Obama leaves provoca­tive legacy that might be ex­ploited

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - COMMENT -

Sign­ing into law the Na­tional De­fense Autho­riza­tion Act for Fis­cal Year 2017, out­go­ing United States Pres­i­dent Barack Obama added fur­ther com­plex­ity and po­ten­tially ex­plo­sive uncer­tainty to China-US re­la­tions. The 2017 NDAA mer­its par­tic­u­lar vig­i­lance on Beijing’s part be­cause, for the first time in his­tory, it in­cludes a sec­tion on high-level mil­i­tary ex­changes with Tai­wan. Sec­tion 1284 of the act ob­li­gates the US De­fense Sec­re­tary to carry out a pro­gram of ex­changes with the is­land in­volv­ing se­nior mil­i­tary of­fi­cers and se­nior of­fi­cials. This per­mits gen­er­als or flag of­fi­cers of the US armed forces on ac­tive duty, as well as Pen­tagon of­fi­cials above the level of as­sis­tant de­fense sec­re­tary, to visit the is­land.

On the sur­face, a stip­u­la­tion like this may seem more sym­bolic than sub­stan­tive. Af­ter all, on its own, send­ing higher-rank­ing of­fi­cials and of­fi­cers to the is­land does not change the na­ture of ex­changes, as long as long­stand­ing agree­ments, writ­ten and tacit alike, are ob­served.

How­ever, at a deeper level this may be a danger­ous time bomb for the re­cently volatile re­la­tion­ship be­tween the US and the main­land, par­tic­u­larly when it is seen in the con­text of the up­com­ing change of guard at the White House.

And, as the 2017 NDAA has up­graded US mil­i­tary ties with Tai­wan, it serves to re­in­force the im­pres­sion of in­de­pen­dence seek­ers on the is­land that they can count on greater US pro­tec­tion for their anti-main­land stunts.

Since Don­ald Trump, the US pres­i­dent-elect, has dis­played per­sonal in­ter­est in play­ing the Tai­wan card in deal­ing with Beijing, the 2017 NDAA will only am­plify the likelihood of higher-pro­file mil­i­tary ex­changes be­ing ex­ploited provoca­tively un­der the next US pres­i­dent.

Up to this point, Obama had been very ra­tio­nal about Beijing’s sen­si­tiv­ity to the Tai­wan is­sue and the sig­nif­i­cance of the one-China pol­icy to re­la­tions with the main­land. Yet while call­ing on his suc­ces­sor to ex­er­cise prudence, the in­cum­bent US pres­i­dent has laid a step­ping stone for Trump’s danger­ous Tai­wan game.

Trump’s tran­si­tion team has de­clared they will not en­act im­me­di­ate changes to the US’ poli­cies to­ward the main­land. But that will not pre­vent Tai­wan from be­ing used a bar­gain­ing chip in mat­ters of sub­stan­tial bi­lat­eral con­cern.

Beijing has re­it­er­ated its bot­tom line re­gard­ing Tai­wan, which is good, but not enough. We all wish the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the main­land and the US could stay on a healthy track. But it takes two to tango.

Given both the next US pres­i­dent’s in­cli­na­tion to use Tai­wan as his trump card, and Tai­wan leader Tsai Ing-wen’s ea­ger­ness to as­sume that role, Beijing must pre­pare con­tin­gency plans for all pos­si­bil­i­ties, the worst in­cluded.

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