On March 3, the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) released its annual report to Congress on the Military Power of the People’s Republic of China. Its key finding, “China’s expanding and improving military capabilities are changing East Asian military balances; improvements in China’s strategic capabilities have implications beyond the Asia-Pacific region.”
The OSD report devotes considerable space to Chinese weapons development, including a new generation of nuclear missiles capable of targeting the United States; advanced short- and medium-range ballistic missiles; attack and ballistic missile submarines; precision weaponry; fighter development; the integration of Russian guided missile destroyers into the fleet; and long-range, mobile air defense systems. Cyber warfare, the development of ballistic missiles capable of attacking aircraft carriers; and anti-satellite weapons are also covered.
Though published by the OSD, the report includes the State Department’s standard diplomatic mantra, “The United States welcomes the rise of a stable, peaceful, and prosperous China.” As a practical matter, Beijing’s rising influence has been unwelcome in places like Sudan, Iran and Venezuela, where China’s quest for oil has aligned it with radical and anti-American regimes. Indeed, in virtually all the world’s trouble spots, Washington and Beijing are on opposite sides, as would be expected since Beijing sees itself as a revisionist power struggling to overturn American “hegemony.
The report sees Taiwan as China’s near-term military focus, but long-term trends suggest China is building forces for more distant operations. Geography dictates this sequence of events. Taiwan is part of a line of islands that runs from the southern tip of Russian Kamchatka through Japan to Taiwan, then on to the Philippines and Indonesia, leading to the choke point at the Strait of Malacca. Chinese military thinkers understand that Beijing needs to control Taiwan to move its maritime perimeter eastward to get beyond these barrier islands. General Wen Zongren, Political Commissar of the elite People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Academy of Military Science, was quoted in the 2005 OSD report as saying that taking control of Taiwan is of “far reaching significance to breaking international forces’ blockade against China’s maritime security. . . . Only when we break this blockade shall we be able to talk about China’s rise. . . . [T]o rise suddenly, China must pass through oceans and go out of the oceans in its future development.”
Chinese strategists want a “String of Pearls", a network of ports and airfields, special diplomatic relationships, and blue water naval forces which could project Beijing’s influence from the South China Sea through the Strait of Malacca, across the Indian Ocean, and on to the Persian Gulf. Taiwan is central to creating or cutting this string.
The 2008 OSD report, like its predecessors, examines the military balance between mainland China and Taiwan and reiterates that it is U.S. policy under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act to oppose any use of force to change the current status quo. Taiwan is a vibrant democracy sitting astride strategic sealanes. It is not in the interest of the United States to see Taiwan conquered by the Beijing dictatorship. But the island’s true fate is in the hands of those who live there.
The Republic of China on Taiwan held its presidential election March 22. Kuomintang (KMT) presidential candidate Ma Ying-jeou, the Harvard-educated former mayor of Taipei, won, ending eight years of rule by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) under term-limited President Chen Shui-bian. In January, the KMT had won 81 of the 113 seats in the Legislative Yuan.
The DPP has favored formal independence for Taiwan. The PRC has threatened war if the island declares such de jure freedom. The KMT, as the party of Chiang Kai-shek who fled to Taiwan at the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, still embraces the Republic of China (ROC) heritage. It favors closer economic ties with the mainland, but does not want to give up the island’s de facto independence from Beijing’s communist regime. There is very little support among Taiwanese for unification with the mainland. A November poll taken for the Straits Exchange Foundation found 45 percent favored independence, 22 percent endorsed the status quo, and only 18 percent wanted unification with China. The People’s First Party, which favors a union with the mainland, won only one legislative seat in the January elections.
I have seen for myself the strong sense of identity the Taiwanese exhibit. They are justly proud of having built the world’s 16th largest economy with a per capita GDP over $29,000. The enthusiasm they display during election campaigns would not be welcome in Beijing. Ma laid out his vision for the future in a speech to the Association for the Promotion of National Security on February 26. To assure the status quo, that is, effective self-rule without provoking an attack from the mainland, Ma has “The Three Nos” policy: “no negotiation of unification with the Mainland, no attempt to pursue de jure independence, and no cross-Strait use of military force.” He would try to negotiate “a cross-Strait Peace Agreement, to turn the Taiwan Strait into a prosperous and peaceful non-military zone”, if Beijing agreed to his “demand that the Mainland dismantle missiles aimed at Taiwan.” Beijing has deployed approximately 1,000 short and medium range ballistic missiles opposite the island.
Ma would cultivate “soft power and globalization” for Taiwan’s safety. He wants the island to become “an East Asian economic and cultural hub” with its major cities becoming “international metropolises, when there are foreign professionals and businesses everywhere.” Beijing would dare not attack such a cosmopolitan island, especially if there was a strong American presence, he hopes. Ma plans massive investments in infrastructure and the expansion of the financial services and medical sectors to replace the industrial sectors that have moved to the mainland in search of cheap and abundant labor. The KMT receives considerable financial backing from those who have built factories on the mainland and who favor appeasement of Beijing on the issue of independence to protect their investments. Beijing also knows how to play the “soft power” game.
By embracing the status quo, Ma hopes to improve relations with Washington. He told his audience, “If elected, my most important task is naturally repairing relations between Taiwan and the United States. And we hope that the Americans will rebuild this relationship based on the Taiwan Relations Act and Reagan’s Six Assurances. We understand that, pragmatically speaking, the United States is our last defense, and we promise Taiwan will bear responsibility for its own self-defense through reasonable procurement of defensive armaments and by never involving the US in an unnecessary conflict.”
Merely foreswearing a declaration of independence may not be enough to prevent a Chinese attack. China’s 2005 Anti-Secession Law states that Beijing would resort to “non-peaceful means” against Taiwan if “possibilities for peaceful reunification” are exhausted. Ma understands that public opinion will not allow abandonment of his pledge of “no negotiation of unification”, so war remains a risk. Taipei and Washington may embrace the status quo, but Beijing does not.
Ma calls his military defense strategy “Hard ROC… an integrated defensive capability that will make it impossible to scare us, blockade us, occupy us, or wear us down….We believe that Taiwan’s defensive stance should be to arm and armor ourselves only to the point that the Mainland cannot be sure of being able to launch a ‘first strike’ that would crush our defensive capacity and resolution immediately.” He pledged to “strengthen our naval and air bases, specifically runways, aircraft defenses and harbors, to be able to withstand a first wave of Mainland missile and fighter plane attacks.”
Unfortunately, Ma’s bold words do not disguise what is entirely a defensive, minimalist posture. He has rejected as “provocative” DPP plans to develop the HF-2E cruise missile which could hit the ports and airfields China would use to support an invasion of the island. The Bush administration also opposes Taiwan acquiring any “offensive” capability; though in modern war it is the setting that matters more than the hardware. Taiwan will always be on the strategic defensive, but an effective defense requires the ability to hit back at the aggressor.
Last June, an $8.9 billion defense budget, long delayed by the KMT, finally passed the Legislative Yuan. The appropriation represented 2.6 percent of Taiwan’s GDP and included funding for twelve P-3C maritime patrol aircraft, six Patriot missile system upgrades and a feasibility study for the possible purchase of eight diesel-electric submarines. Funding was also made available for acquiring late model air-to-air missiles, air-to-surface missiles and advanced conventional stand-off missiles. In December, the KMT-led legislature passed a $10.5 billion 2008 defense budget which includes three PAC-III missile defense batteries. Ma hopes that improved relations with Washington will allow Taiwan to buy more F-16C/D fighter-bombers which have been withheld because of souring relations between the State Department and the DPP government.
As long as the people of Taiwan favor democratic self-government outside the control of Beijing, they deserve the support of the United States. When President George W. Bush first came into office, he pledged to “do whatever it takes” to defend Taiwan from a PRC attack. In recent years, the commitment has become more ambiguous as attention has focused elsewhere. Ambiguity is dangerous as it may lead an aggressor to miscalculate the risks of war.
Peace supports the status quo, but deterrence is required to keep the peace. The 2008 Military Power of the People’s Republic of China states as the first factor of deterrence, “China does not yet possess the military capability to accomplish with confidence its political objectives on the island, particularly when confronted with the prospect of U.S. intervention.” American policy should strive to keep Beijing’s confidence as low as possible.
The new president of ROC presidential should be given a strong, public show of support by President Bush as the democratic leader of a successful people who share deep ties of sentiment and interest with the United States.