The 2012 presidential election in Taiwan, therefore, will be a pivotal point in the nation’s history, as it will serve both as a public verdict on Ma’s pro-China policies and an opportunity for the opposition to halt a process that has dovetailed perfectly with Beijing’s designs on Taiwan — with or without Ma’s blessing. In my article, I point out that in the lead-up to the elections, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) will likely seek to exploit the threat of Chinese attack to its advantage: Vote for us and there will be no war; vote for the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), and China might attack. Ironically, the KMT could be right in raising such fears, because Beijing could very well resort to force if it perceives that the political pendulum is about to shift in the DPP’s favor.
This is where critics of this argument come in. One commentator has argued that my assumption that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would do a replay of 1996 — firing missiles off the waters of Taiwan to influence the Taiwanese electorate and compel voters not to vote for pro-independence Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) and the DPP’s Peng Ming-min (彭明敏) — is flawed. Where the critics of my argument are wrong, I think, is in their failure to comprehend the tremendous changes that have occurred in China’s military posture in the 16 years between 1996 and 2012, during which the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has seen double-digit growth in its budget for more than a decade. China’s declared defense expenditures at the time of the missile crisis in 1996 was about US$10 billion — the equivalent of Taiwan’s military budget today. In March 2007, Beijing announced it would increase its annual defense budget by 17.8 percent from the previous year, to US$45 billion. In March 2008, the submitted budget was about US$57.22 billion, followed by a nearly 15 percent rise announced in March 2009. The period 1996-2009 also experienced a shift in China’s military reorganization and modernization drive following the Gulf War of 1991. Assuming similar double-digit growth in PLA expenditure until 2012, we can expect a defense budget by that year to be in the neighborhood of US$80 billion. While this still falls quite short of the US defense expenditure, and recognizing that the PLA has yet to achieve parity with the US military, there is no question that China is becoming more assertive within the region, both as a result of its growing economic clout and military strength.
This is not to say that it would make light of a decision to risk war with the US over Taiwan. But there is no question that the PLA today — and in 2012 — is far more confident in its abilities to fight a war than it was in 1996, when the missile crisis was more bluff than real threat. By 2012 Beijing could miscalculate by believing it could win a quick war over Taiwan, that its extended power projection could deter the US from intervening in the country, or even reach the conclusion that an already overstretched US military cannot afford to fight on another front in the Asia-Pacific region. The latter point is often neglected by critics of the 2012 scenario, who only focus on the Order of Battle and quantifiable forces while neglecting military commitments. The US military budget, and the quality of its forces, will dwarf China’s for many years to come, but this does not change the fact that the US military is serving in every corner of the world, fighting a war on terrorism in Afghanistan, in the Horn of Africa and in Iraq, while providing support in countries such as the Philippines, Pakistan and Colombia. China, meanwhile, has very little military commitments, its borders are secure and up until recently it has not become embroiled in the “war” on terrorism. A substantial part of its military budget, therefore, is solely dedicated to a Taiwan contingency or can quickly be reconfigured to meet that requirement.
One critic — ostensibly in reference to my background as an intelligence officer — wrote that:
It must be said how often these kind of predictions have been made in the past decade without actually coming to pass, you need only think of Lee Teng-Hui’s warning about 2008, or the warnings of trouble ahead of each of the elections since ‘96, to see how often they are proved wrong. I know Mr. Cole won’t like me making this comparison, but this is all rather reminiscent of the on-going crisis surrounding the Iranian nuclear program, where pundits feel free to make regular predictions of the inevitability of military action against Iran, and never seem to learn from the failure of their predictions to come true. Just as with Iran, the most likely outcome is that in three years time we will be roughly where we are now.
The problem with this argument, as anyone who has studied threat analysis will know, is that it adopts the fallacy known as T=T-1 (T is time, and what was applicable yesterday continues to be so today). What the critic implies is that my assumptions about 2012 are a “a failure of intelligence.” In reality, however, “intelligence failures” are as frequently overassumptions (e.g., Iraq and WMDs) as they are T=T-1 fallacies (e.g., the Iranian Revolution, Iraqi invasion of Kuwait). In the context of the Taiwan Strait, threat assessments made on the T=T-1 assumption — or that 2012 will be the same as 1996 — are extremely dangerous and blind us to changing realities, not only in terms of military capabilities, but also in political differences. In 1996, China was nowhere near achieving annexation of Taiwan; today and by 2012, that long-held dream is within reach, and the US, weakened by military campaigns, record national debt and the economic crisis, is no longer the dominant power it was a few years ago. Other imponderables, such as rising Chinese nationalism, social unrest and new CCP leadership, also make comparisons with 1996 tenuous at best.
I do not believe for one second that China is bent on expanding its empire, which is why I fully disagree with reports such as the Indian Defense Review that argue that “China will attack India by 2012 to divert the attention of its own people from ‘unprecedented’ internal dissent, growing unemployment and financial problems that are threatening the hold of Communists in that country.” I have just finished reading Bobo Lo’s Axis of Convenience: Moscow, Beijing and the New Geopolitics, which I will be reviewing in the Taipei Times over the weekend. Lo’s analysis convinces me more than ever that China has no interest in invading other countries, whether it be India or the Russian Far East, as its focus remains on domestic development. In that regard, the CPP has very much been the professional, rational actor. But I maintain that when it comes to Taiwan — which Beijing never ceased to regard as an “internal” problem along the lines of Tibet and Xinjiang — critics of my 2012 argument had fain avoid committing a second common mistake in intelligence analysis, and that is the assumption that the rational actor model applies in every case.
Even over Taiwan, China will never make light of a decision of going to war especially if this risks a confrontation with the US and Japan. This said, if China is to miscalculate, based on 16 years of solid military buildup — quantitative and qualitative —, a weakened US and cross-strait dynamics, 2012 will be it. I stand by my assessment regarding that year.