GLOCOM Platform
Debates Media Reviews Tech Reviews Special Topics Books & Journals
Summary Page
Search with Google
Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:34 03/09/2007
Commentary (September 2, 2005)

Tackle the Real Taiwan Problem in Sino-U.S. Relations

Michael McDevitt (Vice President at the Center for Naval Analyses in Washington DC)

In view of the visit of PRC President Hu Jintao to Washington on Sept. 6, it is appropriate to remember that Taiwan makes the Sino-U.S. relationship so unique and distinguishes it from any other bilateral relationship that Washington maintains. On many different levels - political, economic, trade, academic, personnel relationships - the Sino-U.S. relationship is normal. It is sometimes difficult, sometimes cordial, but overall, it's mutually productive and central to the peaceful development of Asia and the economic health of the world. At the same time, the black cloud of war, because of Taiwan, is so real that the respective militaries of both countries are actively planning, exercising, and war gaming with the goal of defeating the other.

The prospect of war over Taiwan seems low because Beijing has apparently adopted a more patient approach to this thorny issue. It has shifted focus to halting moves toward independence by the government in Taipei. And because, for the moment, Taiwan's President Chen Shui-bian has become more restrained in his ambitions to redefine Taiwan's constitutional structure in a way that presages de jure independence for Taiwan. Beijing has embraced President Bush's policy of no unilateral changes to the status quo; Taipei, less enthusiastically, has also agreed. So long as this uneasy equilibrium persists, conflict does not seem imminent.

But, as long as Beijing insists on keeping the use of force against Taiwan as one of the central tenants of its declaratory policy toward Taiwan - keeping its finger on the trigger, so to speak - the possibility of conflict cannot be ruled out. As a result, another military dynamic comes into play - long-range planning that informs military modernization and future concept development in both Beijing and Washington.

Because of Beijing's declaratory policy regarding the use of force and (more recently) its national legislation, the military problem of Taiwan has been at the center of PLA thinking for some time and has become the focal point for PLA modernization. Deterring Taiwan and, if necessary, successfully coercing or capturing Taiwan, is the priority military task of the PLA. For decades, the PLA was a paper tiger: it could not credibly coerce or capture Taiwan with conventional military forces. This was the case in the early decades of the Cold War because the ROC-U.S. military alliance directly involved the U.S. in the defense of Taiwan, and in the 1980s because Beijing was focused on a Soviet threat, and Taiwan's priority as a military problem diminished.

The Soviet Union ended in the early 1990s just at the time that democracy took root on Taiwan. The diminution of the Soviet threat to China permitted the PLA to change focus from the Soviets just as trends in Taiwan began to suggest to PRC leaders that eventual reunification of Taiwan and China might not be a shared objective of Taipei and Beijing.

As a result, for the past decade or so the PLA has focused on making the threat of force more credible. That also meant that despite U.S. attempts to remain strategically ambiguous regarding its military intervention, the PLA had to plan on a "worst case" scenario - they had to assume they would have to deal with U.S. intervention if Beijing elected to use force.

But a force structure that could capture Taiwan while keeping the U.S. at bay is also a force that that can satisfy the most pressing of Beijing's other unresolved strategic issues besides Taiwan - the South China Sea, sea lanes of communication to the Middle East, the vulnerability of China's eastern seaboard (its economic "gold coast"), and territorial disputes with Japan. Like Taiwan and the problem of U.S. intervention, all these issues are maritime in nature.

The maritime nature of Beijing's outstanding strategic issues and its need to deal with U.S. intervention in favor of Taiwan should force be used has not been lost on U.S. military planners. The 2000 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), while not identifying China by name, made it clear that China was a central concern. Phrases like "Maintaining a stable balance in Asia will be both a critical and a formidable task. The possibility exists that a military competitor with a substantial resource base will emerge in the region" made it clear that China is a long-term strategic concern.

The next QDR is still being developed, but it seems likely that China will remain a strategic concern of the U.S. This was clear in the 2005 DOD Report on the PLA that speaks to the PLA's "ambitious" modernization as putting "regional military balances at risk." This document was vetted beyond DOD in Washington and therefore reflects the views of the government, not simply the Defense Department. Therefore, it is not likely that when the QDR emerges it will contradict the DOD report. It will probably indicate what the U.S. will do in reaction to PLA modernization.

Thus the possibility of war over Taiwan creates two related and unwelcome aspects to the security relationship. First, the near-term crisis response requirement of both militaries creates a near-term planning and exercise dynamic where China is the "red force" and the U.S. is the "blue force" and both practice trying to defeat the other. Second, over the long term the modernization focus of the PLA will produce a military that is dominant in East Asia (certainly on the continent), and unless the U.S. maintains its current advantage and "rises on the same tide" as the PLA, the PLA could dominate the littoral region of Asia with a regional projection capability. This has already set in motion a long-term "capability competition" between an improving PLA and a U.S. military dedicated to being able to sustain regional stability by maintaining a force capable of frustrating PLA projection goals.

One obvious way to mitigate this dynamic would be to remove the prospect of war over Taiwan. That is Beijing's choice alone. The simplest way to accomplish this would be for Beijing to renounce the use of force, and rely on its growing economic and diplomatic clout to deter Taiwanese independence. If Taiwan declared independence, no nation would recognize that independence, and the little diplomatic space that Taipei currently enjoys would shrink even more. Thus, it is difficult to see how Taipei could sustain independence if Beijing does not agree. After all, Taiwan is always going to be only 100 miles off the coast of China.

Trying to remove the threat of war over Taiwan is a topic worthy of serious discussion by Presidents Bush and Hu.

(Posted here with the permission of Pacific Forum CSIS)

Copyright © Japanese Institute of Global Communications