Beijing speaks softly to Taiwan

Posted in China | 30-Mar-06 | Author: Chong-Pin Lin| Source: International Herald Tribune

Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian displays the official document to scrap the National Unification Council and its guidelines in Taipei, February 2006.
TAIPEI The Taiwan Strait crisis in 1995 and 1996 left behind the widespread presumption that if Taiwan again started making moves toward independence, Beijing would start rattling its sabres anew. In fact, Beijing's current approach is to try to contain Taipei through Washington, and to absorb Taiwan without war.

The danger facing Taiwan now is that of a frog being lulled to sleep in a pot of gradually heating water. The United States could devote too many resources to preparing for a war with China while underestimating China's non-military challenges, such as economic and cultural encroachments on the island.

On Feb. 27, President Chen Shui-bian of Taiwan announced the "functional cessation" of the Unification Council, an office that had become largely symbolic. The move, however, could also have been interpreted as creeping step toward independence.

Beijing's response was notable in its restraint. Admiral William J. Fallon, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, said on March 7 that the Chinese army showed no unusual movements. On the same day, Lu Zhangong, the Communist party secretary of China's Fujian province, adjacent to Taiwan, said that scrapping the Council would not affect economic cooperation across the Strait.

But while Chinese officials appeared serene in public, they privately expressed concerns about Chen, as Roger Cliff and Toy Reid reported in an article, "Roiling the waters in the Taiwan Strait," that appeared on this page on March 21.

Beijing apparently wanted to pressure Washington into reining in Taipei. The tactic appeared to work: The Bush administration issued anxious statements and even sent an envoy to Taipei demanding "clarification" after Chen first indicated his intention in late January to abolish the Council.

Since then, Beijing has mounted at least six more moves to win the hearts and minds of Taiwan's people. That brought to at least 15 the number of such measures since Beijing passed the Anti-Secession Law in March 2005.

They include inviting Taiwanese farmers to sell fruit on Chinese markets, offering scholarships to Taiwanese students in China, providing loans to Taiwanese businessmen, relaxing regulations on Taiwanese professionals seeking work on the mainland and more.

Beijing has limited its verbal attacks to Chen while continuing to woo the Taiwanese public, a policy in effect since President Hu Jintao took power in China in 2002.

On March 6, Jia Qinglin, the chairman of China's Political Consultative Conference, openly called for more contacts with die-hard pro-independence elements in Taiwanese society.

In the summer of 2002, the Chinese leadership reached a milestone decision on two interrelated principles. One was to put more emphasis on cooperation than on differences with the United States. The other was to put national economic development above "the unification of the motherland."

The leaders were apparently encouraged by China's rapid economic growth and came to believe that time was on their side. They also concluded that it would still be disastrous to confront the United States militarily.

In December 2003, the People's Liberation Army shifted away from overt threat of war against Taiwan, and instead enunciated the strategy of "three wars" - psychological, legal and in the media.

The offer of a pair of Pandas to Taiwan last May was a clear example of the new thinking. The gift won Beijing an image of goodwill abroad and split Taiwanese society. It was much more effective than lobbing missiles outside Taiwan's ports, the way China did 10 years ago - an attack that led Taiwanese voters to elect an anti-Beijing president, Li Tenghui, by a landslide.

Yet at the same time the Chinese army has not slowed its pace of modernization, aiming for the eventual ability to deter U.S. forces from intervening in the Strait, and thus to seize Taiwan quickly with minimum bloodshed. Neither has China stopped piling up the short- range ballistic missiles across the Strait.

In China's strategic writings these days, its growing military capabilities are meant to "be prepared but preferably not used" - a line reminiscent of Theodore Roosevelt's "speak softly and carry a big stick."

If not attentive to the current trends, both Washington and Taipei could find themselves preparing for a contingency no longer on the horizon.

(Chong-Pin Lin, a former deputy defense minister of Taiwan, is president of the Foundation of Cross-Strait and International Studies in Taipei.)