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Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2009

Missiles crimp Taiwan's thoughts of peace


HONG KONG — Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou, in his first interview after taking on the chairmanship of the ruling Nationalist Party (Kuomintang), again urged China to scrap missiles that stand along its coast, aimed at the island. The number of such missiles, rather than decreasing, has risen in the 1 1/2 years since Ma took office and now is believed to be close to 1,500.

"That is certainly a great concern for the people here," Ma told Reuters.

While Beijing has been willing to accommodate Taiwan in terms of economic cooperation, slightly more international space and a diplomatic truce, it has not done much to reduce military pressure. At the same time as it is increasing its military capabilities, China is also putting pressure on the United States to halt or at least reduce arms sales to Taiwan.

This is not in Taiwan's interests and, ultimately, not in China's either. Beijing's top priority right now should be to enhance Ma's standing among the voters so as to ensure his re-election in the next presidential election. If Ma is defeated in 2012, the return to power of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party would inevitably lead to heightened cross-strait tensions.

It is extremely shortsighted of Beijing to enhance military pressure on the Ma administration. China's military power is already so much greater than Taiwan's that it would be irresponsible of Ma, or any other leader, to ignore this growing imbalance. The natural result is that Taipei will seek to purchase arms from the U.S. to try to reduce the military imbalance between the two sides.

If Beijing wants Washington to reduce weapons sales to Taiwan, it should demonstrate that Taiwan faces little or no military threat from the mainland. By continuing to increase the number of short-range missiles threatening Taiwan, Beijing is ensuring that the U.S. government will have little choice other than to make sophisticated weapons available to Taiwan.

It is true that the U.S. increasingly needs China's cooperation in the resolution of international and regional issues, such as climate change, the global financial crisis, Iran's quest for nuclear weapons and North Korea's nuclear program. That doesn't mean the U.S. depends on China, but rather that the two countries are increasingly dependent on each other.

President Barack Obama, in addressing a meeting of senior Chinese and American officials in July said, "The relationship between the United States and China will shape the 21st century." That underlines the partnership's importance to both sides.

It is true, as Chinese officials have emphasized, that each side must be solicitous of the other's core interests. By this Beijing means that the U.S. should understand that China's core interests include Taiwan. While the U.S. welcomes the increasing warmth in the cross-strait relationship, it is still bound by law to ensure that Taiwan has the means to defend itself if necessary.

As long as China acts in a threatening manner toward Taiwan, the government in Taipei, regardless of which party is in power, will seek arms with which to defend its people and its territory. And as long as Taiwan seeks to buy weapons with which to defend itself, the U.S. cannot simply dismiss those requests out of hand. It will have to make an assessment of the threat facing Taiwan and its need for specific weapons.

If China wants the U.S. to stop selling arms to Taiwan, the best thing it can do is scale down its military threat to Taiwan. Scrapping the 1,000-plus missiles aimed at Taiwan would be a good first step.

China seems to have taken the position that the removal of its missiles can only come about as a result of negotiations with Taiwan. It wants Taiwan to pay a price for the removal of this threat.

The mainland should realize that continuing to step up military pressure on Taiwan will simply provide ammunition to the opposition party, which is relentless in accusing Ma of kowtowing to China.

Ma has said that as long as China still threatens Taiwan, he will not hold peace talks with the mainland. That is a reasonable position to take. After all, how can anyone negotiate with an adversary who is holding a gun to his head?

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator.(Frank.ching@gmail.com)


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