For Asia Times www.atimes.com
By Jens Kastner
TAIPEI – In what amounted to yet another spectacular chapter in the rapidly improving relations between former arch-enemies mainland China and Taiwan, a Chinese government official last week for the first time ever boarded a Taiwanese frigate to observe a massive joint maritime search and rescue drill in the waters on the Taiwan Strait between Xiamen, a mainland China’s coastal city, and Kinmen, a Taiwanese offshore island.
While the gesture was not short of symbolism and ostensibly paves the way for cross-strait military cooperation, Taipei is wary that it may irritate Washington.
In the drill, dummy passengers dropped orange smoke grenades into the water and were quickly pulled out by rescue officers and coast guards from Taiwan and mainland China. China’s Vice Transport Minister Xu Zuyuan, accompanied by Taiwan’s Coast Guard Administration Vice Minister Cheng Chang-hsiung, gave a thumbs up and smiled for the cameras about as demonstratively as he could.
Onboard the frigate Tainan, Xu observed the drill, which was inaugurated in 2010 in response to hugely increasing numbers of passengers traveling across the Taiwan Strait by boat, making him the first official of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to have set foot on a warship sailing under the command of the Republic of China (ROC).
What put the story’s significance into perspective somewhat, however, was a handful of details: the brand-new frigate was delivered last year to the Taiwanese Coast Guard, a civilian law enforcement agency, as opposed to the ROC Navy. As it always goes when Beijing and Taipei deal with each other, Xu and Cheng did not participate in their official capacities but in something semi-official.
In this case, they performed as the “honorary chairmen” of Taiwan’s Chinese Search and Rescue Association and China’s Association for Shipping Across the Taiwan Strait respectively. Furthermore, none of the ships, boats, helicopters and staff taking part displayed national flags – those were replaced with fantasy ones.
“The joint fire drill is a historic but baby step toward confidence building between China and Taiwan,” said Vincent Wang, a professor of political science at the University of Richmond. “It will be interesting to see what the next incremental step might be: a Taiwanese functional official on a Chinese government vessel for functional cooperation?”
Chances of the two sides conducting any substantial military cooperation is “very small in the foreseeable future,” according to Wang.
Wu Yu-shan, director of the Institute of Political Science at Taiwan’s Academia Sinica, also said that while the drill can safely be described as a historical event, it will not lead to greater military-to-military cooperation.
“Taiwan is hyper cautious in not creating an impression of cross-Strait military collaboration and alienating the Americans,” he said. “You can see that from the government’s attitude on the Diaoyu/Senkaku issue.”
Wu was referring to the Taiwanese activists who last month sailed to the East China Sea’s disputed Diaoyu Islands, which are controlled by the Japanese. The Taiwanese activists carried out their mission under the escort of the Taiwanese Coast guard, who later engaged in a standoff with their Japanese counterpart, creating the impression that Taipei sides with Beijing against Japan and in turn the US-Japanese security alliance.
Because the activists “forgot” to bring the ROC flag but waved the People’s Republic of China one instead, Taipei assessed that the situation was becoming precarious, potentially affecting Taipei’s ties with Washington, Taiwan’s sole security guarantor. As an obvious measure to counter the damage, Taiwanese officials have since made numerous statements assuring that Taiwan under no circumstance considers cooperating with China against Japan or other any other country it has a sovereignty dispute with.
From Beijing’s perspective, by contrast, the further Taiwan is away from the US, the better. But a justification for the American security commitment to the island is obviously that the PRC and ROC are still at war, and more than six decades after the end of the Chinese Civil War, there’s no such thing as a military hotline, early warning measures, no pre-notification of key military exercises, nor the signing of codes of conduct for activities of fighter jets and naval fleets.
By promoting everything that smacks of military cooperation, for example the recent maritime drills, Beijing tries hard to create an image that the US-Taiwanese security cooperation is anachronistic, Taiwanese academics have pointed out. According to this school of thought, if a high-ranking Chinese official is seen by all waving happily from a Taiwanese frigate – and even it does not belong to the actual armed forces, it gives Beijing a very concrete argument that the US should stop acting up as Taiwan’s protector.
But in the view of Taipei, the formula for what’s in store if China’s and Taiwan’s militaries are perceived as getting along too brotherly can hardly be seen as attractive: if the US begins to doubt Taiwan deserves protection and subsequently ceases arms sales, the island will impossibly get what it wants at the cross-strait negotiation tables.
Also Oliver Braeuner, a China and security expert at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, believes that Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou’s fear that it will affect relations with the US prevents him from taking it one step further from the recent joint maritime drills.
“While the US leadership generally supports President Ma’s cross-strait policies, there are concerns in the US about the potential transfer of advanced military technologies to China,” Braeuner said. “This might lead some members of the US Congress to reconsider their support for arms sales to Taiwan. This is definitely one of the reasons behind Ma’s reluctance to increase military-to-military exchanges with China’s People’s Liberation Army.”
Jens Kastner is a Taipei-based journalist
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