Only a foolish China would attack Taiwan
IT IS WIDELY assumed that China would use military force against Taiwan if the island declared independence, held a public referendum to institute a new constitution, or altered or did away with too many of the symbols that historically associate it with China, such as the Republic of China flag. However, such an attack would pose significant risks for China, and changing political conditions in Taiwan have cooled talk of independence.
The Taiwanese Independence Movement has lost much of its allure; those who supported strong independence advocate President Chen Shui-bian in his first presidential victory have abandoned him. Today the public is more interested in Taiwan's economic life and sees no significant material gain in independence.
Chen's support outside the country is waning, too. He has exhausted his political capital in Washington, and it is unlikely that any other major country or many of the 24 minor states that recognize Taiwan as the Republic of China, would readily transfer their support to a "Republic of Taiwan." In fact, not all of those minor states that are so dependent on ROC largesse voted in favor of Taiwan's tenth attempt to join the World Health Organization in early May. Admission of a Republic of Taiwan into the United Nations is a clear nonstarter.
Bolstered by a recent 18 percent budget increase, the Chinese People's Liberation Army is thought invincible, but other military realities act as deterrents to an attack on Taiwan. While it could use its 800 to 900 Dong Feng (East Wind) missiles to wreak great economic destruction on Taiwan, the Chinese military lacks the amphibious training and capacity to transport enough occupying troops to Taiwan.
In addition, Taiwan has well-maintained defenses. It has a force of 290,000 active duty members and 1.6 million reserves, and is working hard to upgrade its preparedness. Key to the island's defense are 146 F-16s, 57 French Mirages, and 128 Taiwan-developed Indigenous Defense Fighters and a fighter pilot cadre whose training is being extended from six to eight months.
In mid-May, Taiwan concluded its annual Han Kuang (Han Glory) live fire military training exercises. An attack on Taiwan would be met by a cruise and ballistic missile counter-attack designed to destroy Shanghai and coastal areas of China that have experienced phenomenal economic growth.
The most important deterrent, however, is Taiwan's strong relationship with both the United States and Japan. In the event of an attack, U.S. naval assets in Japan and troops in Okinawa would be committed to Taiwan's defense, placing China in an untenable, not to mention unwinnable, position.
A military failure to bring Taiwan under control would likely force China's leadership to resign and weaken the Chinese Communist Party's legitimacy, which many Chinese already question due to ever-growing corruption.
Even if China were able to subdue Taiwan, ruling the island would be a difficult if not impossible task. Most people in Taiwan consider themselves "Taiwanese," not Chinese. They have been taught to despise the Chinese communists from the time they entered elementary school, and are fully cognizant of the advantages of a democratic system, including a free flow of information, a highly developed economy and a more enviable lifestyle.
The mainland Chinese Nationalists were warmly welcomed to Taiwan at the conclusion of World War II. However, Taiwanese hopes were soon dashed by Nationalist corruption and repression, which resulted in the 228 Incident of 1947. The bloody Nationalist military repression of the incident resulted in an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 Taiwanese deaths and helped to build an insuperable wall between "waishengren" (those from the mainland) and "benshengren" (those born in Taiwan). Control of Taiwan brought about by military means would likely have a similar effect.
China's track record with autonomous peoples is poor. Since its founding in 1949, the People's Republic of China has sought to consolidate its rule in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, home of the Uyghurs in northwest China, but there is still no light at the end of the tunnel despite the government's placing economic power in the hands of the people as a strategy to suborn them. Control of Tibet has been equally as elusive since the mid-'50s.
An arms race would be set into motion throughout Northeast Asia should Taiwan fall under control of mainland China.
Japan would be further impelled to become a military power and seriously consider an active role in the U.S.-sponsored Theater Missile Defense program and contemplate the development of nuclear weapons. At a minimum, Japan would be driven further into the arms of the United States, dashing any Chinese hope of separating the two to enhance China's regional clout. South Korea would give deep second thought to its burgeoning relationship with China. Any Chinese idea of morphing the Six-Party Talks into a Northeast Asian regional security apparatus that might ultimately lead to the withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea and possibly Japan would be greatly set back.
In Southeast Asia, China's hard work to improve its image and earn credibility with Association of Southeast Asian Nations member states -- many of whom still don't trust China's long-term intentions -- would be for naught. Particularly important would be Indonesia, which, as the most populous nation in the region, is generally seen as the most important country in Southeast Asia and the one with the most nightmarish memories of China, due to the close relationship between China and former Indonesian President Sukarno.
In South Asia, India also would be strongly influenced to create a closer security relationship with the United States.
All of this is not to say that Taiwan needn't worry about a threat from mainland China. Clearly it has fallen behind in its military preparedness due to internecine political squabbling between the Pan-Blue coalition dominated legislature and the Pan-Green coalition lead by President Chen. Nor should Taiwanese independence advocates automatically assume that the United States would come to their defense as they persistently taunt China. China has often bitterly complained that U.S. policy seeks to geographically contain it. A PRC attack on Taiwan would only realize China's worst fear: unfriendly countries on its borders in league with the United States.
Bill Sharp teaches classes about the domestic and international politics of East Asia at Hawaii Pacific University. He writes a monthly commentary for the Star-Bulletin. firstname.lastname@example.org