People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Chief of General Staff Chen Bingde (陳炳德), who visited Washington last week, caused a bit of a stir when he claimed that China only had a garrison deployment across from Taiwan and did not have operational deployments, much less missiles, stationed there.
While those comments were immediately ridiculed by Taiwanese authorities and the US Department of Defense, the fact of the matter is that Chen wasn’t lying outright — the veracity of his claim depends on how one defines “across from Taiwan.”
One thing that history should have taught us about negotiating with China is that it’s all about the context. If what Chen meant by “across from Taiwan” was China’s Fujian Province, then technically he was telling the truth, as the Second Artillery — the unit responsible for the bulk of China’s missile arsenal — has maintained a garrison in Fujian for more than a decade and it is not altogether impossible that missiles are not permanently deployed there.
As is often the case, however, the pith of the matter lies in what Chinese officials did not say. In the present case, what Chen omitted is that elsewhere in China, the missile threat against Taiwan continues to expand and is doing so despite ostensibly warmer relations between Taipei and Beijing. As the range, precision and potential destructiveness of the PLA missile arsenal grows, “across from Taiwan” loses all meaning, at least up to the point where the missiles are no longer within range.
This may sound trivial, but this would not be so if Beijing were to offer to dismantle its missiles targeting Taiwan — as the US and Taipei have long demanded — whereupon specificity, rather than vagueness, will be key. If, at some point, Beijing were to take “seriously” requests that it dismantle or pull back its missiles, lack of specificity could allow it to get away with murder (“If the missiles don’t exist, how can we dismantle them?” China could rightly ask).
The Second Artillery’s Base 52, which is headquartered “across from Taiwan” in Huangshan, Anhui Province, has at least six short-range missile brigades in Fujian, Jiangxi, Zhejiang and Guangdong provinces, all intended for a Taiwan contingency. Several of the delivery systems are road mobile, while other missiles and their components can be distributed to any of the six brigades throughout Southeast China and launched from there.
The 70-year-old Chen wasn’t showing signs of senility when he made those comments in Washington, nor did he think that US officials, who have substantial imagery intelligence proving the contrary, were fools. Rather, he was setting the scene for what could eventually become the parameters for negotiations on Taiwan. While we can already expect Beijing to observe commitments in the breach, it is also known that it will exploit to the fullest whatever room to maneuver it is given as a result of the other side’s failure to request specifics. This is China’s negotiating style, as any British official who handled talks in the 1980s ahead of Hong Kong’s retrocession in 1997 would tell us.
Chinese officials aren’t being vague out of carelessness or some ideological proclivity for imprecision; they know exactly what they are doing and they thrive on our failure to see their game, or when we approach negotiations with a sense of cultural superiority.