Beijing-Taipei highway improbable – but possible

For Asia Times Online
TAIPEI – Feasibility studies on the construction of a tunnel or bridge linking mainland China and Taiwan have been commissioned by Beijing for decades. Although it is questionable that such an endeavor would pay out in big way economically, strong political will exists on the Beijing side. 

Taipei, scenting the prospect of backdoor unification, has so far opposed any talks on the issue, but in a sign that motorists will one day be able to enjoy their Beijing-Taipei car drive, Taiwan’s business caste is pushing for the project. 

Albert Wu, chairman of the Council for Industrial and Commercial Development (CICD), unfolded his three-bullet-point wish list for Taiwan’s political leadership when he recently encountered Premier Sean Chen, who took office in February. 

First, Taipei should allow tourism to a Taiwanese-controlled area in the South China Sea; second, a space should be opened in the island’s air defenses for passenger flights to and from the mainland; and third, all opposition should be dropped to the mainland’s ambitions for a cross-strait tunnel. 

Wu is a well-known publicist, having founded such influential magazines as the Chinese-language version of the Harvard Business Review, and among other official posts once headed Taiwan’s official Central News Agency, CNA. 

The CICD which he leads represents 2,100 enterprise owners and executives, whose businesses’ aggregated output, according to the council’s own web site, constitutes more than 48% of Taiwan’s gross domestic product. 

Premier Chen turned down each of Wu’s proposals. Nor is he the only tunnel naysayer in Taiwan. 

“The tunnel proposals were made after banquets and alcohol,” Hu Sheng-Cheng, an economist at Academia Sinica, Taiwan’s most renowned think tank, told Asia Times Online when flatly dismissing the tunnel idea. Taiwan must already spend huge sums for weaponry to deter China, which has more than 1,000 missiles aimed at the island, so that any talks on the project are totally unrealistic, he said. 

Even so, millions of tonnes of steel and as many cubic meters of concrete linking the two sides of the Taiwan Strait is the “dream of all Chinese”, according to Chinese Communist Party phraseology. 
The first Beijing-sponsored seminars on the feasibility of such a project where held in the late 1990s, with many dozens of engineers, geologists and other experts from both the mainland and Taiwan attending. Plans for bridges and dams were scrapped in the following years, given the climatic and weather conditions across the straits, so that in the middle of the last decade experts settled on the idea of a tunnel crossing the Taiwan Strait where it is the narrowest. 

If built between Fujian Province’s Pingtan Island and northwest Taiwan’s county of Hsinchu, the distance would reach 124 kilometers, or about three times the length of the Channel Tunnel connecting England and France. According to the mainland’s State Bureau of Oceanic Administration, the sea area in question features a comparatively stable geological structure and shallower water, is not situated in a region prone to strong earthquakes and thus is suitable for tunnel construction. 

While the length appears daunting, a basalt reef was identified in the middle of the strait two years ago, and according to Chinese scientists this could be turned into an artificial island, meaning the Taiwan Strait tunnel could consist of two shorter tunnels instead of one long one. 

Forecasts of costs have not been made public, and though some economists say these are likely to be “astronomical”, the mainland’s Ministry of Communication in 2005 announced a highway construction plan for next 20 years that includes the Taiwan Tunnel. The cost of the whole plan was put at 2 trillion yuan (US$320 billion), which might indicate that Beijing does not expect Taipei to pay towards construction costs. 

Since 2005, the mainland’s official highway website has also listed construction of the Beijing-Taipei Expressway as a rubber-stamped undertaking. At over 2,030 km, it would connect Beijing, Tianjin, Jinan, Tai’an, Hefei, Fuzhou and Taipei. 

Bridges have been built to connect Pingtan and Fuzhou, the capital of Fujian Province, opposite Taiwan. On Pingtan, US$40 billion is being spent to establish the “Pingtan Comprehensive Experimental Zone” – commonly nicknamed “Little Taiwan” by the mainland media – which aims with the help of incentives aims to house small and medium-sized Taiwanese enterprises, academics and even government officials, and make palatable to the Taiwanese the “one country, two systems” doctrine by which Beijing governs Hong Kong and Macao. 

The extent of economic gains from a tunnel may be limited. “The real estate price in central Taiwan will increase if there is a tunnel or bridge linking the area to Pingtan. This is because businesses will settle in its vicinity quickly,” said Yang Yungnane, chair of the Department of Political Science and Institute of Political Economy at National Cheng Kung University. However, the differences between China and Taiwan will be decreased gradually if there is a tunnel, and psychologically, such a link will boost the idea of a “Greater China”. 

While business leaders and scholars have started a tunnel discussion on the Taiwanese side, “for it to start to have some bite, government officials from both sides of the strait will have to begin talking,” Ronald A Edwards, an expert on China’s political economy and professor at Tamkang University, told Asia Times Online. “As soon as this were to be perceived as a serious discussion, some modest increase in investments and real estate prices [in central Taiwan] are likely.” 

Agriculture might also benefit, as a tunnel would allow exports to the mainland, at present shipped by sea or air, to go by truck. 

“There would certainly be more exports to the [mainland] Fujian area,” said Edwards. “Beyond that region, it depends on how efficient transportation is from Fujian to the rest of the country.” 

The benefits for tourism on Taiwan, however, would be limited, as it is unlikely that the government in Taipei would allow a typical mainlander to freely go through the tunnel, he said. 

“Given the current political situation, a more likely scenario is that anyone from Taiwan could move freely in either direction, but for a mainlander to travel to Taiwan, some kind of a license from the Taiwan government would be required,” Edwards said. “This would allow businessmen from the mainland to often make trips to Taiwan, while the number of mainland tourists traveling to Taiwan could still be controlled.” 

Even so, the “bottom line is that the tunnel would improve business and tourism on either side of the strait.” 

Domestic Taiwanese politics might prove more decisive than lobbying by CICD chairman Wu in moving the opinion of the island’s Kuomintang (KMT) government, particularly given the exact location of the tunnel’s planned entrance/exit. 

Nanliao Harbor Township, which lies in the northeastern Hsinchu County, in an electoral “swing area”, was an early choice. Taiwan’s north supports the Beijing-friendly KMT, the south the anti-unification Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), while the center of the island tends to vote according to temporary enthusiasm. 

Hsinchu and nearby Taichung are among the areas that see more campaign trips by presidential hopefuls than others and a tunnel linking this key constituency to the mainland’s Pingtan Zone would undermine the DPP’s future electoral ambitions in the area. 

The mainland has certainly shown its ability and determination to push through ambitious projects. The Qingdao Haiwan Bridge in northeast Shandong province, at 42.5 km the world’s longest bridge over water, has since last year connected Huangdao District, the city of Qingdao and Hongdao Island. It was built at a cost of $1.5 billion according to some accounts (but about eight times as much according to others). Perhaps its most striking feature is that it took merely four years to build. 

The bridge opened on the same day as the nearby Qing-Huang Tunnel, also linking opposite sides of Jiaozhou Bay. 

In the south of China, work began in 2009 on a bridge linking Guangdong province, the country’s main manufacturing hub, with Hong Kong and Macau. When completed – the $10.7 billion bridge is scheduled to open as early as 2016 – it will be 50 km long. 

But Academia Sinica economist Hu Sheng-Cheng is not convinced. “I have never heard of anyone who supports this, and it is a waste of time to think about whether it will cause a boom.” 

If cross-strait ties continue to develop peacefully, the improvement of sea and air links would be a much better idea, he said. Drawing a parallel to unused public buildings scattered around Taiwan that as taxpayer-funded “mosquito halls” every now and then grab the local media’s attention, he said, “Mosquitoes will find a cozy home in that tunnel after completion. The effect on cross-strait trade will be close to zero.” 

Jens Kastner is a Taipei-based journalist. 

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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