Issue: 2009: Vol. 8, No. 2

International Relations Taiwan Strait Security Challenges

Article Author(s)

Albert Willner

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Albert Willner is is the Director of the China Security Affairs Group, CNA China Studies, in Alexandria, VA. 
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International Relations Taiwan Strait Security ChallengesThe recent thaw in relations between mainland China and Taiwan shows encouraging signs of producing results. Efforts by China’s President Hu Jintao to reach out across the Strait, Taiwan’s presidential election last year of Ma Ying-jiou and increasing economic ties have further improved communications and set the stage for even greater cooperation. Responses by the United States and neighboring countries to improvements in cross-Strait relations and political change in Taiwan have generally been positive. Yet underlying these developments are pressures and suspicions that could exacerbate rather than relax tensions.

To be sure, the transition in Taiwan from the nationalistic Democratic Progressive Party’s Chen Shui-bian to the Kuomintang’s Ma by itself meant that the cross-Strait environment was bound to improve. After eight years of relatively continuous verbal challenges on the diplomatic, political, military, and information fronts, both sides were well positioned to take advantage of change brought about by the election of a new government in Taiwan. Following Ma’s inauguration in May 2008, both sides have moved quickly to take advantage of new opportunities. The U.S. and others also breathed a sigh of relief that the 2008 election results would set the stage for the easing of tensions.

Beijing and Taipei quickly agreed to address issues of importance to domestic and international audiences. Starting in July 2008, direct flights between China and Taiwan increased threefold, reducing costs and travel time for business people and tourists. Direct sea transport has expanded, as has mail service, allowing for increased economic and cultural exchange opportunities. Interest in developing mechanisms for food-safety oversight and resolving problems has gained traction to address, in part, concerns about “tainted goods from mainland China.”

The two governments are looking to broaden exchanges in other areas as well. Beijing is allowing students, professional actors and state journalists to attend school, perform on stage, and work for extended periods in Taiwan. Top Chinese bureaucratic officials, including some military officers, have been given greater latitude to visit Taiwan, although, to date, official visits by Chinese defense officials have been limited. An unprecedented call by President Hu for China-Taiwan military-to-military talks may also create new opportunities for engagement, although Ma has said serious military talks are not a priority at this point.

Both sides have sought to reinforce existing venues and foster new dialogue to advance the relationship. Beijing’s leadership recently restated its commitment to using the Cross-Strait Economic, Trade and Cultural Forum by holding talks with Taiwan representatives in Shanghai in December 2008. The Forum’s three areas are receiving the most attention in part because they are generally supported and less controversial among domestic constituencies and offer the best chance of early and visible success. Both governments can rightly cite the increased exchanges and dialogue for enabling greater cross-Strait economic and cultural gains in these areas and helping to assuage concerns about the potential for conflict.

Indeed, China has also indicated that Beijing would be amenable to working with Taipei to expand the latter’s international space. In late April 2009, Ma announced that Beijing would not object to Taiwan’s participation as an observer in the World Health Organization, and specifically in its governing World Health Assembly. Taiwan has agreed to use the name “Chinese Taipei” at these meetings and, while additional details continue to be worked out, this action indicates another positive step in the relationship. Underlying these advances, however, fundamental challenges remain.

Despite these advances, the growing Chinese military buildup in the air, at sea and on land coupled with Beijing’s refusal to renounce the use of force against Taiwan has the potential to detract from gains being made in other areas. China’s development of combat aircraft carrying missiles with a greater range than any Taiwan equivalent, its expanded submarine program, announced interest in developing an aircraft carrier, and ever-increasing number of improved missiles opposite Taiwan all continue to raise serious concerns and heighten the threat to peace in the region. Regular training missions by Chinese fighters, ships and submarines in and around the Taiwan Strait add to insecurity and increase the chance of an accident or a miscalculation. The lack of transparency accompanying this buildup, highlighted yet again in the most recent U.S. Defense Department China Military Power Report, further raises concerns in Taiwan and elsewhere not only about Chinese capabilities but about how Beijing expects to use its emerging military power. China’s 2009 White Paper on Defense, designed to address transparency concerns and released on U.S. President Barack Obama’s inauguration day, was widely viewed as insufficient in its efforts to address questions about either Chinese capability or intent.

The military growth and lack of transparency do little to calm concerns of the United States and China’s neighboring states. The potential for accidents and confrontation in the air and at sea remains high not only in the Taiwan Strait but elsewhere, as debate over China’s offshore zones and disputed islands remains unresolved. This was recently demonstrated again in March 2009 during a series of incidents in international waters in the South China Sea, when five Chinese ships and a Y-12 surveillance aircraft sought repeatedly to intimidate the USS Umpeccable, a U.S. research vessel by challenging it and trying to interfere with its freedom of movement. (China claims a 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zone, 188 miles beyond the internationally accepted 12-mile sovereign offshore limit.) These incidents, coming just two weeks after the reopening of U.S.-China military-to-military talks, highlight the willingness of Beijing to take risks in order to make claims in favor of its perceived economic space and challenge others on the high seas. This may be in part because the Chinese leadership feels the current international political, financial and diplomatic environment is favorable to taking such actions and that they will elicit little reaction. China’s continuing disputes with Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, and Japan over various islands in the East and South China Seas increase the possibility of a crisis in the region, always with potentially far-reaching implications.

Across the Strait in Taiwan, in addition to the external threat, President Ma faces internal defense challenges as well. The Taiwan government recently released its first-ever Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) highlighting the increasing international clout of mainland China at the expense of Taiwan, the need for Taipei to convert to an asymmetric doctrine to counter Beijing, and the desire for greater defense transformation and organizational innovation of its own forces. The document also states that while security tensions in the Taiwan Strait are gradually diminishing, mainland China continues to aggressively develop military weapons and systems and is conducting a three-front war on the legal, media and psychological fronts, placing continuous pressure on Taiwan’s interests. Taipei’s stated defense priorities remain focused on war prevention and transformation.

Ma’s plan to advance a proposal initiated by his predecessor to convert to an all-volunteer force during the next five years brings with it the need to make some hard choices about how best to recruit and retain this new force, as Taiwan has relied on draftees to do much of its soldiering over the past sixty years. At the same time, there remains much discussion within Taiwan as to how best to meet the China challenge. In late 2008, a debate arose between the Taiwan National Security Council and senior leaders in the Ministry of Defense about whether to focus more on an Army-centric, hard-shell defense of the island, or whether to continue developing a joint air-naval-ground defense plan that had received extensive attention during the previous decade. The outcome of this debate has significant strategic implications for how Taiwan intends to defend itself, particularly in a place where time and space are extremely limited. Part of this debate centers on how best to make use of constrained resources, maintain public support for the military, and properly adapt its defense while at the same time reaching out across the Strait. These issues are significant not only as Ma looks to rethink Taiwan’s strategic plan but also as the executive branch deals with challenges from a legislative body balancing competing priorities. The deliberation process and increased accountability demanded of Taiwan’s defense officials also reduce the chances that budget and strategic direction issues will be quickly resolved.

Recent news of a pay-for-promotion military scandal, independent-prosecutor investigations of Taiwan defense contractors, military accidents, charges of Taiwan Navy personnel involvement in the murder of a prostitute, and the attempted suicide of Taiwan’s former top Marine have all affected morale and diverted attention of senior officials from the government’s defense initiatives. As the Defense Ministry leadership works to respond to these investigations, Taiwan’s ability to focus on QDR priorities and readiness could be negatively impacted. As serious discussions increase across the Strait, the need to have a strong and unified voice emanating from Taipei is exceedingly important. In a crisis, such a unified voice would be critical.

How best to resolve core sovereignty issues will remain the major challenge in the Taiwan Strait. Whether the relationship continues to improve or lurches toward crisis will depend heavily on what mechanisms are developed, accepted and implemented to address real areas of difference. China’s concerns about continued U.S. arms sales and support for Taiwan’s defense needs and Beijing’s willingness to push back to solidify its own sovereignty claims bring potential risks to peace in the region. Taiwan’s external and internal challenges in addressing broad defense requirements, and Ma’s own need to walk a political tightrope by reaching out to mainland China without appearing to sell out Taiwan’s interests, offer additional opportunities but also potentially raise risks and increase strain.

The role that the United States, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Singapore, Australia, the Philippines and others in the region choose to play, especially as states adapt to the current global economic realities, will no doubt have an important impact on the outcome. These countries, through bilateral and multilateral exchanges and organizations, are working toward improved defense cooperation – as shown by actively pursuing military talks, disaster relief, search-and-rescue training, and broader exercise programs aimed at meeting common interests and challenges. Timely signals and exchanges among the regional actors that address communication, and in particular how best to deal with a crisis, will be important in allowing the work of improving cross-Strait ties to continue. Mainland China and Taiwan are clearly seeking to advance common interests critical to maintaining peace and prosperity in the region. As Beijing and Taipei move forward, keeping the peace in the Taiwan Strait and surrounding areas will require careful attention and a renewed commitment by all involved.

In the end, significant questions remain which could dramatically affect process and outcome. For Beijing, if the end-goal remains unification, what is the best way forward? President Hu and the senior leadership may be willing to work with Taipei and to assuage international concerns by taking a slow and measured approach to fully resolving differences, including possibly even an interim peace agreement. Would this approach be acceptable to those in China who are interested only in Taipei’s capitulation, possibly along a much faster timeline? What kind of additional pressure does this place on a Communist Party already deeply concerned about maintaining its legitimacy in China? In Taipei, what are President Ma’s own short- and long-term goals, and will he be able to make a supportable case within his own party and the broader Taiwan electorate? Will the Taipei leadership be able to craft a plan that addresses complex Chinese, American and neighboring states’ interests and concerns? Will change in the status quo create its own momentum in fueling even greater expectations, or will it cause greater resistance to such moves? Fundamental change across the Strait clearly starts with realistic goals being set in Beijing and Taipei in line with their strategic interests. Achieving preferable outcomes will most likely, however, require managing expectations and interests well beyond the immediate control of both capitals.