Cross-Strait Relations Improve; China Still Deploys Missiles

In the relations between Taiwan and China, something intriguing happened between last spring and this spring. I refer not to the impressive progress that the two sides have made since Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou took office in May 2008. They have restored dialogue mechanisms; concluded agreements to enhance cooperation in the areas of trade, transportation, finance, and crime control; and made possible Taiwan’s participation as an observer at the annual meeting of the World Health Assembly. This significant progress occurred against the backdrop of fifteen previous years of deepening mutual mistrust, which led Beijing and Taipei each to craft policy based on fears of the other’s intentions rather than hopes for cooperation.

The intriguing development was what happened in the military field. In spite of progress in the political and economic arenas, the People’s Liberation Army’s procurement and deployment of equipment that puts Taiwan at risk continued unabated. According to the last two Pentagon report on China’s military power, released in March of 2008 and 2009, China’s short- and medium-range missiles, which target Taiwan, increased from a range of 995-1070 to 1050-1150. This rate of growth is a bit less than previous years, but still raises the question, what is going on?

Let us stipulate, for purposes of discussion, the following:

  • The PLA’s buildup occurred over the past decade because China perceived that Ma Ying-jeou’s predecessors planned somehow to permanently separate Taiwan from China. It was necessary, therefore, to secure the ability to deter this challenge to China’s fundamental interests, and to punish Taiwan if deterrence failed.
  • Some of the systems the PLA is acquiring have multiple uses, including surface ships, submarines, fourth-generation aircraft, and cyber-warfare. These can be used, for example, to protect China’s interests in the East China Sea as well as attack Taiwan. (But that is cold comfort for Taiwan’s security planners. They worry—correctly that those systems will be used against them, and to block the United States from coming to the island’s defense.)

Still, it is startling that Beijing did not adjust the procurements and deployments that are most relevant to Taiwan in response to Ma’s taking office. After all, what drove China to its military buildup was its perception of threatening intentions of Ma’s predecessors. He on the other hand has pursued a policy of reassurance and reconciliation. We can imagine several possible reasons.

The first is bureaucratic: that the PLA procures equipment on a five-year cycle, and the adjustment to Ma will begin in the cycle that begins in 2011. The second concerns threat perception: PLA and other leaders do not believe that the threat of separatism has disappeared. Pro-independence forces could return to power and China must be prepared. The third possible reason is institutional. The PLA is increasingly a corporate entity that has its own view of how, within broad policy parameters, to protect China’s national security. It could be some combination of the three. We simply do not know.

China’s failure to adjust has important implications for the future of cross-Strait stability, because it affects the sustainability of Ma Ying-jeou’s policies. In his electoral campaign, he argued that that the best way to ensure Taiwan’s prosperity, security, and dignity in the face of a more powerful China to reassure and engage Beijing. His appeal, therefore, defines what he must achieve to secure re-election in 2012 for himself and his party. Moreover, Ma has made very clear that China’s existing military capabilities are an obstacle to creating a truly stable cross-Strait environment. As he told The New York Times last year, “We don’t want to negotiate a peace agreement while our security is threatened by a possible missile attack.”

China derives significant strategic benefit from Ma Ying-jeou’s policies, because they diminish what it saw as a serious threat. Ironically, if the China is too grudging on what it offers in return, particularly in the area of security, it will undercut Ma’s core argument and the political support that sustains it. It was Taiwan fear of China’s buildup that helped create the previous vicious circle. It cannot be in China’s interest to restart a negative spiral.

What are the implications of this situation for the United States? Washington’s fundamental goal is the preservation of peace and stability in the Taiwan area. It does not believe that goal is served when Chinese military power creates a strong sense of insecurity on Taiwan. Taiwan is thus subject to coercion and intimidation because its own deterrent is weak and it cannot negotiate confidently with Beijing.

If by its actions Beijing demonstrates a continuing desire to increase Taiwan’s sense of insecurity, then it is proper for the United States to reduce it through arms sales and other forms of security cooperation. We should, of course, provide systems that strengthen Taiwan’s real deterrent, not those that are useful primarily as political symbols (China can easily tell the difference). True, continued arms sales will damage U.S.-China relations, but we are responding to a problem that China has itself created.

President Ma’s initiatives present a strategic opportunity to transform and stabilize cross-Strait relations. But opportunities must be seized. China has done so in some areas but certainly not in the military area. To further increase its own sense of security, China must be prepared to strengthen Taiwan’s as well.