China Suggests Mil-to-Mil With Taiwan
By Wendell Minnick
TAIPEI — In what many consider a sea change in cross-Strait relations, both China and Taiwan are openly discussing military relations, a move that could end future U.S. arms sales to Taiwan but also resolve 60 years of tension between Taipei and Beijing.
In an unprecedented act, Chinese President Hu Jintao called for military exchanges and a peace accord with Taiwan during a speech on Dec. 31. Hu said that at the proper time, military contacts and confidence-building measures would stabilize the situation in the Taiwan Strait.
“People on both sides of the Strait share the responsibility of ending the history of confrontation,” Hu said. “Under the common understanding of one China, the two sides can talk about anything. We will promote anything that is conducive to peaceful development across the Strait, and we will firmly oppose anything that harms it.”
After a nine-year suspension, Taiwan and China resumed cross-Strait talks in June. Progress came quickly with weekend charter flights across the strait in July, a visit by a Chinese government delegation in November, and the launching of direct shipping, air transport and postal services in December.
The legislative and presidential election victories in early 2008 by the Beijing-friendly Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) spurred the change. Taiwan’s new president, Ma Ying-jeou, promised closer relations with China and was the first to suggest confidence-building measures and a possible peace accord with China.
“It does seem that there is an ongoing thaw across the Taiwan Strait, not only politically, but also militarily,” said Wu Yu-Shan, a political specialist at Academia Sinica, here.
“Goodwill gestures are taken in a reciprocal manner. How far this will go remains to be seen.” After Hu’s speech, the Hong Kong-based Yazhou Zhoukan magazine printed an unconfirmed report that China was considering reducing the number of short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs), now numbering about 1,300, aimed at Taiwan.
Though the report came from a Chinese-language media source, the news was taken seriously inside Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND).
“The ministry welcomes the idea of China withdrawing missiles and believes it would be a positive development between the militaries of both sides,” an MND spokesman said.
However, China’s Dong Feng 11/15 SRBMs are mobile and can easily be redeployed.
“If China drastically reduces its military buildup opposite Taiwan, which is unlikely, that would be welcome,” said Bonnie Glaser of the China Studies Center, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington.
“It would then be up to Taiwan to decide how much it would continue to spend on defense and what weapons it would continue to need to provide for its security. This scenario is not likely to take place in the next few years, if at all.”
Will Taiwan Need U.S. Arms?
Closer relations could influence U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.
In October, the United States released a $6.4 billion arms package that included AH-64D Apache attack helicopters, Patriot PAC-3 air defense systems, Javelin anti-tank missile systems, sub-launched Harpoon anti-ship missiles, and F-16 fighter and E-2 Hawkeye parts.
Taiwan is still pushing the United States to release F-16 fighters to replace aging F-5s, and has plans to ask Washington for M1 Abrams tanks, Aegis-equipped destroyers and UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters.
Now the question is, will Taiwan need any more U.S. arms as relations with China become cozier?
“They [China] do not need a military to take Taiwan. They can use economic, political and cultural links to absorb Taiwan,” said Lin Chong-Pin, former Taiwan deputy minister of defense.
Lin said China’s intelligence services will get more access to Taiwan’s military as relations improve.
Taiwan has long been happy hunting grounds for China’s espionage efforts, and there are fears in Washington that advanced U.S. arms technology could end up in Beijing’s hands.
In 2002, a Taiwan military officer was accused of selling operational manuals for the Patriot PAC-2 Plus air defense system to China. A Taiwan arms broker, Bill Moo, was convicted in the United States in 2006 for attempting to ship an F16 fighter jet engine to China. In 2008, a Taiwan arms broker was arrested in the United States, along with a Pentagon official, for selling secrets to China.
After Hu’s speech, Ma acknowledged the need for peace talks with China, but also emphasized Taiwan’s need for a strong defense. However, Taiwan’s minister of national defense, Chen Chao-min, has cut the annual Han Kuang military exercises to every two years. The official explanation was to improve the defense ministry’s ability to absorb lessons from the exercise, but others wondered whether the Ma administration was seeking to further placate China.
During the first week of January, a Chinese academic delegation visited Taiwan and met with senior military officials to discuss closer relations. The delegation was headed by officials from the Institute of International Studies, Center for U.S.-China Relations, based at Beijing’s Tsinghua University. Sources said this effort would be followed by official military delegations.
One issue being discussed is confidence-building measures, although these appear unlikely in the near future. CBMs will reduce tensions but not resolve differences, Glaser said.
“They will, however, end the 60year estrangement between the two militaries, and may reduce the chances of miscalculation, enhance understanding and trust, and build habits of cooperation,” she said.
Better relations across the strait will no doubt be welcomed in Washington, which has been in the awkward position of providing for Taiwan’s defense while maintaining good relations with China.
“Easing of cross-Strait tensions brings many benefits to the U.S. It reduces the danger of war that would likely involve the U.S.; it may help the Taiwan economy, and the U.S. has a strong interest in a prosperous Taiwan; it reinforces the view in China that Beijing should rely on peaceful means of seeking reunification and eschew use of force; and it reduces tensions in U.S.-China relations,” Glaser said.
The real question is whether Ma can balance good relations with both China and the United States.
“Whether he is able to do so, improving ties with both Beijing and Washington simultaneously, remains to be seen,” Wu said. “That would be his major challenge.”
If Taiwan falls into China’s political and military orbit, it would redefine the U.S. role in Asia.