U.S. walks tightrope over Taiwan; China’s buildup, clout cited
ILAN, Taiwan — In this region, U.S. weaponry predominates — F16s bombard a simulated Chinese flotilla, Cobra helicopters practice targeting invading ground troops, Patriot missiles streak across Asia’s blue sky.
The annual war games are Taiwan’s way of expressing readiness to repel an attack by neighboring China, and they serve as a reminder that the island’s backup muscle comes from Washington, its main supporter.
The exercise highlights a rivalry between democratic Taiwan, known formally as the Republic of China, and its giant communist neighbor. The dispute could draw the United States into a conflict with China, which is fast emerging as a global heavyweight.
Talk is tough on both sides of the 100-mile-wide Taiwan Strait separating the island and the mainland. But as with Korea, Asia’s other unfinished civil war, this one reflects a complex set of priorities that range from domestic politics to international economics and regional rivalries to global strategic interests.
China and Taiwan split in 1949, and since then Beijing has never abandoned its position that the island is part of its territory — to be recovered by force if necessary.
The stakes involved in the Taiwan-China standoff are incalculable. Both sides are workshops of the consumer world. The seas around them are heavily traveled by ships carrying a vast output of consumer goods to the West.
Chinese purchases of American debt, which sustain the value of the U.S. dollar, almost certainly would evaporate if Washington sided with Taiwan in a confrontation with China. A war also would rattle Japan, which harbors its own suspicions of China’s rising might.
Beijing has an estimated 800 missiles pointed at Taiwan and has warned repeatedly that it will go to war if the Maryland-sized island declares independence.
“We will do our utmost with all sincerity to strive for the prospect of peaceful reunification,” said Chinese President Hu Jintao at a White House appearance with President Bush in April. “This being said, we will by no means allow Taiwan independence.” Years of self-rule
An outsider would be hardpressed to define what’s not “independent” about Taiwan. It may look like China, but it elects its own president, makes its own laws, issues its own passports and currency, and treasures its vibrant democracy.
But, in fact, both sides have shared one pillar of ideology since the split of 1949 — that there is one China and that it should someday be reunited.
As long as governments in Taipei stuck to that mantra, Beijing could live with the division. But with the passage of 57 years, the estimated 23 million people on Taiwan have grown apart from the mainland, and their democracy has given them a president who opposes unification and is doing everything he can to prevent it.
Washington adheres to the oneChina doctrine and has recognized Beijing as its government since 1979. But it always has maintained an intimate connection to Taiwan, providing it with the means to defend itself and warning Beijing against an attack.
Backing up the warning are 50,000 U.S. troops in Japan, concentrated in Okinawa, 400 miles from Ilan. In 1996, when China was dropping missiles off the Taiwan coast to show displeasure at a perceived drift toward independence, President Clinton sent in the 7th Fleet to deter Beijing.
In 2002 Mr. Bush pledged to “help Taiwan defend itself if provoked.” But U.S. support for Taiwan is hardly open-ended.
This year, Washington complained when Taiwanese leader Chen Shui-bian scrapped the government body charged with overseeing eventual union with the mainland. The United States feared Beijing would read it as a downgrading of the emphasis on the one-China doctrine and take it as an excuse to attack.
Now in his seventh year in power, Mr. Chen pushes the envelope on independence with measures designed to foster separation, such as making schools teach Taiwanese history before teaching Chinese history.
Washington’s criticisms of Mr. Chen’s actions show the fine line it must tread between supporting separateness without letting it become permanent.
Some influential Americans fault the U.S. position. They see democratic Taiwan as a bulwark against communistChina fully deserving of independent status. But the official view is much more circumspect.
“We want to be supportive of Taiwan, while we’re not encouraging those that try to move toward independence,” Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick told a congressional hearing. “Because let me be very clear: Independence means war.”
Underlying Mr. Zoellick’s caution is concern about China’s modernizing military and the difficulties the U.S. presumably would have fighting two wars simultaneously — one in Iraq, the other in the Pacific.
In the past 10 years, Beijing has enhanced its ability to stand up to the U.S. military, improved its intercontinental ballistic missiles and armed itself with sophisticated Russian equipment. Its 2.5 million-strong military outnumbers Taiwan’s by more than 8-to-1.
“There is a growing reluctance among American military planners to engage China in a conflict because of the improvement in its armed forces and its ability to strike U.S. targets with nuclear weapons,” said Wendell Minnick of Washington-based Defense News. Japan wades in
Beijing’s rapid buildup also is an issue in Japan, Washington’s most important Pacific ally.
Much to the Taipei government’s delight, Tokyo is taking an increasingly vocal stand against China’s growing power. Some Japanese politicians haveeven suggested that Japan strengthen its security alliance with the United States to bolster Taiwan’s capacity to withstand a Chinese attack.
But Japan’s 20th-century militarism is still asore point in Asia, especially in China, which was invaded by Japan in the 1930s, and in the Koreas, which were a Japanese colony from 1910 to 1945. That makes a deployment of Japanese troops in the Taiwan Strait unlikely.
“For Japan to engage in military operations over Taiwan would break with constitutional prohibitions against Japanese belligerency,” said Robert Dujarric of the Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo. “Helping the United States logistically in a Taiwan conflict is one thing, but getting involved in the fighting is another.”
Beijing’s reaction to Tokyo’s perceived pro-Taipei position is hostile.
But recently Beijing has begun showing a willingness to let others help its cause. David Zweig, director of the Hong Kong-based Center on China’s Transnational Relations, thinks this reflects China’s concern that it too has much to lose in a war.
“They do not want confrontation because of economic development,” he said. “It’s of critical importance to them.”
Another factor, Mr. Zweig said, is China’s belief that politics in Taiwan works in Beijing’s favor because the favorite in Taiwan’s 2008 presidential election, Ma Ying-jeou, is presumed to support unification.
“With Ma waiting in the wings, they feel they are winning the Taiwan battle on the ground,” Mr. Zweig said. “They think he will be much more flexible to deal with than Chen Shui-bian.” But like some previous Taiwan presidents, Mr. Ma holds that unification can be considered only when China sheds communism and becomes democratic. That seems a distant prospect.
At Ilan beach, the war-games arena 40 miles southeast of Taipei, a quartet of F-16s roars over the sand and two Knox-class frigates train their guns on a simulated flotilla of Chinese invaders among the rolling waves.
According to U.S.-Taiwan defense doctrine, the island’s forces would have to fight an invasion alone for at least four days until U.S. Navy forces arrive. But China could use a decapitation strategy: coordinated commando attacks and pinpoint bombing of Taiwanese leaders and key institutions to take the island before the Americans arrive.
“An invasion is always possible,” said Taiwanese army Col. Yu Chung-ji, shielding his eyes from the sun as a Cobra helicopter whirred by. “But personally, I think it is more likely they will choose the decapitation option.”
An F-16 fighter jet launched flares during Taiwan’s annual war games, held last month in the Taiwan Strait.