Friends and enemies blur for Taiwanese

For Asia Times Online

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 naval fleets. 

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. 

In mid-February, 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. 

Some 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, February 24.) 

“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 Washington. 

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 side.

“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 information.” 

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. 

Since 2009, 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. 

However, Tsang 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 soon. 

“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.” 

Where 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”. 

A 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 position 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 government. 

“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. 

“It is 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].”


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