President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has repeatedly called for confidence-building measures between the armed forces on either side of the Taiwan Strait, as did his predecessor Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁). But military affairs experts from China and Taiwan think this is an unrealistic and amateurish proposition. Chinese experts have given persuasive reasons for this view. As retired Chinese Lieutenant General Li Jijun (李際均) said recently, “If the People’s Liberation Army [PLA] were completely transparent toward Taiwan, it would make it equally transparent for countries that have third-party relations with Taiwan … so it would be hard to implement.”
A seminar on the theme of 60 years of cross-strait relations was held in Taipei last month, followed by one on the subject of Sun Zi’s (孫子) Art of War in Beijing. The odd thing is that at both these forums, retired PLA officers, who in the past have shown no interest in promoting cross-strait confidence-building measures, eagerly and earnestly put forward various plans for doing just that.
For example, they suggested that China and Taiwan could start out by building friendly relations through joint patrols in the South China Sea. Such a proposal is fantastic and full of problems.
There are longstanding tensions in the South China Sea, with ASEAN states looking to the US to back them up. The ideas proposed by Li and others would require Taiwan to reverse the military alliances it has long relied on for its security, from the island-chain containment camp headed by the US to the very camp the US wants to contain.
It would be hard to realize such a plan. If it did come to pass, it would have a dramatic impact on the Pacific island-chain containment strategy, on Japan’s oil supply routes, on the emerging Indian-Japanese joint security framework and more. By coopting Taiwan’s armed forces and placing Taiwan, the Pratas Reef and Itu Aba Island — the largest of the Spratly Islands — within its sphere of influence China would gain a military advantage in the South China Sea, turning it into, in effect, a Chinese inland sea.
Taiwan’s air force still enjoys partial air superiority and its naval power is about half that of China. If the above proposals were to become reality, China would be able to transfer the forces it has tied up to deal with Taiwan, and instead join with Taiwan in presenting a united front against outside forces, greatly increasing its power projection.
The Chinese military’s purpose in trying to get Taiwan into line goes beyond regional considerations. It would achieve the dream China has cherished ever since the Opium Wars of expelling the Western powers from East Asia and reviving the dominant position the Qing empire enjoyed during its early years.
It is also, however, by no means clear what exactly the Chinese generals mean by “friendly” when they talk of cooperation between the armed forces on each side of the Strait and call them “friendly forces.” If seen in terms of Beijing’s position that cross-strait relations are a matter of “one country, two systems,” Taiwan’s armed forces and the PLA would be parallel forces under the central government of the People’s Republic of China. Taiwan’s armed forces would have effectively surrendered and joined the other side. Such a scenario, in which Beijing would enjoy all the advantages, is certain to come to nothing.
If, on the other hand, China and Taiwan were to agree to recognize each other as having equal political status, “friendly forces” would be allied forces. In that case, relations between the two would not just be a matter of confidence-building measures, but a proper military alliance. Although this would not satisfy dogmatic calls for unification, that would not detract from its strategic importance. This scenario, however, is equally problematic.
The PLA assures us that there is no need to worry about surrounding countries taking countermeasures if Taiwan changes sides in military alliances. The reality, however, is that China, rising power as it may be, is not a great power like the US that can deliver the tools of development around the world. This makes the China option unattractive for Taiwan.
In an alliance in which one partner would be much bigger than the other, and having discarded the support of its original allies, what bargaining chips would Taiwan have left to use in the event of cross-strait disputes?
These are all tough questions to answer. As KMT Legislator Shuai Hua-ming (帥化民), a pan-blue strategist, said recently, “Taiwan survives in the niche created by the conflict between the Western powers and China. In cross-strait affairs, we cannot rely too much on a peace agreement or mechanism to achieve a breakthrough.”
The proposals for military collaboration are fraught with problems. It is only within the context of China’s greater strategy of a “peaceful rise,” and “peaceful diplomacy and a peaceful resolution of cross-strait issues” that these ideas seem to have some mileage. Since 2004, China has been trying to achieve mutual trust with other countries. It has repeatedly made such overtures to the US following last month’s talks between US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤).
Some senior PLA officers have opened the Pandora’s box of confidence-building measures. It may be hard to shut the box now that it has been opened. Difficult as the proposals for cross-strait convergence may be to implement, they demonstrate imagination on the part of PLA officers in a rising China, as well as their ambition to unsettle the order in East Asia.
Lin Cho-shui is a former Democratic Progressive Party legislator.
TRANSLATED BY JULIAN CLEGG
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