Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Of nukes and men

The recent publication of a memoir by former US negotiator Jeremy Stone re-ignited a controversy last week over alleged plans under the former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) administration to launch a nuclear weapons program.

Stone’s allegations, which ostensibly were sourced from and corroborated post facto by former National Security Council secretary-general Su Chi (蘇起) — who at the time the controversy emerged was a Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) legislator — are hard to substantiate. That the Chen administration, for all its faults, would have engaged in nuclear adventurism stretches credulity. Though it has the technical know-how to do so (and inside sources say a turnaround could take as little as one year), Taiwan could hardly have launched a nuclear weapons program without the US, let alone China, becoming aware of it.

One does not have to read Stone’s self-aggrandizing book too closely to realize that the views of the former president of the Federation of American Scientists-turned-cross-strait-troubleshooter are wildly skewed in Beijing’s favor. Nothing makes this more evident than the many variations he uses to portray the Chen administration as a “troublemaker,” which may account for Stone’s credulity on the alleged nuclear program.

Unbeknownst to Stone, this very bias against Taipei — not his alone, but that of the international community — lies at the very heart of Taiwan’s defense malaise. In fact, the inherent imbalance was the main reason behind this newspaper’s decision, in August 2004, to publish an editorial that put the nuclear option on the table (despite what Su and Stone may believe, however, the Taipei Times did not and does not have a direct line to the Presidential Office or Democratic Progressive Party headquarters).

More than six years have elapsed and the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait has only continued to shift in Beijing’s favor. Furthermore, nuclear-armed China continues to threaten Taiwan, the would-be “troublemaker” who at no point under Chen adopted anything that could have been interpreted as a belligerent posture.

Given that this situation appears to be a comfortable “status quo” for the likes of Stone, is it not conceivable that Taiwanese would ponder various means to oppose China militarily and present it with a credible deterrent? In and of themselves, peace and democracy (which other publications have advocated as the surest defense) will be of little help against an opponent who plays by different rules, as highlighted by Beijing’s refusal to renounce the use of force against Taiwan amid supposedly warming ties. While nuclear weapons may be an extreme recourse — and an unadvisable one at that — Taiwan cannot afford the gullibility that has marked the course adopted by President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration in cross-strait rapprochement.

(Side note: media have repeatedly referred to “warming ties” and “rapprochement” in the Taiwan Strait. It should be noted, howeverm that those “warm ties” have occurred mostly on a party-to-party basis — that is, between the KMT and the CCP — rather than among individuals, which means that any conclusion to the effect that relations between Taiwan and China are peaceful would be premature at best.)

While Ma’s Cabinet has rightly stuck to less problematic, though by no means inconsequential, matters like economics in its dialogue with Beijing, there is no doubt that in the months ahead — especially as we get closer to Chinese President Hu Jintao’s (胡錦濤) stepping down as head of state — talks will touch on more controversial issues such as identity and sovereignty. Once those topics are tackled, friction is bound to emerge, which could quickly escalate and spin out of control. Any outcome to the 2012 presidential poll in Taiwan that isn’t to China’s taste could also serve as a catalyst for a military option.

In such a situation, Beijing, seeing a weakened opponent, could calculate that it can get away with the use of force at little cost, making military action more likely.

That is why, even amid untested signs of rapprochement, Taiwan must continue to acquire and develop not only the means to protect itself, but solid deterrent capabilities so that any military adventurism on Beijing’s part to fulfill its irredentist dreams would come at great cost. 

A strong Taiwan means less risk of war, not the other way around. Does Taiwan need nuclear weapons for this? Probably not, but it certainly needs more than naivety and Ma sloganeering, and more than the dishonest diplomacy exercised by the likes of Stone.

It is interesting to note that Jeremy Stone is the son of maverick reporter I. F. “Izzy” Stone. 

This unsigned editorial appeared, in slightly different form, in the Taipei Times today.

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