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.