On the eve of the second anniversary of the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) return to power, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) gave a series of interviews to discuss the signing of a proposed economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA) with China and the future of peaceful development in the Taiwan Strait.
In those interviews Ma stated that his government would “never” ask the US to take military action to protect Taiwan, while also emphasizing that the US-Japan security treaty represents a pillar of stability in East Asia. He also linked the signing of an ECFA with a reduction in the number of missiles the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has aimed at Taiwan, statements that stirred up debate amongst the public and pan-green legislators.
In geo-strategic terms the Taiwan Strait forms part of the US security plan in the Asia-Pacific and is a link in its line of defense in the Western Pacific. It also falls within the Far East region of international waters mentioned in the US-Japan security treaty. In fact, on Sept. 23, 1997, following the 1996 Taiwan Strait missile crisis, the US and Japan signed a revised “Guidelines for US-Japan Defense Cooperation,” in which Taiwan was listed as one of the significant peripheral areas. This is highly relevant for security in the Strait, which, together with the improvement in cross-strait relations since 2008, suggests there could now be a window of opportunity for peaceful development in a region that not too long ago was locked in confrontation.
Ma is consequently very optimistic about the situation, but it is a huge leap of faith to assume that China will remove the more than 1,500 missiles aimed at Taiwan after an ECFA is signed or to say that this removes the risk of military attack. It is also quite a jump to declare that Taiwan will never call on the US to mobilize troops on its behalf. It’s surely better to err on the side of caution.
US military strategy in the Asia-Pacific is aimed at protecting its own regional political and economic interests. One suspects the US would not have sent the USS Nimitz during the 1996 missile crisis had the situation not threatened trade interests between the US and Taiwan. That is to say, the maintenance of the “status quo” across the Strait conforms to US strategic interests.
This is also the reason the US is encouraging official cross-strait peace talks. Whether or not Taiwan actually asks the US to come to its aid is beside the point. It is only natural, then, that Ma should be criticized for stating that Taiwan would “never” call on the US to fight for Taiwan. His words are also likely to make the US and Japanese military feel that Taiwan is looking for a free ride.
And what happens after Taiwan and China sign an ECFA? Is the PLA likely to start removing the missiles pointed at Taiwan? Frankly, there isn’t anywhere else in the entire world where you have the preposterous situation of two countries simultaneously trading goods and military threats. Although Beijing has toned things down and offered a string of concessions since Ma came to power, opinion polls show that public support for unification with China is even lower than when the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was in power.
The main reason for this is a dislike of the PLA’s posturing. The public is far from forgiving or forgetting the missiles or the incessant reports of threats of military force. Can you really blame people for not wanting to “become Chinese”? It doesn’t matter whether the signing of an ECFA goes ahead next month. If China does not let up with its tactics of military intimidation then such a strategy is certain to cast a shadow over any prospects for peaceful development across the Strait.