It would be very easy to overstate the significance of the Chinese government’s suggestion last week, following President Hu Jintao’s (胡錦濤) speech from the throne, that it could remove some of the 1,300 missiles it aims at Taiwan once military confidence measures have been implemented.
While this might appear to be a gesture of goodwill — Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator Lin Yu-fang (林郁方) could not refrain from using these words — the “removal” of missiles is little more than cosmetic, as history shows us.
Two treaties during the Cold War were hailed at the time as significantly reducing the risk of nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union. Known as the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaties (SALT), the agreements limited the growth of US and Soviet missile arsenals. SALT II, signed in 1979, sought to cap strategic missile forces to 2,250 on each side and is believed to have helped discourage Moscow from developing new types of missiles.
Still, even after this landmark agreement, the nemeses still had enough nuclear weapons to annihilate each other many times over and, in squeezed balloon fashion, often compensated for cuts in one area by bolstering forces in another. Ultimately, if a nuclear exchange did not happen, it wasn’t cuts in the respective arsenals — which, we must note, could rapidly have been rearmed or redeployed — that limited the danger, but rather that nuclear war was inconceivable to decision makers on both sides. In other words, capabilities were more than sufficient; it was the intent that was lacking.
While, thankfully, the missiles China aims at Taiwan are not nuclear tipped, a reduction would also be more cosmetic than real. For the same reasons that the SALT treaties did not really make the world safer, or the risk of war any less real, a missile reduction program on the Chinese side will be meaningless as long as missiles can be rearmed and redeployed — quite easily done as the missile launchers for China’s DF-11s and DF-15s are road-mobile. China could also compensate for cutbacks by other means, such as increased air strike capabilities, more precise munitions or submarine-launch capabilities.
Perhaps even more important is the fact that, unlike its Cold War predecessors, Beijing has the intent to use its weapons against its opponent across the Strait — even more so as the missiles are conventional, meaning that Beijing wouldn’t need to cross the nuclear-psychological barrier to launch an attack.
We must not fool ourselves: The possibility of a missile reduction is a carrot China is waving at Taipei and, conceivably, the world. Should Beijing’s long, carefully planned hypnotism of the KMT fail at some point, or if a pro-independence government were to reclaim office in Taiwan, it would just as soon redeploy — and possibly augment — its missile arsenal.
Another departure from the Cold War analogy is the fact that while on paper the US and Soviet Union stood to gain from arms reduction in terms of security, a similar reduction in the Taiwan Strait would be one-sided. In other words, China’s security would not be affected regardless of whether reduction occurs or not, because Taiwan does not threaten it militarily, and, as we have seen, any reduction on the Chinese side could easily be reversed.
Only when a reduction that really matters occurs — a reduction in the will to use violence against Taiwan to achieve political ends — could we read Beijing’s offer as “goodwill.” Anything less, anything that smacks of deception, should be handled with utmost skepticism.