Taipei may have turned down Beijing’s offer this time around, claiming the time was not propitious, but it is becoming increasingly evident that at some point between now and the 2012 presidential election, the two sides will sit down and discuss military matters in the Taiwan Strait.
Taiwan Affairs Office spokesman Yang Yi (楊毅) on Wednesday made headlines with his proposal that, when the conditions are right, Taipei and Beijing should sit down and discuss military confidence-building mechanisms and the possible dismantlement of the more than 1,500 ballistic missiles that continue to threaten Taiwan, despite allegedly warming ties.
Although the Mainland Affairs Council and, somewhat surprisingly, Premier Wu Den-yih (吳敦義) said the same day that mutual trust had yet to reach a point where such talks would be feasible, pressure is likely to mount in the coming months on President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration to come to the table and discuss “peace.” In that respect, Yang’s announcement was again proof of how cannily Beijing can play the political game. After all, which peace-loving nation — including the US, Taiwan’s main ally — could, in its right mind oppose “peace” talks in what remains one of the world’s most dangerous flashpoints? (Never mind that confidence building creates a moral equivalence in the Taiwan Strait that simply does not exist, as only one side, China, is the aggressor.)
As the expected pressure mounts, the ball will be in Taipei’s court, with Beijing’s peace overture once again portraying the latter as the “rational” actor in the equation and Taiwan as the reluctant partner. Deferral on Taipei’s part, meanwhile, will likely be blamed on the “anti China” elements in Taiwan — in other words, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and anyone who supports Taiwanese independence. That deferral will mostly stem from electoral considerations by Ma’s Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), which is cognizant of the fact that rushing into political negotiations with China will open a Pandora’s box of controversies that can only cost it votes.
Seen from the outside, and without an intimate understanding of the political realities in Taiwan, anyone who opposes sitting down immediately with Chinese officials will come across as a “troublemaker” and “irrational,” terms often used to describe the DPP and to which the Ma administration would do everything in its power to avoid being ascribed.
It is at this juncture that the fallacy of Beijing’s “peace” initiative comes to light. To understand why this is so, one must remember that, in Beijing’s eyes, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), to which we can add the “Anti-Secession” Law of 2005, is not so much an instrument of threat as one of deterrence. The difference, subtle though it may be, has far-reaching ramifications when it comes to Beijing’s willingness to abandon use of force as an option to resolve the Taiwan issue. If the PLA were intended as a threat in the classical sense, it can be assumed that US security guarantees to Taiwan notwithstanding, we would have seen more military adventurism on China’s part in the Taiwan Strait. That this did not transpire (with the exception of the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis) is proof not only that cooler heads prevailed within China’s Central Military Commission, but also that the Chinese military posture vis-a-vis Taiwan is unconventional: As long as Taiwan does not move toward de jure independence, the likelihood that the PLA will be called upon to intervene remains low.