Wednesday, March 09, 2005

The Guns of August

Normally, few people except professional China-watchers pay much attention to the proceedings of China’s nominal parliament, the National People’s Congress. The congress meets once a year in March for about a week. The 3,000 hand-picked, un-elected delegates pass laws and ratify, usually by acclamation, government appointments, such as president or premier.

This year’s meeting had a special edge to it that drew the attention of the world’s press and spawned headlines across Asia. The congress passed a law making it state policy to use force as a “last resort” to defend China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. This law is, of course, aimed specifically at Taiwan, which has been politically separated from mainland China since it was first annexed by Japan in 1895. It was again separated after the Kuomintang, defeated in the Civil War, found refuge there.

In some respects, the law seems superfluous. Beijing has never renounced using force against Taiwan should it formally declare itself an independent country. The new law also says that force would be used only “when all our efforts for a peaceful reunification should prove futile.”

Moreover, Beijing has never before needed any kind of special law to send its armies into battle. It didn’t need one when it intervened in the Korean War in 1950, attacked India in 1962 or invaded Vietnam in 1979. Why should this action make things any more dangerous than they already are?

For one thing Taipei is likely to respond with mirror-image legislation of its own. President Chen Shui-bian, is already talking about introducing some kind of “anti-annexation” law into Taiwan’s legislature to counter Beijing’s “anti-secession” law, or perhaps place it on the ballot in a national referendum.

Meanwhile, the United States has its own long-standing Taiwan Relations Act, passed soon after Washington recognized Beijing in 1979 and broke off diplomatic relations with Taipei. It does not formally commit the U.S. to defend Taiwan in the event of an attack, but it mandates that the U.S. supply arms necessary for Taiwan to defend itself.

Before long, there may be a kind of Guns of August quality to the situation, where the three main parties, China, Taiwan and the U.S. are legally bound, or feel themselves legally bound, to take actions they may not want to take, much the way the great European powers felt compelled to go to war in the summer of 1914 because of agreements and treaties they had made.

If nothing else, China’s action may build a fire under Taiwan’s Legislature to do more in Taiwan’s self-defense. Unlike China’s congress, Taiwan’s legislature is really democratic, and it has been doing what democratic assemblies are wont to do: haggle, procrastinate, roll the pork.

Three years ago, to Beijing’s great annoyance, the Bush administration approved an arms sale to Taiwan worth $18 billion. The money would be used to buy eight diesel-powered submarines, three Patriot anti-missile batteries and a small fleet of anti-submarine planes. Taiwan’s defense minister has said that this package could maintain the balance of power in the Strait for 30 years. Without it, China might have the capacity to overrun Taiwan in two or three years.

Nevertheless, the opposition-controlled legislature has acted as if it were some kind of bazaar, demanding that the cost of the package be cut in half, that the submarines be built in Taiwan, that in return for the favor of buying weapons needed for its own defense the U.S. specifically promise to defend Taiwan in the event of an attack. It is hardly surprising that even a conservative administration has less and less patience with Taipei.

Anxious to get Taiwan to do something to defend itself, Washington is even outsourcing re-supply of the U.S. army’s ammunition to Taiwan. In exchange for shipping 400 harpoon air-to-ground missiles to the Taiwan Air Force, the Pentagon plans to obtain 300 million rounds of rifle ammunition from a munitions plant in Kaohsiung, replacing bullets expended in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The barter deal accomplishes two things. It gets more missiles in the hands of the armed forces, presumably without having to get an appropriations bill through the stingy Taiwan legislature. It keeps open production lines on Taiwan’s main armory that might otherwise have to shutdown due to lack of demand from Taiwan’s own army.

Taiwan lives in a kind of dream world. Being a democracy, it assumes that the U.S. and other democracies will come to its aid should China attack, no matter what it might do to provoke such an attack. Therefore it is unworried about its own self-defense. The anti- secession law may be a necessary wakeup call.


Blogger IJ said...

Whether the government of offshore China should be able to buy $18bn to protect itself from mainland China is an interesting question. There are parallels here with Chechnya in the Russian Federation and Kosovo in Yugoslavia.

One of many entries in the blogosphere about Taiwan attempts a bit of perspective:

"Well, those non-too-subtle Chinese have done it alright: they've formalized the notion that they won't stand for Taiwan's independence and they would use military force to prevent it. . . Imagine the U.S. passes a resolution saying that if you attacked-I dunno-anywhere in the Western Hemisphere, we'd respond with military force. It would be . . . like a doctrine or something. Hmm. U.S. has a Monroe Doctrine for entire Western Hemisphere and China has a Hu Doctrine for . . . all of . . . Taiwan."

Inconsistencies at least. This year's G8 has a lot on its plate to address.

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