Taiwan’s China Strategy May Need Some Work
Taiwan’s China Strategy May Need Some Work

WASHINGTON—China’s military power looms large in the minds of many Taiwanese. Two weeks ago, news emerged that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had upped its arsenal with a new class of ballistic missile, potentially rendering impotent Taiwan’s $US9.8 billion investment in anti-missile weaponry. The CCP is thoroughly committed to eventual “unification” of the tiny island, by force if necessary. And what is Taiwan doing about it?

They’re welcoming tourists from China over by the articulated bus-full, and wooing them with Taiwan’s freewheeling newspapers and rambunctious talk shows, according to John Lee, visiting scholar at the Hudson Institute, who spoke there on March 31. But Lee is just not sure the plan will work.

The tourist deluge—at least 3,000 arrive each day and plans are to keep that number growing—is the symbolic centerpiece of incumbent President Ma Ying-jeou’s broad strategy since 2007 to increase engagement with the mainland across a range of areas.

Mainland tourists open their wallets in Taiwan, and cross-strait trade is at an all-time high. When the economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA), signed last June, comes into effect, the number of tourists will soar into the millions.

“Chinese saber rattling achieved little” previously, Lee said, so the ECFA is a new move “clearly about enmeshing the two economies so that Taiwan’s future is held to China’s.”

Given that the CCP is rapidly gaining in political leverage, military might, and economic influence, Taiwan is trying to “make a virtue out of necessity” with the mass of tourists. If Taiwan can’t change the course of the Chinese regime’s rise, it can at least try to change elite attitudes.

That is the essence of the nonmilitary side of Taiwan’s China strategy. But Lee doesn’t think it will work out.

For instance, millions of Chinese elites leave the mainland to study abroad every year. Since they are the urban privileged, they are the beneficiaries of a system that maintains the CCP’s rule. They enjoy the freedoms that come with living overseas while they have them, but are not too perturbed by the regime’s strong-arm tactics in their homeland.

Since the early 1990s, Lee explained, the state-led model has been about “creating and co-opting social and economic elites,” and it is these cashed-up urbanites that generally hold the most uncompromising and nationalist views toward Taiwan. Overhearing political discussions at the local noodle bar in Taipei isn’t going to change that so easily, Lee says.

Meanwhile, according to Richard Fisher, senior fellow on Asian Military Affairs at the International Strategy and Assessments Center, who also spoke on the day, the Party is still determined to conquer Taiwan, by force if it comes to it.

He referred to the CCP defense white paper released on March 31, which gives a “very unsubtle hint” that Taipei must begin entering into substantive political negotiations that will lead to a peace treaty. The message is that “unification” is desired and expected, and will help with the “rejuvenation” of the Chinese nation.

This, combined with the continuing advancements in serious missile technology, is worrying, he said. Fisher and another speaker on the day, American Enterprise Institute's Tom Donnelly, suggested that Taiwan should essentially capitulate as far as air and naval forces go, but start pouring large sums into lethal missiles that can effectively imperil any amphibious invasion.

“If the Chinese military can’t put boots on the ground, it won’t start the war to begin with,” Fisher said.

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