A new study by a China security expert at the US National Defense University cautioned that there might be a distinct downside to deeper cross-strait rapprochement between Taiwan and China.
Closer ties between the two sides could raise the prospect of “fundamental changes in China’s security challenges,” its author Michael Glosny said.
Glosny said that while other countries would be relieved by the rapprochement, many would also worry that a rising China no longer constrained by a focus on Taiwan would use its increased power to “challenge their interests elsewhere in Asia.”
“Former US Ambassador to China James Lilley referred to Taiwan as ‘the cork in China’s bottle,’” Glosny wrote. “Deeper rapprochement will remove the cork, freeing resources devoted to military preparation for Taiwan contingencies and giving the People’s Liberation Army [PLA] new options.”
The study, Getting Beyond Taiwan — Chinese Foreign Policy and PLA Modernization, just released by the Institute for National Strategic Studies, says that since the mid-1990s, China’s military modernization has focused on deterring Taiwanese independence and preparing for a military response if deterrence fails.
Given China’s assumption of US intervention in a conflict over Taiwan, the PLA has been developing military capabilities to deter, delay and disrupt US military support operations.
“The 2008 election of Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has contributed to improved cross-strait economic and political cooperation and dramatically reduced the threat of Taiwan independence and war across the Taiwan Strait,” Glosny wrote.
Deeper rapprochement over the next five to 10 years would clearly be a positive development — removing the most likely source of war between the US and China, he said.
However, at the same time it would leave China free to “turn its attention” to other countries in the region.
“If China was no longer constrained by its focus on Taiwan, it could undermine regional stability. Maritime Southeast Asian states would worry that China might seize the Spratly Islands ... China might try to seize the Senkaku/Diaoyutai Islands or aggressively challenge Japan’s exclusive economic zone claims,” Glosny wrote.
“India would worry that China might take a tougher stance on unresolved land border disputes. Russia would fear that an unrestrained China could mount an aggressive move into the Russian Far East, both to reclaim territory and to try to seize energy resources in Siberia,” he added.
The study said that to date, countries in the region had been reluctant to pressure China to explain its skyrocketing defense budget and defense modernization plans.
“The removal of the Taiwan issue will make regional countries more likely to demand such explanations, as well as greater military transparency,” Glosny wrote. “This is likely to make China’s relations with its neighbors more acrimonious and make it more difficult to reassure them that it has peaceful and cooperative intentions.”
If the US reacts by strengthening defense ties with Asian countries, China could “unleash spirals of hostility,” the study said.
But if, on the other hand, the US reduces its presence in Asia, it could “lead to an independent Japan that acquires nuclear weapons and devotes more resources to military modernization,” it said.