The Taiwan Triangle

By Dr. Richard Weitz

09/28/2011 – The current flap over the planned U.S. armed sales to Taiwan was entirely predictable. As long as Beijing insists on exercising control over Taiwan, the Taiwanese people insist on their right to exercise their political autonomy, and Washington insists on providing Taiwan with weapons to reassure Taipei and deter a PRC attack, the Taiwan situation will remain an insuperable obstacle to better Sino-American ties. This Taiwan triangle almost obliges the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the U.S. Department of Defense to perceive one another as potential military adversaries.

There are many ways to manage this "gap" militarily for the United States.  One way would be to focus on any PRC action on the model of the Battle of the Bulge, a concept to be developed in a forthcoming piece from Ed Timperlake. (Credit Graphic: Bigstock)There are many ways to manage this “gap” militarily for the United States.  One way would be to focus on any PRC action on the model of the Battle of the Bulge, a concept to be developed in a forthcoming piece from Ed Timperlake. (Credit Graphic: Bigstock)

According to the Pentagon’s latest Chinese military power report, the PLA’s modernization drive is shifting the military balance between the mainland and Taiwan further in the PRC’s favor.

Although tensions between Beijing and Taipei have decreased following the March 2008 election of a new Taiwanese government led by President Ma Ying-jeou more committed to improving cross-Strait relations, the PLA is still seeking through its military build-up to deter Taiwan from declaring independence as well as to acquire the means to coerce Taipei to accept Beijing’s terms for the resolution of any cross-Strait dispute. To this end, the PLA is pursuing capabilities both to defeat Taiwan in any military confrontation and to “deter, delay, or deny” potential U.S. military intervention on Taipei’s behalf.

Although the United States severed its formal defense alliance with Taipei when it recognized the PRC in 1979, the American government has continued to sell arms to Taipei under the Taiwan Relations Act (Public Law 96-8, 1979). Denying any attempt to contain China, U.S. officials have justified these weapons sales on the grounds that they help sustain the peaceful status quo in the Straits by balancing the PLA’s growing capabilities and thereby discouraging any PLA attempt to conquer Taiwan by force.

Ironically, after Washington decided to reorient relations from Taipei to Beijing, Taiwan has become a more attractive partner for many Americans. Its previously authoritarian government has instituted many political and economic reforms, including transitioning to a completely democratic political system in which multiple parties compete and win free and fair elections. Washington has feared that declining to assist the Taiwanese military would encourage Beijing to adopt more aggressive policies toward Taipei, increasing the risks of a Sino-American confrontation through miscalculation and inflicting a major economic shock on the PRC, Taiwan, the United States, and other countries. Less publicly, they also feared, particularly during the 1980s, that stopping arms sales or breaking additional security ties with Taiwan could have the unwelcome effect of prompting a panicky Taipei to pursue nuclear weapons, long-range missiles, or other destabilizing strategic weapons.

In contrast, PRC officials believe that the U.S. arms sales to Taiwan encourage the growth of pro-independence sentiment on the island and thereby increase international tensions and the risks of war. Chinese government white papers warn that U.S.-Taiwan relations remain a continuing obstacle to better Sino-American defense ties. They accuse the United States of stoking cross-Strait tensions by continuing “to sell arms to Taiwan in violation of the principles established in the three Sino-US joint communiqués, causing serious harm to Sino-US relations as well as peace and stability across the Taiwan Straits.”

In fact, one of the prime drivers of the PLAN’s sustained military modernization program is to improve its ability to fight the U.S.-supplied Taiwanese defense forces if necessary. Due to the U.S. defense commitment to assist Taiwan, the PRC has been preparing to fight not only Taiwan, but also the United States, in any cross-Strait conflict.

The most prominent objective of the PRC’s military buildup appears to be developing “access denial” capabilities to inhibit U.S. intervention in the event of conflict with Taiwan. Such a strategy involves deterring through threats or disrupting by attack any U.S. naval force coming to Taiwan’s immediate aid. The PLAN’s emphasis on attack submarines, long-range missiles, and improved fighter planes all increase the risks to any U.S. naval task force sent to defend Taiwan.

The major obstacle impeding cross-Strait relations is the different interpretation by each side of the “One China Principle.” For PRC leaders, “One China” means that Taiwan is a province of China and the PRC is the sole legitimate government representing all of China.

In this construct, while Taiwan can enjoy some autonomy in local affairs, as a province of the PRC, it can participate in the international arena only as a local government and not as a full-fledged political entity in international organizations such as the United Nations. For many Taiwanese, one China simply refers to the considerable cultural and historical ties binding their island to the mainland, but does not mandate Taiwan’s political subordination to a physically and politically distant regime in Beijing.

Although PRC leaders have tenaciously adhered to the principles of cross-Strait reunification and one-China, the content of the specific policies the PRC has employed to achieve them have varied somewhat over time.

As a general trend, the PRC has been making fewer military threats in recent years. Whereas Beijing used to constantly warn Taiwan’s political leaders not to take some controversial action at the risk of precipitating some violent confrontation, PRC officials now try to offer more positive inducements to influence Taiwan’s policies. Most recently, these carrots have included agreeing to the three direct links (direct flights, post service, and shipping) and negotiating a free trade agreement with Taiwan.

In addition, the PRC has never proposed a rigid timetable for unification. Nonetheless, on March 14, 2005, the National People’s Congress (the PRC’s highest legislative body) adopted a controversial Anti-Secession Law that authorizes the use of military force if necessary to prevent the “Taiwan independence secessionist forces” from undermining the territorial integrity of the one China.  At the 17th Party Congress in October 2007, President Hu supplemented the three major principles – the one China principle, the “one country two systems” formula, and peaceful national reunification – that were inherited from Jiang Zemin-era with Hu’s “four nevers” in his political report to the Congress: “We will never waver in our commitment to the one-China principle, never abandon our efforts to achieve peaceful reunification, never change the policy of placing our hopes on the people in Taiwan and never compromise in our opposition to the secessionist activities aimed at Taiwan independence.”

Sino-American differences over Taiwan have precipitated several downturns in U.S.-PRC military relations. Chinese officials have repeatedly suspended various military exchanges and other defense contacts with the DoD in retaliation for major U.S. arms exports to Taiwan. Even when these bilateral defense dialogues do occur, PRC representatives have consistently berated their U.S. counterparts for their security ties to Taiwan.

The PLA has also conducted major military exercises after Taiwan or the United States has taken some action that Beijing strongly objects to, such as selling sophisticated weapons to Taiwan. These recurring confrontations over Taiwan arms sales and other Taiwan-U.S. political and defense ties have in turn proved problematic for the limited range of confidence-building and security mechanisms that China and the United States have established.

Further defense exchanges or confidence-building measures cannot by themselves overcome what both sides view as fundamentally issues of principle—preserving regional security and Taiwanese civil liberties for the Americans, and defending their national sovereignty and rights as an emerging great power for the Chinese.

Perhaps the most serious crisis occurred after the U.S. government reluctantly, due to congressional pressure, permitted Taiwan’s President Lee Teng-hui to make a private visit to speak at Cornell University, his alma mater, in June 1995. PLA authorities claimed the U.S. action gravely damaged their bilateral relations and recalled its U.S. ambassador, Li Daoyu, from Washington.

More seriously, from July 1995 to March 1996, the PLA staged six massive military exercises in the Straits, including firing ballistic missiles close to Taiwan’s major seaports. Whatever its reservations about Lee, the Clinton administration by March 1996 felt compelled to react more vigorously after the PLA conducted an escalating series of missile launches, amphibious operations, and live-fire demonstrations near Taiwan. Washington deployed two aircraft carrier battle groups around Taiwan. The purpose was both to affirm U.S. support for the island as well as to demonstrate Washington’s readiness to use limited military force when necessary to uphold American interests. While PRC authorities denounced the American actions, the PLA soon ceased their threatening activities toward Taiwan.

Shortly thereafter, the Taiwanese reelected Lee as president. Even so, Chinese officials continued to complain that the administration had precipitated the Taiwan crisis by allowing President Lee Teng-hui to visit the United States. They also objected to growing Japanese-American security cooperation, which Chinese analysts feared might affect a Taiwan scenario, with Japan indirectly supporting American military intervention on Taipei’s behalf.

The PRC again froze U.S.-Chinese defense relations after the Bush administration notified Congress in the fall of 2008 of its plans to sell Taiwan $6.5 billion in military equipment, the largest U.S. arms sale to Taiwan in history. Chinese authorities refused to allow U.S. Navy ships to call at Chinese ports. They also suspended high-level exchanges between the PLA and the DoD and froze official China-U.S. meetings on humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, and WMD nonproliferation—effectively canceling or suspending almost a dozen Sino-American defense exchanges.  PRC-U.S. military ties remained largely frozen for the remainder of the Bush administration, which otherwise saw tolerably good overall relations between the PRC and the United States and improved ties between Beijing and Taipei following the March 2008 election of a new Taiwanese government led by President Ma Ying-jeou more committed to improving cross-Strait relations.

The Obama administration has correctly decided to risk another temporary freezing of high-level Sino-U.S. military ties rather than being held hostage by Chinese threats.

PRC policy makers clearly see the bilateral defense relationship as something that Washington wants more than Beijing.

For military engagement between China and the United States to be successful, the PRC leadership must understand that the exchanges are not a source of leverage that China can employ to pry U.S. concessions.

"If everyone is thinking alike, someone isn’t thinking."

—General George Patton Jr.

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