Liberating Taiwan: Peaceful Offensive or Armed Might

By Kong Qingjiang and Betsy Röben

Kong Qingjiang is a visiting research fellow at Max-Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law. He has a B.S. degree from Nanjing University, a LL.M. degree from East China Institute of Politics and Law, and a Ph.D. degree from Wuhan University in China.

Betsy Roben is a consultant on international and comparative German-American environmental law and legal cultures, based in Heidelberg. She received her J.D. degree from University of Michigan School of Law and her Ph.D. degree from the University of Kiel in Germany. They wish to acknowledge the insightful comments and valuable editorial work of the editors of the Harvard Asia Quarterly.

Summary: Kong and Röben argue that China is becoming increasingly impatient with the apparent lack of success of its peaceful offensive, and is likely to resort to military means to achieve unification with Taiwan, especially after the recent election pro-independence Chen Shui-bian as the new Taiwanese president.

In the 1960s, the idea of Taiwan’s inseparability from China was ingrained in the minds of the school children who are now China’s rising academics, junior diplomats and politicians. Posters on every street corner and teachers in every classroom proclaimed the duty to "liberate Taiwan". Now as that generation raises its own children, and as Taiwan inaugurates its new, pro-independence president Chen Shui-bian, it seems that China is willing to go to great lengths, including resorting to military means, to achieve unification. While the new generation’s patriotism is deep and genuine, it is tempered by their exposure to the world at large, through work, study abroad and the remarkably expanded openness of the market economy at home. These changes bode well for the future of China’s relations with Taiwan, but only in the very long run. For now, the older generation is still in charge, as shown by its blustering responses to Chen and his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). By cultivating the nationalistic sentiment of the people to buttress its own political legitimacy, the current Beijing leadership has the mainland people’s mandate to reclaim sovereignty over Taiwan. The fear is, however, that it will try to do so through military rather than peaceful means.

Beijing’s bottom line has been clear and consistent: Keep Taiwan from attaining independence. Shortly before the March election that led to Chen’s victory, Beijing released a white paper stating that should Taiwan continue to resist "peaceful reunification through negotiations", China would use "drastic measures, including military force, to safeguard its sovereignty and territorial integrity." Two days before the vote, Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji strongly suggested that war would be the inevitable result should Chen and his pro-independence party win the presidential election. The day after the election, still reeling from the insult of Chen’s victory, Beijing reiterated that Taiwan remained a part of China and vowed to "listen to [Chen’s] words and watch his actions, waiting expectantly to see which direction he will take on the issue of cross-Strait relations". As events have shown, this seemingly softened attitude signaled no retreat. While Chen has backed down from calling for full independence and indicated a willingness to keep discussions open, China has combined threats of military action with a smear campaign against Chen’s vice-president Annette Lu, a Harvard Law School-trained feminist and human rights activist, who has publicly and stridently expressed no interest in furthering cross-Strait relations.

The history of China’s "peaceful offensives" towards Taiwan only heightens the sense that Beijing could be provoked to resort to military means against the island. From 1949 to 1979, for thirty full years, the People’s Liberation Army was in a state of constant preparedness to "liberate Taiwan". At the height of cross-Strait tension in the 1950s, as Taiwan enjoyed a mutual defense treaty with the United States, China bombarded the Quemoy in order to demonstrate its determination to liberate Taiwan and to test possible US response. Only after Beijing assumed Taipei’s membership in the United Nations in 1971, and after Washington established diplomatic relations with China and ended its military alliance with Taipei in 1979, did Beijing begin a "peaceful offensive" to reclaim Taiwan. The offensive was to be carried out by dialogues, not by arms, and to remain peaceful as long as Beijing received support from the United States.

The first cross-Strait meeting between Ku Chen-fu of Taipei and Wang Daohan of Beijing finally took place in 1993. It led to the eight-point proposal (jiang badian) by China’s President Jiang Zemin in 1995, which proposed the commencement of official negotiations to end the state of hostility. By 1998, China had sufficiently cultivated its ties to the Clinton administration to extract three promises from the United States: no support for Taiwan’s independence, no recognition of the doctrine of "one China, one Taiwan", and no support for Taiwan’s bid to join the United Nations. The peaceful offensive was making progress, but Beijing has never renounced the threat of possible use of force. Even in 1993, when cross-Strait relationship improved after the Ku-Wang meeting, Beijing still threatened to use force if Taiwan declared independence or in the event of foreign invasion of the island. Deng Xiaoping also threatened to invade Taiwan if it developed nuclear weapons or if unrest broke out on the island. It seems that as long as the peaceful offence fails to achieve its objective of reunification, Beijing will be willing to resort to military means.

Increasing trade ties is one element in the peaceful offensive to make Taiwan more dependent on China, thereby increasing the likelihood of eventual submission. Since 1995, Taipei has countered Beijing’s efforts to forge closer economic ties by practicing a restrained trade policy towards China (jiejiyongren). However, in response to appeals from its business community after the latest presidential election, Chen’s government loosened the restrictions on direct trade and transportation with China, thus opening the possibility of establishing direct links between the Taiwanese islands of Quemoy and Matsu and the Chinese ports of Xiamen and Mawei. In spite of this change, China views Taipei’s half-hearted trade engagements as an indication that a peaceful solution to the Taiwan issue remains elusive. Although Chen has taken a more active approach to opening trade ties with China than the previous president Lee Teng-hui, his new trade engagement initiatives are still confined to trade between the two Taiwan-controlled offshore islands and their neighboring Chinese ports. Indeed, these initiatives probably would not have been implemented at all had the Taiwanese business community not been lured by the mainland market and put pressure on the government. The Taiwanese government is fully aware of the risks posed by expanding trade relations with Beijing—greater Taiwanese dependence on China—and will not embrace this new economic relationship wholeheartedly. Therefore, China’s hope of achieving reunification through forging closer economic ties with Taiwan may prove unrealistic.

Whether peaceful offensive can attain its intended goal also depends on Taiwan’s attitude. A democratic and prosperous polity like Taiwan will understandably desire to establish its own global status, which will mean an inevitable move toward independence. Fifty years’ separation has resulted in huge differences between China and Taiwan in material prosperity, political institutions and mentality of the people. These differences have erected almost insurmountable obstacles to reunification. Taiwan has only engaged sporadically with China over this fifty-year period, primarily for economic reasons, and has not responded to military or other forms of threat. For this reason alone, it is questionable whether any government in Taipei, be it Nationalist or DDP, would be sincerely interested in consummating a rapprochement with Beijing. Whenever the outside world has perceived détente between the two, Taipei has endeavored to extend its influence globally. For example, Lee Teng-hui responded to Jiang Zemin’s eight-point proposal, which preconditioned the forging of peaceful relation upon Taipei’s recognition of the one China principle, by pursuing the strategies of shizhi quanxi (substantive relations) and tanxing waijiao (elastic diplomacy) with countries that had severed official ties with Taipei. This strategy made use of Taiwan’s greatest assets—its democratic institutions and economic prosperity—to improve its international status. China viewed this response as a move towards independence, but the strategies paid off in the West. The European Parliament even began to debate on Taiwan’s role in international organizations. The success of Taipei’s new diplomatic strategy reached its climax when Lee was allowed to pay a private visit to the United States in May 1995. This finally led to military exercises aimed at intimidating the island—exercises that included a guided missile launch just before Taiwan’s first direct presidential election in March 1996. Again in 1999, when President Clinton’s visit to Beijing had set the stage for China’s top negotiator to visit Taipei, Lee announced that Taiwan sought to interact with China on a state-to-state basis. For Beijing, this was an unambiguous indication that Lee was determined to elevate the status of Taiwan to that of an equal footing with China, and that his previous stance of "reunification being a future goal" was mere rhetoric to avoid a Chinese military offensive. Lee’s provocation has thus undermined Beijing’s willingness to seek a peaceful solution. As a matter of fact, since 1996, Beijing has realised that the strategy of peaceful offensive has forced Taiwan to reveal its real intentions to avoid reunification, and has lost its confidence in Taipei, and Lee in particular. This new perception resulted in a growing sense of urgency to resolve the Taiwan question. Recent threats from Beijing have included the military exercises in 1996, military deployment along the coast of Fujian province, and the reiteration of the threat to resort to military means. All these clearly showed that the Chinese leadership was frustrated with Taipei’s foot-dragging on reunification. Consequently, recent years saw the increase of military budget and expenditure by Beijing, as well as continuous and intensified efforts to contain Taipei on numerous international occasions.

Although in rhetoric the Chinese government continues to appeal to the people of Taiwan rather than their government for reunification, Beijing has been fully aware of the prevailing views of the people of Taiwan since 1996. The election of Lee Teng-hui as the island’s first democratically elected president was a demonstration to Beijing that the "Taiwanese compatriots" are prepared to drift away from their motherland. With this in mind, Prime Minister Zhu’s recent warning could be understood as directed toward not only the pro-independence Chen, but also to the Taiwanese people as a whole. The victory of Chen again reinforced Beijing’s conviction that no politician in Taiwan can be relied upon for arriving at a peaceful solution. This frustration will have tremendous impact on Beijing’s decision as to whether to resort to military means in the near future.

In addition to the above reasons, the People’s Liberation Army is a key faction in the Chinese government in favour of a military solution. Like the military of any non-democratic regime, the once celebrated PLA in the Mao-era is not content to see its role in Chinese politics gradually eroded. To name but a few, the military has been forced to relinquish its seats in the Politburo, to give up its lucrative business empire, and to witness the decline in welfare provisions and respect accorded to the veterans. It still harbors great ambition to resume its former glory. A war against Taiwan in the name of the reunification of the motherland may be the best way to attain that end.

The decision of Taiwan’s voters to elect a pro-independence president (even though he has since renounced his call for full independence) only strengthens Beijing’s conviction that no person or party in Taiwan can be relied on for a peaceful rapprochement. This in turn increases Beijing’s willingness to pursue a military solution, undeterred by the prevailing external expert opinion that it cannot possibly succeed.

Chen has already shown goodwill to Beijing. However, Beijing still has not determined an official stance on Chen. It might be an advantage that he is not a member of his predecessor’s Nationalist Party, which Beijing perceives as having thwarted rapprochement whenever it almost became a reality. While peaceful negotiation remains an option, the past gives little optimism to believe that Beijing will shy away from military means, should Chen overzealously resist China’s peaceful offensive. That this principle rather than rational calculations of the likelihood of success will determine whether Beijing will take military action is a point too few Westerners have managed to grasp.