Wednesday, August 02, 2006

postal scrotum: Jason on Taiwan

The illustrious Jason of the excellent Wandering to Tamshui writes in with the following Taiwan-related insights:

Hey, Kevin -

Apologies for keep you waiting with my 2 cents on your post about Taiwan. You bring up some good points in your post on Taiwan's missile program and its quasi-official relations with the US. It's also worth noting that the two issues are very much connected, but I'll get to that later.

I'd like to tackle the question about the missile first. The weapon in question, the Hsiungfeng 2E, has been in development for a long time, and has actually been tested a couple of times before this. What makes this missile special is its ability to kick China right in the literal coin purse (the economically important southeast coast) in the event of a Chinese attack. All this talk about pre-emptive strikes may make good newspaper copy, but this missile is more of a diplomatic weapon than a first-strike asset. The DPP government talks a great game about launching a pre-emptive strike against China, but considering what is at stake on both sides of the Strait, I think this is just so much posturing for nativist "pan-green" voters who support the Chen government. The second target is the U.S., which it depends on for most of its weapons needs.

Taiwan's security more or less hangs on the whim of whichever administration is in power. At the moment, the opposition-controlled legislature (the "pan-blue alliance") has bogged an US$18 billion US weapons package down in procedure, leading many in the US government and media to (erroneously) pin the blame entirely on Chen. Chen therefore needs to find some way to demonstrate to the Bush administration that his government is serious about Taiwan's defense. This missile is one way to do that, but at the same time, the ploy may end up backfiring because the US has been burned repeatedly by Chen's annoying habit of springing "surprise" announcements that may or may not affect relations with China.

You're not the only one to express confusion over US-Taiwan relations and the rules that govern them. These ties are a byzantine mix of protocols set forth in the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act. When the change in recognition came, embassies on both sides were downgraded to pseudo-official "representative offices." Further changes were made by the State Dept. to avoid angering China, such as an informal ban on Taiwan's leaders from even setting foot in Washington, DC. There have been calls over the years for a relaxation on the travel restrictions, but so far to no avail thanks to the largely pro-China crowd at State and an administration that at the moment has enough to worry about in Iraq.

As to the chances of what would happen if an actual shooting war broke out between Taiwan and China, I take the view that there's more to lose in starting a fight than in avoiding one. For all of the press its resurgence gets, China is still two decades behind the US in military power, and has its plate full with economic reforms and the social dislocations they cause. And for all of its missiles pointed at Taiwan, it still wouldn't make sense to destroy and further alienate its number one direct foreign investor. Instead, China seems content to wait out the current government in Taiwan and play ball with the next president. The US will be mired in Mesopotamia for the foreseeable future and simply doesn't see why Taiwan's status needs to be settled now. It, too, wants to wait. Taiwan itself is badly divided politically, and despite breathless media reports to the contrary, its president has absolutely no chance under the present constitution that would allow him to unilaterally declare formal independence. It has no choice but to wait and hope for more enlightened minds to come to power in Beijing.

Folks interested in learning more should check out Taiwan's two best political blogs, Michael Turton's The View From Taiwan, and David Yule's One Whole Jujuflop Situation.




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