At Arms Length: China’s Move To Further Isolate Taiwan

Publication: China Brief Volume: 4 Issue: 11

Assuming that President Chen Shui-bian sticks to the pledges he made in his May 20 inauguration speech, the possibility of armed conflict in the Taiwan Strait seems to have subsided for the time being. However, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership has signaled its intention of escalating psychological warfare and other hardball tactics it is deploying against the “renegade province.”

Owing to a variety of factors, including pressure from the U.S., Chen went out of his way to avoid provoking Beijing in his much-awaited inaugural address. For example, the leader of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) steered clear of any pro-independence slogan, goal or time-table. There was no direct reference to the “two states theory,” or that Taiwan and China are “countries on either side of the Strait.” Most significantly, Chen pledged that the forthcoming revision of the Taiwan Constitution–which may come into effect in 2008–would not touch on issues of statehood or sovereignty. This is despite the fact that during the electoral campaign, he had vowed to forge a brand-new Constitution that would enshrine Taiwan’s full-fledged statehood.

Beijing, however, is unimpressed. Spokesmen for the Foreign Ministry and the Taiwan Affairs Office pointed out that Chen had refused to acknowledge the “one China principle,” and that “the nature of his stubbornly upholding the splittist stance of ‘Taiwan independence’ has not changed.” While the spokesmen had hardly anything to say to Chen, they repeatedly asked Washington “not to be cheated” by the Taiwan leader’s alleged dissemination and verbal tricks.

Taiwan experts in Beijing were even more explicit in condemning Chen. Senior academic and government advisor Li Jiaquan said the DPP chief was a “bomb that will explode at any time” because he had hardly given up his “creeping independence” conspiracy. Tsinghua University international affairs professor Yan Xuetong predicted that Chen would speed up his separatist tactics after the December legislative polls in Taiwan and that “the juncture for Beijing to use the military tactics against Taiwan will arrive at any time.”

While the CCP leadership may for the near term lack a casus belli for the military option, Beijing’s Taiwan policy has taken a radical–and possibly violent–turn. Li, who used to head the Taiwan Affairs Office of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, noted the Chinese leadership was switching from a houfa zhiren posture (“winning through crafting an ingenious reaction to the enemy’s ploys”) to a “strike first” policy. One disturbing manifestation of this new-found aggressiveness is the revelation first made by Premier Wen Jiabao in early May that Beijing was considering a National Reunification Law (NRL).

Chinese sources say it is well-known in Taiwan-related think tanks in Beijing that legal and strategic experts under the CCP Leading Group on Taiwan Affairs (LGTA), headed by President Hu Jintao, had begun drafting a statute on reunification more than a year ago. And at least one version of the law being mooted would obligate the central government and its military forces to “use whatever means to accomplish the holy task of national reunification.” The Hu-Wen leadership is still debating whether the statue should contain a “deadline,” say the year 2008, by which reunification must be accomplished.

An NRL, which could be endorsed by the Chinese legislature as early as next spring, will be nothing less than an ultimatum for Taiwan separatists. For example, an NRL will provide the legal basis for a much bigger budget for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) as well as larger-scale mobilization procedures. Its enactment could signal the final stage of military preparations for a takeover of Taiwan.

One “favorable factor” that hawkish PLA elements have cited recently is that with the U.S. bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan in the foreseeable future, there is only so much Washington could do to blunt a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Hard-line generals also see as a window of opportunity the fact that given the dubious circumstances surrounding Chen’s re-election victory, almost 50% of the population–including supporters of the Kuomintang and People’s First Party–thinks Chen is not a legitimate president. Since Taiwan is a house divided, the PLA would have a better chance of vanquishing Taiwan resistance. Moreover, hawkish officers are convinced that given China’s fast-rising economic, military and diplomatic clout, it can afford to risk limited American intervention in the Taiwan Strait theater.

It is unlikely that the Hu-Wen leadership will make the fateful decision on Taiwan any time soon, however. Factional politics within the CCP leadership is such that Hu would feel reluctant about going to war with Taiwan until he has succeeded Jiang Zemin as Chairman of the Central Military Commission. But it is significant that Beijing’s major foreign policy goal this year, improving relations with the European Union, contains a crucial military component. It is more than a coincidence that Premier Wen, deemed a moderate leader, should have chosen to flash the “reunification-through-legislation” card while in Britain earlier this month.

A principal goal of Wen’s European tour was to lobby the European Union to lift its 15-year-old arms embargo on China and to persuade EU members to further isolate Taiwan. The premier’s statement in London that “for Chinese, national reunification is something more valuable than their own lives” was a not-so-subtle way of saying Beijing was ready to sustain immense sacrifices incurred by a “liberation warfare.”

Wen said while visiting Europe that the arms embargo was “a product of the Cold war era and is totally outdated.” Chinese cadres have pointed out in internal discussion that a hi-tech and weapons lifeline from Europe will lessen China’ over-dependence on Russia. Sophisticated hardware such as the French Mirage jet-fighters and German electronics will render Beijing’ military-based psychological warfare against Taiwan even more effective. Once European arms manufacturers have started supplying China, Beijing could easily persuade them to stop selling to Taiwan. Most significantly, strategic advisers to the Hu-Wen leadership have expressed confidence that after Beijing has overcome the EU arms hurdle, it’s just a matter of time before the U.S. will succumb.

A diplomatic source in Beijing said the central authorities had put together a war-chest of up to $100 billion–about one fourth of China’s foreign exchange holdings–to buy hi-tech, military, as well as “dual-use” products, and know-how from Europe in the first few years after the abolition of the ban. And, the source added, arms manufacturers and exporters in the U.S. will be putting pressure on Washington to follow the EU because “these American firms cannot afford to let their French, German, British and Scandinavian competitors dominate the world’s largest market.”

Given strong U.S. opposition and the fact that a unanimous decision among the EU’s 25 members is needed for canceling the arms ban on China, it is unlikely that Beijing could achieve its goal soon. However, the Chinese leadership has demonstrated its capacity to circumvent the ban by quietly buying sophisticated military equipment from individual European countries. For example, the U.S. has recently tried to bar the Czech Republic from selling a top-of-the-line radar system to China. At the same time, the increasing likelihood of Beijing procuring European weapons has prodded the Russians into selling more advanced hardware to China at lower prices. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov was in Beijing late last month to discuss a new paradigm for Russian-Chinese military cooperation.

Despite China’s fast-growing military might and diplomatic clout–and the fact that its patience seems to be running out–it is too early to say the CCP leadership has embarked on a military solution of the Taiwan imbroglio. The Hu-Wen team’s top priority for the rest of the decade is still to develop the economy and boost the country’s comprehensive strength in the absence of military conflict. Aggressive moves it has taken such as lobbying the EU to lift its arms embargo and the possible enactment of the NRL, can be interpreted as psychological warfare to press Chen to abide by the “five no’s” pledge he made in 2000 (which includes no declaration of de jure independence and no change of the formal name of the island). More importantly, Beijing wants to send an unequivocal signal to Washington that it must play its part in reining in Chen in the coming four years. Much of the prosperity of Greater China, as well as stability in the Asia-Pacific region, hinges on the increasingly frigid cold war raging across the Taiwan Strait.