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David Miller: Sabre Rattling In The Taiwan Straits

David Miller Online. Sabre Rattling In The Taiwan Straits: Here We Go Again.

In a month when a downed spy plane has dominated events in East Asia and strained relations between China and the United States, it was inevitable that the issue of Taiwan would enter the equation. It has been a contentious issue and possible flashpoint for the best part of five decades now and has been marked by diplomatic rivalry, war-games and military build ups with the ever present threat of an invasion from the mainland, and US ambiguity. Therefore, with President Bush publicly stating that the US will do ‘whatever it takes’ to defend Taiwan, should we be alarmed by this latest development?

Having been a student of East Asian strategic relations, I am inclined to be optimistic that there will not be a war in the Taiwan Straits, even in the wake of this latest round of posturing and I am so for three reasons. The first reason I offer is due to the fact that at the present time China does not possess the military capabilities to successfully invade Taiwan, despite its constant threats that it will do so. China regards Taiwan as a renegade province after the nationalist government fled there following the communist takeover of the mainland in 1949. Since then both sides of the Taiwan Straits have acquired and developed weaponry and equipment, and as a result Taiwan has a well-equipped military arsenal of its own, including air and naval capabilities. The best the PRC could hope for at present is a missile bombardment of the island and/or a naval and air blockade. Thus it could try and cut off Taiwan’s trade and commerce and force the Taiwanese either into submission or to the negotiating table on Beijing’s terms. There is concern that this could change if China’s military power begins to outstrip Taiwan’s to the point where China feels it could mount an invasion successfully, however while the US continues to play a role this is unlikely to happen. This is the second point to my argument.

The US policy towards the China-Taiwan issue is complex to say the least. The US has over the past three decades embarked upon a policy of switching its diplomatic recognition to the Peoples Republic at the expense of Taiwan and has always maintained that it adheres to the ‘One-China’ policy. By this Washington means that it will not support Taiwanese independence but at the same time the US has implied, rather than stated that it would help defend Taiwan against any attack from the mainland due to its commitments under the Taiwan Relations Act. That was until Mr. Bush’s interview and comments when the implication became stated.

This commitment was evident in 1996, when the US deployed aircraft carrier battle groups to the Taiwan Straits in response to the live fire exercises China staged off the Taiwanese coast. These exercises where in response to the visit of then President Lee Teng-hui’s landmark visit to the US. In an interview last week, Mr. Bush pledged that this support and policy of intervention would remain unchanged. He has not only pledged direct military support but has began a round of weapons and equipment transfer to Taiwan, however this does not include the state of the art Aegis radar system that Taiwan had hoped for.

What this does is maintain the military balance to East Asia. By preserving Taiwan’s de facto independence the US is able to prevent China from increasing its dominance in the region. If China was to take control of Taiwan, it would not only increase its military capabilities immensely, but also its economic power would increase dramatically due to the strong Taiwanese economy, and it would also be able to control or influence the main shipping lanes in the region. This would bring Japan into the picture as well, thus widening any possibility for conflict, as Tokyo has no desire to co-habit with a hegemonic China.

The final reason I offer is economics and the fact that underneath the diplomatic rivalry and military build-ups, there is a network of economic and commercial relations being built up between both sides of the Taiwan Straits. Due to this economic binding the term ‘Greater China’ has been coined, although its definition is open to debate. I regard ‘Greater China’ as being the territories of the PRC, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao and while this term has yet to become a political reality it is a useful way of discussing the informal relationships these entities have developed. Taiwan has invested heavily in the mainland over the past two decades and since 1990, Taiwanese businesses have been able to invest directly in China. China provides an opening market for such enterprises along with a vast pool of labour and resources. Although this is the briefest of synopses, it shows that economics and trade is one way that relations are fostered and that a mutual dependency is developing that can act as an incentive not to go to war.

The Taiwan-China relationship is one that is broad and complex and much to large to be analysed in great depth here. However this touches on the basic arguments as to why the tension over Taiwan will not escalate into a war. It must be remembered that nationalism and military pride are two highly charged and dangerous emotions running through the region at present and have the potential to negate any concerns over economic cost. Once unleashed these are certainly not rational. However while China lacks the offensive capabilities and the US is prepared to defend Taiwan and sell it weapons, war is still a distant prospect and reality will overcome nationalism. China needs the US for its economic development and growth, so while this remains the case the sabres will continue to be rattled rather than used.

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