President Chen Shui-bian (
Chen recently suggested -- on the 93rd anniversary of the founding of the Chinese republic in 1911 -- the reopening of talks between the two sides akin to the 1992 meeting of officials in Hong Kong.
Beijing apparently sees a plot in this and other peace initiatives, designed to legitimize Taiwan's separate and sovereign existence. China is also not keen to further legitimize Chen's popular credentials as Taiwan's democratically elected president. In other words, Beijing doesn't want talks without a prior recognition of Taiwan's status as part of China. In that case, there is nothing left for Taipei to talk about except its terms of surrender.
But Chen keeps trying. He has once again reiterated his country's desire to establish peaceful political relations with China "in any form whatsoever." Elaborating, he said, "We would not exclude any possibility [including, apparently, unification], so long as it has the consent of the 23 million people of Taiwan."
Beijing is not impressed.
There was a vague hope in some quarters that former president Jiang Zemin's (江澤民) political retirement might moderate Beijing's stance. But it is business as usual. In his first speech as the country's military supremo, President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) urged the People's Liberation Army (PLA) "to seize the moment and do a good job of preparing for a military struggle." And China keeps on upping the ante with even greater shows of force.
According to Chen, "At present, there are more than 600 ballistic missiles targeting Taiwan, and the numbers grow by 50 to 75 missiles each year?" But as Taipei undertakes to strengthen its defenses against China's relentless military build-up, Beijing starts to cry foul.
China, for instance, is terribly upset because Taiwan wants to buy from the US a package of sophisticated weaponry -- including warships, submarines and missile defenses -- worth US$18 billion to bolster its defenses, even though it might take years for these weapons to be delivered and become operational. And that only if Taiwanese politicians eventually agree to the government's proposals.
We know that China wants to annex Taiwan, with or without force. Beijing regards it as a "renegade" province and hence part of China. They would very much like a Hong Kong-type solution where the colonial power settled its return on the basis of an autonomy package. The problem, though, is that Taiwan is not ruled by a colonial power. It is a democracy ruled by the will of its people, expressed through periodic elections.
Unlike China's leaders, appointed through a carefully controlled party hierarchy, Chen was actually elected by his people. China's oligarchs don't trust him because they can't control him. He is accountable to his people. Beijing, therefore, has a big problem if it wants to override and outlaw the Taiwanese people.
This is madness. But there is a method to China's madness. Their blueprint for Taiwan's annexation has several elements. First, they seek to subvert Taiwan from within. They do this by cultivating the business community, and political parties and groups keen to make a deal with China. These Taiwanese groups do not want to confront China and believe that they can create a modus vivendi, like prospective unification over an extended period of time.
At another level, Beijing has been trying, over the years, to create a siege mentality among the people of Taiwan, and it does show now and then. It is a calculated strategy, through constant military threats, to wear down people's psychological defenses and make them wish for accommodation facilitated by a pliable leadership. Taiwan is not there yet. With its strong defenses, it could still give China a run for its money. But for that, the country needs unity of purpose.
Of course, it also needs the support and commitment of its powerful friend in the US. At this point in time the US is overstretched in Iraq and in its war on global terrorism. Therefore, it wouldn't want to confront China in the Taiwan Strait, unless absolutely necessary. It is, therefore, urging both sides to show restraint.
But the US is committed under its Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 to help Taiwan defend itself against a Chinese military invasion. And to this end it has been urging Taiwan to bolster its defenses to prevent its sudden collapse [in the event of an attack], and thereby give the US time to come to its assistance. The US commitment is, therefore, evident from its willingness to sell sophisticated weaponry to Taiwan against China's shrill opposition.
At another level, China is pressing ahead with Taiwan's international isolation. It is doing this using its economic and political clout, as well as the US' weakened international stature. Witness, for instance, the recent China visit of French President Jacques Chirac. With their economies stuck in a rut, major European countries are engaged in a bidding war to get China's business. Beijing, of course, encourages this, both for economic and political reasons. A bidding war enables China to get bargain prices, as well as to optimize its political goals.
During his visit, Chirac went out of the way to court his hosts. He brushed aside the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre as "another time," and supported the lifting of the EU's arms embargo on China imposed after that. Worse still, he said that the arms embargo "was an expedient measure adopted at that time." He added, "It was mainly derived from animosity toward China."
On Taiwan, Chirac said that France "completely understands" China's position and was against "any challenge to the balance in the Taiwan Strait region" as being "very dangerous and detrimental for everyone."
Chirac also went along with China's new buzz word of cementing their "strategic partnership." This is China's code word for creating a web of international relationships as a counter to US global supremacy. Hu indicated this much when he posited China's "strategic partnership" with France to resist US "unilateralism." (Incidentally, China is also building up its relationship with Australia as a "strategic partnership," with their two navies holding limited search and rescue exercises off China's northeast coast).
Chirac's special enthusiasm for China is fueled by the prospects of lucrative contracts for its aircraft, car, nuclear and other industries, for which China is emerging as a major buyer. And it is quite likely that Chirac's political pitch to support China on Taiwan and a host of other issues will get France the goodies it is seeking.
At the end, there is always the military option to annex Taiwan. But that entails serious risks because it wouldn't be a cakewalk. Any invasion of Taiwan would require assembling a huge military machine involving all elements of China's armed forces, not only to invade but to successfully occupy a largely hostile country. And that is easier said than done, particularly when factoring in US military involvement.
But the specter of Chinese invasion not only keeps the Taiwanese on edge, but also puts more pressure on Taipei internationally -- including from the US -- to avoid provoking Beijing. (Who is provoking who is another matter.) And that serves China's immediate interests -- to maintain the fiction that Taiwan is not an international entity.
Sushil Seth is a freelance writer based in Sydney.