Wed, Jul 15, 2009 - Page 8 News List

Why 2012 will be a deadly deadline

By J. Michael Cole 寇謐將

Only recently have specialists started asking why, if things are going so well in the Strait, should China continue to modernize its military and expand its arsenal with equipment at least partly intended for a Taiwan contingency, including increasingly accurate short-range missiles?

What some experts fail to see is that by celebrating cross-strait detente of the kind initiated by the Ma administration and its counterpart in Beijing, and by deliberately ignoring the very substantial opposition that existed and is now growing within Taiwan, they are helping to create the conditions for a conflict in the not-so-distant future that could be far more serious than anything seen before — one that would almost inevitably involve deadly force.

Unless political dissent in Taiwan can be smothered, democratic forces could threaten to derail Ma’s efforts, especially as more controversial aspects of cross-strait exchanges grow nearer. And the principal threat will not be referendums on an ECFA or public protests, but the 2012 presidential election.

Despite its lack of experience with democracy, Beijing is aware of the threat of electoral retribution in Taiwan, which could bring into office a pro-independence party or a KMT administration that is not as pliant as Ma’s. At the least, legislative elections could correct the imbalance that the Ma administration has enjoyed since it came to power and weaken the KMT’s control of the executive and legislative branches, which is part of the reason why Ma has been able to ignore calls for caution, transparency and accountability in his China policy.

As such, Beijing is probably calculating that if it is to succeed in annexing Taiwan, it must do so before 2012. We can expect pressure to build very soon for accelerated economic integration and for political matters to be put on the agenda of cross-strait talks.

In this light, it is easier to explain why cross-strait detente has not been accompanied by an expected military drawdown on Beijing’s part. In fact, 2012 will not be much different from the 1996 elections, when the Chinese military fired missiles off Taiwan’s major ports to influence the country’s first free presidential elections. Back then, Beijing was sending the signal that if Taiwanese voted for Lee, they were choosing war — a threat that, as history showed, was hollow given the power disparity between China on one side and the US and Taiwan on the other.

This time around, however, after more than a decade of major investment in its military and new weapons systems, such as second-generation nuclear submarines and anti-ship ballistic missiles, Beijing is in a much better position to intimidate not only Taiwan but also the US, should it feel compelled to dispatch carrier battle groups to or near the Strait amid tensions.

During the presidential election campaign in 2011 and early 2012 the KMT could also exploit public fears of renewed tensions with Beijing to its advantage and accuse its opponents of risking war. A divided polity will by that time face a choice between irreversible political annexation or military attack.

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