Academic journal article Naval War College Review

China's Closing Window of Opportunity

Academic journal article Naval War College Review

China's Closing Window of Opportunity

Article excerpt

Conventional wisdom says that the People's Republic of China is, for better or worse, recovering its place as a major power on the world stage. To its citizens and leaders, many of whom regard the Middle Kingdom's decline in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as a historical anomaly and its modern resurgence as a national priority, this renewed stature means a larger economic, political, and military role for China in East Asia and beyond. It also means Taiwan's return to the PRC fold, without which China's destiny will remain unrealized in the hearts and minds of most mainlanders.

Many analysts and cogent observers have already concluded that history is on China's side in the struggle over Taiwan, which Beijing considers a renegade province. As China's size and strength continue to grow in the Asia-Pacific region, they say, Taiwan will have little choice but to yield-on its own terms if the fledgling democracy is lucky and wise. The same China watchers quickly point to the PRC's steady military buildup and substantial, albeit uneven, economic growth as proof that today's relatively weak Beijing will in due course develop the muscle it needs either to take the twenty-three-million-strong Republic of China forcibly or pressure Taipei into accepting a Hong Kong-like arrangement. Most estimates put the inevitable day of reckoning somewhere between ten and twenty years from now, when China's military and economic engines are expected to overshadow those of most of its regional neighbors, if not Japan.

A more realistic, comprehensive examination of the pertinent trends reveals a different future. An attempted blockade and limited missile campaign-the most plausible attack scenario-would be more likely to produce China's desired results in this decade than in the next. By 2010, the guardian United States will have strengthened its military position in the western Pacific relative to China, and a defensively stronger Taipei will have fully embraced, if not institutionalized, Taiwan's increasingly popular "status quo" approach to cross-strait affairs, further marginalizing the idea of reunification. Added to other unmistakable trends, such an environment will make a PRC move on Taiwan exponentially riskier. The conservative defense planners in Beijing almost certainly realize this. If Chinese aggression in East Asia is to be deterred, Taiwan and the United States must also recognize and prepare for this alternate reality.

TAIWAN'S STATUS QUO CONSENSUS

Happy on average with its national identity and way of life today, Taiwan is unlikely to join voluntarily an authoritarian, economically unpredictable PRC, absent some use of force by the mainland. Never cordial neighbors, the two parties' differences have hardened in recent years, while the Republic of China's successful democratic experiment has tipped the domestic political scale in favor of the status quo, perhaps forever.

At the heart of this political shift is the breakdown of the pro-reunification Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party, Beijing's best hope for a peaceful merger. Plagued by infighting and mass defections to splinter factions after half a century of uninterrupted rule, the party of the ROC's "founding father," Chiang Kai-shek, lost its majority in the parliament for the first time in history in December 2001, surrendering almost half its seats. Following a disappointing third-place finish in the presidential race one year earlier, the shocking loss was widely blamed on the Kuomintang leadership's decision to remain faithful to the party's historical, but increasingly unpopular, commitment to reunification.

The new government is led by native-born Chen Shui-ben. His Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) had made periodic assertions of defiance-such as Chen's now-famous pronouncement to an American interviewer that "Taiwan is an independent country," or his coy support for a national referendum on independence-each of which prompted warnings from Beijing. …

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