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Opinion Asia

War Clouds Over Taiwan

Beijing's expectations that Taiwanese will relinquish their separate identity will be disappointed

16 November 2010
By J. Michael Cole


Two years into his term, Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou seems to have transformed the dynamics of his country's troublesome relationship with China. But this détente is only a temporary phenomenon. The risk of war in the Taiwan Strait is actually growing as Beijing's expectations for a political end to the unfinished civil war rise, and Taiwan's ability to defend itself against attack withers.

After years of cross-Strait tension under Presidents Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian, it's hardly surprising that everyone is breathing a sigh of relief now that the two sides are at least on civil terms. The international business community is taking a fresh look at Taiwan both as an investment destination and, given the linguistic and cultural similarities with China, as a bridge to the world's second-largest economy.

Underneath this façade, however, lies a dangerous reality: Beijing's recent "goodwill" toward Taiwan, which culminated in the signing in late June of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, is fully in line with its stated strategy to complete the consolidation of China after a "century of humiliation." While the Ma administration maintains that the ECFA and other such deals are purely economic in nature and have no political implications, Chinese officials and leading academics are convinced that Taiwan is unwittingly preparing the way for eventual unification.

Beijing is doomed to disappointment, though, because its position on Taiwan is based on a key assumption: The prospect of material gain will eventually transcend politics and be sufficient to win hearts and minds. This is misguided.

For decades a similar philosophy has guided Beijing's policies in Tibet. The economic development of the Tibetan plateau, it is believed, will eventually convince Tibetans to abandon their desire for self-rule and independence. After more than 40 years of such efforts, however, there is little evidence that they have swayed Tibetans on questions of identity, freedom and religion. The comparison should not be taken too far. Taiwan, unlike Tibet, is already a developed, affluent society. But despite years of cross-Strait trade and investment, poll after poll still shows that a shrinking number of Taiwanese desire unification with China, while a growing number seek independence and identify as Taiwanese rather than Chinese.

Mr. Ma's two years in office aren't enough to prove definitively that these trends will continue. But the experience of Tibet over more than four decades tells us that economic benefits alone are insufficient to influence a people's sense of identity. In fact, closer contact can even serve to amplify small differences and solidify identities. Many Taiwanese happily do business with China, but for them this does not change the fact that they are Taiwanese, not Chinese.

China's leaders either know this and hope for a different outcome, or they are still unable to comprehend the dynamics of nationalism in a democratic, pluralistic society. In either case, Beijing is set for a rude awakening when, sometime in 2012 or soon afterward, it pushes for political talks with Taiwan on the island's future status.

At that point, Mr. Ma will be constrained by domestic political factors as he seeks re-election, and the Taiwanese electorate will not give him the same leeway on political matters that it has on economic issues. If Mr. Ma is re-elected, Beijing will find it increasingly difficult, beyond 2012, to get Taipei to cooperate on politics, sovereignty and unification, leaving military force as Beijing's sole recourse. The Chinese government has already stated that it will use force if Taiwan tries to put off reunification indefinitely.

In this light, Mr. Ma's current defense policies look dangerously weak. Last month, Taiwan put off buying Patriot missile batteries and Black Hawk helicopters on offer from the U.S., pleading budget difficulties. The Ma administration's cuts in its defense budget, combined with Washington's growing reluctance to sell Taiwan the modern weapons it needs to defend itself, are creating a dangerous vacuum in Taiwan's military development at a time when the People's Liberation Army is manufacturing, acquiring and deploying increasingly sophisticated weapons.

The PLA continues to target more than 1,500 short-range ballistic missiles at the island, and is close to being able to assert air and sea superiority around the island. The final piece in the puzzle, an amphibious landing capability, is also being addressed.

The longer this situation is allowed to persist, the greater the gap between Taiwan's and China's military capabilities will grow. Without a reversal, it may only be a few more years before Taipei finds itself incapable of warding off a Chinese invasion. But that would be just the beginning of its problems. Given that Taiwanese are unlikely to abandon their identity, China would likely have to wage an unconventional conflict to control the Taiwanese population, which could result in years of bloody fighting.

To avoid such a scenario, Taipei, Washington and the international community should make sure that Taiwan continues to have a credible defense to prevent Beijing from launching an attack on Taiwan. The costs of military deterrence are tiny compared to those of a conflict should China miscalculate its ability to overcome the Taiwanese will to maintain its separate identity.

Mr. Cole is the deputy news editor at the Taipei Times. A related editorial appears today.