January 25, 2012

Five reasons why China will not invade Taiwan

‘So solidly built into our consciousness is the concept that China is conducting a rapacious and belligerent foreign policy, that whenever a dispute arises in which China is involved, she is instantly assumed to have provoked it.’
— Felix Greene, 1965.

When a bully nation (also known as a superpower) is engaging in full hegemonic display, another country with increasing clout and international status can raise apprehension. When countries are used to a bigger country settled for some years in a bullying position, someone starting to come close to that level of power raises various concerns.

This rise is often wrongly construed as a zero-sum game: the newcomer challenging the bully's position. In such a case, the existing bully, in its efforts to manipulate popular conceptions about the unknown newcomer, will (hypocritically) spread the myth that the newcomer is, and always has been, overtly aggressive. This myth-making, with the existing bully's greater hold on communication channels (media, international organizations, UN etc.) can negate the effect that the newcomer might have in balancing the bully's hegemony. The newcomer's assurances about its peaceful rise will then be dismissed as deception. 

The focal point of the bully's containment policy will be to encourage and manipulate various types of pawns against the newcomer. If such pawns already exist, then they will be fostered and strengthened, and in case they don't, new ones will be created. As Stephen Walt terms it, "a competition for allies" will then commence. 

China has been a victim of this policy since medieval times. Various countries, from Britain to Russia to the United States, have a long history of fostering various pawns against China. Tsarist Russia did it with Mongolia, Britain did it with Tibet, and in the present day, the United States, with a combination of fate and its own two-faced tactics and strategic efforts, finds itself in an almost enviable position of having a multitude of pawns to choose from in containing China. Tibet, Taiwan, Xinjiang, Human rights, Climate change, Google, India, Vietnam - the list is endless. Fate has thrown in America's way a plethora of such hedges, and these, coupled with popular conceptions about China internationally and orientalist media opinions, serve to portray China as a truly hubristic nation bent on world supremacy. So much so that even an event as harmless as hosting the Olympics is construed as being a step towards "world domination".

The pawn star
However, there is one pawn that is truly unique in its nature and relations with China and the world. This particular pawn, in its conception and subsequent American pampering, is outclassed by perhaps no other. It offers the US a unique opportunity to indulge its war-like instincts and meddle in China's affairs. Deng Xiaoping called it the biggest hurdle in Sino-US relations, and regular weapons sales (never a surprising phenomenon where the US is involved) has further exacerbated the issue. Not even British pampering of Tibet during the late 18th and early 19th centuries can compare to the amount of support this particular pawn has received from the United States. Just as Britain had taken upon itself the role Tibet's guardian, America has appointed itself this pawn's protector.

Taiwan has proved to be an invaluable resource to the United States in the game of containing China. Until 1971, it occupied China's seat at the UN. However, the United States apparently realized China's importance, and this, coupled with other geopolitical reasons, led the US to make a politically bullshit decision and shift its recognition to the mainland. The entire capitalist bloc, like a herd of goats, followed suit, leading to Taiwan's international isolation. However, this policy of the US, like most of its other policies, was two-faced. In short, while it did not support Taiwanese independence in principle, it realized that Taiwan was in itself too important a pawn to let go, and might be useful at some point in the future. An allied, almost-parasite non-country just in China's backyard - the opportunity was just too good to miss.

Hence, a policy was needed that could prop up Taiwan as a hedge against China, but at the same time maintain America's pretend position of not supporting Taiwan's independence. This was made possible by a cheap trick known as the Taiwan Relations Act. Although the act does not require America to intervene militarily if China invades Taiwan, it makes it clear that:

a) The United States is to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character
b) The United States is to maintain its capacity to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan

The act also stipulates that "any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes" is a "grave concern of the United States" (Note: The distance between America and Taiwan is 7000 miles). America has already surrounded China with its military (see map below). One can imagine how America would react to a multi-billion dollar Chinese arms package to Cuba or a Chinese military base in the Caribbean.

US treaty allies in the south Pacific. 
Source: CRS report RL33821

America often treats war as an instrument of state policy. Whenever a dispute arises anywhere in the world, it invariably tries to poke its nose in it (for the small number of disputes the US hasn't caused). And whenever America becomes involved in a dispute, it inevitably seeks to sell weapons or establish military bases wherever possible. The Taiwan dispute is no different. It promised, through the 1972 Shanghai Communique (a textbook example of constructive ambiguity), to gradually reduce weapons sales, but has done exactly the opposite (that China's military is also increasing in strength is no excuse, since this was known at the time of signing the communique). It recently announced that it will upgrade Taiwan's fleet of 145 F-16 jet aircraft. Including this deal, the United States, under its "Pacific" president, has sold more than $12 billion worth of arms to Taiwan in just the last two years. This is more than twice the amount sold by the George W. Bush administration in its first term and 75% of the amount sold during Bush's eight years in office.

It is in US interest to exaggerate and glorify the Chinese threat to Taiwan, which results in everything from Pentagon reports to articles and analyses in the mainstream media parroting the same thing over and over again: accusing China of "assertiveness" (or "aggressiveness", if one is feeling particularly chauvinistic), "flexing its muscles" and "belligerence". After all, weapons companies form one of the largest contributors to party funds; Lockheed Martin (the makers of the F-16) spent $13.7 million for lobbying in 2009 alone.

US weapons sales to Taiwan, in theory at least, are either a) meant to serve as a deterrent against an invasion from the mainland or b) add to the defense arsenal of the island, or both. Counting only the weapons sales in the public domain, Taiwan has received $30.5 billion in U.S. arms from 1950 to 2010. However, whether or not the arms will actually serve to resist an attack from the mainland, and to what extent, remains unclear. Weapons sales to Taiwan have been largely symbolic, serving more as American chest-thumping than helping the island's defense. If America was genuinely interested in "defending" Taiwan, it would have supplied it with much more. 

America is pretending to perform a delicate balancing act between fulfilling its quixotic promise to Taiwan and maintaining steady relations with China. This tactic is then interspersed with regular weapons sales and public statements urging both sides to resolve their differences through negotiations. This is extremely good PR, as it can be done under the pretext of trying to maintain peace and portraying itself as a "guarantor of peace and stability in the region". After all, there's nothing like a couple of F-16s to guarantee peace.

In essence, the US is following in the footsteps of its spiritual predecessor, Great Britain, and faithfully adopting the Divide and Rule strategy. This was Britain's invariable practice when it gave independence to its colonies, including India, Palestine, Ireland and Cyprus. And in all these cases, dividing up the colony invariably lead to civil war. In India's case, Britain made a show of being neutral, and at the same time did all it could to foster enmity between Hindus and Muslims. This has worked so well in the past that there is no reason to abandon it now. If China and Taiwan do find a way to resolve their dispute peacefully, the US will do whatever it can to stop it as it will lose one of its main levers in the region. Moreover, a peaceful resolution will cause China's international profile to rise considerably. It is in US interest to see China and Taiwan at loggerheads with each other.

Thus, America's Taiwan policy and its "constructive ambiguity" is in reality an amalgam of bullshit and hypocrisy. It has a strategic interest in the absence of peace, no interest in the dispute's resolution, and certainly no interest in explicitly taking sides (at least not publicly). It wants to be able to sell weapons to Taiwan, and it wants to be seen to maintain friendly relations with China. 

Look Ma, no consistency! 

The unique political status of Taiwan and its relationship with the United States and China has created an interestingly ambiguous situation where words are thrown around with different parties having different interpretations of the situation on the ground. Henry Kissinger will die a happy man knowing that the US has been equivocal about the whole affair, since having a firm policy would rule out its standard tactic of changing sides whenever required. It comes as no surprise that a) The US has indeed changed its stance multiple times, and b) the party that has been the most consistent throughput the entire dispute has been China.

China has always claimed Taiwan as part of its territory regardless of whether it was weak or strong, observes M.Taylor Fravel, an expert on Chinese foreign policy at MIT. Successive US administrations have tried hard to make people believe that their Taiwan policy is consistent with US interests. Lobby groups and stupid politicians have already started trying to manipulate an issue that they don't fully understand to their own advantages. 

Those who expect the US government to speak with one consistent voice are often disappointed. Zhang Qingmin, of the Department of Foreign Affairs at the China Foreign Affairs University, makes the extremely important point of divisions within the US government:

"From a definitional standpoint, however, the bureaucratic politics model states that the US government consists of numerous departments and is not a single, rationally behaving unit. These departments may have different interests and possess divergent policy views on certain problems, including the issue of exporting arms to Taiwan. In opposing US arms sales to Taiwan, and handling other aspects of our relationship with the US, we in China normally approach diplomacy as a form of inter-governmental contact. In past communications with the US, we would often lump all US officials into one. Experience shows this practice to be insufficient and unsound."

The mainstream US media plays lapdog to America's regular weapons sales to Taiwan. During the latest sale last year (amounting to $6.4 billion), China stopped military exchanges with the US and threatened unspecified sanctions against it. The general rhetoric among the mainstream western media was that China was overreacting, despite knowing that "the US is obliged to help Taiwan militarily due to the Taiwan Relations Act", perhaps implying that the act was China's fault. Following the same twisted logic, if, hypothetically, Taiwan does declare independence, China would also be justified in invading it, and Chinese officials would simply say that they were "obliged" to do so due to the Anti-Secession Law.

Newspapers, for their part, love to write about aggressive postures and war. The Economist brayed recently (it was not the only one) that "abandoning" Taiwan would imply that America would be willing to leave the region's other democracies at China's mercy, as though China claimed those countries as renegade provinces too. The Economist has always been firmly opposed to war - unless it was initiated by the US or NATO.

Even Taiwan cannot make up its mind about an issue that completely defines its sovereignty. The two main political coalitions have had two opposing views regarding the matter. Fans of democracy will no doubt argue that this is a sign of a "healthy democracy", and the very vagueness and inconsistency in the Taiwanese political landscape will be used as an excuse for the US to "defend" Taiwan and its democracy. Taiwanese policy and approach keeps changing based on who is in power; the Taiwanese people have, until recently, seemed unable to make up their minds. After future elections, Taiwanese policy and cross-strait relations might undergo yet another reversal.

China, in what has always been a hallmark of its foreign policy, has been largely coherent in its approach to Taiwan's status since the beginning - that a) There is only one China - the PRC, and b) Taiwan is Chinese territory. The most that China has offered, in the interest of peace and friendly relations, is to agree to disagree with Taiwan on what the "China" in  "One-China" actually means, according to the infamous 1992 consensus, which is now the established government policy on both sides of the strait. As far as China is concerned, the One China principle was a stroke of genius. Since it recognizes only one state as legitimate and representing "all" of China (the mainland and Taiwan), it ensures that both China and Taiwan will, at least in theory, always remain united under one government and will not separate, or to use the PRC term - "split". Under the absurd idea of differing with China over what "One China" means and the equally absurd hope of one day ruling over all China, Taiwan, at least on paper, gave up any hope it had of independence.

The DPP (whose loathing of the ECFA is no secret), if it had won the recent elections, would have risked destroying years of patient diplomacy on both sides. The DPP miscalculated its stance and threatened to rock the boat, and thus lost the elections. The ECFA is actually structured to be more beneficial to Taiwan rather than China. 

Both the Greens and the Blues - the two main Taiwanese political factions - have refused the hugely successful "One Country Two systems" approach which, as in the case of the two SARs, has also served to call the west's bluff about maintaining "democracy" in those regions (the so -called transgressions of the policy in case of Hong Kong and Macau form the exception rather than the norm). 14 years after the handover, Hong Kong was recently named the world's freest economy.

In recent times, China and Taiwan have mutually decided not to poach each others' diplomatic allies. Wikileaks cables reveal that China politely declined an offer from Panama, Taiwan's most important formal diplomatic ally, to switch diplomatic recognition. This is particularly telling and an extremely significant sacrifice by China, given the important Panama Canal (and Panamanian plans for its expansion) and the PRC ban on Chinese investments in countries that recognize Taiwan.

Five reasons why China will not invade Taiwan

Journalists and analysts never forget to dutifully remind us that China has not "ruled out" the use of force against Taiwan. What they do not remind us with such regularity however, is that the Chinese leadership has regularly stressed that they seek peaceful reunification of Taiwan with the mainland. China has deployed, they say, 1500 missiles targeting Taiwan (or 2000, if one is feeling so inclined), due to which Taiwan should be regularly supplied with US arms to enable it to defend itself. They find the subtle politics of China's missile deployments beyond their understanding. What they also fail to address is why China should redeploy or dismantle a major part of its defense arsenal (and one that faces US bases and defends China's most populated areas) just to placate Taiwan and US hawks. Moreover, even if the missiles were withdrawn, they could be redeployed at any time. These missiles are seen as an important deterrent to Taiwan's independence and potential US intervention.

Whatever the media wants its readers to believe, the only major reason why China would actually consider an invasion is if Taiwan declares independence. This is in no danger of happening in the near future. Especially given Ma's recent victory and his pledge of the "Three Nos" (No independence, No unification, No use of force). It is reasonable to assume that the majority of the Taiwanese public agree with him, and are happy with the status quo (the latter has been demonstrated by numerous opinion polls as well). Here are five major reasons why a full-fledged Chinese invasion of the island is more suited for a video game rather than reality.

5. Economics:

China has always placed economics at the forefront of most other matters. Despite the often-tumultuous state of Sino-Indian relations (and an unresolved border dispute), trade has touched $63 billion. China is India's second largest trading partner. In the Senkaku island dispute with Japan, Deng Xiaoping, as soon as he came into power in 1978, proposed that China and Japan jointly explore the oil and gas deposits near the disputed islands without touching on the issue of sovereignty. China has also sought joint exploration in the resource-rich Spratlys, a solution which is the right step forward and is in fact more urgent than sovereignty, which the Philippines and Vietnam and  have so far been reluctant to do. 

China doesn't mind waiting and biding its time until sovereignty issues get resolved. As Deng Xiaoping famously remarked regarding the Senkaku dispute, "It does not matter if this question is shelved for some time, say, 10 years. Our generation is not wise enough to find common language on this question. Our next generation will certainly be wiser. They will certainly find a solution acceptable to all". Unlike his predecessor Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao has used a softer approach towards Taiwan, promoting stronger economic and cultural ties, high-level official visits and direct flights in order to reduce tensions.

This pragmatic approach is on full display even in the Taiwan dispute. China is Taiwan's largest trading partner, and Taiwan is China's seventh largest. Two-thirds of all Taiwanese companies have made investments in China in recent years. In 2010, China (including Hong Kong) accounted for over 29.0% of Taiwan's total trade and 41.8% of Taiwan's exports. The ECFA was heavily tilted in Taiwan's favor. It cut tariffs on 539 Taiwanese exports to China and 267 Chinese products entering Taiwan. Under the agreement, approximately 16.1 % of exports to China and 10.5 % of imports to China will be tariff free by 2013. Taiwanese firms have invested $200 billion in the mainland, and trade between the two sides has exceeded $150 billion.

Taiwanese trade with China.
Source: Reuters

Both China and Taiwan have a lot to lose by fighting with each other. Another factor to consider is the incalculable loss that an invasion will have on the Chinese economy, not to mention scaring away potential investors.

4. Alienation of the people

China is, quite rightly, obsessed with "stability", President Hu's watchword. Analysts agree that this is one of the main reasons why it is not being "tough" on North Korea - that it wants a stable neighbor with no refugee spillover. With hundreds of protests happening in China every year, it most certainly wouldn't want yet another headache on its hands and alienate the island's inhabitants (even more than they are at the moment). There is very less support for reunification on the island, and opinion polls make clear that only a tiny minority of Taiwanese identify themselves as "Chinese".

The Anti-Secession Law also explicitly states in Article 9:

In the event of employing and executing non-peaceful means and other necessary measures as provided for in this Law, the state shall exert its utmost to protect the lives, property and other legitimate rights and interests of Taiwan civilians and foreign nationals in Taiwan, and to minimize losses. At the same time, the state shall protect the rights and interests of the Taiwan compatriots in other parts of China in accordance with law. 
A Chinese invasion might inevitably lead to riots and international condemnation. China would thus risk flushing down the toilet many years' hard work of patient diplomacy (in convincing other countries of its "peaceful rise"). This would in turn cause them to inch even closer to America, were they would be welcomed with open arms.

3. The threat of American intervention

The United States of America, the responsible superpower, has been engaged in more military conflicts around this world than any other. Since the Second World War, the US has

  1. Attempted to overthrow more than 50 governments, most of them democratically-elected.
  2. Attempted to suppress a populist or national movement in 20 countries.
  3. Grossly interfered in democratic elections in at least 30 countries.
  4. Dropped bombs on the people of more than 30 countries.
  5. Attempted to assassinate more than 50 foreign leaders.
Thus, history shows that the United States is more prone to violent outbursts than any other country.

The PLA doctrinal textbook, Zhanyixue, explicitly states that China is not in the same league as "advanced countries" (The entire document never mentions the United States by name), argues Thomas J. Christensen in China’s Revolution in Doctrinal Affairs: Recent Trends in the Operational Art of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (CNA, 2005). He further states,

Moreover, unlike in the heady early days of the Great Leap Forward, PLA strategists do not envision China closing that overall gap anytime soon. There is no stated expectation of short-cuts or leapfrogging to great power military status. In other words, China will have to accept that its relative technological backwardness and weakness in power projection will persist for a long time.
And then goes on to quote the text of Zhanyixue explicitly:
“Our military equipment has gone through major upgrading (很大提高) in comparison with the past, but in comparison to advanced countries, whether it be now or even a relatively long period from now, there will still be a relatively large gap (仍有较 大的差距)................The most prominent objective reality that the PLA will face in fighting future campaigns is that in [the area of] military equipment, the enemy will be superior and we will be inferior."
As is clear, Chinese policy-makers are realists, and thus can be relied upon to heavily weigh the consequences of a possible US intervention.

2. China wants peace:

China is one of the few rising powers in the whole of human history to announce peaceful intentions and no desire to rule or establish hegemony over the world. In what might come as a shock to most people who consider media reports as a textbook for Chinese foreign policy, China has, on the whole, been a peaceful nation and has not engaged in military action unless provoked. And the military action that it has been involved in in its modern history has been extremely limited in its duration and objectives. Barring a misadventure with Vietnam in 1979 (also quite limited), China has only used war as a last resort.

Resolutions of boundary disputes can be generally considered as a fundamental indication whether a country is pursuing expansionist or peaceful policies. This is one reason why a thorough analysis of China's border disputes has been neglected by almost all western media outlets and analysts. 

China borders 14 countries by land. As a result of territorial dismemberment and unequal treaties, the PRC government found itself involved in territorial disputes with all of them. China had the highest number of border disputes of any country in the world. But with no intention of letting them foster and impede a friendly neighborhood, China has successfully resolved most disputes - offering substantial compromises in each case. And the way in which China did it stands as testimony to its desire of peace at any cost - and serves as an example to other countries. China has, in the interests of peace and stability on its borders, adopted negotiation tactics favorable to rival claimants that other countries would do well to emulate. Many of these countries were small and weak and China was under no obligation to compromise at all. 

The portion of disputes territory that China received in border settlements with each neighboring country is shown below.

Afghanistan  -  0%
Tajikistan      - 4%
Nepal            - 6%
Burma          - 18%
Kazakhstan  - 22%
Mongolia      - 29%
Kyrgyzstan   - 32%
North Korea  - 40%
Laos             - 50%
Vietnam        - 50%
Russia          - 50%
Pakistan       - 54%

Some of this land was strategically important (such as the Wakhan corridor disputed with Afghanistan) or extremely rich in resources (such as the Pamir mountain range disputed with Tajikistan). Yet, China just handed them over without any fuss - and without demanding anything in return. 

China has also not reiterated its claims on a majority of the territory which was seized from it by the numerous unequal treaties (even if it meant being cut off from the strategic Sea of Japan). The grey portion of the map below was part of Qing dynasty in 1820, and was subsequently snatched from it via unequal treaties. Astonishingly, the PRC pursued claims on only 7% of these territories.

China pursued claims on only 7%
of the territory seized from it (in grey above)

China generally attacks only when it has been taken advantage of or construed as weak, or when the enemy is at its very doorstep, such as the Korean war. The Sino-Indian war of 1962 stands as a textbook example of this strategy. The Indian Prime Minister Nehru rejected all Chinese offers for negotiations, constituted a "Forward Policy" of pushing forward to enemy lines, and made belligerent statements about China ("I have ordered the Indian army to throw out the Chinese"), implicitly announcing Indian intentions to attack. Some Indian outposts went even further into China than Chinese ones. China  correctly interpreted these actions as hostile.  Viewing India through the prism of British imperialist intentions on Tibet (as India had made itself the British successor in all matters regarding Tibet and China) didn't need much convincing after that. Nehru ignored China's diplomatic protests and never thought that it would have the guts to fight back. 

After China finally did attack and occupied all disputed areas, it declared a unilateral ceasefire and withdraw to pre-war positions without occupying an inch of extra territory. It turned out, Chinese intentions were just to teach India a lesson. 

A peaceful South China Sea and Taiwan strait is in China's interest. It has indicated that it wants a peace treaty with Taiwan, and indeed, negotiating a peace agreement was one of the points that President Hu introduced as a blueprint for cross-strait relations in December 2008. Ma however, reneged on a pre-election promise to sign a peace treaty. Such a treaty will not only assure China's maritime neighbors (including rival claimants in the South China Sea) of China's peaceful intentions, but may also formally end the Chinese Civil War. 

1. Taiwan is not going to declare independence:

The most important reason why China has not yet considered an invasion. Ma has explicitly declared that he is not seeking independence, and the voters seem to be siding with him and are happy with the status quo. Independence or Unification are hardly main topics of conversation in local supermarkets on either side. Chinese leaders have a penchant for adapting to changing situations and are happy to do what they can (business) and leave for future generations what they cannot (reunification).

So what next? Chinese leaders will be happy to admit - they don't know. As long as both sides are content for the time being, there seems to be no reason to fret and rock the boat. And since a majority of the Taiwanese people are happy to be were they are, no government is under any pressure to act. Both economies are growing, and people are living happily on both sides. 

Every generation of leaders thus hands over this problem to the next one, with the hope that they might one day either solve it, or preserve the status quo and hand over the headache to their successors. 

There little doubt that a full-blown invasion is not an option for either side (America wouldn't mind it though). Discussion of a Chinese invasion serves little purpose other than to be used by various "foreign-policy analysts" to justify their grants. China simply wouldn't invade Taiwan as long as the status quo is maintained. Or, as Jim Hacker would say, not just that it shouldn't, but it couldn't, and if it could, it wouldn't, would it?

(also published at Hidden Harmonies)