by Jens Kastner and Wang Jyh-Perng
Chinese officials for the first time have publicly announced the possible withdrawal of some missiles aimed at Taiwan. Just before China’s military’s Aug. 1 founding anniversary, Senior Col. Geng Yansheng told domestic and foreign media that missiles stationed along the Fujian Province coast could be removed as part of an effort to build a framework for peaceful development across the Taiwan Strait. Based on the One-China principle, Taiwan and China are now to start discussing the formal ending of cross-strait hostility and to reach a peace agreement, Geng said.
The Chinese statement seems out of tune with a very recent assessment made public by Taiwan’s government that China, which now has 1,600 missiles aimed at 400-mile-long island, could raise the number of missiles aimed at Taiwan to 1,900 by the end of the year.
“China has deployed more than 1,000 mobile missiles against Taiwan, so whether China removes them or not, it has no significance on the military level,” the Taiwan Defense Ministry said in a prepared statement Saturday. “However, we would like to see China remove the missiles on its own initiative and let the Taiwan people feel Beijing’s goodwill.”
Although Beijing has continued to soften its stance politically and economically, on the military side there have been hardly any Chinese concessions. The timing of Geng’s speech thus came as a surprise although the military and analysts in Taipei have theorized that such an offer might coincide with either the first anniversary of the recent signing of the economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA) between Taiwan and China or the run-up to Taiwan’s next presidential elections in 2012, to help President Ma Ying-jeou with his re-election bid.
China has dropped earlier hints. In early June, US Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee along with two other US lawmakers who visited Beijing and Taipei were given indications that such a change might take place. Sens. Feinstein, Mark Udall of Colorado and Kay Hagan of North Carolina were the first group of US lawmakers to visit Taipei after Ma took office in May 2008. Although the lawmakers’ visit to Taiwan after visiting Beijing and Shanghai was presented by Taiwan’s government as proof of its success in cross-strait diplomacy, the group’s visit itself was low-key. Aside from a photo-op with Ma, the delegation kept their itinerary unpublicized. Still, after the senators had departed, a report by Taiwan’s Chinese-language daily The Liberty Times led to considerable controversy, saying Feinstein had passed on the message that Beijing would consider removing its missiles if Taipei were to withdraw its troops from Dongyin, a rocky islet populated by about 1,000 residents and 3,000 Taiwanese troops.
Dongyin is Taiwan’s northernmost point and according to unnamed Taiwanese generals strategically too important to give up since without it the northern access to the Taiwan Straits could be closed off.
Taiwan’s government flatly denied the existence of the alleged Chinese proposal, and the Dongyin issue has not been heard off since.
In Washington, Feinstein reportedly passed on a somewhat different message: China’s leaders had privately offered to redeploy forces facing Taiwan if Washington would stop selling arms to Taipei. As did the Taiwanese government a few days earlier, the US State Department strongly denied the story.
From a Taiwanese perspective, there are best, medium and worst case scenarios under which China would consider putting an end to its rocket rattling. The best case would be withdrawal under only the condition that Taiwan not declare independence. The intermediate one would be Taiwan acknowledging the so-called Consensus of 1992, which describes the alleged outcome of a 1992 meeting in which the two sides recognize that although China and Taiwan belong to the same China, each side can have its own definition of that one China.
The worst-case scenario would be based on the One-China Principle – Taiwan recognizes the government in Beijing as the sole legitimate government of China. Geng Yansheng clearly spoke in terms of category three, which is favored by the hawkish factions within China’s military’s leadership. Geng’s message that Taiwan is to give up its sovereignty is easily understood.
Nonetheless, that China played the missile withdrawal card earlier than expected has to do with recent developments in the West Pacific. Beijing has good reason to present something more convincing than promised economic cooperation under ECFA. The largest joint military exercise in years by the US and South Korea just concluded, and tension is growing between Japan’s and China’s navies, both of which have been alarming to Beijing. It is obvious that the US-Korean maneuvers are not only intended to send signals to North Korea but to all US allies in the region, including Taiwan. Washington’s message to East Asia’s democracies is clear: We are still able to help you keep China at bay.
Coinciding with the display of military might in the Sea of Japan, the Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC), the world’s largest international naval exercises including as many as 32 ships, five submarines, more than 170 aircraft and 20,000 personnel from 14 countries, began June 23 in the waters near Hawaii and was scheduled to conclude Aug 1. The PLA complained that at one point the drill was very close to Chinese territorial waters. Another issue that certainly irked China was that the official US Navy website for days carried a photo of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan leading a formation of ships with the photo caption wrongly reading that one of the depicted warships belonged to the Taiwanese navy. Taiwanese lawmakers have commented in the Legislative Yuan that this hardly could have been unintended. It can safely be assumed that the PLA had similar thoughts.
Chinese military leaders are said to believe they would profit now more than later from an announcement of the possible missile removal. Just a month after the signing of ECFA, the move is meant to give further stabilization of cross-strait relations a significant boost. One of China’s objectives is that as tensions ease, the prospect of US-Japanese involvement in Taiwan-China military affairs will gradually begin to fade to the point where an international intervention in a future cross-strait conflict would lack all legitimacy.
In the short term, the formal talk on the Chinese intention to remove its missiles could help the Kuomintang with the important five special municipality elections to be held later this year, in which 70 percent of Taiwan’s population will be eligible to cast their ballots. A KMT electoral defeat would deal a major the current cross-strait policy and the race is predicted to be somewhat tight.
Still, to Taiwan’s KMT government, the issue of military relations with the former archenemy is a tricky one since it makes public emotions across Taiwan’s political specter run high. An opinion poll conducted in May by Taiwan’s most often quoted polling institute, the Global Views Research Center, functions as a strong indicator on how the Taiwanese see military relations to China. The poll reveals 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%. Therefore, President Ma Ying-jeou’s government would rather not have the topic in the headlines until after the elections, and thus responded demonstratively coldly to the newest Chinese missile proposal.
In any case, from a purely military point of view, discussion of a Chinese missile withdrawal is hardly more than empty talk since China’s CSS-6 and CSS-7 missiles are capable of rapid targeting and can be launched from trucks or trains even while the carrying vehicle moves—and even while they aren’t even close to Fujian Province’s coast facing Taiwan.