China and Taiwan: in war we trust

For Asia Times Online

While on a recent day in Taipei yet another Chinese delegation cut the ribbon to an investment fair, and Taiwan’s hotel industry announced hirings in anticipation of ever rising numbers of Chinese tourists, Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou stared at monitors. Yet, it weren’t the rosy graphs of the Taiwan bourse that were presented. Nor was the president surrounded by economists and party officials. In midst of Taiwan’s military top brass, Ma inspected a spine-chilling cyber simulation of missile attacks by China’s People’s Liberation Army on Taiwan.

One month after the signing of ECFA, China’s and Taiwan’s militaries are still light-years away from the establishing of military mutual trust. On the one hand, China tries to woo retired Taiwanese military personnel, but on the other hand, it boosts its arsenal of missiles stationed across the Taiwan Strait. The threatened Taiwan, in the meantime, continues requesting the US to provide advanced weaponry

While Taiwan just as any other country appreciates doing business with China, it wants to keep China’s military at bay for a long time to come. To ensure that this objective can be reached, Washington’s arms are needed. For the sake of guaranteeing American goodwill, the Taiwanese government is willing to cough up billions.

“Now that we have improved our relations with China, it’s time to strengthen ties with the US through the purchase of excessively priced arms”, said Professor George Tsai, political scientist at Taiwan’s Sun Yet-sen Graduate Institute, in an interview with Asia Times Online. “This is important because to feel safer, we still need the US as a power balancer between China and us”, so Tsai.                                                                                        Taiwan still has a standing request for American weapons worth US$6.4 billion including Patriot missiles, Black Hawk helicopters, communications equipment for Taiwan’s F-16A/B fleet, Harpoon missiles and mine-hunting ships. Apart from these, the Taiwanese government seeks to obtain advanced F-16C/D fighter aircraft and diesel-electric submarines.

It is not that China wouldn’t try to influence Taiwanese military circles to change allegiance from the US to China.                                                      Just across the Taiwan Strait is Xiamen, a coastal Chinese city which features a university that is home to the Taiwan Research Institute (TWRI). Founded as early as in times when China was still shaken by the Cultural Revolution, TWRI was the first academic research institution specialized in Taiwan studies in all of China. The institution boasts with holding a collection of tens of thousands of Taiwan-published books, newspapers and journals and even as much as 300G-disk material of Taiwan’s KMT-leaning newspaper, the China Times.

In mid-July, Xiamen’s Taiwan Research Institute invited hundreds of officials, scholars and retired military personnel from Taiwan, Hong Kong and the mainland to participate in a symposium on occasion of the institute’s 30ies anniversary. Among the objectives was the thinking up of ways to improve cross-Strait military mutual trust. Would-be participants were asked to apply with essays of 8,000 words, were offered the free use of conference rooms but nonetheless had to pay travel expenses themselves. One of the Taiwanese military men who had been chosen to take part in the discussions was Wang Jyh-Perng, a reserve captain of the Taiwan Navy. When Wang expounded his views why there isn’t and why there shouldn’t be such a thing as cross-Strait military mutual trust, he wasn’t actually pelted with eggs, but nonetheless criticized in unison.

Wang began making his case with emphasizing a fundamental difference between Taiwan’s and China’s armed forces. Taiwan’s military has in its history already twice neutrally watched over the handing over of power from one political party to another. Whereas the Taiwanese military is used to deal with changing administrations, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has always been firmly under the control of China’s Communist Party (CCP).

Wang further pointed out that even with improving cross-Strait relations, there will always be a part of Taiwan’s population that vehemently opposes unification with China. Those voices, so Wang, aren’t to go away from Taiwan’s domestic political stage.

Another argument he presents against China-Taiwan military cooperation is the circumstance that it would significantly interfere with the West Pacific strategies of the US-Japan alliance. Although both countries applaud the improvement of the cross-Strait economic situation, it’s certain that neither Tokyo nor Washington would be watching happily over an inching of Taiwan’s and China’s militaries towards each other.

Yet perhaps the weightiest circumstance that Wang brought into account was that the majority of the Taiwanese public opposes military cooperation with China. He pointed to recent opinion polls conducted by Taiwan’s most often quoted polling institute that intriguingly reveal that while more and more Taiwanese support ECFA, the number of Taiwanese who are in favor of the procurement of US-weapons has been growing by 5% from a year earlier to 53%.

To establish a base for military cooperation, China has been promoting the cross-Strait exchange between retired military top brass. Beijing wants aging high-ranking members of China’s and Taiwan’s armed forces to slowly build mutual trust, even by short-cutting the political leaderships. However, Taiwan’s Defense Minister Gao Huachu as well as KMT-leaning think tanks have repeatedly strongly opposed the establishing of such semi-officials channels.

According to Wang, by turning to retired Taiwanese high-ranking military personnel, China has in mind to influence the old cadres within Taiwan’s military and their offspring, the so-called Whampoa-faction. Whampoa refers to the elite military academy of the Republic of China (ROC) in Guangzhou where what was later to become the first generation of Taiwan’s military’s top brass was trained before the KMT evacuated to Taiwan after its defeat through Mao’s PLA.

Since the Whampoa-faction has never given up its hopes of an eventual unification between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the ROC, Beijing sees the group as a likely conduit to Taiwan’s military leadership, so Wang. However, Wang reckons that this was a miscalculation on China’s behalf. According to him, Beijing’s conduit won’t work, because it has been neglected that the high-ranking military personnel with Whampoa background has been outnumbered by top brass that is of Taiwanese descent.

Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense assesses that the People’s Liberation Army plans to boost the number of short-range ballistic and cruise missiles facing Taiwan to 1,960 before the year’s end. As a response to the threat, Taiwan had requested the US to supply the island with three Patriot missile firing batteries and related equipment among other weapon systems. On the day President Ma Ying-jeou observed the computer simulation of a Chinese missile attack, the American arms manufacturer Raytheon Co, the world’s largest missile maker, announced the Patriot contract was close to be signed.

Professor Tsai, who said that Taiwan ought to keep the power-balancing US happy through weapon procurements, believes that the growing number of Chinese missiles is to be seen in context with a possible replacement of Taiwan’s relatively China-friendly KMT-government after Taiwan’s next presidential elections in 2012. Still, according to Tsai, apart from a feared government change in Taipei, China is likely to have further reasons for its arms build-up. Tsai says: “China is huge, and a huge country must protect its borders.”



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