Amid China's saber-rattling over Taiwan and its challenges to Hong Kong's autonomy, one small but important spot on the map, Portugal's island enclave of Macao, has almost been lost from sight.
At the mouth of the Pearl River, 38 miles southwest of Hong Kong, Macao was Europe's first settlement in Asia. Today, the city-state is the last vestige of colonialism in Asia, and that will end on Monday when China reassumes control.
Over and over, we have heard from Beijing of China's countdown to the coming end of its 500 years of humiliation--the occupation of Chinese ports and lands by outsiders. There was the return of Hong Kong in 1997; now, there is the return of Macao. Still to come is the return of Taiwan, the 18th-largest economy in the world.
The big questions are when and how will Taiwan be returned to the fold of China. In looking for answers--and America must--there are plenty of reasons for scrutinizing how China handles the return of Macao. Indeed, the Portuguese hand-over of Macao will have implications for the prosperity, peace and security of all East Asia.
Even if China chooses to lump them together, Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan all have very distinct histories. Hong Kong's role as the last British colony and its stupendous economic role as entrepot and former port for all China have ensured that its post-reversion role will be under continuing watch. At the other end of the spectrum, Taiwan is not going to roll over for the motherland.
Macao must be viewed in its own light. It is a rich, densely populated, variegated, Cantonese, but also attractively European, outpost. China has much to gain by a smooth hand-over, and the nature of the transition will say much to many about China's competence and trustworthiness.
So what can the hand-over do for China, Southeast Asia and the region's economy? Beijing had to hedge in a hundred ways to get what it wanted in Hong Kong. Without China conceding to a "one country, two systems" transition for Hong Kong--whereby the city maintains its British-built governmental structures for 50 years as a special autonomous region, or SAR--it was feared that China might lose a prime engine of its economy.
While Macao is slated for the same designation as Hong Kong, its circumstances are very different. Tourism and gambling have driven Macao's economy, and its small size makes assimilation into the mainland inevitable. Still, the manner in which this absorption occurs is vital. China's commitment of SAR status to Macao essentially is as an example for the benefit of Taiwan.
The people of Macao want to be a part of China and, notwithstanding the 50 years during which it will be a special autonomous region, assimilation into China will be rapid. Macao's return should not give rise to any militaristic posturing. We have seen, however, how far Beijing has been willing to go in testing Taiwan and America's willingness to accommodate China's place in the sun. So the risk remains that China may use the return of Macao to again deliver the message that it is prepared to use force to reunite Taiwan with the mainland.
As for the importance of an orderly progression for Macao from tourist haven to Chinese province, Macao's small size belies its significance. If size alone had been the determining factor, we would never have gone to war over Kuwait's independence, never heard of Brunei or cared about Northern Ireland.
Come Monday, Macao's role as a commercial hub should be enhanced. The infrastructure developed under Portuguese rule will bolster Macao's role as a center of international commerce. Further, when Macao becomes a de facto member of the string of "SEZs," or special economic zones, dotting the southern coast of China, the value of these areas to China will be reinforced. Numerous Beijing mandarins have been working hard to strip the zones of their autonomy, shifting privileges up-country to "spread the wealth." Their efforts at killing the geese laying the golden eggs will be made more difficult when Macao joins the club.
Macao has become one of the richest cities in Asia. China has compelling reasons to ensure that the transition is smooth. If Beijing attempts to smother Macao's autonomy with force, there will be shudders throughout the region. But a Macao hand-over that is handled deftly by China would preserve a little European spice in the region while ridding it of the more acrid smell of colonialism.