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Transatlantic Leadership in the Asia-Pacific

This post was originally written for the German Marshall Fund’s Young Professional’s Summit in Brussels, Belgium. It has been reprinted on the professional website of the author with permission from the German Marshall Fund. The original post can be found here, along with other interesting articles on foreign policy issues and the Young Professional’s Summit.

Today is the first day of the Young Professionals Summit, an associated event held alongside the German Marshall Fund’s Brussels Forum, an international, high-level meeting for leaders from both sides of the Atlantic to discuss pressing global issues and the transatlantic responses required for stability and adaptation amid crisis.

The Young Professionals Summit is a useful opportunity for young opinion makers, academics, and corporate and political representatives to engage in high-level discussions across generations. Summit participants are chosen from a global pool of applicants of emerging leaders under the age of 33 in a variety of fields. This year I am privileged to join the discussion as one of the Young Professional Summit representatives. I am excited to bring my trade, energy, and Asia policy expertise to a platform that will not only address these issues directly but also in the wider context of security, economic, and humanitarian issues. As a young person working to establish expertise in a field that emphasizes qualifications developed over a long period of time as a means to determine success, this is really a seminal opportunity. So far over my career I have planned, managed, executed and participated in many similar conferences in the Asia-Pacific, but this is the first Transatlantic oriented conference I have attended solely as a young leader in a policy oriented field, and I am grateful.

A coordinated transatlantic policy response to Asian crises is a necessary component of the transatlantic relationship moving forward.

Considering the perils of international conference and Summit planning, I can only imagine the lengths the German Marshall Fund must be going to in order to include concurrently the Young Professional Summit alongside their larger, higher level conference. If you have ever wondered what it takes to corral policy leaders in an intensive discussions, continents away from their home, imagine planning a weeklong vacation for your entire office — flights, hotels and meals included. Then pretend you don’t know the people in that office and there are strong personal and cultural opinions about “beaches vs. mountains.” That’s just the tip of the conference-planning-iceberg. My hat is off to the German Marshall Fund staff.

Looking forward to the following 3 days, I am intrigued by the inclusion of the Asia-Pacific in many of the issues to be discussed. Yes, this is a conference centered on the transatlantic relationship and how to strengthen and adapt together amid world crises. However, as Middle Eastern migration, economic instability, and terrorist threats lead the list of pressing transatlantic concerns, it is impossible for me not to look at these issues, and the many others that will be on our minds in Brussels, and wonder at the role Asia plays — as a partner and as an additional concern.

The United States and Europe have vested interests in the Asia-Pacific, both in terms of economics and security. Emerging and developed economies in Asia have an important role to play in financial and economic support of their western allies. East Asia in particular is at the forefront of global trade and finance, and it is also the location of many potential regional security conflicts, including tension in the South China Sea and nuclear proliferation in North Korea. Energy and environmental concerns in the Asia-Pacific are the same concerns of the transatlantic partners, but in some cases more immediately pressing, as air quality and energy consumption have converged for the perfect storm of growing health concerns and difficult but innovative energy solutions. A common approach to issues of mutual importance is not necessary — as far as policy responses go, the United States tends to lean towards security stability (see history of U.S. relationship in Asia) and Europe often tends towards diplomatic, economic oriented policy responses. However, increased coordination between the United States and Europe is necessary in order for timely, successful policy to be executed in the Asia-Pacific. The mutual interests of the United States and Europe to see a stable, prosperous Asia is undeniable. Increased dialogue between transatlantic partners on Asia-Pacific issues is critical. Providing new forums for a transatlantic perspective in Asia-Pacific security discussions is one way, as is promoting the examination of Asia-Pacific security issues in current transatlantic policy discussions, and simultaneously emphasizing the role of transatlantic allies in policy forums in the Asia Pacific. It strikes me that the Young Professionals Summit and the Brussels Forum have the opportunity to play a substantial role in these regards.

The forthcoming discussions will likely have a significant impact on all the participants — our careers, our passions, and our future professional relationships will no doubt be influenced. I look forward to continuing my reports on the transatlantic conversations, and will be sure to keep my Asia policy hat on throughout.

The Sinophiles’ White Whale: PRC-ROC Relations

For the first time in 65 years Taiwan and China have renewed talks–not since the split between the two “parties” in 1949 have there been normalized relations between the two Chinas.

Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) and China’s Taiwan Affairs Office met in Nanjing, China on Tuesday, February 11, 2014–at the same time I was visiting Taiwan for my first time in 25 years. As luck would have it my trip was business related, hosted by the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO) with an official delegation of former government representatives and business leaders from the U.S., allowing me insight into off-the-record conversations on a variety of issues that are of relevance to Taiwan’s other important relationship, the U.S.

The author with Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou

While the meetings were as amazing as the delegation members themselves, there were a few striking takeaways for this amateur sinophile. They are as follows:

1.) Taiwan…actually matters. I mean this in the best possible way–coming from an energy and trade background, Taiwan clearly matters to the mainland, and vice-versa. But I have always been under the impression that the status quo of cross-strait relations will forever remain the status quo–neither side will budge and the debate is a moot point.

So what is the point in even pretending change is on the horizon?  One day they will be signing a trade agreement, the next day they will be pointing missiles at each other. The relationship will forever be sticky, and messy, and undefinable.

Well, as it turns out, the status quo is still the status quo, but what many in Taiwan see as actual progress was happening right under our nose at the cross-strait talks in Nanjing. Sure, these talks didn’t include either player’s president (they couldn’t–Taiwan is not a recognized country, so Xi Jinping, President of Mainland China, could never meet with Ma Ying-jeou, President of Taiwan. Further, because Taiwan is so adamant about its status as an independent, democratic China, Ma Ying-jeou could never stoop to meeting with anyone less than the President of China. Talk about complicated), but they do represent warming relations between two nemesis.

2.) Security is Taiwan’s top priority. This may not come as a surprise to most cross-strait experts. However, to other policy analysts this is surprising when compared to the U.S. government’s priorities–defense matters (our government spending shows us that every year come appropriations time), but so do a lot of other issues that are constantly (hotly) debated among our leaders. Cross-strait relations, however, define the majority of Taiwanese politics–from the current President’s approval rating, to the opposition party’s platform for the coming elections, to the new interest from Taiwan in joining the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership, Taiwan is obsessed with its neighbor. Rightfully so, of course (similar to other cross-border tensions in Asia that will remain unnamed), but seeing first hand via the Taiwanese Navy, Air Force, and multiple unnamed Ministries the way in which all conversations about Taiwan’s interests come back to China really hammers home the point that cross-strait relations are, literally, everything.

3.) Mainland China is in a really, really good position.

Today China has a monopoly on trade, and Taiwan is a significant part of that monopoly (China represents 21% of Taiwan’s total trade; almost 30% if you include Hong Kong). Take, for example, this great graphic posted by Ian Bremmer on February 27, 2014 on Twitter:

Posted on Twitter by Ian Bremmer, 27 Feb 2014.

Posted on Twitter by Ian Bremmer, 27 Feb 2014.

China, clearly, has the upper hand in the region, leaving smaller economies like Taiwan little choice but to do their best to walk on economic eggshells. Not only does China have the economic leverage, they have the time to wait out Taiwan’s battling political parties and indecisive constituents, and the regional relationships to continue “alienating” Taiwan (to borrow a common phrase used in Taiwan to describe the one-sided Cross-strait relationship).

4.) This potential patience on the PRC’s part brings me to my last point–and one remaining question: Why does a territorial dispute, between two immensely different (some would argue unfairly matched) political foes,  matter except for reasons of principle? Taiwan, it is clear based upon my experience there, is  a democratic China. The culture is the same (nearly), the language is the same (nearly), the history is the same (nearly), but the political system is so different…So, I guess my final conclusion is that Taiwan and China are as similar as… North Korea and South Korea.

Just kidding. My real conclusion is that I, as a person who has been educated in the politics of Mainland China, was unsure what to expect going to Taiwan but was confident I had a firm understanding of the cross-strait dynamics. And as a result my boat was seriously rocked. I may not have a stance on the cross-strait relationship now, but I certainly am more comfortable with the realization that cross-strait relations are much, much grayer than I originally thought.