With KMT Revival, Future Relations With China, U.S. Uncertain
BY WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI, Taiwan — The overwhelming victory by the Chinese Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT) over the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in legislative elections sets the stage for a possible KMT return to the presidency and the end of major U.S. weapon sales to the island.
The Beijing-friendly KMT won 81 seats (71.7 percent) and the DPP only won 27 seats (23.9 percent) in the 7th Legislative Elections on Jan. 12. President Chen Shui-bian, who resigned as DPP chairman, stated that “this election is the worst setback in the history of the DPP.”
Chen also attacked China’s unceasing threats to subjugate Taiwan.
“China shows no signs that it will ease its military threats, diplomatic suppression and two-handed economic strategy on Taiwan,” Chen said.
The legislative election comes just before the nationwide presidential election March 22 that pits KMT’s Ma Ying-jeou against DPP’s Frank Hsieh. The legislative results strongly suggest the KMT will regain the presidential seat it lost to Chen in 2000.
With a strong KMT-led legislature plus a KMT president, many expect a reversal of many of the DPP’s efforts to build a coalition for independence. This will be a relief to many in Beijing and Washington, who feared a move toward independence would prompt Beijing to use military force against Taiwan.
Since the KMT lost the presidency to the DPP in 2000 and 2004, the KMT initiated an active campaign to disrupt the DPP’s ability to govern and opened a direct dialogue with Beijing. Rumors of secret deals with Beijing have haunted the party.
One Taiwan military official fears a return to KMT control of the military, suggesting the KMT will be in China’s back pocket and will pursue arms deals simply for the kickbacks.
“If Hsieh wins, the KMT will repeat what it did in the past eight years. If Ma wins, defense purchases will be back. Not because KMT wants to strengthen security but because of the kickbacks,” complained the source.
“China won’t oppose as much, for they know the KMT is not preparing Taiwan armed forces to fight them. There will be a lot of waste in defense procurements.”
However, others view a renewed KMT stewardship of the military as a positive development. Many argue that the KMT will strengthen the military as part of an overall strategy to establish a stronger position to deal with Beijing. A weak military would give Beijing the upper hand and could force Taipei to agree to reunification on unfavorable terms.
Should Ma win the election, most expect he would initiate confidence-building measures across the Taiwan Strait, easing tensions. However, if Hsieh wins, legislative deadlock and pressure from China will continue.
However, Ma’s plans might not go smoothly. Arthur Ding, a cross-strait military affairs expert at the National Chengchi University’s Institute of International Relations, argues that “if Ma wins the election, the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] will also face a dilemma. Ma has endorsed One China, but with a different interpretation over what is One China.”
One of the key objectives of the KMT is to secure direct links between China and Taiwan. No direct air or sea routes exist across the Taiwan Strait. Many argue that direct links would bring in a flood of Chinese tourists and businessmen that would endanger Taiwan’s democracy. Others argue that direct links will be an economic boom for Taiwan’s faltering economy and that China and Taiwan are destined to be joined.
A former official of the de facto U.S. Embassy, the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), argues that “no one knows exactly what the KMT will do, assuming it takes the presidency in March.”
The former AIT official said the KMT will be unlikely to save the deal offered by the Bush administration in 2001 for eight diesel submarines.
“One thing is true, the offer for submarines and other high-tech systems by the Bush administration is not likely to be offered by future presidents. However, with the 1,000-pound gorilla [China] in the room, I am skeptical that even if a KMT president surprises everyone and seeks to close a deal with submarines, even Bush might not authorize that sale. The [Bush] administration would just have to drag its feet for six months and beg off leaving the final decision to the next administration. That would be a deal killer.
“Most likely, since the KMT is trying to build a more amicable relationship with Beijing, increase links and start a peaceful dialogue, they will not aggravate the gorilla and will not push for more major military systems,” said the former official.
At present, China’s Second Artillery Corps has more than 1,000 Dong Feng-11 (East Wind) and DF-15 short-range ballistic missiles targeting Taiwan. Taiwan has no offensive missile capability, and calls for China to remove the missiles have largely been ignored by Beijing.
“KMT officials have previously asserted to me that they don’t know how to effectively build a defense against the overwhelming numbers the PLA is throwing at them,” said the former AIT official. “With roughly 1,000 ballistic missiles facing them, they would have to purchase more than 2,000 PAC-3 ABMs to counter the threat. The cost of 2,000 PAC-3s would be more than they could afford, and finding enough competent army personnel to train and retain to man 2,000 PAC-3s seemed impossible.”
Should Ma win the election and begin negotiations with Beijing, few expect the U.S. to continue providing major weapons to Taipei. Also, a new U.S. president next year will likely be anxious to build better relations with Beijing.
“So the era of buying major systems from the U.S. may be over,” the former official said. “Maintaining the systems they have now is already a challenge, so we may see more dollars spent to maintain and upgrade what they have. So, my [U.S.] defense contractor friends may be very disappointed in future sales opportunities.”
At present, Taiwan’s military is pushing hard for the release of new F-16s from the Bush administration. Should it be granted, it could very well be the last major arms procurement from the U.S.