The New Taiwan Problem

June 20th, 2006 


Circumstances around Taiwan have undergone significant changes in the last few years.


First, the change in international politics: The fundamental change of the international situation arises from a shift in the balance of power. There are a few reasons why the balance of power changes such as the domination of one nation by annexing territories of others, as happened with the rise of Russia and Prussia in the 18th and 19th century; another reason is the formation of an alliance, for example, the Anglo-Japanese alliance, tripartite entente, etc. The most often overlooked reason, and the one which, therefore, is hardest to deal with, is the growth of power of one nation on its own, particularly an increase of its military power.


The classic example is the rise of Germany in the late 19th century. Until that time, a balance of power existed among five powers, each of which had comparable strength. By allying with a third party, Great Britain was able to maintain a balance of power with the continent when one country threatened another.


The rise of Germany at the turn of the century, however, resulted from the growth of its own power, not by alliance with other countires or by the annexation of other territories; as a result diplomatic countermeasures were difficult.


Britain became well aware of the threat and proposed a freeze in battleship building competition with Germany. Britain also formed a tripartite entente to cope with Germany. However, these measures could not prevent war. And in that war, Germany proved to be stronger than the other three nations combined. The assistance of the United States was required to defeat Germany.


The Ching Dynasty at the end of the 19th century is an example of a nation overlooking the growth of other nations. China, touting its military strength by building the North Sea fleet, was slow to recognize the significance of the rapid growth of Japan’s national wealth and military capabilities after the Meiji Restoration.. Until the year before the Sino-Japanese war, China considered Japan as a “minuscule country” and was defeated in a war which triggered the humiliation of China’s semi-colonization for half a century.


In the case of the Soviet threat in the last stage of the Cold War, the United States was slow to recognize it during the so-called detente period of 1970’s, but, because of its overwhelming potential, the United States was able to take necessary measures to oust the Soviets from the political arena.


The growth of Chinese military capabilities has been remarkable since the end of the Cold War as the Chinese economy has grown rapidly. Particularly, China’s military strength has accelerated since the Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1996.


Since the end of the Cold War, Chinese military budgets have consistently shown double digit growth. Taking inflation into account, however, actual double digit growth actually started in 1997.


The year 1997 is significant because it is one year after China was humiliated by the deployment of two American carrier task forces and had to back away from its threat to Taiwan. Some experts compared it with the Soviet’s humiliation in the Cuban Missile Crisis, immediately after which the Soviet Union launched a tremendous arms build-up and almost matched American military strength at the end of the 1970’s.


It is said that the Chinese military budget is spent mostly for maintaining its vast army. It is true that the Chinese forces have responsibility of maintaining order and security in local provinces and, in comparison with other nations, their role is more domestic than oriented against foreign threats. The PLA, however, was reduced by half a million soldiers since 1997. This reduction is a clear indication of China shifting the priorities of its defense budget and accelerating military modernization.


The first concern is the increase of Chinese nuclear and missile capabilities.


At the time of the 1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis, the Chinese military suggested a nuclear attack on the West Cost of the United States. It may have been a bluff, but to making it a real threat must be one of the agendas of Chinese military builders. China desires a nuclear capability to render the United States to think twice before sending two carrier task forces in the next crisis in the Taiwan Strait.


The American countermeasure should be the improvement of its missile defense. Here, cooperation with Japan is necessary. Particularly, as the strategic value of Guam increases, Japanese cooperation is indispensable for the missile defense of Guam. If there is a SLBM threat, Japan’s surveillance capability has a vital importance. And perhaps, as reported, the improvement of pinpoint pre-emptive strike capability may be useful for reducing Chinese nuclear and missile capabilities.


Another problem is the naval and air balance in East Asia. The Chinese will improve their capability to threaten American carrier task forces approaching the waters around Taiwan by increasing their submarine and missile capabilities using GPS technology. Here again Japanese surveillance capability is important.


The most crucial capability is control of the air. If air control falls into Chinese hands, China can deal with Taiwan at its will. At present, China has more than 100 fourth-generation fighters, Suhoy 27s and Suhoy 30s, but it appears that China has not yet attained the capability to use them effectively.


Every year, however, we have to expect an increase in the number of Chinese aircraft and in the capability to use them. Supposing these fighters are launched from innumerable air fields along the continental coast, it is questionable how long the American side can maintain control of the air with the assets of two carrier task forces and Taiwan’s air defense capabilities.


This scenario may not be that of long in the future. Here the effectiveness of the U.S.-Japanese alliance becomes one of the important issues.


From the viewpoint of long term global strategy, the maintenance of the status quo in the Taiwan Strait is a vital matter for the United States, considering a scenario in which China annexes Taiwan’s wealth and technology and geopolitically threatens American hegemony in the entire western Pacific area.


In the past few years, the United States has tended to intervene in Taiwan’s domestic affairs, reflecting, from time to time, China’s position out of the necessity to maintain US-China relations. These interventions are meant to restrain the tendency of Taiwan towards independence. They have been a blow to DPP, a substantial part of whose supporters are pro independence.


The fundamental position of American policy toward Taiwan, however, consists of the so-called three communiques, the Taiwan Relations Act, and the peaceful solution of the cross strait problem. America’s fundamental posture is to maintain the status quo. This fundamental position will not change in the foreseeable future.


Since Robert Zoellick became the Deputy Secretary of State, the American attitude towards Taiwan seems to have become more severe. That kind of change, however, happened from time to time in the past depending on the circumstances, and, besides, Mr. Zoellick is not expected to remain in the present position for too long. And even if the Democrats win the presidential election of 2008, the fundamental American policy towards China and Taiwan is unlikely to change.


What determines American policy ultimately is American public opinion and the Congress. As long as American public opinion recognizes that Taiwan is a democratic nation, U.S. support of Taiwan is expected to stay the same.


Japanese public opinion towards China and Taiwan has changed significantly. It has been an important change indeed, but it is only a part of a glacial change in Japanese public opinion. Its impact on Japan’s actual Taiwan policy is so far unknown.


Yet, Japanese public opinion was not affected at all by the sustained and violent reactions of China against the US-Japan agreement for the peaceful solution of the Taiwan problem in the Two-Plus-Two ministerial talks in 2005. Also, some provocative remarks of Foreign Minister Aso justifying Japanese colonial rule did not cause any stirrups in the media and the Diet. These facts may imply a significant change in the undercurrent of the Japanese public opinion which may in the future have a significant potential effect in a future contingency.


The most important change in public opinion has taken place in Taiwan. Taiwanese public opinion at the time of 2004 presidential election has remarkably shifted after the general elections for the legislature in 2004 and the election of Ma Yingjiu as the leader of Kuomintang. One of the reasons for this change is a shift of Chinese strategy vis-a-vis Taiwan. China changed its 1996 policy of an armed threat to the policy of a peace offensive, particularly through economic strength. China also pressured Taiwanese enterprises in the mainland to accommodate to Chinese policy. China has lobbied the United States and Japan to conform to China’s intentions, thus succeeding in giving an impression that DPP government is alienated from the United States and Japan. China also openly ignores the DPP as the legitimate government of Taiwan and instead supports the opposition Kuomintang party.


There is no doubt that these Chinese interventions have had some success. However, in the long historical term, the recent setback of the DPP’s popularity may come from the nature of democracy itself. The DPP has already been in power for eight years. Under democracy, the people tend to get tired of the existing government after certain period of time and want a change.


The fact that Taiwan’s democracy is young may have some connections to this phenomenon.


In Japan, the public whole heartedly welcomed the Hara cabinet in 1918, bringing an end to the long autocracy of Satsuma and Choshu. Only three years later, however, when Hara was assassinated, the people were already disgusted with democracy and party politics because political parties chased after public posts and desires and sought party interests above the national interest.


According to Winston Churchill, democracy is the worst kind of government, but yet better than any other form of government which has ever existed. It took Britain several centuries to reach this philosophy by trial-and-error.


The shortcomings of party politics in the Hara period are common in any democratic country at any time. But the Japanese people did not reach that realization at the first stage of democracy. (In fact, many people were again disgusted with the return of Satuma-Choushuu autocracy. And Taisho Democracy flourished in the latter half of the 1920’s. After that period, international crisis, above all the Great Depression induced Japan to seek a stronger government, i.e., military rule, instead of ineffective democratic government.) In the early days of a democracy political oscillation is inevitable. It is undeniable that the Taiwanese people are somewhat tired of the democratic regime of the past eight years.


Now comes the real problem of Taiwan’s politics. Supposing that the Kuomintang wins the next election and, four or eight years later, people get tired of it, and the government comes back to the DPP. That is democracy. The problem is whether it can work in this way in Taiwan. It is an eternal dilemma of a democracy whether a democratic free election has real meaning in the case that there is no national consensus on the future of the government.


Is a free election of two parties meaningful, if one of the competitors, for example, a Nazi-type party or a communist party, has the political principle of one-party dictatorship? The problem is even more complicated when such a party, although it is obvious in its political doctrine, denies the intention of the abolishing the multi-party system at the time of its election to power.


The present Kuomintang may not be opposed to the maintenance of multi-party democracy. What China wants, however, is quite different. What China wants is the annexation of Taiwan, and, if that is not possible, to achieve irreversible changes, such as the one-state, two-government system of Hong Kong. That can be achieved more easily with a Kuomintang government in Taiwan. If that happened, just as Taiwanese have become more conscious about their identity, the chance to decide their own future might not come back again. China’s purpose is to deprive the Taiwanese of this possibility during a Kuomintang regime. When Taiwan is integrated into the one-party dictatorial system of the mainland, in one way or another, or with a grace period of 50 years like Hong Kong, that will mark the end of Taiwan’s democracy.



■Future Prospect and Policy Implications:


If the DPP wins the next presidential election, there will be no problem for Taiwan’s democracy. Although China will certainly be disappointed, in case that a democratically elected government is threatened by China’s armed forces, the American reaction is obvious. And considering the military balance in 2008, a military threat cannot be a practical policy alternative for China.


There exists a chance of a DPP victory although the DPP does not have momentum at this moment. But if it is widely recognized by the Taiwanese people that the result of the 2008 election may deprive them of their right to choose their own future, the DPP may be able to muster the requisite support as a result of the rise of the consciousness of Taiwanese identity which has been cultivated over the past eight years.


The question is what happens if the Kuomintang wins.


China will try all kinds of strategies. The first choice may be peaceful. It may ask Taiwan to accept the so-called three communique policies and try to saturate Taiwan’s economy and population with a massive infiltration of Chinese business and laborers.


Outside forces are powerless to deal with this kind of peaceful offensive. In fact, it is not essentially a bad thing. The increase of economic mutual dependency does not have a direct political effect. Four decades ago it would have been called neo-colonialism, a colonization of China by Taiwanese capital. The problem is the increase of the chances of Chinese harassment and threat to Taiwanese businesses in the mainland. China might use them as hostages to force its political purposes. China has done this already in the past and can be expected to do so again in the future.


Essentially, it would be an unfair practice, against the principle of free trade according to the WTO to which China is a member. Also, China is one of the biggest beneficiaries of free trade. This question is difficult to solve, but such a policy by China should be dealt with by concerted international pressure.


The threat of the use of force by China cannot be ruled out, depending on scenarios. China could take advantage of some political event and threaten to use force, such as a naval blockade, missile attacks etc., thus, creating a situation of apparent force majeure and forcing the then existing regime in Taiwan to accept Chinese demands. It is also possible that a special force, infiltrated in advance, suddenly seizes government and broadcasting centers.


Countermeasures to these threats are preparedness for this kind of contingency so that Taiwan does not need to consider it as a force majeure. To put it simply, to assure Taiwanese that the United States would not forsake them in such contingencies.


In fact, the Taiwan Relations Act exists for this purpose. The people who drafted the law must have had this kind of contingency already in mind when they wrote: “To consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States” and “To maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.”


How can we fulfill the purpose of this law? One necessary step is to establish close consultative relations between the United States and Taiwan based on detailed scenario studies as called for in the Taiwan Relations Act.


In short, it is necessary to maintain a state of readiness whereby, under any sudden threat, the United States is always consulted. We need the accumulation of detailed scenario studies and policy recommendations. If government to government consultation is difficult, use of a Track II approach may be necessary. As long as the Taiwanese side has close contact with the top of American government, and vice versa, this purpose can be fulfilled. It is desirable that this kind of consultation commence before the 2008 election and continue in the future.


There may be criticism that this strategy is antagonistic toward China and could induce crisis. Through these consultations, however, Taiwan’s democracy can be maintained under any contingency or threat, and the peace and stability of Taiwan Strait can be secured.


Such consultation, together with careful attention to maintaining the military balance in the Taiwan Strait, will guarantee peace and Taiwan’s democracy for the coming decades.