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.
We must not forget that the principal target of the Chinese military is the Taiwanese independence movement, which, for all intents and purposes, is embodied by the DPP.
What this means is that the “confidence” that Beijing is seeking from Taipei’s side in confidence building is asymmetrical, as it lies not in the military sphere (for Taiwan does not threaten China militarily), but rather in politics. It will be the promise that independence is eliminated altogether, or, at a minimum, kept on a very short leash.
Regardless of the validity of the DPP’s argument (which is invariably misunderstood or conveniently ignored by the international community), the party and its supporters will be perceived as an impediment to peace in the Taiwan Strait, the last bump in the road to be surmounted before 60 years of, at times potentially, nuclear animosity can be brought to a conclusion.
Consequently, pressure on the Ma administration will not only mount for it to join the negotiating table with Beijing, but it will also be compelled to deal, one way or another, with the inconvenient “DPP problem.”
As highlighted by the undeclared visit last month of Chinese Vice Minister of Public Security Chen Zhimin (陳智敏), the Ma administration has shown itself willing to engage in secret talks with Chinese security officials. With Beijing turning the screw on Taipei to discuss military matters, such behind-the-scenes meetings will eventually turn to the question of Taiwanese independence. Itself eager for peace (and the possibility of Ma sharing the Nobel Peace Prize with Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) in the near future), Taipei could prove receptive to the preconditions set by Beijing — namely, the neutralization of the Taiwan independence movement and the DPP. Even well-intentioned KMT officials — of which there are some — could come to see such action as the lesser evil in a high-stakes game to end a longstanding war.
For its part, the international community, which has already unanimously hailed the reduced tensions in the Taiwan Strait, is also likely to add pressure on the Ma administration to sideline the independence movement (or at minimum ignore it) so that the peace talks can take place. After all, peace is good for investment, and the world is eager to invest in Taiwan, if only to establish a foothold on a parcel of land that is often seen as a bridge to the real prize. Who cares about the alleged “small minority” of Taiwanese, as Chinese propaganda wants us to believe, who want independence for Taiwan or, if not that, at least independence from Chinese control? As the pressure mounts on Ma to discuss peace with his counterparts in Beijing, it is feasible we will once again see accusations that the DPP is a “troublemaker.” (Ironically, democracy is the real “troublemaker,” if we can call it that, as this is what makes it impossible for the Ma administration to rush into peace talks with Beijing.)
Despite owning the moral high ground, the independence movement has come to be seen as a hindrance to “peace,” as standing in the way of wise leaders. How the international community and especially Taiwan’s main allies, come to define peace — as merely the absence of war or conflict, as opposed to a resolution based on justice — will be a deciding factor in whether the DPP is allowed to continue to exist or is forced out of the picture and with it the millions of Taiwanese who ask for nothing more than to be allowed to determine their own destiny.
J. Michael Cole is deputy news editor at the Taipei Times.