SINOGRAPH Ten years to tackle the Taiwan equation
By Francesco Sisci
BEIJING - The ongoing military dialogue between the United States and China is
certainly the most sensitive and politically important concern of the two
countries. It is the punctus puncti (the point of the point), as
scholastic Medieval theologians would put it - the one thing that, if fixed,
would put every other topic in place. This is a complicated and delicate
matter, but, at least according to recent reports, two issues particularly
stick out - the reciprocal rules of conduct during surveillance missions and
arms sales to Taiwan.
The issue of rules of conduct is tricky, but less sensitive. Here, technical
and cultural issues are enmeshed. Technically, the two militaries, particularly
their navies and air forces, have to discuss a protocol of behavior when they
meet in international air space or waters during what are and will be
essentially US surveillance
missions encroaching on Chinese territory.
The Chinese have been reluctant to discuss the subject for two reasons. One is
cultural: agreeing to rules of conduct means recognizing an official "status of
enmity" between China and America, and Beijing may not be willing to officially
consider Washington as an enemy. The second reason is practical: China simply
would like these American missions to stop or decrease significantly, and wants
to keep its cards close to its chest about the progress of its military
However, from the American point of view, given the extremely secretive nature
of the Chinese army, it is important to keep a close watch on the Chinese
military's evolution to forestall any technological leaps and also to check on
regional politics. Other countries in the region could claim that China's
military is advancing very fast, and thus those countries could press ahead
with rearmament programs. Yet, if the US has proof of the status of the Chinese
army, it can disclaim those crying wolf, or it can face China itself, which
even for Beijing might be politically better than facing a rearmament program
from, say, Japan, Vietnam or India.
The second concern - the sale of arms to Taiwan - is far more complicated as it
goes to the core of the nationalistic and territorial claims of China.
According to Beijing, the American sale of arms is the one instrument by which
the US holds Taiwan apart from the rest of China.
Still, the Taiwan issue is not simply confined to arms sales. In the past year,
Taiwan has established direct travel, telecommunication and shipping links with
the mainland. It has, in other words, given up what were previously considered
all its bargaining chips with Beijing.
Furthermore, it has dropped restrictions on mainland investments in Taiwan.
Most importantly, Taiwan took political measures to avoid antagonizing Beijing:
it denied an entry visa to Uighur dissident Rebiya Kadeer and Taiwan President
Ma Ying-jiu refused to meet the exiled Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama. In other
words, Taiwan has allowed China to gain further leverage over the island
economy by welcoming Beijing's investment, and it is bending to pressure from
Beijing by restricting political space for China's enemies.
Taiwan's army, which is notoriously pro-reunification with China, is the last
fig leaf before real reunification. This army, without new, sophisticated
weapons to theoretically counter Beijing's ever-improving army, would be less
than a fig leaf - it would be a figment of the imagination. That is, Taiwan
would be left with nothing to bargain with in its talks on reunification. It
could be in China's and America's interests to leave Taiwan alone and disarmed
to let it drift to China's mainland, as both Beijing and Washington would then
be without a major stumbling block in their rapprochement. But this could have
dangerous regional consequences.
The return of Taiwan to the mainland - even if only virtual, by leaving the
island defenseless - urgently raises a major political issue in Beijing: that
of the integration into still-authoritarian China of fully-fledged democratic
Taiwan. Beijing would not be able to democratize immediately, according to
Taiwan's standard, nor would Taiwan accept submitting to authoritarian Beijing.
It would also be difficult to keep the two political systems separate, the way
Beijing does with the Special Autonomous Region of Hong Kong, and that of
Macau. Taiwan is much bigger, and its politics and media are livelier, more
articulated and more sophisticated than Hong Kong's.
Besides, control of Taiwan also involves the security of Japan. Over 50% of
Japan's energy and food imports pass east and west of the island, and therefore
Taiwan's return to China would put Beijing in a position to hold Tokyo by the
throat. This would make Japan very uncomfortable. If, moreover, Japan feels the
US is giving in too much to China, then it might consider taking more of its
security into its own hands. This might include forging closer links with
India, the demographic counterweight to China, and Vietnam, China's restive
Tokyo could head a formal or informal coalition of Chinese neighbors, all of
which might be roused to feel they had historical scores to settle with
Beijing. With less of an American presence in the region, and with a large but
still not immense Chinese economy, China might have to deal with all of these
neighbors alone, a risky proposition that could lead to China being boxed in or
becoming arrogant. This would be less than ideal.
Without the issue of Taiwan's return, Beijing would be confronted with a major
dilemma regarding its military: should it stop or proceed with its army's
modernization? Beijing would have far less reason to increase its military
expenditures. But the People's Liberation Army (PLA) would not stop its
build-up, which ultimately has the political purpose of paralleling China's
future economic might. But then, the Chinese build-up would trigger a regional
build-up, and this in turn could strengthen the political hand of the PLA at
home. Since the Opium Wars in the 19th century, China has been afraid to lose
in a minor war, and such a defeat could in turn kindle a power struggle and
political crisis at home. It is thus fundamental not to lose in a limited war.
This pressure, and the pressure of a possible limited confrontation, could in
turn increase the PLA's political clout, something not without risk. As
everyone in China knows, power comes from the barrel of the gun, and the guns
might then want more power in China, pushing domestic politics in one direction
or another. But the army, though it should be allowed to remain influential,
should not impose its will on the Communist Party; it should be the other way
around. However, it could thus be hard to keep a balance between too much and
too little power for the PLA when confronted with a regional arms race.
Then the issue is not the sales of arms to Taiwan but how to find a political
composition for the region in which there is the de facto return of Taiwan to
the mainland. Here things will not drag on forever - there is a timetable. In
about 10 years, China's economy could be twice the size of Japan's, and China's
demographics will be transformed. As the Chinese baby boom will have ended,
most of the population could be over 50. Urbanization could be over 50% and a
welfare state should be in place to take care of the elderly and the urban
This will force the state to increase taxes for private enterprises, which
presently largely evade their dues. All of this will transform China, its
character and its needs, but it will likely reinforce its nationalistic streak,
with the return of Taiwan at its core. In other words, the US, China and the
region have a decade to peacefully solve the Taiwan issue - otherwise there
might be gigantic problems.
This perspective is perhaps something that China and America should really mull
over - rather than simply concentrate on the next arms sale to Taiwan.