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US-China-Taiwan: Missile diplomacy
By Macabe Keliher

TAIPEI - Under the warm Texas sun on October 25, with the smell of sagebrush blowing over Crawford's dirt roads, one president proposed to another: If China "froze" its missile deployment along the Fujian coast, would the United States reduce weapons sales to Taiwan? As tantalizing a question as it was, Chinese President Jiang Zemin and US President George W Bush "only touched on the issue and did not continue to discuss it further", according to Chen Chien-jen, Taiwan's top representative in the United States.

Although the presidential proposition ceased at Bush's ranch, the memos have continued to fly around China, testing the currents as usually happens before a major policy change. China is considering lowering the military threat against Taiwan, its "renegade province" just 150 kilometers off the Fujian coast. Of the 400 short-range ballistic missiles aimed at the island, China may "freeze" further deployment, or "reduce" or "move inland" the M-11s. Although such an act would not leave Taiwan out of harm's way, or even amount to Beijing backing down on the use of force, it would give the international community a sign that Beijing is finally acting like a responsible country in the family of nations and is sincere about stability. But more than that, it would mark a significant change in Beijing's Taiwan policy, moving from the longtime position of using military deterrence against independence, to expressing goodwill and encouraging the island to unite under the Beijing government.

In fact, this shift has been a few years in the making. When Taiwan's current president Chen Shui-bian was elected on a pro-independence ticket in March 2000, the Beijing leadership had to come to terms with the failure of its military-driven policy of threatening Taiwan against embracing independence. The missiles, it seems, were not working. Since then Beijing has failed to threaten Taiwan verbally with the "fires of war", as was once customary, and has continuously downplayed its refusal to relinquish the use of force. The biggest change came in September at the United Nations, where China's representative laid out the "new definition" of the "one China" policy in which both Taiwan and the mainland are part of China. (The previous definition was that Taiwan is a part of China.) Subtle, perhaps, but a clear softening, especially considering that President Chen had just made his remark about "one country on either side".

Toning down the direct military threat to the island would be a logical next step for Beijing. Missiles have only brought the condemnation of the international community and driven Taiwan and the US closer together. In fact, many in Taipei say that relinquishing the threat of force would be an extremely smart move on China's part. "It would be the best thing Beijing could do. It would bifurcate Taiwan's politics, undercut Taipei's China policy, and raise China's status on the international stage," says former Taiwanese diplomat Chang Yachung.

Indeed, from restricting direct travel and communication links with China, to spending a huge portion of its budget on defense, Taipei has geared itself for war with China. How would it handle the prospect of peace? Beijing may not be far off the mark when it says Taiwan will not drift toward independence. In Taiwan, pro-unification political parties still remain a force, diplomatic allies are dwindling, and even the once pro-independence ruling Democratic Progressive Party has removed the independence clause from its party constitution. As China's Vice Premier Qian Qichen said recently in an interview in Study Times, "Taiwan independence is not popular on the island and is extremely isolated internationally."

Even so, would Beijing take such a step without some sort of commitment from the United States to reduce, if not cease altogether, arms sales to Taiwan? Although Jiang Zemin has promoted 64 of the 81 senior generals in the People's Liberation Army, and does seem to have them well under his control, the military has an interest in maintaining the use of force against Taiwan. It also holds that throughout history, unification has never been achieved without a battle, and that the ultimate solution must be military in nature. It is largely believed that the PLA and other hawks would need some type of concession to jump on board.

But would the US bite? It would certainly welcome such a step towards peace and stabilization in the Taiwan Strait, but to reciprocate that with reduced weapon sales puts it in a bind as it must uphold its "Six Assurances" to Taiwan, the third of which states that "the United States would not consult with China in advance before making decisions about US arms sales to Taiwan". The State Department has emphasized this legal brief, and as a Bush administration official told Chen Chien-jen, "I don’t think you are that naive, and neither are we," referring to the possibility of the US cutting arms sales to Taiwan.

Of course, with Taiwan buying US$8.54 billion in weapons a year there is also a strong interest to keep supplying. But without the immediate threat of missile bombardment, the congress might hesitate to give Taiwan such big packages, and could even cancel sales of missile protection systems like the AEGIS. In fact, Taiwan’s China Times Daily recently quoted unnamed Pentagon sources saying they may reconsider these systems. Furthermore, with Taipei running a budget deficit it would not be unreasonable for it to scale back defense procurements.

Given such a scenario, China watchers say that China's new leader, Hu Jintao, could make the announcement in late January when he presides over the anniversary of Jiang's Eight Points on the reunification of Taiwan. The problem for Taipei, however, is that it does not point to Beijing renouncing the use of force. As quickly as missiles on the coast get reduced, they can as easily be redeployed. And even so, Beijing still has a full arsenal to attack with by air and by sea, if not the least with its Hongniao 2 and 3 cruise missiles offering ranges of 2,000 and 3,000 kilometers respectively. "It's a nice diplomatic gesture," says Lin Chung-pin, senior advisor on Taiwan's National Security Council, "but we would like to remind them to resume talks. This would do more for confidence-building."

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Dec 12, 2002

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