Data recently released by the nation’s main spy agency, the National Security Bureau (NSB), put a new dent in President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) claims that his administration’s overtures to Beijing have helped reduce tensions in the Taiwan Strait.
Ma’s gambit, though initially hailed by many pundits as a brilliant move, has long puzzled experts who have been unable to account for Beijing’s failure to reciprocate. Indeed, its accelerating military buildup should only exacerbate fears in Taiwan.
The list of threats includes a growing arsenal of short and medium-range missiles that, perhaps even more importantly, are becoming increasingly accurate, as well as cruise missiles deployed further inland. To this we can add, among others, anti-ship ballistic missiles that would threaten any naval fleet coming to Taiwan’s assistance during a conflict and plans to acquire aircraft carriers, which would allow China to encircle Taiwan or extend its area of maritime denial.
While those developments have been apparent for a while, no one has managed to explain why Beijing would engage in what, prima facie, looks like self-defeating behavior. After all, why does China need such a large military, given that it faces no threat of invasion? Rather than reassure its neighbors, Beijing’s military buildup and increasingly aggressive positioning in the region are awakening some to the possibility that the paradigm by which we gauge China’s intentions may have been flawed all along.
There is a precedent for this, in the form of Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) decision to enter the Korean War after US and South Korean forces crossed the 38th parallel. At the time, the consensus in Washington was that Mao, who had just emerged victorious in a protracted and costly civil war against Chiang Kai-shek’s (蔣介石) Nationalists, would not expose China’s ruined economy to the risks of armed conflict with the US. This, however, is exactly what he did, and the West was caught off guard because analysts failed to think like a Chinese and assumed “rationalism” in the way it is understood in the West.
Although decision-making in China has become more complex and institutionalized since Mao’s time, this does not mean that how Beijing calculates costs and benefits has entirely changed or that what we think of as “rational” is seen as such at Zhongnanhai. Consequently, what might come across as paradoxical in our eyes could make perfect sense from a Chinese perspective.
We should keep this in mind as Taiwan develops closer economic, cultural and social ties with China. Case in point: The NSB reports that for the first half of this year, Taiwan was the target of 2.38 attacks by Chinese hackers every hour, or 10,346 attacks altogether, accounting for nearly one-third of all attacks directed at the country.
Cross-strait liberalization and “peace” notwithstanding, this shows that as with the military threat, China has maintained its aggressive posture vis-a-vis Taiwan. In turn, this reinforces the view that how decision-makers in Beijing evaluate costs and benefits can differ drastically from our own, resulting in acts that, from a business perspective, may make no sense whatsoever.
In this environment, the more Taiwan opens itself to Chinese investment, the more sectors will be exposed to the threat of espionage by Chinese individuals, firms and government agencies. This may seem equally self-defeating, but the danger to Taiwan, albeit more subtle, is no less severe.
Underfunded though it may be, the Ministry of National Defense has not been deceived by Ma’s window-dressing and continues to warn us about the threat posed by the Chinese military. Let us hope that the NSB and other agencies charged with protecting civilian and corporate infrastructure are equally aware that we are a long way from peace in the Taiwan Strait.
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