Oct 22, 2009
Ten years to tackle the Taiwan equation
By Francesco Sisci
BEIJING - The ongoing military dialogue between the United States and China is certainly the most sensitive and politically important concern of the two countries. It is the punctus puncti (the point of the point), as scholastic Medieval theologians would put it - the one thing that, if fixed, would put every other topic in place. This is a complicated and delicate matter, but, at least according to recent reports, two issues particularly stick out - the reciprocal rules of conduct during surveillance missions and arms sales to Taiwan.
The issue of rules of conduct is tricky, but less sensitive. Here, technical and cultural issues are enmeshed. Technically, the two militaries, particularly their navies and air forces, have to discuss a protocol of behavior when they meet in international air space or waters during what are and will be essentially US surveillance missions encroaching on Chinese territory.
The Chinese have been reluctant to discuss the subject for two reasons. One is cultural: agreeing to rules of conduct means recognizing an official "status of enmity" between China and America, and Beijing may not be willing to officially consider Washington as an enemy. The second reason is practical: China simply would like these American missions to stop or decrease significantly, and wants to keep its cards close to its chest about the progress of its military technology.
However, from the American point of view, given the extremely secretive nature of the Chinese army, it is important to keep a close watch on the Chinese military's evolution to forestall any technological leaps and also to check on regional politics. Other countries in the region could claim that China's military is advancing very fast, and thus those countries could press ahead with rearmament programs. Yet, if the US has proof of the status of the Chinese army, it can disclaim those crying wolf, or it can face China itself, which even for Beijing might be politically better than facing a rearmament program from, say, Japan, Vietnam or India.
The second concern - the sale of arms to Taiwan - is far more complicated as it goes to the core of the nationalistic and territorial claims of China. According to Beijing, the American sale of arms is the one instrument by which the US holds Taiwan apart from the rest of China.
Still, the Taiwan issue is not simply confined to arms sales. In the past year, Taiwan has established direct travel, telecommunication and shipping links with the mainland. It has, in other words, given up what were previously considered all its bargaining chips with Beijing.
Furthermore, it has dropped restrictions on mainland investments in Taiwan. Most importantly, Taiwan took political measures to avoid antagonizing Beijing: it denied an entry visa to Uighur dissident Rebiya Kadeer and Taiwan President Ma Ying-jiu refused to meet the exiled Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama. In other words, Taiwan has allowed China to gain further leverage over the island economy by welcoming Beijing's investment, and it is bending to pressure from Beijing by restricting political space for China's enemies.
Taiwan's army, which is notoriously pro-reunification with China, is the last fig leaf before real reunification. This army, without new, sophisticated weapons to theoretically counter Beijing's ever-improving army, would be less than a fig leaf - it would be a figment of the imagination. That is, Taiwan would be left with nothing to bargain with in its talks on reunification. It could be in China's and America's interests to leave Taiwan alone and disarmed to let it drift to China's mainland, as both Beijing and Washington would then be without a major stumbling block in their rapprochement. But this could have dangerous regional consequences.
The return of Taiwan to the mainland - even if only virtual, by leaving the island defenseless - urgently raises a major political issue in Beijing: that of the integration into still-authoritarian China of fully-fledged democratic Taiwan. Beijing would not be able to democratize immediately, according to Taiwan's standard, nor would Taiwan accept submitting to authoritarian Beijing. It would also be difficult to keep the two political systems separate, the way Beijing does with the Special Autonomous Region of Hong Kong, and that of Macau. Taiwan is much bigger, and its politics and media are livelier, more articulated and more sophisticated than Hong Kong's.
Besides, control of Taiwan also involves the security of Japan. Over 50% of Japan's energy and food imports pass east and west of the island, and therefore Taiwan's return to China would put Beijing in a position to hold Tokyo by the throat. This would make Japan very uncomfortable. If, moreover, Japan feels the US is giving in too much to China, then it might consider taking more of its security into its own hands. This might include forging closer links with India, the demographic counterweight to China, and Vietnam, China's restive neighbor.
Tokyo could head a formal or informal coalition of Chinese neighbors, all of which might be roused to feel they had historical scores to settle with Beijing. With less of an American presence in the region, and with a large but still not immense Chinese economy, China might have to deal with all of these neighbors alone, a risky proposition that could lead to China being boxed in or becoming arrogant. This would be less than ideal.
Without the issue of Taiwan's return, Beijing would be confronted with a major dilemma regarding its military: should it stop or proceed with its army's modernization? Beijing would have far less reason to increase its military expenditures. But the People's Liberation Army (PLA) would not stop its build-up, which ultimately has the political purpose of paralleling China's future economic might. But then, the Chinese build-up would trigger a regional build-up, and this in turn could strengthen the political hand of the PLA at home. Since the Opium Wars in the 19th century, China has been afraid to lose in a minor war, and such a defeat could in turn kindle a power struggle and political crisis at home. It is thus fundamental not to lose in a limited war.
This pressure, and the pressure of a possible limited confrontation, could in turn increase the PLA's political clout, something not without risk. As everyone in China knows, power comes from the barrel of the gun, and the guns might then want more power in China, pushing domestic politics in one direction or another. But the army, though it should be allowed to remain influential, should not impose its will on the Communist Party; it should be the other way around. However, it could thus be hard to keep a balance between too much and too little power for the PLA when confronted with a regional arms race.
Then the issue is not the sales of arms to Taiwan but how to find a political composition for the region in which there is the de facto return of Taiwan to the mainland. Here things will not drag on forever - there is a timetable. In about 10 years, China's economy could be twice the size of Japan's, and China's demographics will be transformed. As the Chinese baby boom will have ended, most of the population could be over 50. Urbanization could be over 50% and a welfare state should be in place to take care of the elderly and the urban unemployed.
This will force the state to increase taxes for private enterprises, which presently largely evade their dues. All of this will transform China, its character and its needs, but it will likely reinforce its nationalistic streak, with the return of Taiwan at its core. In other words, the US, China and the region have a decade to peacefully solve the Taiwan issue - otherwise there might be gigantic problems.
This perspective is perhaps something that China and America should really mull over - rather than simply concentrate on the next arms sale to Taiwan.
(I am grateful to discussions with Benjamin Lim and his article of September 29, 2009, Xin zhongguo er shun zhi nian and Lu Xiang for some of the themes of this story. See also Asia steels for challenges ahead Asia Times Online, October 15, 2009.)
Francesco Sisci is the Asia Editor of La Stampa.
(Copyright 2009 Francesco Sisci.)