Letter from Taiwan: Taipei and the New, Assertive China

Publication: China Brief Volume: 10 Issue: 21

Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou

While attending a conference on security in Taipei as October arrived, I found it easy to point to indications of an erosion in American support for Taiwan unprecedented since the 1970s. This was in part owed to a sense in Washington that President Ma Ying-jeou’s "sunshine policy" toward China had reduced tension and the risk of war, while leading Taiwan toward "peaceful unification" or at least amicable coexistence and trade with China.

This perception led to a questioning of the necessity of continued American support, including arms sales, for Taiwan in this new situation. The prevalence of such views in Washington circles were evidenced by Senator Dianne Feinstein expressible skeptical view about such support after leading a lighting Senatorial trip to the island in June (Reuters, June 16). Similar reservations were expressed by Senator Arlen Specter who professed concern about the need to rebalance trade with China, which had cost 2.3 million American jobs. He argued that this situation was not helped by such policies as arms sales to Taiwan and China’s treatment of the Dalai Lama, while also voicing not a little general resignation.

China had simply grown too big and too powerful, putting the handwriting on the wall for Taiwan, regardless of what America might or might not do. As Specter put it: "We have recently sold Taiwan some US $4.6 billion worth [of arms], which is very substantial, but if the People’s Republic of China decided to invade Taiwan, the defenses they have and their request for additional fighter planes which has not been granted—all of that would not be sufficient to stem the tide."  A private visit with President Ma Ying-jeou on August 13 had failed to convince the senator that sales of F-16 C/Ds to Taiwan were justified (Taipei Times, September 23).

After my return from the weeklong visit came word that the Obama administration had ordered lifting the embargo on selling U.S. C-130 military cargo aircraft to China, possibly a preemptive quid pro quo for F-16 sales, but also possibly a signal of acquiescence to a new Chinese military predominance in the region (PRI’s The World, February 4).

Until mid-summer the sense had been growing in Washington circles that China’s military rise was already massive and would continue, but that it posed little threat to any states in the region other than Taiwan, with its special circumstances deriving from the flight there of the Kuomintang in 1949 at the end of the Chinese civil war.  Furthermore, under Ma Ying-jeou, Taiwan was in any case preparing to accept its inevitable absorption by China, concerned only that the terms be the best possible.

Yet, starting in late spring an unexpected tide of events suggested something very different: the sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan in March 2010 and the tense ASEAN regional forum in July, culminating in Chinese insistence that the entire 1.4 million square miles of the South China Sea were her sovereign territorial waters. These events were soon followed by a statement from American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who declared that the peaceful resolution of competing sovereignty claims to the South China Sea is a U.S. "national interest." The American statement was a direct and public negation of the announced Chinese position, first surfaced in March when Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs Cui Tiankai reportedly told two senior U.S. officials that China viewed its claims to the South China Sea on a par with those to Tibet and Taiwan (Forbes.com July 28). These events were followed by a confrontation with Japan over the disputed Diaoyutai/Senkaku islands, which cooled a bit just as I was leaving, as China withdrew her military patrol boats from the region (AFP, October 5).

My visit to Taiwan coincided, then, with what retrospect may well identify as a turning point in East Asian geopolitics, the moment when the long-dominant dream of China as a pacific "stakeholder" in the Asian region evaporated. Beijing had shocked her neighbors and Washington by her assertive behavior. This in turn set in motion the beginning of a new polarization between China and many of the other, hitherto disorganized states of the region whom now began to seek allies and coordinate actions. The United States took the side of the countries threatened, not of China. The strategic map of Asia was being redrawn in a way unprecedented in 40 years.

This redrawing posed in turn an unanticipated question for President Ma’s government in Taiwan: which side would the island take? If it came to a confrontation between the mostly democratic nations she was menacing, and the China that Ma was courting, where would Taipei stand? Given the island’s great strategic importance, it would not be an easy question to dodge.

I was in Taiwan for a major conference on the Japanese-American security alliance, on October 5, sponsored by the Taiwan National Security Institute and the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy. This event featured Japanese Diet member Gen Nakatani, a former minister of defense, and from the United States current American Enterprise Institute Fellow and former Department of Defense Senior Country Director for China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Mongolia, Daniel Blumenthal, as well as myself and a number of senior figures from Taiwan [1]. The meeting was attended mostly by green and pro-independence types (though Kuomintang speaker of the Legislative Yuan, Wang Jyn-ping [1941-] made the opening remarks).

The overarching analysis that I put forth was that the alliance between the United States and Japan—lynch-pin of Asian security—could no longer to be counted on, owing to the breakdown of extended deterrence, the weakness of Japanese forces and the continuing deterioration of the American position—my sincere opinion but also intended to provoke—was overshadowed by intense concern about Taiwan’s new situation faced with Beijing’s rather unsettling feistiness (Taipei Times, October 6).

Clearly, the Taipei government had been caught by surprise by Beijing’s assertiveness in the recent East China Sea dispute with Japan. John Chiang son of Chiang Chingkuo and vice chairman of the Kuomintang had declared in China that the islands belonged "to all Chinese people"—a position that the island’s government conspicuously failed to endorse, after some hesitation in effect withdrawing from the dispute (Wall Street Journal China Real Time Report, October 14). My sense that Taiwan’s government was distancing itself from China was reinforced, after my return, by its rebuff to overtures from China for military negotiations and confidence building measures (RTT News, October 14). Beneath the surface, however, clearly there was a degree of disarray.

I made a plunge into the world of Taipei gossip and rumor, within which I have some relatively reliable sources. I heard, from the blue camp, a distinctly dispiriting account of the Ma administration. The government, so the analysis went, had staked, if not everything, then "ninety percent" on improving relations with China. Clearly, they had made some gains. On the trip home, I ran into a responsible American official who described the recent Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (aka ECFA, signed June 29) as "amazingly" favorable to Taiwan. Yet, little consideration, my Taiwan sources told me, had been given to the need for an alternative approach, should China prove uncooperative.

Some among the blues said that even the ostensibly urgent appeals to the United States for advanced fighter aircraft and other weaponry had been undercut, via back channels that told the Washington administration that Taiwan did not really want approval of the weapons (this would have been before the sobering events of the summer). Other sources reported that the United States was aware of traffic between China and Taiwan that undercut the latter’s public position. None of this seemed on the face of it implausible, given that when out of power the Kuomintang had stifled funding in the Legislative Yuan (Taiwan’s parliament) for the Bush administration’s unprecedented comprehensive arms sales offers to the island. Had they not done so new F-16s may already be flying in the skies over Taiwan.

The degree to which even matters of national security are eclipsed by the political divisions in the island is striking (and a consistent feature of Taiwan’s rancorous politics). The blue, or roughly speaking Kuomintang coalition is more willing to engage in negotiations with China than it is to talk seriously to the opposition greens—while the latter are likewise difficult to move. Opposition leaders boycotted the celebrations this year of Taiwan’s (aka ROC) national day—claiming insults by President Ma as the reason (though more deeply-rooted locals have difficulty identifying with what to them are the foreign events commemorated: the anniversary, October 10, of the Wuchang uprising in Qing China that led to the birth of the Republic of China, for which Taiwan is now a home in refuge) (Taipei Times, October 6).

Is President Ma’s administration equal to such challenges within and without? From both sides I heard characterizations of it as lacking in leadership, averse to the making of difficult decisions, and (from a well-informed American friend) bureaucratic and lacking in imagination.

One area that concerns me particularly, given the unreliability and politicization of American arms supply and support, is the island’s ability to defend itself.

Since the days of Chiang Kai-shek who initiated nuclear research on the island in the early 1950s, Taiwan has had a largely clandestine program of developing military self-sufficiency—aided at times by the United States, as in the development of the Indigenous Defense Fighter, halted by Washington at other times (most notably with the forced ending of Taiwan’s rather advanced nuclear weapons program). Today many people in Taiwan, both blues and greens, are concerned that these programs—which have produced some capable systems, including a supersonic anti-ship missile that could prove deadly in any attempt actually to land on Taiwan, as well as limited counter-attack capabilities—should continue.

The basic go-it-alone strategy is to develop capable defensive systems, able to disrupt staging areas on the other side of the strait and interdict attempts to land, while at the same time strengthening deterrence by creating some sort of (non-nuclear) weapon of mass destruction sufficient to cause second and third thoughts on the part of any would-be adversary. Improbable as they seem to many foreigners, when first broached, both objectives are well within the reach of Taiwan today and one may expect that, unless the programs (which have substantial momentum) are actively closed down—which seems unlikely—those capabilities will be reached.

Ironically, though, the heyday of such preparation was in the time of such figures as the two Chiangs and General Hau Po-tsun. Subsequent administrations, those of Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shuibian did less substantively, according to my sources. The word was that the Ma administration was reducing both priority and support for such endeavors, though it is the nature of such assertions that they are difficult to confirm.

The new cold breeze blowing from China, however, looks to have had some effect on Taiwan, and is likely to continue to do so. A foreigner who had recently met with a number of regional governments told me that in his opinion not one expected anything other than trouble from China in the years ahead. As already mentioned, Taiwan’s government would seem to have slowed down the rate at which it has been embracing cooperation with China. As a coalition of other Asian states takes shape to counter-balance China, I argued in my presentation at the conference, it was unlikely that democratic Taiwan would take the side of a dictatorship against other democracies (among other things the military would never stand for this—I was told), and even more unlikely that the United States would seek to force a democratic country like Taiwan to make terms with a would-be regional hegemon.

The wisest of my Taiwan interlocutors, however, expected nothing of the sort to happen either way. When I remarked that in the 40 years since I began the study of Chinese, little really substantial has happened either to the Taiwan-China relationship or to that of Taipei with Washington (beyond, of course, massive shifts in protocol and symbolism), he responded that were we to meet again in 40 years time, probably little more would have taken place.

In his reasoning, China clearly does not want to attack Taiwan, and will not do so absent some sort of serious provocation from the island—which the island’s governments have steadily proved too savvy to provide. This situation will continue, and although Ma may be disappointed in his hopes for genuine understanding across the strait, and for periods at least Taiwan’s military will struggle to maintain its ability to fend off attack, in the end future decades will resemble very much those that have passed since the high drama of the 1970s. Heated talk will continue, but the more things may seem to change, the more they will remain basically the same. No rabbit, it seems, is waiting in the cross-Straits hat.


1. See "International Symposium on 50 Years of U.S.-Japan Security Alliance and the Security of Taiwan" (Taipei: Taiwan National Security Institute, 2010).