On Dec. 31, Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) made six proposals on cross-strait relations. Hu kept firmly to Beijing’s “one China” policy, but for the first time raised the prospect of security and military talks with Taiwan.
Hu stressed that China would pursue a “peaceful development” policy.
“The two sides can pick the right time to engage in exchanges on military issues and explore setting up a military and security mechanism to build mutual trust,” which would help “improve the situation in the Taiwan Strait and lessen military and security concerns,” Hu said.
At first glance, Hu’s idea of a cross-strait military confidence-building mechanisms as a goodwill gesture seems encouraging, but before we jump to conclusions, a careful examination of China’s calculations, perceptions and misperceptions behind the proposal is necessary.
In the past, China appeared to be obsessed with the idea that any proposal for unification with Taiwan could bear fruit only when there was fear of war. In other words, keeping Taiwan exceedingly insecure serves China’s interests and stops Taiwan going down the path of independence; therefore, Beijing would never renounce the use of force or set up any form of confidence-building mechanisms to coerce Taiwan “back into its fold.”
However, China’s misperception that the more Taiwan feels insecure and vulnerable, the less likely it would be to move toward de jure independence and/or the more likely Taipei would be to come to the negotiation table has backfired and has decreased rather than increased the prospects for cross-strait unification.
For example, during the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis, Beijing suspended all talks between the Straits Exchange Foundation and the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait after then-president Lee Teng-hui’s (李登輝) visit to the US in 1995. With the presidential election approaching, China launched a series of missile exercises in the Taiwan Strait with the aim of intimidating Taiwan away from the path toward independence.
Tensions reached a peak in March 1996 when the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) fired four missiles close to Taiwan’s two major harbors, Keelung and Kaohsiung, sparking a serious crisis that resulted in the deployment of two US aircraft-carrier battle groups to the region. The following year, Washington approved the sale of a package of several Patriot missile batteries to Taiwan to counter the PLA’s capabilities.
Beijing should have learned a lesson — that building a greater credible threat of force to intimidate Taiwan only leads to negative consequences for China. This is because internationally, the US is then more likely to give the green light to arms sale to Taiwan and domestically, Taiwan is more likely to pass budgets for purchasing more arms in the interests of national defense.
Beijing therefore needed some new innovative strategies to de-link two critical realities — the US’ explicit commitment to defend Taiwan from aggression and Taiwan’s own capacity to blunt the military capabilities that the PLA may employ against it.
Based on the calculations above, China might try to recast its policy to emphasize winning support from the Taiwanese populace, for closer cross-strait relations and to undermine the US’ security commitment based on the Taiwan Relations Act by means of initiating a cross-strait military confidence-building mechanism, which could be started immediately by reducing the number of PLA missiles aimed at Taiwan.