Publication: China Brief Volume: 1 Issue: 9

China’s stated policy towards Taiwan is that there is one China, and Taiwan is part of that China. Given this, how will China act upon this policy to make it a reality? China sees three paths for action: negotiation with Taiwan, political victory for pro-unification forces in Taiwan, or military conquest.

Today, China may see near-term hope for the first two options fading. If so, what might the signs be of a shift in Chinese tactics to achieve the goal of absorbing Taiwan?

The conventional wisdom has it that China’s actions towards Taiwan tend to be clumsy, and overbearing, often evoking a response from Taiwan and the world that is the opposite of what was intended. A typical example of Beijing’s miscalculation would be the large-scale military exercises in 1995 and 1996 that led to America sending two aircraft carriers to waters near the Taiwan Strait while bolstering anti-Mainland feelings among the Taiwanese. China’s snub of Taiwan’s chosen representative for the September APEC conference in Shanghai would be the latest such move, according to this long-held line of thought.

Given China has had ample opportunity to see the results of saber rattling and rude manners towards Taiwan, it may be possible that China is deliberately seeking to create a pretext to justify future military action. If this is the case, has China’s recent behavior towards Taiwan been consistent with this goal?

On September 10, Chinese Vice Premier Qian Qichen asked Taiwan’s former ruling party, the KMT, to set up an office in China to coordinate China-Taiwan business exchanges. Such an office would have marked the first official presence on the mainland for the KMT since 1949. The offer was considered to be just one in a long string of Beijing’s attempts to isolate Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)-led government while serving to restore the fortunes of the KMT–a party that has shifted its stance to one of pro-unification with China.

The KMT currently has overwhelming control of the Taiwanese national legislature and has been using that control to stymie the one-year-old government of President Chen Shui-bian and his DPP. With national legislative elections fast approaching on December 1, 2001, the prevailing thought was that China would do all it could do to enhance the prestige of its former rival for power on the mainland, the KMT, to ensure its continued dominance of the legislative branch.

Then, on September 11, more than 5,000 Americans were killed and the calculus across the Taiwan Straits was dramatically altered.

America’s sole focus in national security and international affairs became its war on terror. Many of the few U.S. intelligence professionals who watched China were detailed away to other priorities. Policy makers concerned about Chinese intentions suddenly became too busy to follow up on previous recommendations or policy shifts. Naval forces in the Western Pacific whose mission it is to watch and deter China and North Korea were suddenly shifted to the Indian Ocean or the Arabian Sea.

China quickly took note of the situation, calling for a U.S. quid for China’s quo: in exchange for American acknowledgment of China’s own war on terror and “splittism” against Taiwan, China would give the U.S. intelligence on the terrorists in Afghanistan (“fortunately”, China is one of the Taliban’s biggest arms suppliers, so they do know a bit about their client). China later modified the offer to make it appear less self-serving, but the fact remains, the offer was made.

On September 13, Beijing conducted a remarkable policy turnaround when it announced it was giving up hope on negotiating a unification agreement with Taiwan’s KMT. After leading the KMT so far down the unification path that it publicly considered a confederation scheme with Beijing, China appeared to pour cold water on one of its major initiatives to achieve unification.

Then, China rejected Taiwan’s chosen representative for the APEC summit in Shanghai, former Vice President Li, a KMT Party member. China’s stonewalling violated APEC host nation standard procedures and wounded Taiwanese pride, increasing the political capital of President Chen and his DPP just a few weeks before the critical elections.

One would think that China would have learned from previous failed attempts to bully Taiwan. But, if they knew their actions would bolster the DPP, what does that say about Chinese intentions towards Taiwan now? Perhaps Beijing has garnered enough experience in its relations with Taipei that it is, in fact, playing Taiwan like a finely tuned instrument.

Considered in this light, China’s actions may, in fact, be a deliberate attempt to create the pretext it wants for military action against the island democracy of 23 million people. If so, what might we see next from China?

If China’s intentions towards Taiwan are martial, we could see a resumption of large-scale joint People’s Liberation Army (PLA), Navy and Air Force exercises in the area around the Straits. These exercises have become so commonplace that neither Taiwan nor America seem to become alarmed at them any more. What they do seem to do however, is inflame the passions of the pro-independence minded voters of Taiwan–which is exactly what Beijing may now want.

Should Taiwan’s election produce an historic defeat for the KMT, finally giving President Chen a governing coalition, the Chinese could escalate their cross-straits war games. To create an incident, a Chinese gunboat could attack a Taiwanese fishing vessel. A new legislature, no longer yearning for unity with the mainland, would then demand action, while popular opinion on the island may rise in righteous anger. Support for considering a referendum on formal independence might then increase. Soon, the PRC could have its pretext: Taiwan is preparing for the unthinkable, independence from China.

Chinese military exercises could grow in scope and complexity throughout January, then, in early February, while the U.S. is engaged in fighting terrorism in Afghanistan (and perhaps Iraq), China attacks.

China’s assault would employ hundreds of missiles armed with special nuclear (electro-magnetic pulse) and chemical (perhaps non-lethal) warheads. Huge waves of combat aircraft would quickly gain air superiority. And, commercial shipping would be pressed into service to bring armored vehicles and conscript troops across the 90 mile strait. But, the main blow would fall from the sky in the form of vigorous commando strikes on key leadership, communications nodes, and airstrips, followed by a massive airlift using China’s now considerable civil air fleet. Such a scenario was recently spelled out by Professor Richard Russell in a piece in the Army War College’s August issue of Parameters entitled, “What if… ‘China Attacks Taiwan!'” as well in “China Attacks” which the author co-wrote with China expert Steven Mosher.

In less than seven to ten days, it would be over: Organized resistance on Taiwan would cease.

U.S. intelligence, still focused on the war on terror, would be blind sided. American naval and air power, concentrated in the Middle East, would never even have a chance to intervene. President Bush’s we’ll do “what it takes” to defend Taiwan pledge would be forgotten in stunned silence.

Democracy in Asia would be dealt a severe blow. The pressure on the Chinese Communist Party for democratic reforms would be snuffed out by the jackboots of nationalism. A Chinese public wearied by endemic corruption, the highest gap between the rich and the poor in Asia, growing unemployment, and a pending bad debt bomb will instead thrill with the prospect of righting past wrongs and restoring China to its historical greatness as the world’s hegemon.

In the future, the events of early 2002 may be viewed as the beginning of China’s march to military conquest, analogous to Germany’s 1938 Anschluss with Austria and its conquest of Czechoslovakia.

The world has now witnessed the dawn of a new and terrible era of warfare–one unforeseen by most experts. While we are engaged in this New War, let us not blindly stumble into another surprise–one that can rapidly undermine our national security.


Chuck DeVore is the co-author of “China Attacks” and was vice president of Research for SM&A Inc. in Newport Beach, California.