What Will China Do in the Next Taiwan Crisis?

After nearly three years of cordiality and co-operation that followed the terrorist attacks of 9/11, relations between China and the United States have taken a turn for the worse in the summer of 2004. Behind this turn has been renewed tension over Taiwan. Although this tension has not triggered ominous military moves, it has loosened verbal restraints from the Chinese side, and has once again served as a reminder that the Taiwan issue is a potentially dangerous flashpoint.

The short-term reason for the tension lies in the re-election of Taiwan president Chen Shui-bian in March. Although his inaugural address seemed to be conciliatory, in response to apparent American pressure, it did not eliminate the deep-seated suspicion of the Chinese that Chen is bent on moving Taiwan toward independence. From China’s standpoint, his provocative and uncompromising statements during the campaign gave credence to this suspicion and have finally eliminated Chen as a partner for negotiations on Taiwan’s reunification with the mainland.

            Underlying this tension are the irreconcilable position of China and Taiwan, as well as of the United States regarding Taiwan. China considers the reunification of Taiwan with the mainland under the ‘one China’ principle as non-negotiable, and has threatened to use force if Taiwan declares independence. The Taiwan government refuses to accept the ‘one China’ principle and has resisted reunification. The United States has accepted the Chinese position on the ‘one China’ principle, but has also declared itself committed to the peaceful resolution of the issue and to giving military aid to Taiwan.

            Until the mid-1990s, the Chinese were obviously willing to acquiesce in the status quo, under which Taiwan made no significant moves towards independence, while China did not press for reunification. This status quo was upset by the election of President Lee Teng-hui, who began to make precisely such moves. No less disturbing to the Chinese was U.S. friendliness toward Lee, which, they claimed, facilitated these moves. Following the crisis of 1995/96, during which China test fired missiles in Taiwan’s vicinity in response to these developments, tensions again reached a high point at the end of the decade, when Lee declared that there were ‘two states’ on both sides of the Taiwan Straits. The Chinese vociferously threatened to take military action if Taiwan continued to balk at reunification talks and to make provocative moves toward independence.

            The events of 9/11 brought about a marked improvement in the relations between China and the United States, impelled primarily by their common cause in fighting terrorism. As a result, the Chinese seemed to abandon their previous demand for immediate talks on reunification, and appeared to focus on the one overriding objective of preventing Taiwan’s separation from the mainland.

However, this objective appeared unattainable after the reelection of Chen Shui-bian. Consequently, the Chinese apparently reached the conclusion that time was not on their side. They are convinced that Chen will continue to move incrementally toward formal independence, as, for example, by his plan to hold a Taiwan referendum on a new constitution in two years. They are also convinced that the United States, despite formal declarations, was not doing enough to restrain Chen, and that its readiness to provide Taiwan with advanced weapons only encouraged Chen in his brazen defiance of Chinese demands. 

 By the summer of 2004 Chinese denunciations of Chen and the United States reached a pitch that had not been heard after 9/11. While statements emanating from government organs were tough but not threatening, the specter of war was raised by academics, who were obviously permitted, if not encouraged, to sound off in this vein. Leaks from the American side also reflected a toughness that had not been seen for several years.

To add fuel to rhetoric, China announced large-scale manoeuvres that simulated a joint-services assault on an island off the Chinese coast, and emphasized that these were designed to demonstrate its capability to settle the Taiwan issue by force. For its part, the United States carried out a long-prepared global readiness exercise involving seven carrier groups, which was designed to demonstrate America’s ability to deploy large forces throughout the globe, including in the vicinity of Taiwan, despite the Iraq war. To round out the picture, Taiwan also announced military manoeuvres of its own.

While these moves and counter-moves did not signal an imminent military clash, they indicated that the ingredients of such a clash lurk close to the surface of the Taiwan triangle. From China’s angle, these ingredients – Chen’s determination to move toward independence by installments, China’s determination to prevent it, and American determination to block a violent takeover – have created a new situation. In this situation, China will no longer be able to trigger a limited military crisis for political ends, as it had in the past. The next crisis, therefore, will be different  – and much more dangerous.

In the three previous Taiwan crises, China used limited military means  to achieve a narrow political objective – to interdict trends that the Chinese  viewed as endangering the ‘one China’ principle. In no event did the Chinese intend to invade Taiwan. In 1954, the shelling of the offshore island Quemoy was intended to interfere with the formation of an alliance between the United States and the Nationalist government on Taiwan, and to reinforce China’s claim to Taiwan. In the more serious crisis of 1958, the Chinese bombarded both Quemoy and Matsu in response to what they perceived as U.S. intentions to deploy tactical nuclear weapons on Taiwan, and to occupy the island permanently  as a precursor to a ‘two China’ policy. In 1995/96 the Chinese carried out unarmed missile tests in the vicinity of Taiwan in response to Lee Teng-hui’s efforts to advance Taiwan’s independent international status.

China’s objective in using force in these cases was not to achieve specific military results, but to draw attention to its political demands. They obviously calculated that the potential gains would far outweigh the minimal risks. And the risks were minimal because, if the crisis escalated, the Chinese could terminate it by declaring that their objectives, vague to begin with, had been achieved.

This is exactly what happened in all the crises. The Chinese backed down in the face of America’s forceful response, but claimed success, although such claims were questionable. In 1954, Chinese shelling only hastened the conclusion of the treaty between Washington and Chiang Kai-shek. In 1958, the Chinese did not thwart American intentions to occupy Taiwan, since the United States had never intended to do so in the first place. In 1996, the United States did pressure Lee Teng-hui to cool it after the crisis, which he did at least for a while. Nonetheless, in all the cases, by creating a crisis the Chinese highlighted their uncompromising claim to Taiwan and backed down without loss of face.

This is not likely to be the case in the next crisis because changed circumstances seem to have nullified China’s option of limited military action. In future, China can no longer be expected to make political gains by military jabs – be they the conduct of missile tests, the shelling, or even the capture, of offshore islands, or the interference with sea traffic to Taiwan. This is because jabs of one sort or another are not likely to bring about a change in Chen Shui-bian’s policies. On the other hand, such jabs will whip up anti-Chinese sentiments on Taiwan, and will presumably bring the United States closer to Taiwan.

Moreover, limited action in the face of Chen’s intransigence with no follow-up will indicate that the Chinese army lacks the capability to go all the way to Taiwan. This will show China up as a ‘paper tiger’ and will entail an unacceptable loss of face. It will also give the United States the space to muster forces in preparation for more substantial Chinese action, which undoubtedly will have to come if no important objective is achieved. This is precisely the opposite of China’s presumed intention to pull off a major assault before the U.S. can intervene militarily.

The conclusion is that if China decides to initiate significant military action, it will have to keep going until the Taiwan government is eliminated. This objective might be achieved in various ways – from destroying Taiwan’s leadership to capturing the island. In any event, in the next major military crisis, no halfway stops on the road to reunification should be expected. At the same time, because the situation will be unprecedently dangerous once substantial military activities get under way – aside from the tremendous economic and political costs that China will incur if it starts a war – the Chinese will surely be much more cautious than in the past about initiating such action.

One measure of caution has been the rhetorical restraint of the Chinese military. In contrast to earlier years, when statements emanating from the military both threatened action and expressed confidence in China’s capabilities, this time they have remained remarkably quiet. Even in the past such statements did not point to pressure from the armed forces on the political leadership, but rather reflected a division of labour between them. Nonetheless, coming from the military, they added an ominous dimension to political tensions.

One reason for the current restraint may be the intention of Chinese leaders not to exacerbate tensions by bringing in the military. A second may be a desire not to antagonize public opinion on Taiwan. A third may be the determination of military commanders not to engage in empty rhetoric that cannot be backed up by their armed forces.

However, the reason may also be connected with differences between Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin with respect to Taiwan. There is no doubt that Jiang’s legitimacy and legacy are inextricably tied to the Taiwan issue. He has taken the lead in expressing China’s uncompromising position, while Hu has taken a back seat. 

However, in late July Hu reportedly presided over a high-level study group that discussed the coordination of economic and military development. In what seemed to be a relaxed attitude toward current tensions, Hu appeared to give priority to economic development, and said that the international situation favoured it. Furthermore, Hu stressed China’s desire for international cooperation and did not mention Taiwan.    

If such differences do exist, the silence of the military may reflect a desire to stay out of high politics and to refrain from taking sides. Given the delicate division of supreme leadership between Hu and Jiang, it is prudent for China’s military leaders to maintain good relations with both of them. Nonetheless, if the Taiwan issue becomes entangled in China’s internal politics, cracks might appear in the consensus that had prevailed in the past among China’s political and military leaders

Ellis Joffe
The author is Professor of Chinese Studies at Hebrew University, Jerusalem.


[1] Reuters.com, July 15, 2004

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