Friends and enemies blur for
Taiwanese By Jens Kastner
TAIPEI - The armed forces of China and
Taiwan have been diehard enemies for many decades,
but the standoff's days might be numbered
following spectacular advances in cross-strait
rapprochement. Some form of fraternization between
the two armies seems no longer a matter of "if"
but "when" and "how".
All the same, the
Taiwanese still face many hundreds of Chinese
ballistic missiles, any one of which could flatten
an entire city
block, rip craters deep
enough to destroy subway lines, and if they hit
cities in salvos, kill tens of thousands.
Military-related goodwill gestures from
Beijing are conspicuous by their absence, not even
the most basic mutual military confidence-building
measures (CBMs) are in place between China's
People's Liberation Army (PLA) and Taiwan's
Republic of China (ROC) Armed Forces.
While illustrious cross-strait delegations
wine and dine together, there's no such thing as a
military hotline, no early warning measures, no
pre-notification of key military exercises, nor
are there codes of conduct for fighter jets or
It's safe to presume that
both Beijing and Taipei want to change that.
Newly-re-elected President Ma Ying-jeou of the
Kuomintang (KMT) promoted the signing of a peace
agreement during his election campaign and in many
of his speeches called CBMs a prerequisite.
However, no matter how much Beijing and Taipei
want such mechanisms, there seems no way around
Taiwan's PLA-wary public and opposition.
Holes in air defense? Taiwan has
two airlines that fly direct to Europe and seven
carriers that connect the island with cities on
the mainland. However, as the PLA doesn't allow
Taiwan's Europe-bound passenger and cargo flights
to cut through Chinese airspace - nearly all of
which is military controlled - they are forced on
a trans-Siberian route. Flights that connect
Taiwan with the mainland can take only one
congested route - the median line between China's
and Taiwan's airspaces.
the issue became more prominent when Chang
Kuo-wei, president of Taiwan's EVA Airways,
lamented how the decades-old situation had cost
him dearly in time and fuel.
observers suggest that if China could allow the
Taiwanese a direct route to Europe and if both
sides could widen the cross-strait route, that
this could pave the way for a first set of CBMs.
(See Taiwan airlines target mainland's airspace
Asia Times Online,
"The planes all fly across
the strait on one route so that hostile action
will be easy to detect. I think that opening up
airspace could be a way forward", said Arthur
Waldron, China expert and vice president of the
International Assessment and Strategy Center in
Waldron emphasized nonetheless
that military-to-military trust will be very hard
to achieve, as the China's fundamental goal - to
annex Taiwan one way or another - has not changed.
Steve Tsang, director of the University of
Nottingham's China Policy Institute, argues that
changes to the cross-route air route would have
huge implications, particularly on the Taiwanese
"This would give the DPP
[anti-unification Democratic Progressive Party]
grounds to argue against it and to demand a
cast-iron guarantee that Taiwan's air defense will
not be compromised as a result", he said.
"However, this would very difficult for the
government in Taipei to do convincingly without
revealing confidential, security-related
Paddling the same
boat? Since China's president Hu Jintao
gave a green light in 2008, retired Taiwanese
high-ranking military personnel have frequently
been invited to China for exchanges. In 2010
alone, there were about 60 such "symposiums".
A source who has repeatedly participated
in these told Asia Times Online that on virtually
all of these occasions, Chinese civilian scholars
or those affiliated with the PLA mentioned that
China and Taiwan should take on East China Sea and
South China Sea sovereignty issues together,
cooperating in protecting "ancestral rights" by
carrying out joint patrols.
think tanks close to the KMT have also been
proposing cross-strait cooperation in the South
China Sea, such as on energy and on the shared use
of facilities on Taiwan-controlled Taiping island.
Retired Taiwanese navy personnel have told
Asia Times Online that scenarios such as a naval
emergency, possibly involving Taiwan's old
submarines or PLA military assets, would make
military cooperation palatable to the Taiwanese
public. The argument goes that if either side were
about to lose a considerable number of servicemen
due to a disaster - and the other side's military
saves them - then this would look very good on
Taiwanese prime-time TV.
dismisses the idea that such media spectacles
would make a difference, and that China and Taiwan
are about to start cooperating at sea any time
"Joint patrols by naval or coast
guard units are unlikely in the foreseeable
future. Special police cooperation against
specific major organized criminal cases is a
different matter and much easier to finesse", he
said. "But such case-by-case cooperation are
basically different from institutionalized joint
activities or operations."
there's a will, there's a way In response
to the Taiwanese carriers' calls for wider routes
across the Taiwan Strait, the Taiwanese Air Force
said the median line remains of "paramount
importance" to the defense of the country.
However, some generals might disagree.
Retired Air Force General Hsia Ying-chou
recently made headlines by saying that "the ROC
Armed Forces and the PLA, while having different
ideas, share the same goal: promoting the
unification of all Chinese people".
closer look at Hsia's CV and that of former
general and army chief Chen Jen-Hsiang, who has
since supported Hsia's stance, suggests the
pro-PLA faction in Taiwan's military may wield
considerable influence. From 1999 to 2002, Hsia
served as the president of the National Defense
University (NDU), while Chen held the post as his
successor until August 2003.
the duo held at NDU is of particular significance
as the university has since 2000 been home to all
of Taiwan's higher military-related education and
research institutions. Every officer who wants to
be promoted to lieutenant colonel or major general
rank in the army, air force or navy must study
there. Apart from arguably being the critical knot
in Taiwan's military establishment, NDU also plays
a weighty role as an advisor body to the
"Air Marshall Hsia and General
Chen have built wide relationship networks within
the military throughout their careers as well as
during their stints as presidents of NDU which
they served on active-duty in uniform," Lai
I-chung, a member of the research body the Taiwan
Thinktank, told Asia Times Online.
suspected that their view on China either has a
significant influence on Taiwan's military
establishment, or is an important reflection of
sentiments there, [or both]."
Kastner is a Taipei-based journalist.
(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online
(Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please
contact us about sales, syndication and