Speculation has been rife in recent months that Washington might reconsider its policy on arms sales to Taiwan if Beijing agreed to dismantle, or at a minimum redeploy, the about 1,500 ballistic missiles pointing in Taiwan’s direction.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶), in New York to attend the UN General Assembly meeting late last month, added grist to the mill when, asked by reporters for his thoughts on withdrawing the missiles, he said: “I believe the issue you mention will be realized one day.”
Coincidentally, little more than a week later experts on Taiwanese and Chinese security gathered at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington to discuss the feasibility of such a scenario. Though unconventional in itself, what is particularly worrisome about the meeting is the fact that the fine points raised by participants could easily be missed, misconstrued, or conveniently ignored, as appears to be the case.
On paper, the idea of disarmament in the Taiwan Strait is worthy of serious consideration. However, if not handled carefully, talks on the matter could very well play into Beijing’s hands and end up hurting Taiwan.
Here are some of the problems associated with the recent enthusiasm surrounding the idea of demilitarizing the Taiwan Strait:
For one, there is less to Wen’s Sept. 22 remarks than meet the eye and nothing that he said justifies the positive reception they received in the media and from President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration. By not providing a timeline or context to his answer, “realized one day” could mean just about anything. In fact, Wen would not be lying if his “one day” meant the day when Taiwan is annexed by China, at which point deploying the missiles would be nonsensical.
Other Chinese officials and academics who have discussed the matter have also done so in general terms, an age-old tactic by Chinese officials that leaves too much room for interpretation for a problem of this magnitude.
Although a full redeployment — including the “entire infrastructure” of five missile brigades belonging to the Second Artillery’s 52 Base, as the Project 2049 Institute’s Mark Stokes, a speaker at the talks and a longtime advocate of arms sales to Taiwan, proposed at the conference, would represent a measure of “goodwill” and diminish the immediate threat to Taiwan, such a move would come with its own set of challenges.
For example, who would monitor the redeployment or dismantling of the missiles? It is hard to imagine Beijing allowing US military officials to do so, let alone Taiwanese. The same applies to the possibility of China destroying older missiles, only to build and deploy more advanced and accurate ones elsewhere.
Second, though a redeployment into the hinterland would give Taiwan more time to prepare should China at some future point decide to bring the missiles back within firing range, it nevertheless means that within a matter of weeks, the status quo could be re-established.
Last — and this author is as guilty as any in making this mistake over the years — the overemphasis on missiles has obscured the fact that China’s military threat to Taiwan is far more substantial and multifaceted. In other words, neither the threat nor the intent would disappear even if every missile aimed at Taiwan were removed.
Another problem lies in the asymmetrical nature of the proposed disarmament. While the measures on the Chinese side would be temporary and could be overturned, the repercussions of an arms freeze for Taiwan would be much more far--reaching. Every year that passes without the sale of military equipment to Taiwan translates into a loss of capabilities relative to China. Furthermore, as arms sales are drawn-out, even a brief hiatus can result in years of delays in terms of procurement, transfer and integration, leaving gaping holes in the maintenance of a credible deterrent force, with no possibility of a quick fix.
Stokes has always emphasized that promises, such as those made by Wen, are not good enough and that a missile withdrawal should be real, with substantive movement to reduce the threat.
Arms sales, he would remind us, should be judged based on the “actual” threat to Taiwan as per the guiding premise behind the 1982 Joint Communique, not about what Beijing “could” do for us in North Korea or the economy, for example. In other words, the threat reduction must be real, verifiable and permanent and arms sales to Taiwan be predicated on the threat level.
The really troubling part is that a number of US officials, academics and media appear to be naive enough to buy into Chinese hints of a redeployment, without all the inconvenient caveats mentioned by more knowledgeable academics like Stokes and others. Therein lies the great danger to Taiwan.
There are already rumors that certain groups of individuals (including, we are told, a wealthy Taiwanese businessman) may have already engaged in talks to consider the possibility of arms reductions. Without guarantees that those individuals fully understand the complexity of what they are trying to accomplish, there is a very real risk that the informed remarks by experts will be used, exploited and taken out of context to add legitimacy to the half truths spoken by the likes of Wen.
Should this lead US officials to believe that even the conservative wing of US academia, individuals and institutions that for decades have advocated maintaining a strong Taiwanese military, are now proposing the very opposite, who could accuse the US State Department or the White House of abandoning Taiwan? Especially at a time when the US government is giving every indication that it regards the Taiwan question as more of a hindrance to good relations with China than as the object of principled diplomacy, and large swathes of the US establishment seem to have given up on the notion of Taiwanese independence, it is incumbent upon academics that they weigh what they say on the record with great caution. There is no knowing how their good intentions might be twisted to facilitate policies that will prove detrimental to 23 million Taiwanese and the democratic way of life they fought for and cherish.
Stokes’ well-considered approach to arms reduction is extremely important and should be memorized by anyone involved in such an endeavor: If Beijing doesn’t like US arms sales to Taiwan, it should reduce its military posture.
However, arms reduction is not something that should be negotiated, especially not behind closed doors. Facts on the ground need to be confirmed, but that is unlikely as long as Beijing continues to regard its military more as a deterrent to Taiwanese independence than as an instrument of terror and aggression, as it appears from a Taiwanese perspective.
J. Michael Cole is deputy news editor at the Taipei Times.
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