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Retaining the 'Mandate from Heaven' and Taiwan trumps access to EU arms

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As most US nationals and, I surmise, most EU nationals have little understanding of the micro-politics of intra-Taiwan affairs and the reflections of those politics upon Beijing, it is too easy to see Beijing as having "lost" something in the EU's continuance of its post-Tiananmen arms embargo. Not so. Neither do the western high street press understand the nuance of the Beijing-Taipei axis, or if their journalists do, they are not given the ink to describe its nuances properly. The Chinese are so sensitive to Taiwanese actions that what we see as 'overreaction' is a litmus test of Chinese attention.

Not particularly inflammatory, the Anti-Secession Law passed by the National People's Congress made explicit what was always implicit, authorizing "China to use military force if Taiwan moves decisively toward or declares formal independence." China is in the unenviable position of threatening war and it hopes for peace as the CCP "would not survive the economic slump that would follow even a limited war on Taiwan." The problem is that the CCP would fall the sooner for not acting against Taiwan in first instance.

While the Chinese protest the embargo's continuance much as the Indians pro forma protest the sale of F-16s to Pakistan, let none miss the essential critical path:

  1. Chinese Communist Party (CCP) maintains the 'Mandate from Heaven' for continuation of governance, i.e., "Chinese leadership could not survive politically if it were to allow Taiwan to become independent"
  2. Hu Jintao as President must continue to solidify power, especially as he assumes military leadership from former president Jiang Zemin, against a backdrop of "rising domestic public opinion [that] was blaming Beijing for not having the spine to act against Taiwan"
  3. China maintains the focus and pressure on its renegade state, Taiwan, making explicit what was always implicit, while regaining some initiative against Taipei after a decade of feckless reaction
  4. China continues to purchase the bulk of essential military modernization from Russia, and secondarily Israel, both unaffected by the EU boycott

Everything else is acceptable collateral damage which in the case of the EU embargo is only a temporary setback. The greatest losers are actually the French, Germans, English and other EU members that were looking forward to selling "state-of-the-art military hardware and technology to China" that they would try to cloak under the dual use rubric.

Understanding Asia benefits from looking through an Asian lens, yet written in English for we non-Chinese speakers to absorb. One of the sites that does a good job in this respect (after the FEER was gelded) is the Asia Times (along with the Asian WSJ, which is politically less ossified than its US parent). I would refer readers to Laurence Eyton's Taiwan independence forces rejoice. (Do not be put off by the title as Eyton's title refers to the slight buoyancy to the under-10% pro-independence sector.)

Eyton gives readers a thoughtful analysis of the interactions, missteps, and counters of Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian and his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the Kuomintang (KMT) and People First Party (PFP) that gave rise to the Anti-Secession Law which is now "dogged by the law of unintended consequences" in that it has "generated outrage in Taiwan itself… increased pro-independence sentiment… gained more supporters for Taiwan's arms budget [and] caused the US and Japan to clarify their intentions regarding the Taiwan Strait" although I believe that the Japanese government was well on the way to promulgating a stronger anti-Chinese stance well before the secession law. Once one gains an understanding of Taiwan's constitutional processes and public opinion, it does seem that fears by the Chinese of secession and the US of a declaration of independence are unwarranted.

China appears to have been one of many that misinterpreted Taiwan's 2003 Referendum Law which was:

plainly aimed at preventing any reunification deal that lacked a referendum's democratic imprimatur; the intention was specifically to prevent the opposition "selling out" Taiwan should it regain power. China - and others - mistakenly thought, however, that the Referendum Law was to be used to try to further Taiwan independence. Partly this was a result of misinformation [from] Taiwan's opposition parties, and partly it was the result of Chen and the DPP making promises [that] that they in fact had no chance of keeping… Chen would never call a referendum on independence, not because of China's threats or the United States' constraints, but simply because it would never pass. While fewer than one in 10 Taiwanese wants reunification in the foreseeable future, prudent thinking among the Taiwanese means hardline pro-independence support rarely reaches 20% in polls.

I would direct readers to Zhiqun Zhu's Secession bill shows China's wisdom for understandable drivers of Chinese behavior. I agree with Zhu that passage of an anti-secession law was "relatively easy [but the difficulty will be the charm offensive needed for] winning the hearts and minds of the Taiwanese public."

As for the ban, it is likely that it will only extend to 2006 as the current EU president from Luxembourg was not enamored at bringing the embargo issue forward. The next EU presidency falls to the UK whose diplomats believe that "lifting the ban would be exceedingly controversial and quite possibly unpopular at home." The European Commission was pleased for the hiatus as the European Parliament, Amnesty International (whose December 2004 report says that China's human rights are getting worse not better) and much of the EU nationals were questioning lifting the ban before the Anti-Secession Law. The Chinese are skilled, realistic diplomats who can be expected to continue calling the arms embargo "political discrimination not in line with today's reality," question how the as yet hazy EU-China "strategic partnership" is to be made tangible, and to confront journalists and analysts for what it calls "unfavorable" and "biased" reporting on China.

That is a small price to pay for governance and Taiwan. Francesco Sisci makes an interesting point that China may be able to claim global acquiescence if the international community, which dislikes the law but does not want to offend China, fail to condemn a law authorizing war.

China's Law On Taiwan Backfires
By Edward Cody
Washington Post
March 24, 2005

Taiwan independence forces rejoice
By Laurence Eyton
Asia Times
Mar 19, 2005

The Dragon squeezes Taiwan
By Bruce Klingner
Asia Times
Mar 15, 2005

Secession bill shows China's wisdom
By Zhiqun Zhu
Asia Times
Dec 21, 2004

Anti-secession bill reveals China's fears
By Li YongYan
Asia Times
Dev 21, 2004

Gordon Housworth



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