Thu, May 19, 2011 - Page 8 News List

No payoff from Ma’s China gamble

By Michael Mazza

In January, the PLA Air Force conducted a test flight of its new J-20 aircraft, a stealth fighter that will all but assure China’s capacity to attain air dominance over Taiwan. And later this year, China will put to sea its first aircraft carrier, rumored to be named after the last Chinese admiral to conquer Taiwan, Shi Lang (施琅). Though cross-strait relations are less tendentious than they were under Chen, Beijing has largely maintained a hard-line approach to Taipei.

China’s refusal to take a softer stance is somewhat surprising. Beijing certainly prefers Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) leadership in Taiwan to that of the independence-minded Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Granting Ma a foreign policy “win” would have made his re-election much more likely. Beijing’s failure to do so suggests that Zhongnanhai is not overly concerned with an administration under DPP Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文).

Why not? As Taiwan approaches a presidential election next year, China is preparing for its own leadership transition. While Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (習近平) is widely anticipated to succeed Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤), there is still much jockeying for position within the Chinese Communist Party; and because it never pays to look weak where so-called “splittism” is concerned, there are likely an abundance of voices calling for a hardline Taiwan policy.

At the same time, Beijing knows that its modernizing military will disincline Taiwan to move toward formal independence, enabling China to effectively counter any such move with force, and will decrease the likelihood of successful US intervention. For these reasons, Beijing may no longer see the DPP as a threat in the way it once did. With China’s increasing capacity to bully both Taipei and Washington, Beijing might well think it matters less and less who occupies the Presidential Office.

Relative to China, Taiwan is weaker now than it was just a few short years ago, its security situation increasingly problematic, and its international position no better off. In this respect, Ma’s bet hasn’t paid off. Still, it was probably a bet worth making. For one thing, the ECFA will almost certainly lead to accelerated economic growth in Taiwan. For another, the experience of the past three years has shown rather conclusively that the Chinese threat to Taiwan is a persistent one and that China’s revanchist intentions are unwavering.

As smart gamblers know, there are lessons to be learned, even from plays that don’t pay off.

Michael Mazza is a senior research associate in the foreign and defense policy studies department at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research.

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