Taiwan Faces Two Chinas; Beijing Is Divided on Closer Relations

Article excerpt


With the signing of the Economic Cooperative Framework Agreement (ECFA), we have further evidence that rapprochement between Taiwan and China continues. Though not as meaningful as advocates would have us believe, nor as harmful as critics suggest, ECFA is nonetheless a significant economic and political milestone between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait. ECFA also comes on the heels of other positive developments between Taiwan and China, which include the establishment of direct commercial flights, increased tourism in both directions and an agreement from Beijing to allow Taiwan observer status in the World Health Assembly.

Yet, curiously, in the arena of the Chinese military buildup opposite Taiwan, there has been no progress. Quite to the contrary, the aggressive People's Liberation Army (PLA) buildup has continued unabated. In the area of ballistic missiles alone, analysts estimate approximately 1,500 missiles are arrayed against the people of Taiwan.

Why have we not seen even a modest, symbolic step on China's part, commensurate with improvements in the economic and political spheres, to reduce the military intimidation it imposes on the people of Taiwan? Understanding why the buildup continues informs policy decisions the Obama administration must face.

There are four possible explanations for the continuing Chinese military buildup.

The first is that China's fundamental approach to Taiwan - carrots and sticks - has not changed. Further, Beijing has no intent whatsoever to diminish the tools of intimidation and coercion in which so much investment has been made. Beijing's leaders understand sentiments in Taiwan better than we often give credit. And the fact remains that in the absence of military threat, the people of Taiwan would support independence over the so-called status quo. Taiwan's own Mainland Affairs Council's polling suggest that the number of people in Taiwan who support status quo now, and Taiwan independence later represent a majority and has continued to grow. Thus, Chinese leaders are forced to conclude that they must retain the military threat to keep Taiwan in check.

The second possible explanation is that the civilian leaders in China are unwilling (or perhaps even unable) to challenge PLA leadership. Many China analysts note growing strains in civil-military relations in China. Some of the most sensitive issues between military and civilian leadership relate to the PLA budget and justification for its continued growth. Were the PLA to acquiesce on Taiwan, it knows its resources could be threatened. It is plausible that Chinese civilian leaders are choosing not to have this fight with the PLA.

The third possible explanation is that the military buildup opposite Taiwan is really aimed at priorities well beyond Taiwan. The capabilities designed to threaten Taiwan have other uses, perhaps even against U. …