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).