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A Timely Reminder From The Taiwan Straits

David G. Miller

A Timely Reminder From The Taiwan Straits

The resolution adopted earlier this month by China’s ruling National People’s Congress that authorised the use of military force should Taiwan declare its independence is perhaps the most dangerous step taken within the context of Sino-Taiwanese relations to date and has placed an increased amount of strain between China and Taiwan. Although China continues to maintain that it is committed to finding a peaceful solution and its premier Wen Jiabao claiming that the act is not a "war bill”, this law enshrines the power of the ruling State Council and Central Military Commission to authorise a possible military strike within the country’s legal framework. Given that the response by the international community towards this bill was rather low-key, should the world have a heightened fear that conflict will break out in East Asia?

China’s threats to attack Taiwan are nothing new and tensions between the two have simmered since the revolution of 1949. Since that time, both Taipei and Beijing have competed for recognition from the international community but as the mainland has gained the ascendancy, so too has its military power and its demands that no other country or organisation interfere in what it regards as an internal matter. Throughout the past 15 years, China has increased its threats towards Taiwan and has even held war games close to its coastlines prompting the US to deploy a carrier fleet as a deterrent in 1996. The Chinese government has also sought to modernise the weaponry available to its armed forces, making use of surplus Russian stocks and develop the PLA from a massive land-based force designed to fight a guerrilla war to one that is capable of carrying out specialised amphibious operations. The rise of over 12 percent in the PLA budget this year is an example of these trends.

China has raised the stakes with the new anti-secession act and for a brief time, attention shifted from events in the Middle East and the Caucasus to East Asia but this does not mean that war in the Taiwan Straits is more imminent now than it was even a month ago. When analysed closely, the law is a shrewd move on the part of Beijing, which having raised the bar slightly higher, places the question of independence and its possible consequences squarely on the shoulders of Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian and asks whether he will push Taiwan to secede given the recent proclamation. Chen is a fierce critic of Beijing's Communist leadership and a premier who appears determined to press for the island to have its own standing in the world. He has appeared among hundreds of thousands of protesters throughout Taiwan and has stated that he will lead the island to independence by the time his second term ends in 2008. Chen is that type of leader whom Beijing has always feared and represents a new generation to whom the bonds that have tied China and Taiwan together are not as strong as they were for their parents and grandparents but who exists within a situation that is a hangover from the Cold War.

Under the status quo, China and Taiwan enjoy burgeoning trade relations and economic factors are drawing the two sides together were politics has failed. While neither side are euphoric by the current situation, so far they have shown that they will accept it and for all its sabre rattling, China has not attempted to see if its military modernisation programme would prove successful in capturing Taiwan. Should war break out then it is likely that the sheer numbers of troops that the PLA could deploy would carry the day, but with its American supplied arsenal, Taiwan would be able to inflict great damage on its enemies military, territory and civilian population and any declarations of independence will severely test this military balance and sense of mutually assured destruction.

The other question mark hangs over what action the United States would embark upon. Its response to the new Chinese law was rather muted to say the least in that the strength of Washington’s response was to label the act ‘unhelpful’ and dispatch Condolezza Rice to Beijing to hear reassurances that China is not about to start a war. Yet although the US is distracted with wars elsewhere, it cannot afford to turn a blind eye to any developments in this region. For one thing, it has alliances with South Korea and Japan to consider as well as maintaining its naval dominance in throughout the Pacific Ocean and Asian waters. It also needs China to refrain from openly criticising any military action it takes as part of its war on terror and aid it in preventing the spread of militant Islam. However, the US is also the leading supplier of weapons and military hardware to Taiwan and is opposing moves by the European Union to lift its weapons embargo on China that has been in place since the government crushed the uprisings in Tiannamen Square.

China’s anti-secession act is a timely reminder that in an era when the troubles in Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan dominate the media headlines, the situation in Northeast Asia should not be overlooked or pushed to one side. US-Sino relations have been warm in recent years, however a large element of this friendly co-existence can be attributed to Beijing not being openly hostile to US actions in the Middle East and elsewhere. China has certainly raised the temperature in the region with its new law and has rattled its sabres a little louder. Yet it is not necessarily a first step towards war. Instead, it is a clever political step designed to prevent its adversary from declaring independence and at least give the hawks in the PLA and communist party an excuse to wage war should they do so. Either way, the pressure is now more firmly placed upon Taiwan and whether it feels China has the resolve to carry out is threat and whether it has the will and resources to do so.


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