Intelligence analysts are trained (sometimes mistakenly) to assume the worst in their field. The assumption that the other is up to no good is so endemic that even the absence of intelligence is often construed as an act of maliciousness. This phenomenon, though not restricted to counterterrorism, often manifests itself in two ways: either the individual or group is “inactive” or in “sleep” mode (as in so-called “sleeper cells”), or the target is so proficient that nefarious activities remain beyond the reach of surveillance, communications intercepts and intelligence officers.
In this world of the paranoid, Ockham’s razor principle, whereby — to paraphrase the English logician from whom the principle gets its name — all other things being equal, the simplest explanation is best, absence of evidence is in and of itself incriminating, just as the infamous Team B in the 1970s sought to discredit absence of intelligence by the CIA on a secret Soviet submarine project by construing lack of intelligence as meaning that the Soviet Union had succeeded in developing subs that could not be detected, known as anti-acoustic submarines. No such subs were ever developed.
With this in mind, we have two ways to assess Beijing’s recent conciliatory moves toward Taipei, which include dispatches of the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait vice chairman and chairman to Taiwan last month and this month, and Beijing’s supposed “goodwill” act of allowing President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) to send former Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) chairman Lien Chan (連戰) to represent the country at the APEC leaders’ summit in Lima, Peru, this weekend and for Ma to be referred to as president of “Chinese Taipei” — a first, we are told, since Taiwan joined the group in 1991.
The first more optimistic interpretation, if we were to abide by Occam’s principle, would be to see these developments as proof that Ma’s “diplomatic truce” is bearing fruit and that Beijing has become less strident on the Taiwan issue since the KMT regained power in March and replaced the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party of former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁).
Under this scenario, the Ma administration’s flexible interpretation of sovereignty and concessions to China, added to a series of measures taken in recent months to facilitate trade and travel between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait, are making war in the Strait less likely, as both sides see the advantages in stepping away from the brink.
The second more pessimistic interpretation — the one that intelligence analysts would probably favor — is that Beijing is bidding its time, putting Taipei, and perhaps the US, to sleep through deception by giving Taiwan crumbs, such as allowing Lien to represent the action at APEC, or even allowing Lima to refer to Ma as president.
In this view, absence of threat information and indications of reconciliation are smoke and mirrors and China’s option of a military attack on Taiwan remains as real, if not more so, than it has been in the past 20 years or so.
To put this in counterterrorism terms, China is in “sleep” mode, seemingly inactive but readying for activation. China watchers all agree that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will never agree to anything less than “one China,” with Taiwan as one of its provinces. Given this, Beijing’s “goodwill” on such matters as APEC and cross-strait travel is counter to the CCP’s ideology and must be something other than a heartfelt concession.
In other words, as there is no room for such a paradox in the CCP universe, the gifts must be something else.
So which option is most feasible, the optimistic view, or the pessimistic one?
All things being equal, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Order of Battle (ORBAT) says it all. Despite the cross-strait rapprochement that we have seen in recent months, the PLA has failed to deactivate or redirect the odd-1,300 ballistic missiles it aims at Taiwan, something that even Ma has said would be a road block to negotiations — that he has chosen to negotiate despite this speaks volumes.
In other words, where confidence-building measures would be expected to accompany diplomacy, we have seen nothing that suggests the PLA is reducing its threatening posture. Furthermore, news this week that the PLA had deployed YJ-62A anti-ship missiles — that, with a reach of 400km, would bring most of Taiwanese ports within range — points to continued acceleration and refinement in range, precision and destructiveness of the arsenal at the PLA’s disposal should it come to war.
Given the relatively weak Taiwanese navy, it is likely that the YJ-62As are meant to deter US Navy warships and aircraft carriers, which could be deployed to the Taiwan Strait should Washington feel compelled to come to Taiwan’s assistance during a military crisis.
Also, despite Beijing’s longstanding claims that the modernization of its military is in line with its growing global responsibilities rather than directed at Taiwan, the YJ-62A’s 400km range means that their only use is for a Taiwan contingency, as the distance between Fuzhou and Xianyou, Fujian Province, where most of its DF-11 and DF-15 short-range missiles — and the YJ-62s — are likely deployed, and the closest likely target after Taiwan, namely Okinawa, is between 834km and 903km respectively and thus well beyond range.
While analysts often confuse “capability” — in other words, the ORBAT — with “intent,” a growing and modernizing ORBAT with capabilities specific to a given target — in this instance Taiwan — that occurs parallel to “peace talks” is either an indication of malicious intent or the belief by one of the parties to the talks that a diplomatic resolution to the Taiwan question is unlikely.
J. Michael Cole is a writer based in Taipei.
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