With the signing of the Economic Cooperative Framework Agreement (ECFA), we have further evidence that rapprochement between Taiwan and China continues. Though not as meaningful as advocates would have us believe, nor as harmful as critics suggest, ECFA is nonetheless a significant economic and political milestone between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait. ECFA also comes on the heels of other positive developments between Taiwan and China, which include the establishment of direct commercial flights, increased tourism in both directions and an agreement from Beijing to allow Taiwan observer status in the World Health Assembly.
Yet, curiously, in the arena of the Chinese military buildup opposite Taiwan, there has been no progress. Quite to the contrary, the aggressive People’s Liberation Army (PLA) buildup has continued unabated. In the area of ballistic missiles alone, analysts estimate approximately 1,500 missiles are arrayed against the people of Taiwan.
Why have we not seen even a modest, symbolic step on China’s part, commensurate with improvements in the economic and political spheres, to reduce the military intimidation it imposes on the people of Taiwan? Understanding why the buildup continues informs policy decisions the Obama administration must face.
There are four possible explanations for the continuing Chinese military buildup.
The first is that China’s fundamental approach to Taiwan - carrots and sticks - has not changed. Further, Beijing has no intent whatsoever to diminish the tools of intimidation and coercion in which so much investment has been made. Beijing’s leaders understand sentiments in Taiwan better than we often give credit. And the fact remains that in the absence of military threat, the people of Taiwan would support independence over the so-called status quo. Taiwan’s own Mainland Affairs Council’s polling suggest that the number of people in Taiwan who support “status quo now, and Taiwan independence later” represent a majority and has continued to grow. Thus, Chinese leaders are forced to conclude that they must retain the military threat to keep Taiwan in check.
The second possible explanation is that the civilian leaders in China are unwilling (or perhaps even unable) to challenge PLA leadership. Many China analysts note growing strains in civil-military relations in China. Some of the most sensitive issues between military and civilian leadership relate to the PLA budget and justification for its continued growth. Were the PLA to acquiesce on Taiwan, it knows its resources could be threatened. It is plausible that Chinese civilian leaders are choosing not to have this fight with the PLA.
The third possible explanation is that the military buildup opposite Taiwan is really aimed at priorities well beyond Taiwan. The capabilities designed to threaten Taiwan have other uses, perhaps even against U.S. treaty allies such as Japan.
And finally, a fourth possible explanation is that China might be willing to pull back missiles and reduce the threat - but it is waiting for the right time and the right deal.
The first three explanations are not mutually exclusive and may provide a mutually reinforcing rationale for the continued buildup. Yet for the fourth possible explanation to be true, the first three must all be overcome. In short, there are strong forces at play that may prevent Chinese civilian leaders from saying “Let’s make a deal.”
Why does this matter to the United States? If the PLA military buildup opposite Taiwan continues apace, the need to provide Taiwan with weapons for self-defense also continues. This should be manageable if Washington doesn’t lose its nerve. The U.S. approach over the course of many years has been to make weapons available to Taiwan so that Taipei’s leaders have the confidence to go to the negotiating table with Beijing. This approach is paying off (see ECFA and other recent developments), but some would have us abandon it just when benefits are being reaped. Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou understands this very well and has consistently asked the U.S. to make more modern weapons available to Taiwan.
But does Washington understand this? Either through willful misdirection (some in the U.S. recently advocated reduced sales to Taiwan because they “believe” China is pulling back), or through naivete (others believe China will soon reduce the threat to Taiwan, so the U.S. shouldn’t incite China with further arms sales), the Obama administration appears to be on the verge of altering an approach to Taiwan and to the Asia-Pacific region as a whole that has served our interests well.
The Obama administration has gone to great lengths to deny a Taiwan arms-sales freeze is in place, perhaps protesting a bit too much. Why does the administration continue a fiction that Taiwan has not formally requested more F-16 fighters? Why do mid- and junior-level officials within the Obama administration allude to instructions from “senior leadership” to hold congressional notifications on Taiwan arms sales and not to expect another major sale in 2010?
It is important that the Obama administration understand what is driving China’s military buildup and why there is strong rationale for the PLA’s threatening posture opposite Taiwan to grow more provocative. It also is important that the Obama administration understand the U.S. role in supporting long-term peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. Even after ECFA, a strong and capable Taiwan remains a key ingredient to security in the region.
Randy Schriver is a partner at Armitage International LLC and president of the Project 2049 Institute. From 2003-05, he served as deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia.
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