- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 24, 2016

With new leaders in Taiwan and the Philippines less willing to kowtow to an increasingly assertive China, East Asia’s delicate geopolitical balance is shifting just as President Obama makes a valedictory tour of the region to highlight his administration’s “pivot” to Asia and its readiness to support the countries on China’s periphery.

This month’s unexpected win by conservative Filipino President-elect Rodrigo Duterte, coupled with Friday’s inauguration of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, present thorny diplomatic challenges for China and may trigger friction between Washington and Beijing.

“Over the past few years, Beijing has had straightforward narratives and relatively clear diplomatic strategies for managing relations with Taipei and Manila,” said Robert Daly, who heads the Kissinger Institute on China and the U.S. at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

The Chinese “will now have to tread carefully and deal differently in both cases, [and] that means China’s already complex diplomatic environment is about to get even trickier,” Mr. Daly said.

The changes also call for an intricate balancing act for the United States, which is in the midst of its own increasingly raucous leadership change.

“The United States’ task is to play a steadying role by not overreacting in the short term to Beijing’s purported triumphs or setbacks in its relations with Taiwan or the Philippines,” Mr. Daly said. “There will be a period of adjustment in which it would be unwise for the U.S. to try to take quick advantage of situations prone to sudden reversal.”

It’s a view the Obama White House so far appears to share.

While President Obama is spending this week in the region, he’s steering clear of Taiwan and the Philippines — focusing instead on Vietnam and Japan, as he pushes to counter China’s growing regional economic clout and its expanding claims to military and economic control of the strategic East and South China Seas.

In one key sign of the balancing act, Mr. Obama on Monday lifted a three-decade-old ban on U.S. military sales to Vietnam despite concerns over Hanoi’s poor human rights record. In Japan, where Tokyo will serve as host of this year’s G-7 summit, Mr. Obama is expected to call for regional stability and denuclearization, as he becomes the first American president to visit Hiroshima, where the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb during World War II.

But despite his itinerary, Mr. Obama’s trip will also give U.S. officials a fresh chance to gauge regional reactions to the recent developments in Taiwan, Vietnam and Philippines — as well as how Beijing will respond.

So far, Beijing has appeared more brazen in the South China Sea. Nerves were on edge at the Pentagon last week when two Chinese J-11 Shenyang fighter jets suddenly buzzed within 50 feet of a U.S. Navy EP-3 Orion spy plane that officials said was conducting a “routine” mission over the sea. The Pentagon criticized the move, but Chinese officials insisted their planes were not at fault.

Beijing is seen to have already made some aggressive moves in response to the January election of Ms. Tsai, Taiwan’s first female president, who was formally inaugurated on Friday.

Muscling the Taiwanese

The pro-independence stance of Ms. Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party represents a marked departure from outgoing President Ma Ying-Jeou, whose warmth toward Beijing over the past eight years had become a source of concern in Washington.

With Ms. Tsai’s rise opening a potential window for revamped — perhaps even expanded — U.S.-Taiwan military ties, analysts say China’s communist leaders are nervous.

Beijing has sought to intensify pressure on Taipei with a series of Taiwan-focused military exercises in recent weeks. The Chinese have also warned that delicate cross-strait relations will be destabilized if Ms. Tsai does not explicitly endorse the view that Taiwan and China’s mainland are part of a single nation, which Beijing calls the “1992 Consensus.”

China and Taiwan split in 1949 after the Kuomintang nationalist forces lost a civil war to the communists. But China has always seen the island as a renegade province awaiting reunification, by force if necessary.

Beijing’s state-controlled news outlets largely snubbed Ms. Tsai’s inauguration on Friday. While Ms. Tsai struck a notably conciliatory tone in her inauguration speech, calling for “positive dialogue” with Beijing, mainland authorities blocked searches for her name and “Taiwan” from China’s state-controlled social media sites. But she stopped well short of an endorsement of the 1992 Consensus that many in Beijing were hoping for.

Significantly, on the new government’s first day in office, Ms. Tsai reached out to Japan, saying Taipei would set up a channel for dialogue with Japan to settle maritime disputes and promote the island’s presence in the region. An outreach to China’s great economic rival in the region could spark a backlash, especially if China’s leaders see Ms. Tsai backing away from the closer ties pursued by her predecessor.

Alexander Huang, a strategic studies expert at Tamkang University in Taiwan, cautioned that “China’s got a wide range of retaliatory measures waiting for Taiwan.”

“I believe Dr. Tsai understands that, and she will not step on the tripwire and cause trouble,” he told The Associated Press last week.

Some argue Ms. Tsai’s election represents a key strategic opportunity for Washington, as it competes with Beijing for military influence over the wider Pacific Rim, the world’s most dynamic economic region.

Ian Easton, a research fellow at the Project 2049 Institute, a Washington think tank focused on Asian security issues, said Taiwan is a center of gravity in that competition because it serves as a barrier keeping Chinese naval power in check.

“If Washington can convince Tsai that America has the backbone to stand up to China, Taiwan will be right at our side with an immense ability to contribute more to the common good,” Mr. Easton wrote last week in The Diplomat.

Filipino uncertainty

A similar shift is underway roughly 1,000 miles to the south in the Philippines, where Mr. Duterte — the blunt, hard-line provincial mayor whose pugnacious rhetoric and populist style have led some to dub him “the Filipino Donald Trump” — will be inaugurated at the end of June.

While the pro-U.S. approach of outgoing President Benigno Aquino ushered in a period of expanding U.S.-Filipino military ties, Mr. Duterte’s message on regional defense, as well as his stand on China, have been harder to divine.

He triggered unease in Washington during his presidential run by pushing back strongly at U.S. and Australian criticism, at one point threatening to dissolve Manila’s ties with the Philippines’ biggest military allies if they shun him.

“If I become president, go ahead and sever [them],” Mr. Duterte told supporters at a rally in April. “That’s their problem, not mine. I never interfered in their elections.”

The Pentagon has so far been tight-lipped over Mr. Duterte’s campaign remarks. Spokesman Army Col. Scott W. Kelly, whose infantry division recently completed joint military operations with Filipino troops in the Pacific, declined any comment on the political changes in Manila — or whether they would affect future American train-and-advise missions in the region.

Adding to the uncertainty around Mr. Duterte is the fact that he also lashed out repeatedly at China on the campaign trail, as he sought to woo nationalistic Philippine voters. The president-elect went so far as to pledge that, if elected, he’d personally ride a jet ski into the South China Sea to plant a Filipino flag on disputed islands claimed by Beijing.

However, at the same time, he’s suggested he’s open to direct negotiations with Beijing to resolve the territorial disputes.

It’s a contradictory message that has likely caused uncertainty among Chinese officials, according to Mr. Daly at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.

“Some of Duterte’s stated positions will be welcomed by China. He seems willing to negotiate bilaterally on South China Sea issues and to be open to joint exploitation of mineral resources in the area,” Mr. Daly said. “Those positions, if they hold as policy after Duterte’s inaugural, may dispose Beijing to think they can work with him.

“Beijing will be pleased, in any event, by the departure of President Aquino, whose suit against China’s South China Sea claims at the International Court of Justice make him a major target of hostile Chinese propaganda,” he said.

“But Duterte has been mercurial throughout his career,” Mr. Daly added. “If Beijing embraces him too fully too soon, it might find itself, to use the Chinese phrase, regretting that it has raised a tiger.”

Carlo Munoz contributed to this report.

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