No payoff from Ma’s China gamble

By Michael Mazza  / 

Thu, May 19, 2011 - Page 8

In a speech to a US think tank on Thursday last week, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) declared that his “approach to the Republic of China’s [ROC] national security is already at an optimum.” By making the pursuit of closer ties with China a central pillar of that approach, Ma made a strategic bet that Beijing would reciprocate with a more cooperative cross-strait policy of its own. Now approaching three years into his presidency, it is clear that Ma’s bet has not paid off.

Ma’s pursuit of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA), which was finally realized last summer, was a bold move aimed at not only improving the Taiwanese economy, but also securing Taiwan’s future. While it is certain to benefit Taiwan economically in the years ahead, it has not significantly improved cross-strait stability or expanded Taipei’s broader international engagement.

Ma had hoped that closer ties to China and the abandonment of any talk of independence would foster greater stability and lead to an easing of Beijing’s rigid Taiwan policy. In particular, he hoped that Beijing would drop its objections to greater Taiwanese engagement with the international community. While Taiwan and Singapore are discussing a free-trade agreement, Taipei is still quite limited in its interactions both with other states and with international organizations. Just last week, South Korea ended its 40-year military officer exchange program with Taiwan; China had made the termination a precondition for establishing its own such program with Seoul.

Then this week, it was revealed that the WHO — again under pressure from Beijing — referred to Taiwan as a province of China, dropping altogether the more ambiguous nomenclature of “Chinese Taipei.”

China has likewise increased pressure on the US to downgrade its relationship with Taipei. Beijing, for example, cut off -military-to-militarywith Washington ties for an entire year after the US sold arms to Taiwan in January last year. Ma’s gamble was designed, in part, to reassure the US after the US-Taiwan relationship soured during former president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) administration. He hoped to demonstrate to Washington that Taiwan is a responsible regional actor, one that favors the “status quo.”

Ma, however, stressed repeatedly that stability in the Taiwan Strait was best served by a Taiwan able to effectively defend itself against Chinese coercion, and he has accordingly lobbied for new weapons sales — especially of F-16C/D jet fighters and diesel submarines. However, with the exception of completing a former US president George W. Bush-era sale of minor weapons to Taiwan in January last year, US President Barack Obama’s administration has refused to sell Taiwan the arms it needs most.

Beijing has aggressively and successfully stoked fear in Washington that further sales will seriously harm the US-China relationship. As a result, Taiwan is no less isolated now than it was prior to the Ma administration.

Nor has China eased up on its military buildup along the Taiwan Strait. According to reports, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) fielded a new model of missile across from Taiwan earlier this year and continues to add to its arsenal there at a rapid pace; there are now about 1,600 cruise and ballistic missiles pointed at Taiwan, an increase of about 500 weapons over the previous year.

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.