Analysis: Taiwan issue puzzles China

By ANDREI CHANG  |  Sept. 28, 2007 at 2:11 PM
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HONG KONG, Sept. 28 (UPI) -- At its 17th National Congress next month the Chinese Communist Party will discuss its future policy and principles regarding Taiwan, a spokesman of the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council announced this week. This indicates that conflict over how to handle the Taiwan issue is escalating within the party, which has maintained a clear Taiwan policy for decades -- pursuing unification under the “one country two systems” formula.

Why does the party need to discuss this issue again, ahead of Taiwan’s planned referendum on applying to the United Nations? The answer is that the party hawks and doves are now facing a showdown over this issue.

The Chinese government has strongly attacked Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian personally, calling him a “traitor” for launching a campaign for the island to join the United Nations under the name “Taiwan.” China regards this move as a dangerous step toward independence. However, it has now toned down its rhetoric with the announcement that the Taiwan issue will come under discussion at the Congress.

It appears that the party is uncertain how to respond to the referendum, should it go forward along with the presidential election in March. So far Beijing has chosen a relatively peaceful response to the moves of Chen and his Democratic Progressive Party -- asking Washington and Tokyo to apply diplomatic pressure to persuade Chen to give up the referendum.

The effect of such pressure from outside is doubtful, however -- so far it appears to have created greater psychological resistance from the Taiwanese people, who feel their rights are being denied not only by China, but also by their own friends and allies. China has been blocking Taiwan’s channels of interaction with the rest of the world for such a long time that the island’s people suffer from an acute sense of isolation, tinged with anxiety over Beijing’s aggressiveness.

Beyond Iraq, Washington’s next strategic headache is Iran. Therefore it cannot pay attention to the Taiwan Strait, and hopes stability can be maintained in this region. An increasingly aggressive atmosphere on the Chinese side, however, is raising the Pentagon’s concern. Some Washington-based strategists say that if a showdown over Taiwan is unavoidable, it had better be now than in 10 or 20 years’ time. Pressuring Taiwan to be quiet is just part of a routine game the United States plays with Beijing.

Another choice for Beijing is some form of military threat. The PLA air force has moved its jet fighters frequently since the beginning of September. Shanghai also tested its air raid defense alarm system this month, disturbing the ears of the city’s residents for the longest time since 1949.

All these moves seem to be in vain, however. The reason is that Taiwan clearly recognizes China’s juggling tactics as those of a paper tiger. China does not have the capability to mount a decisive showdown with large-scale military landing operations. Taiwan is not afraid of a middle-sized or small-scale face-off.

As for the navy, the PLA navy has only two each of Type 052C, 052B, 051C and 052A guided-missile destroyers, or DDGs; four Russian 956EM DDGs, and four Type 054A FFG frigates, which have reached the technological standards of the Western and Russian navies of the 1980s and '90s. In other words, the Chinese navy consists of only 16 modern battleships. Most of its other vessels are little more than junk. Also, among the 16 ships, all except the Type 052A and 956EM DDGs are still being tested at sea. Only one large dock-landing ship (Type 071) with about 9,000 tons full displacement has been completed, in August this year.

The Chinese army launched a military landing maneuver using a number of fishing boats in 1999, which Western observers jokingly called “a million troops swimming across the Strait.”

China’s air force has 100 Su-30 MKKs and 48 Su-27 SKs purchased from Russia, plus another 95 indigenous J11 and J11A, and 70 J10A fighters. In total it has 313 third-generation aircraft, to compete with Taiwan’s 148 F-16 Block 20s, 58 Mirage 2000-5s and 130 IDFs.

Comparing the level of training and the quality of the aero-weapons on both sides, the Taiwanese military is still somewhat superior. Also, China relies heavily on aero-weapons supplied by Russia and Ukraine, including the advanced RVV-AE, R-27 and R-73 air-to-air missiles and other air-to-ground missiles. Beijing does not have enough capability to sustain a long-term war against Taiwan due to the lack of high-tech ammunition. Its limited strategic oil reserves are also a factor likely to restrain Beijing from military action.

A small-scale military showdown in the Taiwan Strait is possible, including a provocation by jet fighters, a limited sea blockade, a cruise-missile attack or a landing operation against one or more of Taiwan’s small outlying islands. Taiwan would retaliate with a range of counterattacks.

Politically, a military attack by China would worsen its position with regard to Taiwan and most likely help the DPP win more votes in the election, as well as tarnishing its international reputation.

In their discussions next month, the party members will surely have a difficult time coming up with a resolution for this chronic crisis.


(Andrei Chang is editor in chief of Kanwa Defense Review.)

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