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Taipei can't talk peace with a gun held to its head

Taipei can't talk peace with a gun held to its head

Author: Frank Ching
Publication: Theglobeandmail.com
Date: October 29, 2009
URL: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/opinions/taipei-cant-talk-peace-with-a-gun-held-to-its-head/article1344356/

If China wants the United States to stop selling arms to Taipei, the best thing it can do is scale down its military threat to the island

Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, in his first interview after taking on the chairmanship of the ruling Nationalist Party, again urged China to scrap missiles along the coast aimed at the island.

But in the year and a half since Mr. Ma took office, that number, instead of decreasing, has risen and is now believed to be close to 1,500. "The number continues to go up," he told the Reuters news agency. "That is certainly a great concern for the people here."

While Beijing has been willing to accommodate Taiwan in areas such as economic co-operation, slightly more international space and a diplomatic truce, it hasn't done much to reduce military pressure.

And while it continues to increase its military capabilities, it is putting pressure on the United States to halt or at least reduce arms sales to Taiwan.

Beijing's action is not in Taiwan's interests and, ultimately, it is not in China's either. China's top priority should be to enhance Mr. Ma's standing among the voters so as to ensure his re-election in 2012. If he is defeated, the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party will return to power and cross-straits tensions will inevitably heighten again.

It is shortsighted of Beijing to enhance military pressure on the Ma administration. China's military power is already so much greater than Taiwan's, it would be irresponsible for Mr. Ma to ignore this growing imbalance. The natural result is that Taipei will seek arms purchases from the U.S. to try to reduce it.

If Beijing wants Washington to reduce arms sales to Taipei, it should demonstrate that China poses little or no military threat to Taiwan. By continuing to increase the number of missiles, it is ensuring that the U.S. government will have little choice but to make sophisticated weapons available to Taiwan.

It is true that the U.S. increasingly needs China's co-operation to try to resolve international and regional issues, such as climate change, the global financial crisis and the North Korean nuclear issue. But this does not mean that it is dependent on China. It means the two countries are increasingly dependent on each other. U.S. 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."

It is true, as Chinese officials have emphasized, that each side must be solicitous of the other's core interests. By this, Beijing means the U.S. should understand that Taiwan is among China's core interests.

But while the U.S. welcomes the current increasing warmth in the cross-strait relationship, it is still bound by U.S. 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 the arms with which to protect its people and territory. So if China wants the U.S. to stop selling arms to Taipei, the best thing it can do is to scale down its military threat to the island. The scrapping of the 1,000-plus missiles aimed at Taiwan is a good first step.

China seems to have taken the position that the removal or dismantling of its missiles can come about only as a result of peace negotiations. That is to say, it wants Taiwan to pay a price for the removal of this threat. But Beijing should realize that continuing to step up military pressure on Taiwan will simply provide ammunition to the opposition party in Taipei, which is relentless in accusing Mr. Ma of kowtowing to China.

Mr. Ma has said that as long as China still threatens Taiwan, he will not participate in peace talks. This is reasonable. After all, how can anyone negotiate with an adversary who is holding a gun to his head?

- Frank Ching is the author of China: The Truth About Its Human Rights Record.

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