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Pentagon Report And The Chinese Grand Strategy On Taiwan

The American Department of Defence (Pentagon) has been regularly publishing an annual report on the military and security developments involving China. According to this year’s report, ‘preparing for a potential conflict in the Taiwan Straits remains the focus and primary driver of China’s military investments’. The reporting has been harping on this hypothesis ever since its inception in 2000, having an exclusive chapter on ‘(Chinese) force modernization for a Taiwan contingency’. While this hypothesis was correct in late nineties and even in the early years of the twenty first century, the contemporary ground situation has changed drastically in the Taiwan Straits and to that extent, Pentagon has got it wrong!

Several factors allude to the changed geopolitics in the Taiwan Straits.  First, there has been a perceptible decrease in Sino-Taiwanese hostility. Though Taiwan still continues to oppose Chinese proposition of ‘one country, two systems’ arrangement; the bitter rivalry and open acrimony that characterized much of the second half of the twentieth century is pleasantly missing. KMT, the ruling party, does not take anti-China potshots and is sensitive not to cross the Rubicon that would hurt mainland sentiments. President Ma has stuck to his inaugural theme announced in 2008 of ‘no unification, no independence, and no use of force’ and set aside the issue of sovereignty. Second, China has made rapid strides in its offensive capability vis-à-vis Taiwan. The balance of arsenal, across the Taiwan Straits, is hugely asymmetrical in China’s favour. A hypothetical Chinese operation against Taiwan need not be a ‘million men swim’ as Patrick Tyler claimed two decades ago; instead, the sheer fact of Chinese power build up has ameliorated any probability of an armed hostility between China and Taiwan. Third, Chinese diplomatic investments has paid off. It has been successful in isolating Taiwan, both on international platforms and in diplomatic missions. Regionally, it has thwarted US attempts to aid and abet Taiwanese independence attempts. The Taiwanese strategically keep a low profile and accept Chinese lead in international relations. Top leaders avoid visiting US as they used to do earlier. The engagement politics, both in economic and socio-cultural realms, have been on an all-timed high.

Why, then, does the US continue to pop up the Taiwan question when it is actually no more the ‘core’ issue in Asian security calculus? Part of the reason lies in the Taiwan Relations Act (1979) that continues to guide US foreign policy considerations in the region and commits it to protect Taiwan against forcible use of power by China. Formally, therefore, the US continues to view Chinese military modernizations and foreign policy in the region through a Taiwanese prism. Informally, it is a worried lot due to its loosening of defence acts with different countries in the Asia Pacific region that do not want to confront a rising China with open alacrity. Washington’s own containment policy has failed to prevent the continuous rise of China and its influence in international relations. Japan and Taiwan, therefore, offer enduring platforms to the US for a strategic rebalancing against China, now branded as ‘Asia Pivot’ policy. The US would like to continue fuelling the capacity building of Taiwan to sustain its appetite for autonomy if not independence.

However, much to the chagrin of the US, the Taiwan issue seems to have stabilized in the Chinese grand strategy and Beijing seems to be satisfied with status quo wherein Taiwan does not rake up the sovereignty issue and march towards independence. An indication of this factor is evident from China’s recent White Paper on Military Strategy (2015) wherein it has expressed its satisfaction with peaceful development in cross-Taiwan Straits relations. Concurrently, it has allowed China to focus on other historical missions that impact Japan and other Southeast Asian countries. China has reinforced its strategic direction on territorial disputes with these countries and has induced more aggression, military ways and means and diplomatic pressure in seeking a pax Sinica. Little wonder, there is diminishing focus on Taiwan in Asian security considerations.

Almost a decade back, Ted Galen Carpenter predicted a possible war over Taiwan between China and the US. The so-called looming war could never become a reality and China had enjoyed more relative peace with Taiwan than it ever did during the second half of the twentieth century. The once probable goal of independence seems to be a political mirage for Taiwan and seems to be a lost cause in international relations. Status quo seems to be the best political choice for Taiwan vis-à-vis China.

Presidential elections in Taiwan are due in May 2016. Even if the DPP wins, it will not have the guts, courage and conviction to alter the trajectory of cross straits relations and declare independence or return to policies that induced bad blood between the two sides under President Chen Shui-bian. Along with it, the US will also loose an issue and a geopolitical platform that had been the wings beneath its wings for shooting at China from close quarters for over half a century.

The author is in the Indian Defence Accounts Service. Views expressed are personal.

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Bhartendu K Singh

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