Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The Hot Cold War across the Strait

China isn’t spending enough money on its military, claims the government-run Center for China Studies, a think-tank at Tsinghua University in Beijing. While the official figures refer to 1.4 percent of China’s GDP (or about US$30 billion a year) going towards the military, many observers believe that the reality may be twice that much.

Such spending, in and of itself, is not altogether surprising, nor should it be cause for overblown alarm. Washington’s admitted befuddlement as to the reasons why Beijing is spending so much on its military is dishonest. All advanced economies engage in this activity—and it’s called pork barreling. Why should the U.S. alone be allowed to artificially expand its military-industrial complex by developing and purchasing systems whose end usefulness is, at best, questionable? It’s about time people recognized that China may not necessarily be arming for a future clash with the United States or that rampant paranoia is behind the build-up. Instead, just like any other country with a healthy military-industrial complex, certain groups of people stand to enrich themselves by inflating military expenditure, and Beijing is certainly not immune to such cronyism.

There is, nevertheless, an area that raises some concerns, and it is that of Taiwan. In its report on the Chinese military, the aforementioned think-tank gave the “danger” of a possible Taiwanese call for independence as one of the main rationales for an increase in military spending. Here again, we must treat this kind of rhetoric with a modicum of skepticism; after all, the issue of Taiwan could very well be used cynically to inflate the military budget—just as the so-called “war on terrorism” has been hijacked, to use an unfortunate pun, by certain elements in a number of Western countries.

Still, Taiwan also engages the emotional and the irrational. It is a civil war whose embers have yet to die out. The short-range missiles bristling towards Taiwan are all-too-real, and their number is being increased at the rate of approximately 100 every year. And some leaders are bound to interpret the “danger” of Taiwanese independence as just that—a threat. But what, one wonders, is the threat? That Taiwan would accompany unilateral independence with an assault on the Mainland? In reality, in terms of the relationship between the two states, a truly independent Taiwan wouldn’t change much, and it certainly would not represent a danger. While the recognition of Taiwan as a distinct state-entity would become a legal one, the economic ties between China and Taiwan would remain the same, for they have been, and will continue to be, hugely beneficial to both parties.

Also serving as proof that some people in Beijing take the Taiwanese “threat” seriously is the alleged Chinese penetration (a “thorough penetration,” an expert claims) of the Taiwanese National Defense establishment, to such an extent that the Pentagon is now reluctant to share its operational Taiwan defense plan, known as Oplan 5077-04, with Taipei, lest Beijing become privy to U.S. strategy in the Pacific. In other words, in the advent of a Chinese assault upon Taiwan, Washington’s only option would be to go it alone, which would likely result in poor coordination and the impossibility of using Taiwan’s military as a force multiplier.

So what should we learn from all this? First, it teaches us that we should regard China’s expanding military with cool heads. Clearly, not all of China’s military is designed for an attack on Taiwan, nor is Beijing preparing for an inevitable confrontation with the United States. China has a massive military-industrial complex and its share of cronies, a mix which inevitably results in unnecessary spending. Q.E.D., how effective is the integration of the resulting systems into China’s military.

Conversely, despite the possible cynical use of Taiwan as a way to sell the need for that increase, when it comes to that most delicate of issues, we cannot assume rationality on the part of some elements within Beijing’s political and military leadership (or in Taiwan’s, for that matter). If true, the aggressive infiltration of Taiwan’s military by Chinese agents serves as an indication that in some people’s minds, there’s a real war going on.

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