Taiwan may soon face China's wrath
By Richard Halloran
China has deployed far more missiles aimed at Taiwan than previously reported, according to U.S. officials with access to intelligence. This disclosure comes as China has entered a troubling and potentially dangerous time that has been intensified by anti-Chinese outbursts among the Tibetans.
The officials say China has 1,400 ballistic missiles targeting the self-governing island over which Beijing claims sovereignty. That is 40 percent more than earlier reports saying 1,000 missiles were deployed across the strait from Taiwan. The U.S. Defense Department, in its recent report on Chinese military power, said 990 to 1,070 missiles were pointed at Taiwan, including variants "with improved ranges, accuracies and payloads."
The commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific and Asia, Adm. Timothy Keating, told Congress earlier this month: "The threat that China poses is increasing, in my opinion, for the folks who are our friends in Taiwan." In response to a congressman's question, he said China's forces are developing capabilities causing "concern as it presents itself as a threat to Taiwan."
While not delving into operational plans to respond to the threat, Keating said his Pacific Command was "adequately resourced" to meet U.S. requirements. He pointed to two aircraft-carrier battle groups, six B-52 and three B-2 bombers deployed to Guam in the western Pacific, and a new addition to the Pacific Fleet, the submarine Ohio armed with 150 Tomahawk cruise missiles.
Before the outbursts among Tibetans, a period of relative calm had been expected until the Olympic Games in Beijing during August, since China sees that event as proclaiming its arrival as a world political, economic and military power. After the Olympics would come a time during which China might take advantage of Taiwanese and American preoccupations to move against Taiwan.
The violence in Tibet and consequent international criticism of China's crackdown on human rights may have already opened that window of danger. Said a longtime China watcher: "It depends on how bloody-minded the Chinese will be."
In the minds of Chinese leaders, Tibet and Taiwan are linked, as they are both seen as separatists seeking to escape the rule of Beijing. To a lesser extent, the same is true of Muslims in the western province of Xinjiang and of ethnic Koreans north of the Yalu River in Manchuria. Their moves toward autonomy or independence are thus to be crushed ruthlessly.
Wallace Gregson, a retired Marine lieutenant general and former commander of Marine forces in the Pacific, said in an e-mail message: "The Chinese regime will take whatever action is necessary to stay in power."
In Taiwan, the president-elect, Ma Ying-jeou, is to be inaugurated on May 20; it will take him several months to organize his government, giving China a chance to move against Taiwan. Of the basic policies Ma has already set, most will displease the Chinese. While he had promised not to seek independence for Taiwan, he has also ruled out unification with the mainland and demanded no use of military force by either side.
Ma wants China to give Taiwan "international space," meaning not to interfere with Taiwan's efforts to gain diplomatic recognition from other nations and to enter international organizations such as the United Nations. He says "I believe the world is big enough to accommodate both Taiwan and the mainland." He has proposed a peace agreement with China, which would require Beijing to recognize the government in Taipei as legitimate.
Ma says he will reform Taiwan's defenses, including rebuilding ties with the U.S. that have been strained under the incumbent, President Chen Shui-bian. Chen has defied Washington's pleas to improve their military forces and not to provoke China.
President Bush, in a message congratulating Ma on his March 22 election, said: "Once again, Taiwan has demonstrated the strength and vitality of its democracy." A pillar of American bipartisan foreign policy for decades has been to stand by other democracies.
In the U.S., Bush is a lame duck whose administration is consumed with Iraq and the war on terror, with little attention on China and Taiwan. That will become more so during the U.S. election campaign this fall. After the new president takes office on Jan. 20, 2009, he or she will need several months to organize an administration.
All told, while Taiwanese and Americans have their attention on internal politics, the Chinese, goaded by Taiwanese and Tibetan resistance, may decide they have an opportunity to strike. That could turn out to be a monumental mistake, a miscalculation that would trigger unpredictable consequences.
Richard Halloran is a Honolulu-based journalist and former New York Times correspondent in Asia. His column appears weekly in Sunday's Focus section.