The View From Asia

On political alliances, talk of war and trade friction

Asia News Network commentators from Taiwan, the Philippines and China turn their attention to the unsteady alliances between politicians and nations. Here are excerpts:

Tsai meets a new nemesis

The China Post,

Taiwan Former president Chen Shui-bian, on medical parole from a 20-year jail sentence for corruption, is challenging his ex-protege Tsai Ing-wen, who has refused to give him a presidential pardon.

Chen attended a fund-raising dinner for his Ketagalan Foundation despite Taichung Prison warning him not to make any public appearance of a political nature. He made an end run to appear at the venue of the gathering from where he spoke in violation of the rules the Taichung Prison authorities had laid down for his attendance. They are now at a loss over what to do with their prisoner on parole. By law, they must cancel his parole to get him back behind bars. However, they need the nod from Ms Tsai, who is reluctant, to say the least, to pardon him lest he become a wirepuller.

On the other hand, Ms Tsai does not dare offend Chen's supporters, who still dominate the Democratic Progressive Party. Her approval ratings have plummeted since her inauguration on May 20 last year and are likely to continue falling, while she also has to face her mid-term test towards the end of next year.

Without the support of Chen loyalists, the ruling party is more than certain to lose the nationwide mid-term elections for mayors, councils and magistrates. Should she decide to keep her ex-mentor free on parole, she would offend swing voters, who are numerous enough to give the opposition Kuomintang a landslide win.

Can Ms Tsai get out of this desperate predicament? Hardly. At best, her only way out is a godsend of a prompt economic recovery. It would be a one-in-a-million chance. Judging by Taiwan's relations with China - on which it relies ever more heavily for economic growth - such a miracle is unlikely.

What bad luck befalls Ms Tsai as she finds herself challenged by her predecessor at this junction. She has turned Chen from a benefactor into a nemesis. And Chen will do anything to exact his revenge should he be denied a pardon.

Duterte and Xi talk war

Philippine Daily Inquirer

Did Chinese President Xi Jinping threaten President Rodrigo Duterte with war? That's what Mr Duterte himself said, in an extraordinary disclosure last Friday. In his recounting, he said he had raised the possibility of the Philippines drilling for oil in those parts of its exclusive economic zone in the West Philippine Sea that are contested by China. "I said, 'Mr Xi Jinping, I would insist that that is ours and I will drill oil there.'" He said Mr Xi replied as follows: "We are friends. We do not want to quarrel with you... We want to maintain the present warm relationship. But if you force the issue, we'll go to war."

President Rodrigo Duterte says the Chinese President threatened to go to war over any Philippine drilling operation in the disputed area in the West Philippine Sea, and China did not issue a statement contradicting Mr Duterte. PHOTO: REUTERS

As we said: extraordinary. The following Monday, the country's new chief diplomat, Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano, offered an "interpretation" of the exchange between Mr Duterte and Mr Xi at the recent summit in Beijing that did not directly run counter to the President's recounting but sought only to blunt its impact.

Philippine Ambassador to China Chito Santa Romana also offered his own interpretation of the exchange: "No threats, no bullying, everything was frank but friendly, candid but productive."

It is possible, of course, for a threat to be issued even as the discussion remains frank but friendly, but the pivotal question-at least for now - relates to President Duterte's decision to put the threat to go to war in Mr Xi's own mouth. Did Mr Xi, the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, actually use phrasing which the interpreter translated into English as "we'll go to war"? Neither Mr Cayetano's or Mr Santa Romana's version denies that those words were used. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs also did not issue a statement contradicting the President.

But war is much broader than simple force. Did Mr Xi say that Beijing would use military or coast guard action to stop any Philippine drilling operation in the disputed area? This is still a serious form of reprisal but falls short of war.

Or did the President make it all up? Did he claim that Mr Xi said those words to justify his muted position on Philippine claims vis-a-vis China, or on the landmark arbitral tribunal ruling?

As a matter of fact, he could have told Mr Xi many things, if indeed Mr Xi had made a candid but productive threat: My administration will now fully embrace the arbitral ruling.

For years Manila refused bilateral talks with Beijing on maritime issues precisely because of fears China would dominate it. What is Mr Xi's war threat if not unmistakable proof of domination?

US-China trade friction looms

Song Jingyi
China Daily, China

Mr Donald Trump's administration has hailed warming relations with China as details of a new trade deal between China and the United States were released following a meeting between the two leaders at the US President's Florida resort last month.

Mr Wang Huiyao, president of the Centre for China and Globalisation, a Chinese think-tank, praised the trade agreement in a seminar on Sino-US trade cooperation held in Beijing last week. He said it was the first step in a long-term strategy that will eventually open China's market to US industries, and that by establishing these friendlier trade ties now, the stage will be set for better negotiations on serious issues later.

While many see the deal as a positive advancement, some experts from both countries are warning that plenty of friction still lies ahead and there is a need for a more balanced trade relationship.

Mr Huo Jianguo, former president of the Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Cooperation and Centre for China and Globalisation senior fellow, says the US trade deficit is a problem - but not for the reasons that Mr Trump and other critics seem to think.

The key, Mr Huo says, is that the trade deficit is due to a deeper problem - a rebalance in trade between the manufacturing industries across the East Asian trading nations and the US manufacturing sector.

In his view, China and the US should reach consensus on the best way to understand and calculate the trade deficit.

Some question what can realistically be achieved.

"How can Trump effectively make a trade plan when he doesn't even have a full team in place to conduct the negotiations, since he does not have either a China strategy or a China-Asia team in place?" asks Dr Derek Scissors, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a prominent conservative think-tank. "With plenty of crucial positions to fill, there is still uncertainty for bilateral cooperation."

The deal is an agreement that covers a number of longstanding barriers in areas ranging from agriculture and energy to the operation of American financial firms in China.

China will open its borders to US beef no later than July 17, while cooked Chinese poultry is set to enter the American market. Companies from the US would also be able to ship liquefied natural gas to China.

Some of the points have previously been argued between China and the US, and not all observers are satisfied with these low-hanging fruits.

Dr Claude Barfield, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, makes this matter-of-fact observation.

"Beef and chicken are not a major part of China's economy or the United States' economy; it should go beyond that. More concrete policies on high-tech or Internet kinds of things should be brought into bilateral discussion."

Dr Barfield also criticises Mr Trump's trade-deficit frenzy and explained why it's economic nonsense.

"Protectionists claim the trade deficit costs jobs. They don't even try to show it's true, they assert it and hope everyone nods. They've been doing this for decades. They've been wrong just as long."

  • The View From Asia is a compilation of articles from The Straits Times' media partner, Asia News Network, a grouping of 22 news media entities. For more, see
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 27, 2017, with the headline 'On political alliances, talk of war and trade friction'. Print Edition | Subscribe