Why 2012 will be a deadly deadline

By J. Michael Cole 寇謐將  / 

Wed, Jul 15, 2009 - Page 8

At no time since the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government fled to Taiwan has the Chinese Communist Party been so close to accomplishing its objective of annexing Taiwan.

Rather than achieve this through threat of force or diplomatic pressure, Beijing is using economic integration — a process launched soon after President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) came to office last year — to reel Taiwan in.

Through three rounds of talks between the Straits Exchange Foundation and the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait, direct cross-strait charter flights, increased Chinese tourism, large purchases of Taiwanese electronics by Chinese corporations and direct investment in 100 industries in Taiwan’s manufacturing, services and public infrastructure sectors, China has successfully increased Taiwan’s dependence on its economy.

Despite the Ma government’s claims to the contrary, a proposed economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA) between Taiwan and China would only exacerbate that dependence by forcing all of Taiwan’s exports to ASEAN countries to pass through China, thus killing Taiwan’s chances of striking bilateral trade agreements with countries in that bloc — the very kind of market diversification that Taiwan should be aiming for.

As Taiwan inexorably drifts into China’s sphere of influence, politicians and academics around the world have hailed Ma’s policy, calling him a “masterful” politician who is not only “saving” Taiwan’s struggling economy, but more importantly, defusing tensions in the Taiwan Strait and creating the conditions for a peace agreement.

Amid enthusiasm for Ma’s “pragmatic” policymaking, the apprehensions of millions of people who fear for their livelihoods and the future of their country have been ignored, as has the fact that poll after poll has shown high levels of dissatisfaction with the Ma administration for its failure, among other things, to meet election promises and to halt the erosion of democracy.

Over and over again, experts and foreign media have portrayed the Taiwanese independence movement and the majority of Taiwanese who want to maintain a political “status quo” on the question of unification as immature throwbacks of the Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) administrations whose political agendas supposedly risk war with China.

Very few China and Taiwan “experts” have asked why the Lee and Chen administrations acted the way they did, and an equally small number seem to have bothered to explore the local political impact of Ma’s pro-China policies — or, for that matter, what the consequences would be should his plans be sidetracked.

Lee — a statesman of a standing that Ma could never match — and Chen were childish, irrational and dangerous because they were more cautious and patient in their engagement with China. Ma, on the other hand, has plunged in head first, and for this he is being called mature.

As economic integration intensifies, we are hearing calls for cross-strait talks on more convoluted political matters, which, despite Taipei’s claim to proceeding cautiously on that front, are inevitable given that Beijing has already made it clear that it sees economic integration as a stepping stone to political integration.

But few experts have asked what a “peace” agreement between Taipei and Beijing entails, namely Taiwan’s capitulation and admission that it is part of China. If things continue apace, it is possible that a few years from now Beijing will accomplish its objective by “peaceful” means — peaceful in the sense of a hostile corporate takeover.

Only recently have specialists started asking why, if things are going so well in the Strait, should China continue to modernize its military and expand its arsenal with equipment at least partly intended for a Taiwan contingency, including increasingly accurate short-range missiles?

What some experts fail to see is that by celebrating cross-strait detente of the kind initiated by the Ma administration and its counterpart in Beijing, and by deliberately ignoring the very substantial opposition that existed and is now growing within Taiwan, they are helping to create the conditions for a conflict in the not-so-distant future that could be far more serious than anything seen before — one that would almost inevitably involve deadly force.

Unless political dissent in Taiwan can be smothered, democratic forces could threaten to derail Ma’s efforts, especially as more controversial aspects of cross-strait exchanges grow nearer. And the principal threat will not be referendums on an ECFA or public protests, but the 2012 presidential election.

Despite its lack of experience with democracy, Beijing is aware of the threat of electoral retribution in Taiwan, which could bring into office a pro-independence party or a KMT administration that is not as pliant as Ma’s. At the least, legislative elections could correct the imbalance that the Ma administration has enjoyed since it came to power and weaken the KMT’s control of the executive and legislative branches, which is part of the reason why Ma has been able to ignore calls for caution, transparency and accountability in his China policy.

As such, Beijing is probably calculating that if it is to succeed in annexing Taiwan, it must do so before 2012. We can expect pressure to build very soon for accelerated economic integration and for political matters to be put on the agenda of cross-strait talks.

In this light, it is easier to explain why cross-strait detente has not been accompanied by an expected military drawdown on Beijing’s part. In fact, 2012 will not be much different from the 1996 elections, when the Chinese military fired missiles off Taiwan’s major ports to influence the country’s first free presidential elections. Back then, Beijing was sending the signal that if Taiwanese voted for Lee, they were choosing war — a threat that, as history showed, was hollow given the power disparity between China on one side and the US and Taiwan on the other.

This time around, however, after more than a decade of major investment in its military and new weapons systems, such as second-generation nuclear submarines and anti-ship ballistic missiles, Beijing is in a much better position to intimidate not only Taiwan but also the US, should it feel compelled to dispatch carrier battle groups to or near the Strait amid tensions.

During the presidential election campaign in 2011 and early 2012 the KMT could also exploit public fears of renewed tensions with Beijing to its advantage and accuse its opponents of risking war. A divided polity will by that time face a choice between irreversible political annexation or military attack.

Another factor that makes 2012 such a dangerous time in the Strait — especially if there is a possibility of the KMT suffering defeat — is Beijing’s awareness that time is not on its side, and that the longer Taiwan remains separate from China, the further Taiwanese identity will consolidate and more so under a pro-independence government.

Just as dangerous would be Beijing sensing that it had come close to realizing its dream of annexation only to see the chance slip as the result of a democratic process. Chances are that rather than admit defeat, it would use force to complete its agenda, an option all the more attractive given the cuts the Ma administration has made to the defense establishment.

To experts looking in from the outside, Ma may appear to be a masterful and pragmatic politician, but by refusing to address the concerns of a majority of Taiwanese, and by undermining democracy in his pursuit of what he sees as a sacred mission, Ma is sowing the seeds for disaster.

By hailing Ma as a hero yet failing to understand the dynamics within Taiwan, and by neglecting to challenge him to act more democratically, all that the experts are doing is increasing the probability that 2012 will augur a grave threat to peace in the Taiwan Strait.

J. Michael Cole is a writer based in Taipei and the author of Democracy in Peril: Taiwan’s Struggle for Survival from Chen Shui-bian to Ma Ying-jeou.