Detente is like a carefully orchestrated minuet, with each side reacting in accordance with the subtle shifts of the other. Only when participants abide by those governing rules, and when both operate under the assumption that the other will reciprocate, can bodily poetry avoid descending into artistic catastrophe.
When it comes to efforts at detente in the Taiwan Strait launched by President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), one side has shown a willingness to dance. Amid efforts to encourage better relations with Beijing, Taipei has repeatedly signaled that it is ready to de-escalate. The frequency of military exercises has been reduced and those that are held often do not involve live fire or invoke a Chinese attack. The overall military budget has been cut and now stands at about 2.5 percent of GDP, less than the 3 percent Ma had promised to secure for national defense. Officials inform us it is unlikely the military budget will increase significantly in the near future.
Budgets have tightened to such a extent that, citing “financial constraints,” the Ma administration announced in October that it would seek to defer payment on PAC-3 missile batteries and 60 UH-60M Black Hawk helicopters it has committed to purchase from the US, raising questions over the year of delivery.
Meanwhile, reports over the last six months claim that the National Security Bureau, the nation’s top civilian intelligence service, has been ordered to stand down on intelligence collection in China and may have become less generous in sharing signals intelligence on China with key allies, such as the US and Japan. Intelligence-sharing agreements being what they are, this will likely result in reciprocal stinginess and could be disastrous in terms of preparedness for the Taiwanese military.
Whenever it is accused of being soft on defense, however, the Ma administration shoots back by reaffirming Taipei’s determination to obtain F-16C/D fighter aircraft from the US. Unfortunately, persistence in requesting something that is unlikely to be granted— because of reluctance on Washington’s part and lack of commitment by Taiwanese officials to push the issue — does not indicate the government takes defense seriously. Not only does Ma sound like a broken record when he repeats the request, but it is also becoming increasingly evident that if they somehow were acquired, by the time the F-16C/Ds were deployed they would no longer be a game-changer in the Taiwan Strait — not in light of the fifth-generation aircraft that, among an impressive array of platforms and weapons systems, China has been developing and fielding in recent years.
For the Ma administration to prove that it is not soft on defense, it would have to demonstrate it has the will to delineate defense alternatives, both in terms of procurement and strategy. By miring itself in the old F-16 mindset, which by some accounts has appeal more in terms of politics than defense value, Taipei is not thinking ahead and planning for possible futures, which any serious risk and threat assessment would call for.
This lack of imagination is predicated on the dangerous assumption that conditions in the Taiwan Strait will continue to “improve,” but there is no guarantee of this.
That being said, we should not read too much into a report by the Chinese-language China Times earlier this week that quoted an unnamed official at the Ministry of National Defense as saying the military would not deploy the indigenously developed Ray-Ting 2000 multiple rocket system on Kinmen, again because of “rapidly warming ties” with Beijing. The demilitarization of outlying islands has been ongoing for more than a decade and a defense analyst told the Taipei Times that no new artillery pieces have been deployed there in many “moons.”
Contrasting the Taiwan Strait with the Korean Peninsula during a visit by a British delegation earlier this week, Ma sounded as if 60 years of military tensions with China were, after a mere two-and-a-half years of rapprochement, a thing of the past.
“The days of military confrontation across the Taiwan Strait are over,” he said.
This view glosses over the fact that China has shown no indication it is willing to dismantle the 1,900 ballistic and cruise missiles it targets at Taiwan, and that it continues to stage large-scale military exercises simulating an invasion of Taiwan. It even has highly accurate mock Taiwanese airports to conduct missile tests.
This also ignores the fact that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is becoming increasingly modern and assertive. Although a good portion of that modernization, through items such as anti-ship ballistic missiles and nuclear-powered submarines, dovetails with China’s regional aspirations, there is no denying their dual applicability — in other words, their utility in a Taiwan contingency.
Beyond this, there are unmistakable signs that the hawks within the PLA establishment are on the ascendancy, which bodes ill for the future of cross-strait ties when the going gets tougher, as it is bound to do at some point. Several tripwires could derail the current train of events in the Taiwan Strait; until those are removed — which will require far longer than half a presidential term to accomplish — any mention of the military threat as being a thing of the past is irresponsibly premature.
It is undeniable that, as a means to reduce tensions in any area of conflict, signaling via demobilization or reallocation of resources can be a powerful instrument. In that regard, Ma could be commended for such efforts. However, such signaling can only continue for so long if it remains unrequited, which is clearly the case here. How much longer will it take the Ma administration to realize that Beijing is not willing to dance and that the military option remains part and parcel of its grand, indivisible strategy for unification?
Without a proper course correction, we could soon cross a line where the signaling no longer serves as an olive branch, but rather constitutes the first steps toward capitulation.
J. Michael Cole is deputy news editor at the Taipei Times.
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