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Taiwan - Between Annexation & Independence

Between Annexation and Independence


By Israel Rafalovich

(Washington) - Taiwan's failure to conduct government-to-government talks to normalize relations with China, came as no surprise to those who observe the China Taiwan relations.

Bilateral ties have been at stalemate since Beijing angrily froze semi-official talks with Taipei in July 1999 after Then President Lee Teng-hui called for political parity by redefining bilateral ties as "special state-to-state" relations.

However, this unsuccessful attempt underlines the difficulties facing Taiwan's government as it struggles to find new ways to win international acceptance for its "Republic of China" state.

One basic fact must be acknowledged: Taiwan's separation from China is a reality regardless of different semantics. Taiwan and China have de-facto established a "two China policy", albeit for the time being with goals moving in conflicting directions.

The basic divide between Taipei and Beijing remains. Most Taiwanese want to maintain their autonomy for the foreseeable future, while mainland leaders yearn for signs of progress on reunification.

Taipei will do its utmost to defend its independent statehood as long as the politico-societal development on mainland China gives no reason for optimism with respect to a consistent liberalization policy.

Beijing only accepts the enhancement of the diplomatic status of the 'authorities in Taipei" under the premise that this leads to swift negotiations and timetable for reunification.

Taipei should avoid provoking China through an official policy of independence.

The Bush administration warned Taiwan lately, in a blunt language, against steps that could move Taiwan toward independence, including an upcoming referendum. It also warned China against using force or taking other provocative steps to further increase tensions across the Taiwan Straits.

The American statements, were far more explicit on Taiwan than they have been in the past dropping a long-time policy of deliberate ambiguity in the United State's "one China policy".

Taiwan seems to be pushing the envelope pretty vigorously on the question that seem to be related to Taiwan's status, and this makes the United States very uncomfortable.

The United States don't want to see Taiwan moving toward independence. But, if Beijing takes a hard-line approach, it could eventually force Taiwan to take steps to remind China and the rest of the international community that Taiwan cannot be ignored or completely isolated. The new "pragmatic diplomacy" has successfully taken Taiwan out of the worldwide isolation. It attaches greater importance to stable economic relations than to prestige expectations.

A pragmatic dialogue on the China question has DEFACTO promoted the island's independent status, the tightening of the net work of worldwide relations of varying quality has, in the final analysis, increased international interest in Taiwan's continued existence as a democratic state with a successful market economy.

The question of how long Beijing can tolerate the consolidation of this new identity remains unanswered. China has viewed the probability of a military solution of the Taiwan question as just as great as the perspective of peaceful reunification.

American officials have publicly declared that there had been no change in the United States policy, which pledges to protect Taiwan in case of a Chinese attack.

China has made clear that it would regard Taiwanese referendum on any issue to be a step toward independence.

Furthermore, China has stated that it would be compelled to take Taiwan by force if the island attempted to assert formal independence from mainland China. Taiwan still has air superiority above the Taiwan Straits and the obsolete submarine fleet of China is unable to meet the requirements of a naval blockade.

In both respects, Chinese arms purchases in Russia could change the situation. This probably applies to the question of when Beijing feels that the point may have been reached when Taiwan's course of independence would have to be countered by military means.

The power constellation is already shifting in quantitative terms in China's favor.

Quantitative information, however, says very little about Taiwan's actual vulnerability: the deployment of troops in the province of Fujian required for an offensive by China would give Taiwan and the rest of the world plenty of advance warning. Fujian's rugged cliffy coast and the mountainous hinterland only provide limited scope for such an operation. Furthermore, the entire Chinese potential could not be deployed at once against Taiwan, since sufficient protection has to be kept available for the remaining frontiers.

The number and equipment of the current air force bases on the southeast mainland China are not yet adequate for a broadly-based air offensive and they would hardly survive a Taiwanese reprisal.

China's navy probably still lacks adequate transportation capacity and fire power to carry out an amphibious landing on a large scale. It would have to cross the Taiwan Straits in separate units and would be extremely vulnerable.

In the Taiwan Strait, the People's Liberation Army(PLA) had lately the largest and most complex live-fire war games in the past five years, using more than 100,000 land, air and sea forces as well as a variety of weapons.

But there is less here, militarily, than meets the eye. And there is a great deal more of political significance, betraying troubles deep inside China.

Foreign intelligence has monitored the exercises and is finding that China did not demonstrate any significant leaps forward that would allow it to do more than blockade Taiwan or rain missiles on port facilities to cripple Taiwan's commerce.

The exercises showed that the Chinese army cannot meet a key challenge of invasion: the forced entry.

Asian intelligence sources warned that currently China's most immediate threat to Taiwan is a force of 450 short-range ballistic missiles in the Nanjing Military Region across the Taiwan Straits.

These exercises intended to be a series of political decisions with the intention to flex might before the people of China and not to threaten Taiwan or defy the west.

Motivating and mobilizing the military is intended to show a picture of crisis within China and thereby energize nationalistic sentiments.

The Chinese leadership is being buffeted by deepening domestic crisis of credibility and therefore will continue to play in the foreseeable future the military card.

The political leadership in Beijing, which does not always see eye to eye with the military leadership, has a convenient tool to drum up nationalist support in China, as evidence of domestic unrest grows. The military, in turn, will use nationalism to fuel its case for additional buildups.

While creating military crisis is unlikely to create enough nationalistic fervor to quell domestic problems, China will continue to use the show of force in an attempt to strengthen its hold on power.

The result will be the increasing of military confrontation in which the United States and Chinese forces go head-to-head in the Taiwan Strait. The United States, under the Taiwan Relation Act, has pledged to defend Taiwan if it is attacked by China. But, no administration has ever spelled out precisely the circumstances under which force would be used to defend Taiwan.

If the nuclear option is ruled out the only promising strategy is a naval blockade of Taiwan. By blocking the commercial ports of Kaohsiung and Keelung with mines and submarines the island's supply channels could be by and large cut off.

Taiwan's own military doctrine, today, relates to both the possibility of a naval blockade as well as that of an amphibious landing. This is why priority is given to air defence which would enable an effective counterattack in both cases.

How realistic such planning scenarios are still to remain dependent on political developments.

Taiwan sees in building an anti-missile defence a crucial matter for Taiwan's security. Taiwan has no effective ballistic missile capacity itself - and international control regimes and U.S. opposition mean it would be difficult to acquire one - but the urge to create some kind of deterrence force is strong.

Taiwan has unveiled, according to European intelligence sources, new details and images of its on-going Hsiung Feng III supersonic anti-ship missile development project.

The propulsion system comprises a ramjet engine with a solid-fuel rocket booster, which is an upgraded version of the supersonic vehicle prototype revealed in June 1999.

Experts said, that this supersonic vehicle can be fitted with a variety of guidance systems and turn into anti-ship, land-attack or anti-radiation missiles.

The Hsiung Feng III development project was 80 percent complete following a test in September 2002, with the entire program expected to be finished in two years. The new Hsiung Feng III is believed, according to European military experts, to outperform China's Russian made SS-N-22 Sunburn supersonic anti-ship missile.

China realizes, that Taiwan's pragmatic line creates facts in the sense of independence and that time for reunification is running out.

If China's inner conflicts again erupt antagonistically, the interaction of the two tendencies would then no longer make an attempted military solution out of the question.

This leads to conclusions for Western policy concerning the Taiwan question. This policy is automatically a reflect of western policy on China and thus dependent on forecasts and desires regarding the future development in China.

If other parameters remain unchanged Taiwan could declare its independence by the end of the year 2004.

The question is whether an independent Taiwan is not more beneficial to the stability and development of cooperative structures in Western Pacific than an autocratic, perhaps disintegrating or expansive China.

The argument that a stable environment for sociopolitical evolution needs to be created for Beijing ignores questions such as whether China has enough time for a process of political opening or what influence the West at all has on this process.

It's doubtful whether China has decades left for the adjustment of its political structure to the development of society as a whole.

The rather symbolic problem of diplomatic recognition of Taiwan has a different quality and does not arise as long as Taipei does not make this an issue itself.

In a crisis scenario, however, the European Union could at most play a supporting role. An unprovoked Chinese attack would not only bring the United States into the play, because of the Taiwan Relation act but also because of domestic policy reasons.

As in the policy on China in general, the only thing is to remain prepared for adverse developments which could abruptly invalidate the theory of peaceful evolution.

***********

- Israel Rafalovich if a freelance European writer based in Washington D.C. He can be contacted at irafalovich@abacho.de


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