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    Greater China
     Mar 18, '14

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From Kiev to Beijing … and Taipei
By Peter LeeUnder

current circumstances majority opinion in Taiwan does not favor de jure independence (or, for that matter, unification); despite the dismal personal poll numbers for Ma, the KMT's engagement-friendly and independence-averse policy with the PRC is favored by a majority of voters.

But judging by events in Kiev, the US appears to be increasingly unwilling to respect democratically expressed preferences (or ambivalence) when it sees an opportunity to roll up a geopolitical win against an important adversary. Any window of opportunity for the United States in the matter of the People's Republic of China may, in fact, be fleeting.

In the United States, I detect a frustration that extends up to the

Oval Office with the slipperiness of the PRC as a top-tier strategic competitor. The PRC has become bigger and more threatening and harder to lick; at the same time it has persisted with has its policy of bobbing and weaving, avoiding direct conflict with the United States and thereby denied the US. the opportunity to wield its unmatched military power in order to put the PRC in its place and confirm America's place at the top of the Asian hierarchy.

At some uncomfortably close date, the PRC will be strong enough and the US protestations of resolve and capability will be suspect enough that front-line states like Japan and the Philippines and Vietnam will seek their own, independent mix of confrontation and accommodation with the PRC while US leadership is increasingly honored "in the breech".

One of the awkward truths of US China policy is that it appears to be increasingly driven by an anxiety that the PRC is becoming stronger and more aggressive, and the United States is under a certain amount of pressure to make a move to cut China down to size "before it's too late".

If the United States-either the Obama administration or the even more confrontational outfit that will take over if, as expected, Hillary Clinton claims the presidency in 2016-wants to stick it to the PRC, quickly and on the most favorable terms, and despite the PRC's determination to avoid a direct contest with the United States-Beijing's key point of vulnerability is Taiwan.

With the precedent of Ukraine, let's say that Ma Ying-jeou and the KMT decide to insulate Taiwan-mainland relations from the possibility of a KMT defeat in the 2016 polls and accelerate the development of cross-strait ties. This shall not stand! Declares the hard-core independence militants. Crowds appear before the presidential palace and refuse to disperse until their demands-maybe for reduction of cross-strait ties, maybe for a new unity government, maybe for a referendum on independence-are met. In Chen Shuibian, currently about halfway through a twenty-year sentence for corruption, there is even an imprisoned leader whose release could be demanded. Things get violent as the government, with its approvals hovering near single digits, encounters angry defiance as it tries to put an end to the crisis.

Taiwanese yearning for democracy and freedom outside the baleful shadow of communist China becomes a cause celebre. NGOs, politicians, celebrities, journalists, and money from the West and Japan come in. Japan, in particular, remembers its locally very popular history as the colonial ruler of Taiwan from 1895 until 1945, and offers moral and tangible support to the markedly pro-Japanese and anti-PRC elements in the Democratic People's Party.

Recall that the President Lee Teng-hui, a fluent Japanese speaker from colonial days, has retained close ties to Japan, Shintaro Ishihara, and Japan's right wing; after he left office, Lee visited Japan and made a pilgrimage to Yasukuni where his brother, who died in Japanese colonial service, is enshrined. Recall also that the DPP as a whole has little patience with PRC claims over the Senkakus; for that matter, Lee in fact stated that they belong to Japan.

In February 2013, the chairman of the DPP (and presumptive 2016 presidential candidate Su Tseng-chang) roiled relations with the mainland by visiting Japan to hail the Taiwan-Japan bilateral partnership as members of a democratic alliance, which would make the Asia-Pacific a region of security, stability and prosperity. Under unfavorable scrutiny, Su was compelled to avoid a meeting with nationalist firebrand and long-time friend of Taiwan Shintaro Ishihara, but one can safely say that Japan is prepared to give the DPP a favorable hearing if things turn ugly with the mainland. [2]

Back to our scenario. Somehow, as in Ukraine, the elected government is delegitimized by some fatal combination of violence, disunity, and ineptitude, driven from office, and replaced by a new coalition, which declares undying loyalty to liberal democracy and implores diplomatic recognition and military and economic support from the West and the Asian democracies.

And it declares independence. And the United States and Japan, instead of sticking with the pragmatic precedent of US-Taiwan-PRC relations, honoring the One China policy and screwing over the Republic of China once again, decide to seize this once in a lifetime opportunity to force the PRC into a crisis on favorable terms…and they recognize the independent Republic of China.

In the best case, PRC backs down and sees its clout and prestige diminished. In the worst case…well, the United States is remarkably cavalier about the consequences of its strategic gambits, especially since the direct human costs are borne largely by America's unlucky local adversaries and allies.

Far-fetched scenario?
Remarkably, J Michael Cole, a defense journalist in Taipei who used to work at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, has already played with this idea in the National Journal.

He starts his scenario with a domestic political crisis, in what looks like a conscious parallel between Yanukovych's attempt to tilt toward Russia and Ma Ying-jeou's initiatives on cross-strait ties:
What is truly worrying when it comes to Taiwan is the fact that these developments occur at a time of intensifying Chinese pressure on Taipei, which is being compelled into signing various agreements that risk being detrimental to Taiwan's ability to retain its sovereign status.

Facing elevated opposition by legislators and civil society, the Ma administration has hardened its line with increased reliance on law enforcement to counter peaceful protesters and has frequently made a travesty of public hearings and other mechanisms associated with liberal democracies. This, in turn, has served to exacerbate frustrations within the country, with possible repercussions for social stability.
[G]rowing disillusionment with political institutions and heightened fears that current trends could curtail their ability to determine their destiny could eventually compel Taiwanese to take action which risks destabilizing the government. Recent incidents, such as the crashing of a thirty-five-tonne truck into the Presidential Office by a disgruntled former Air Force officer, are a sign that things are coming to a boil, with escalation all the more likely between now and 2016, when the next presidential elections are scheduled.

Should Taiwanese decide that their country's democracy is no longer sufficient to protect their interests and adopt nonpeaceful means to resolve the matter, the resulting instability would provide Chinese with justification to intervene militarily. [3]
Cole echoes the "snipers enabled Russian invasion" interpretation of the chaos in Ukraine, and takes the tack that the PRC would encourage violent subversion, perhaps through a pro-mainland gangster, Chang An-le, in order to give it an excuse to invade while Democracy, Freedom, and the Seventh Fleet stand cravenly to one side. My personal feeling re Chang is that Beijing is sponsoring a pro-unification goon squad so anti-independence politicians can draw on a reserve of street muscle to provide a riposte to the more radical independence activists, who rely on street protests and stunts like pulling down a statue of Sun Yat-sen in Tainan City for political traction.

It is possible that the PRC, faced with the prospect of the DPP winning the presidency in 2016, might take the momentous step of fomenting political chaos in Taiwan, assume US fecklessness, and invade. But I should say that the PRC, based on its previous experience with the Chen Shuibian regime, is more likely to believe it can manage the awkwardness with a DPP regime through the usual mix of threats and inducements-if it believes that the US will uphold the One China policy.

In contrast to Cole's opinion (and more in keeping, I might say, with the drift of his scenario and the propensity for mischief displayed by China hawks in the US), I think a more likely scenario for violent political unrest in Taiwan is that pro-independence forces, if egged on by the United States and Japan with the promise of recognition, might foment a political crisis in Taiwan, overwhelm the current government, declare independence, and dare the PRC to respond. That's pretty much what happened in Ukraine.

A Taiwan declaration of independence backed by Japan and the United States would force an existential choice on the PRC: does it swallow the humiliation of backing down on Taiwan, revealing itself to be a paper tiger in front of its Asian interlocutors? Or does it make good on its bluster and launch an attack to subjugate Taiwan?

Time will tell.

But it doesn't matter who you think the bad guy would be; whether you think the PRC would take the enormous geopolitical risk of fomenting chaos in Taiwan in order to justify an invasion, or if you think the United States would roll the dice on its future in Asia by egging on pro-independence radicals in Taipei, or you simply hope that nobody starts World War III during your lifetime…

Any way … consider Taiwan in play.

1. See here
2.See Visiting Su touts closer ties with Japan, Taipei Times, Feb 5, 2013.
3. See Taiwan Watching Crimea with Nervous Eye Toward Beijing, The National Interest, March 14, 2014.

Peter Lee writes on East and South Asian affairs and their intersection with US foreign policy.

(Copyright 2014 Peter Lee)

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