THE National People’s Congress of the People’s Republic of China is, true to Communist practice, pretty much a rubber stamp sort of assembly. What it decides to legislate has been previously decided within the politburo, and therefore not only carries the full weight of law, but reflects a consensus among Chinese leaders. And so when senior legislator Wang Zhaoguo “proposed” new legislation that would enumerate the requirements for China taking action against Taiwan, alarm bells rang from Southeast Asia to Washington.
Coming at the heels of a rumored visit by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Beijing, it’s tempting to speculate whether this is Chinese saber-rattling in order to exact concessions from the United States. The proposed “anti-secession law,” after all, serves to codify the procedure for taking belligerent action against Taiwan, presumably under certain conditions. The most certain condition for triggering a mainland Chinese response against Taiwan has been obvious for decades: A declaration by the Taiwanese that they are dropping the fiction of being the “Republic of China,” and instead, a sovereign nation known as Taiwan. Such a declaration, Beijing has thundered, decade after decade, means war and invasion.
During the Cold War, Taiwan had certain things on its side. Until Richard Nixon came along, Taiwan was recognized by the United States as the de jure, or legal, government of China. Since Nixon, diplomatic recognition has shifted to Beijing but Taiwan remains, in every sense of the word, an American protectorate. By law, the United States is obligated to defend the territorial integrity of Taiwan. The result has been a clumsy ballet between the People’s Liberation Army of China, which mounts an elaborate display of amphibious operations and naval maneuvers (increasingly with a ballistic missile component), and the armed forces of the United States, represented by aircraft carriers just as routinely dispatched to the vicinity of the Taiwan straits. In addition, for decades, Taiwan managed to assert its identity by maintaining diplomatic relations with a dwindling number of countries interested in Taiwanese investments.
So long as China remained somewhere in the 1950s as far as military technology was concerned, and was perceived as a minor global economic player, the status quo could comfortably overcome the saber-rattling required to proclaim Chinese national pride. Since the 1990s, however, the dizzying growth of China’s economy has turned it into a kind of black hole, sucking in not only investments from America and Taiwan, but also a staggering quantity of resources, from steel to oil. With China’s remarkable growth has come a burgeoning sense of being a superpower-in-waiting, reflected in China’s aggressive diplomacy in what was Taiwan’s last bulwark of diplomatic recognition, South America. If Teddy Roosevelt enunciated the American dictum of speaking softly and carrying a big stick, China has raised the ante by speaking softly and carrying both a big stick and a big wallet.
A Chinese friend once put it to me simply, the last time tempers rose on either side of the Taiwan Strait. “Invade Taiwan?” he sniffed, “ultimately easy once crossing the strait is figured out. China would simply flood Taiwan with soldiers.”
While it may seem strange to think of China sending every one of its 2.5 million troops as part of an invasion force, the scale of a Chinese invasion would surely be massive. For all its newly-acquired Western-style economic pragmatism, China remains firmly in the Socialist camp of waging war: From Russia fighting Hitler, to North Korea and China fighting the United States, Socialist war retains flooding the enemy with soldiers as one of its basic principles.
The missing link in the past was economic leverage. The best general is the one who wins without having to fire a shot -didn’t Sun Tzu wrote that eons ago? If one takes a page from the Ronald Reagan playbook — his determination to use the superiority of the American economic system to bankrupt Russia in an ever-escalating game of military one-upmanship in both the quality of military men and their materiel — then China increasingly has the capability vis a vis Taiwan.
As I’ve mentioned, on the diplomatic front, China is advancing into South America, imperiling both the traditional hegemony of America in that continent, as well as the tattered remnants of Taiwan’s diplomatic respectability. Economically, China is a bottomless pit for American and Taiwanese investments, tying them firmly to the business interests of those nations as well as the global economic order. On the other hand, the United States is finding its ability to affect the diplomatic decisions of other regional blocs weakening, with the European Union for one, toying with the idea of lifting sanctions in place since the Tianamen Square massacre.
In the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, American policy makers renewed their focus on China as a potential successor rival to the USSR. The attractiveness of China’s investment climate and the rise of the War on Terror shifted attention for a time. Now, however, the most recent case of Chinese saber-rattling has brought back the image of a menacing rival on the world stage. After decades of a Sino-American standoff, certainly China relishes the prospect of finally gaining the upper hand.
– Manuel L. Quezon III has been an opinion and editorial writer since 1994 and has been published in the Philippines, Singapore, and the United States. He writes about history, politics, and culture. Besides the Arab News, he is a columnist for the Philippine Daily Inquirer as well as Associate Editor of the Philippines Free Press magazine. He has won several writing and journalism awards in the Philippines.