Strait fight

Bt Simon Tisdall (THE GUARDIAN, 13/11/07):

As the US increasingly looks to China for help in tackling problem issues such as Iran, Burma and Darfur, concern is growing in Taiwan that its sole international protector may be dropping its guard. The de facto independence of the island, viewed by Beijing as a renegade province, depends in the last resort on US defensive guarantees and arms supplies. Yet despite expanded collaboration with Washington in other areas, China remains engaged in a rapid military build-up along the Taiwan Strait.

According to Taiwan’s president, Chen Shui-ban, China now has 988 missiles aimed at Taiwanese targets and is continually adding to its arsenal. Chen, who strongly opposes unification and Beijing’s “one China” mantra, recently described China as a threat to regional peace and said it was preparing to take the island by force by 2015. Last month, China said it had deployed a high-performance radar system designed to complement its surface-to-air missiles and jet fighter interceptors.

Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, questioned the build-up, which China describes as modernisation, during a visit to Beijing last week. The two sides agreed to create a military hotline to help defuse future crises. But Gates’s overriding stated priority was securing China’s backing for steps to curb Iran’s nuclear activities – and stemming the sale of Chinese arms to Tehran that end up in the hands of Iraqi and Afghan insurgents. On Taiwan, he merely reiterated Washington’s formulaic support for maintaining the status quo.

While the US frequently encourages Taiwan to buy new and second-hand US weaponry to be better able to defend itself, it has criticised Taipei’s indigenous development of the long-range “Hsiung Feng’ cruise missile, which it (and China) views as an offensive weapon. Chen was recently obliged to pledge to “consult” Washington before firing the missiles. US fears about fuelling cross-strait tensions, stoked by Beijing, also appear to have delayed Taiwan’s purchase of 66 state-of-the-art, US-made F16 fighters.

Taiwanese officials say China has become adept at manipulating the Bush administration. “They are under pressure from China. China is very clever. If they want to do something on Taiwan, they call the White House and tell the Americans that Taiwan is rocking the boat. Then the US government puts pressure on us,” a senior official said.

“We tell the Americans they should deal directly with us, they should take our national interest into consideration. But of course we are afraid about the growing cooperation between the US and China. It is a problem for us. It is definitely squeezing Taiwan.”

Political factors are also straining Taipei-Washington ties as Taiwan moves towards next year’s contentious legislative and presidential elections, in January and March respectively. Chen, who is standing down after two terms, is determined to hold a national referendum before he goes on changing the country’s official name – Republic of China – to the more familiar Taiwan. The plan is then to apply for UN membership (it is currently excluded) under the new name – thereby raising “global awareness” of the Taiwan issue.

Poll watchers say the referendum proposal, opposed by the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) but backed the ruling Democratic Progressive party (DPP) and 3 million signatures, is likely to pass as matters stand now. That prospect infuriates China, which rightly sees the vote as a ploy to emphasise Taiwan’s separateness, and alarms the risk-averse US.

“The referendum is unnecessary and unhelpful,” Stephen Young, Washington’s unofficial “ambassador” to Taipei, said last week. Although the US would not impose sanctions “there will be a price to pay in mutual trust”, he added. Chen justified the name-change plan. “The UN referendum is saying ‘no’ to China’s threat … It is not a referendum that moves towards independence but one that rejects unification.”

To shared consternation in Washington and Beijing, Taiwan’s future relations with the mainland are emerging as the key election issue, ahead of economic and welfare issues. While the DPP’s presidential candidate, Frank Hsieh, generally favours measures to strengthen Taiwan’s separate identity, Ma Ying-jeou, his KMT rival, says he would seek a peace treaty with China and deepen investment, trade and transport links. For his pains, Ma has been accused of lack of patriotism.

In a sign of how deep political divisions run, Taiwan and China have even fallen out over next year’s Beijing Olympics. Months of wrangling over the route of the Olympic torch relay ended in stalemate in September, and it will not now pass through Taiwan. Instead the DPP launched its own torch processions, highlighting both the UN membership bid – and the bitter gulf between the two sides.