China Causes Dire Taiwan Straits

A military balance between China and Taiwan is on the verge of unraveling

Amiel Ungar , | updated: 15:31

Chinese Guangzhou Class Destroyer
Chinese Guangzhou Class Destroyer

Negotiations between the United States and China, highlighted by this week's state visit to the United States by Chinese President Hu Jin Tao, have prompted the display of defense technology by China and Taiwan.

When US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates visited China last week, the Chinese unveiled a prototype of the J-20 aircraft with stealth technology features. Although there was some talk that this was coincidental, the message was driven home that China is rapidly closing the gap in military technology with the U.S., with the intention of denying the U.S. regional naval and air supremacy.

Across the China Straits, Taiwan conducted an air defense exercise with far less impressive results --6 out of the 19 antiaircraft missiles failed to hit their target. One embarrassed spectator was Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou, who as a result of the failed test sounded like a teacher issuing a report card by commenting "there is still room for improvement."

The two separate but related events illustrate that a delicate balance existing since 1949 between China and Taiwan may be in the process of unraveling. When the Chinese Communists won the Civil War and the defeated Nationalists retreated to Taiwan, the latter, although they eventually realized that they would be unable to recover the mainland, felt reasonably secure on their island redoubt. Communist China had the superior manpower, but its mammoth and immobile army was equipped for a land defense of China. It lacked the capacity to cross the straits and mount an amphibious invasion of Taiwan. Taiwan had the weapons to deny Beijing the requisite naval and air supremacy and furthermore the United States 7th  fleet was nearby.

China, for its part, had sufficient missile power to threaten Taiwan in case the latter decided to declare its independence and implement a Two China policy. For Beijing, Taiwan is merely a rebellious province that will be restored to the motherland one day just as Hong Kong and Macau were returned to Chinese sovereignty.

The US preferred the status quo: Taiwan would not rock the boat and declare independence and China would insist that it would seek unification only by peaceful means. The military balance was a powerful argument for the status quo and the US could afford to guarantee it in the knowledge that its pledge would not have to be cashed.

With a change of the military balance, China may soon be able to mount an invasion of Taiwan. Moreover, it is developing the technology and building a Navy that can make US intervention on Taiwan's behalf a costly and perhaps losing affair.  

Taiwan, like other countries in the region, is worried about China's greater assertiveness in the region. China appeared willing to lure Taiwan into unification by economic carrots and strengthening commercial and communication ties. It also offered the Hong Kong model, allowing Taiwan a degree of autonomy in terms of political institutions such as competitive elections.

Although the current Taiwan government has enjoyed friendlier relations than its predecessor by shelving the idea of unilateral independence, it still feels the need for a major weapons upgrade and can be expected to approach the United States on this issue. Ironically, the failure of the US-made missiles can prove a good opening.  The US can offer a guarantee or conclude a major arms sale, but each alternative is bound to damage US-China relations.