When it comes to China’s threat to use force against Taiwan, Taiwanese policymakers are no less prone to wishful thinking than are some of their US counterparts.
President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) recently said: “Faced with the rise of the mainland and its growth in military power, it is impossible and unnecessary to engage in military competition.”
If Ma means that Taiwan cannot compete dollar-for-dollar and man-for-man and match weapon systems with China, he is of course correct. For reasons that do not reflect well on Western foresight regarding Chinese capabilities and intentions, the days when Taiwan enjoyed a qualitative military edge over China are long past.
Yet it is not at all “impossible” for Taiwan to develop the kinds of defensive systems and practices that would greatly complicate and even deter Chinese planning for aggressive action against Taiwan. The 3 percent share of the budget that Ma promised as a presidential candidate in 2008 to devote to Taiwan’s defenses was supposedly intended to achieve that level of defensive capabilities.
The idea behind this so-called “hedgehog” approach was that it would stave off a Chinese attack long enough for the US to deploy its forces in the Pacific Ocean to assist in Taiwan’s defense.
During the push for Taiwan’s enhanced defense spending by the administrations of former US president George W. Bush and former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), a Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) legislator also invoked the “impossibility” argument. He told a Washington think tank audience that since Taiwan could never equal China’s defense budget, there was no point in acquiring the weapons systems then under consideration.
However, the more intriguing part of Ma’s statement is that a robust Taiwanese defense capability is not only unfeasible, but “unnecessary” because of his “three noes” policy: no independence, no unification, no use of force.
“We should work to systematize the ‘no use of force’ part, so that Chinese leaders would be reluctant to solve cross-strait issues via wars,” Ma said.
What would make China “reluctant” to resort to force against Taiwan? Either -Taiwanese-US deterrence that imposes too high a cost for China — or Taiwanese and US concessions that make force “unnecessary” for China to achieve its ends.
Ma seems to believe that the so-called “1992 consensus” on the meaning of “one China” offers a solution to the cross-strait dilemma by deferring and finessing the political issues. However, that is not at all Beijing’s expectation.
China’s 2005 “Anti-Secession” Law said Beijing intends to use force against Taiwan not only if Taipei declares independence, but also if it were simply to take an unacceptably long time to submit to “peaceful reunification.”
Ma’s remarks earlier this year about a possible peace agreement with China stirred Taiwanese concerns regarding the kinds of political negotiations he envisioned.
Though the 2005 law was adopted during the Chen administration, it has not been repealed since Ma became president, nor has Beijing renounced the use of force or removed the 1,500 ballistic missiles targeting Taiwan.
However, if Taiwanese leaders seem somewhat confused regarding China’s intentions, they are not alone. Some in Washington share the view that if only all thought of political independence for Taiwan were to be banished, the “status quo” could go on indefinitely.
That would probably be true if the US’ own intentions regarding the defense of Taiwan were clear, particularly to Beijing. Instead, Washington adheres to the doctrine of “strategic ambiguity,” which tells China that there are some “circumstances” under which a Chinese attack on Taiwan would be allowed to succeed.
In reality, Americans and the US Congress would never tolerate such an outcome and any administration of either party would vigorously defend Taiwan. However, do the Chinese understand that or are they willing to gamble on US acquiescence as North Korea mistakenly did when it attacked South Korea in 1950?
It does not enhance US deterrent credibility when any administration essentially endorses Beijing’s view of how Taiwan’s elections should turn out, as both the administrations of Bush and US President Barack Obama have done. There is clear present evidence of Washington’s preference for Ma’s re-election.
However, the assumption underlying that bias might be unfounded and even dangerous because Beijing’s expectations for a second Ma administration would surely be higher than for a government under Democratic Progressive Party presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) — and greater than Ma’s ability to deliver the kinds of political concessions China wants. Chinese disappointment and anger at a suddenly non-cooperative Ma could trigger precisely the hostile reaction Washington seeks to avoid.
As Confucius (孔子) might have said, be careful what you wish for.
Joseph Bosco served in the office of the US secretary of defense as a China country desk officer in 2005 and 2006. He previously taught China-Taiwan-US relations at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and is presently a national security consultant.
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