Richard Bush III, director of the Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington, had an interesting piece in the China Times on June 27 (English version available here), in which he rightly points out that despite cross-strait rapprochement, China continues to modernize its military in a manner that undermines Taiwan’s sense of security, something I have long argued on this blog and elsewhere.
Bush calls it an “intriguing development” that “the People’s Liberation Army’s [PLA] procurement and deployment of equipment that puts Taiwan at risk continue[s] unabated” despite the conciliatory measures launched by President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) since he came into office on May 20 last year. Bush, citing Pentagon sources, puts the number of short- and medium-range missiles China directs at Taiwan at between 1,050 and 1,150 (lower than Taiwanese military assessments of 1,400-plus), a growth rate that, while lower than in previous years (about 100 annually), nevertheless raises the question “what is going on?”
As Bush explains, Beijing’s rationale for upgrading its military and adopting an increasingly aggressive posture vis-à-vis Taiwan was easily explained in the past 15 years, when Taiwan was ruled by governments that pushed for independence. That buildup served as a deterrent should Taiwan declare independence, and in that respect it may have succeeded.
Bush then raises the possibility that China’s continued military development in surface ships, submarines, fourth-generation aircraft and cyber-warfare, among others, may not be intended (at least not solely) for a Taiwan contingency. The Chinese military’s five-year arms acquisition cycle may be responsible for the continued buildup, Bush says, adding that if this was the case, substantial change in posture should be expected in 2011, when the next cycle begins. This could also be the result of institutional forces, Bush argues, in which the PLA continues apace despite changes at the strategic level. This, however, is difficult to imagine, as President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) also doubles as Chairman of the Central Military Commission, which directly controls the armed forces.
A last option, Bush says, is that despite cross-strait détente, the Chinese leadership does not believe that the “threat” of Taiwanese independence has disappeared, with a reversal possible after 2012 if Ma failed to be re-elected. This is an interesting point, as it involves an appreciation by Beijing of the democratic forces that drive policy in Taiwan.
Regardless of the reason(s) why the PLA’s modernization and threatening stance remain unchanged, Bush argues that this is bound to undercut Ma’s policy and undermine Taiwanese confidence in his ability to diminish the Chinese military threat. Ma’s failure to deliver on the economy, coupled with his inability to address the threat of military invasion, could have serious ramifications for his chances to get re-elected in 2012. While the first failure is mostly the fault of the Ma administration, the second is entirely China’s doing, as Ma has done all the right things — sometimes at the expense of Taiwan’s security and democratic voice — to appease Beijing.
With Beijing’s failure to reciprocate on security issues — a “strategic opportunity,” as Bush calls it — the US will have every incentive to continue selling Taiwan the modern weapons it needs to defend itself. Even if the PLA buildup were not aimed at Taiwan, incertitude and the lack of transparence that surrounds the Chinese military will compel both Taipei and Washington to continue, if not accelerate, arms procurement, thus perpetuating the vicious circle that led to an arms buildup in the Taiwan Strait.
This is an encouraging piece by Bush, whose preference for the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) over the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party is no secret, as it acknowledges the limitations, if not possible failure, of the Ma administration’s efforts to create rapprochement with Beijing. It certainly is a refreshing read, amid all the reports by so-called experts and wire agencies that can barely resist shouting “peace in the Taiwan Strait” from the rooftops.