On its own, the widening gap in military capabilities in the Taiwan Strait — in which the Chinese air force will enjoy a more than two-to-one advantage in combat aircraft by 2014-2015 — is a worrying development. Equally disturbing, however, are recent signals from President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) that he does not accord the nation’s ability to defend itself against Chinese aggression the importance it deserves.
Not only did Ma claim last year that the country’s No. 1 enemy was mother nature, he has also cut the number of military exercises simulating a Chinese invasion. There is even evidence that Taiwanese officials in Washington have not really pushed for sale of the F-16C/D combat aircraft the nation so desperately needs to level the playing field. All of this, added to Ma’s remark that he would “never” call on the US to fight on Taiwan’s behalf — which he subsequently had to qualify, given the political storm it created — points to a president who does not take defense seriously.
While there are ample reasons to believe this is true, such a discussion distracts from the formidable, and at present far more real threat, to Taiwan’s sovereignty.
Before we explore that other threat, however, let us ask ourselves the following questions: If China really did intend to launch military strikes against Taiwan, would it invest billions of dollars in Taiwanese insurance companies, real estate and other sectors? Would it allow thousands of its own citizens to visit every day? Would it send delegations, led by top Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials? And would it send its students, putting all of them in harm’s way?
There is a theory in conflict studies that posits the greater the economic interaction and interdependence between two entities, the less likely they are to resort to armed conflict. Although there have been exceptions to that rule (World War I is a perfect example), it is nevertheless true that, in general, economic integration tends to act as a mitigating force on warfare, as it substantially increases the costs of war, both through the destruction of property and, in the present case, by disrupting the flow of goods. Furthermore, China’s hyper-dependence on the global market for its exports makes it even more sensitive to the risk of trade sanctions that would surely be imposed should it launch an attack on Taiwan.
What this demonstrates is that although Beijing has not taken the military option completely off the table, it is no longer a preferred strategy. If this argument holds, then we could posit that recent double-digit growth in China’s military spending has been more the result of its emergence as a regional power than a means to intimidate Taiwan. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has grown in leaps because it can, motivated by internal dynamics such as the military-industrial complex that encourage growth, and because any rising power needs to be able to project power and protect its interests far afield.
By no means, however, does this signify that Beijing has abandoned its objective of annexing Taiwan. That goal remains as close to the heart of the Chinese leadership as it was 15 years ago when the PLA was firing missiles off the coast of Taiwan to influence the outcome of the nation’s first direct presidential election (a strategy that backfired).
What is puzzling perhaps is the extent to which so many people continue to focus almost exclusively on the military threat when the CCP has made no secret of the fact that it considers economic integration an alternative means to achieve unification.
In Ma and his Cabinet, Beijing has found compliant partners in that plot, and the accelerating, multifaceted approach to integration — from the economy to education — points to a strategy of gradualism, whereby the sum of a series of small, ostensibly unconnected actions, bring about the desired result and encirclement, in which a united front approach is adopted to overwhelm an opponent’s ability to resist. On the surface, all of this is, as Ma has claimed, purely economic in nature. It even has the veneer of peaceful intentions, which is why cross-strait developments have been almost universally welcomed by the international community.
By emphasizing economics and culture and taking a gradual, multi-pronged approach, Beijing is following a strategy that is the diametric opposite of “shock and awe” tactics associated with military action. China is acting with such subtlety that the change in discourse may even have succeeded in convincing the world of its good intentions toward Taiwan.
We should not fool ourselves, however. Financial pacts and an economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA) are all deception, and Beijing encourages them only to the extent that they further its political agenda. The political aspect cannot be emphasized enough, because at the macro-financial level, for China an ECFA or a free-trade agreement with Taiwan is insignificant.
While Taiwan was China’s fifth-largest trading partner last year, Taiwan did not even make China’s top 10 list of export destinations. The total value of China’s exports last year was estimated at US$1.19 trillion; Taiwan represented only about US$25 billion of the total, or 2.1 percent. Conversely, Taiwan was China’s third-largest source of imports, at US$85.7 billion (including Hong Kong) last year, and Taiwan’s biggest export market, at 41.8 percent of total exports, a share that is expected to reach 44 percent this year. Even then, however, Taiwan only represented 9.22 percent of China’s US$922 billion in total imports.
These numbers show us that Taiwan is far more dependent economically on China than vice versa; Taiwan needs China, but China does not need Taiwan.
The fact that China has committed such energy and resources to signing an ECFA shows us that it attaches far greater importance to indirect — political — outcomes, than the marginal economic benefits the deal offers, especially from the point of view of exports.
By allowing billions of dollars in investment and tens of thousands of Chinese to be in Taiwan at any given time, Beijing is, in effect, giving voice to a belief that China’s long-term objectives can be achieved by those means alone without ever having to resort to armed force. China may be a chronic human rights violator, but it would not put tens of thousands of its own — especially CCP officials — in harm’s way or waste billions of dollars on something it intends to bomb back to the stone age. It also tells us that is has a relatively high degree of confidence that Ma will be re-elected in 2012.
This should serve as a wake-up call to those who remain overly focused on the Chinese military threat to Taiwan or who lament delays in the sale of advanced US weapons. While the threat exists and, depending on the circumstances, could again be resurrected as China’s principal tool of annexation, a far greater threat to the survival of the nation lies right under our noses and we ignore it at our own peril. Who needs F-16s when the country is already occupied by the enemy?
J. Michael Cole is an editor at the Taipei Times.
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