 was in large part because of the resentment of the Taiwanese voter towards the missile-flexing of Jiang Zemin across the Taiwan straits. This, combined with undiplomatic and bellicose official rhetoric from Beijing, created a sense of alienation with the Mainland that led several hundred-thousands of erstwhile KMT supporters to switch to the DPP. Its then leader Chen Shui-bian, after being sworn in as President, attempted a few conciliatory gestures towards the PRC, but each of this was rebuffed by Jiang. The consequence was a hardening of anti-Mainland sentiment within both the Taiwanese people as well as the administration, a situation which got reversed only after Hu Jintao took office and began the series of conciliatory steps that—together with matching policies by the successor KMT administration—have led to an unprecedented web of contacts between the two sides, something sought to be reversed by the Jiang group. Among other measures, the group is discouraging Mainland tourists from visiting Taiwan, hoping to create not just economic distress but the same alienation and lack of contact between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait as was the case when Jiang was in full charge in Beijing. 
Given their continuing support within the CCP, especially the military and the media, the jury is out on whether PRC President Xi Jinping will be able to grasp the hand of friendship proffered by Tsai Ing-wen and repeat his unprecedented gesture of actually meeting an RoC President, this time not in Singapore but in Mainland China itself. Both Xi and Ma met in November last year, the first time the top leaders of the KMT and the CCP met each other since 1945, the year when Japan was defeated, but the Chinese civil war began in earnest, ending in 1949 in the rout of the former and the coming to power in Beijing of Mao Zedong. Should Tsai and Xi meet, the war clouds that interested parties are encouraging over the Taiwan Strait will reduce considerably in size, while across both sides, the desire for conciliation and cooperation would grow, in contrast to the tensions that a return to the muscle-flexing of the Jiang period would create. Geopolitical currents have changed substantially in 2016 from what they were two decades ago, in large part because of the hyper-patriotic moves generated through propaganda instruments in the effective control of the Jiang group. Should Beijing fail to acknowledge and respond appropriately to Tsai’s courageous gesture of conciliation (made at the cost of elements of the fire of her party’s political theology), that would boost the power of hard-liners within the DPP, who look towards Tokyo and Washington in order to fashion strategy of a complete break with Beijing. That would play to those policymakers in Washington and Tokyo who are looking forward to a return of the frost between the two sides of the strait that was the situation under Jiang Zemin.
Tensions over the South China Sea that have been created by Jiang-style military assertiveness by the People’s Liberation Army have resulted in a greater strategic distance between ASEAN and China. This would ensure that Taipei would receive a much warmer welcome by the alliance than would have been the case had a Deng Xiaoping policy been followed by China in the South China Sea during 2014 and much of 2015, or until Xi Jinping was able to wrest control of the military from the influence of the Jiang Zemin faction. Should this group succeed in its ongoing effort at weakening the Chinese leader, thereby clearing the decks for an aggressive policy directed towards the PRC’s southern neighbours, the chances are increasing that there may be a naval or air shootout somewhere across the Taiwan Strait or the South China Sea. This would plunge the region into a limited war, the effects of which would linger for decades. Such a conflict, or indeed the rising expectation of a limited war involving air and sea assets of China, the US and Japan, would result in a diversion of attention by Xi Jinping from domestic to external issues. Thereby, his drive on corruption would get slowed down, if not stopped altogether. In this way, by provoking tensions that could spill over into a shootout, the Jiang group hopes to halt the ongoing drive against its corrupt membership lists. 
The Jiang group is working together with some of its overseas backers (who have ensured a very negative press for Xi Jinping over the past 29 months) for precisely such a conflict. A sign of whether such a danger will move towards fulfilment will come in the reaction from Beijing to the inauguration of Tsai Ing-wen as the first female leader of the Republic of China (Taiwan). Should the errors in policy made during 1999 and 2003 by Jiang Zemin get repeated in 2016, East Asia will become a global flashpoint that would put any lingering tensions between India and Pakistan in the minor leagues. In contrast, should Xi Jinping be strong enough to fend off the hyper-patriots who are in actuality helping hostile forces through their attitudes and policies, and respond with calm and comradeship to Tsai Ing-wen the way he did so expertly with Ma Ying-jeou, efforts by the Jiang group to ensure geopolitical tensions that damage economic prospects in the region will get consigned to the dustbin. Now that Tsai has made her move through a conciliatory start to her term in office, it is over to Xi Jinping to carry forward the cross-straits that began under Hu and Ma, or to find himself made to go along with the Jiang Zemin strategy of rising tensions and an increase in prospects for a war in East Asia.

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