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Why Taiwan really matters to China
Drew Thompson and Zhu Feng, China Brief
There are four key reasons why Taiwan has such a strong hold on the Chinese leadership's psyche. Firstly, Taiwan holds historic importance, both stemming from the civil war and the legacy of foreign intervention. Secondly, because the leadership has put such gravity on reunification, the Communist Party faces a legitimacy crisis if Taiwan breaks away. Thirdly, Taiwan holds strategic importance, straddling sea-lanes and potentially serving as a base for foreign military forces. Lastly, the People's Liberation Army's primary mission-focus has been on Taiwan for the last 15 years, creating concerns that a failure to bring Taiwan to heel could cause the PLA to exert authority over the civilian leadership, setting back years of reforms and driving China into isolation.
Chinese leaders and elites place great emphasis on history as a barometer for China's future. In many ways, Taiwan is a litmus test for China's history. A former colonial possession and a relic of the cold war, Taiwan touches a deep nerve in Beijing that is hard for outsiders to appreciate. As a former Japanese colony and the ultimate refuge for the U.S.-backed Kuomingtang regime, Beijing perceives that Taiwan is the sole remaining instance of Chinese soil under the influence and control of foreign powers. Mainlanders see continued arms sales to Taiwan as an example of foreign powers perpetrating a historical "wrong" that is hindering China's rise and contributes to China's "humiliation."
Threat to the Party's Legitimacy
Taiwan has a direct impact on the Communist Party's legitimacy, particularly because it has placed the issue of Taiwan so high on its agenda, linking the Party's success to reunification. Earlier this month, Vice President Zeng Qinghong outlined the Communist Party's three main tasks for the 21st century: modernization, reunification of the motherland, and safeguarding world peace. Because of the importance placed on bringing Taiwan back under mainland control, no Chinese leadership group can afford to be the one who lost Taiwan. At this point, Taiwan could potentially disrupt the first peaceful, institutionalized transfer of power in China, making it a liability for current leaders by providing opportunities for other factions to usurp power.
Additionally, leaders in Beijing often state that Taiwan could exacerbate domestic social and political tensions, which raises the issue of the Party's "mandate of heaven" to rule China. If the Party is unable to maintain peace and stability, widespread disaffection among elites, similar to the May fourth movement is feared. Taiwan could become an excuse for dissidents and activists to oppose the Party. Furthermore, the loss of Taiwan could spur dissent in other provinces with separatist tendencies, such as Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, and Tibet. Losing Taiwan could upset the regional long-term plans for incremental integration that have been relatively successful to date. Lastly, foreign influence in Taiwan sets a dangerous precedent for Xinjiang and Tibet, where international support for independence movements already exists.
Taiwan is integral to the regional power-struggle between Japan and the U.S. "Losing Taiwan" would not be considered a loss to the Taiwanese people, but a loss to Japan – which reinforces the subjugation that the Chinese people have perceived themselves to have suffered at the hands of the Japanese and Americans. Beijing has clearly stated that among other acts, the stationing of foreign troops on Taiwan would be causus belli and justify a military attack. Beijing's concern that Taiwan could be used as a foreign military base underscores its geo-strategic position. China's perceived vulnerability is amplified as they become increasingly dependent upon energy resources in the Middle East and the southern hemisphere and the sea-lanes which skirt Taiwan. Any aspirations that China might have to project military power in the broader pacific would be seriously curtailed by a hostile, independent Taiwan which has the ability to cut off Chinese supply lines, obliging the deployment of forces closer to home.
The People's Liberation Army as a Constituency
The reunification of Taiwan has been the primary mission for the PLA, particularly in the post-cold war period and the diminished threat from Russia, India and Vietnam. With a dual mission to coerce Taiwan with short and medium range ballistic missiles and put boots on the ground if necessary, the PLA has focused its modernization efforts towards these two tasks through significant investments in its "second artillery" strategic missile branch and acquiring Russian air and naval hardware, much of which is designed to challenge U.S. aircraft carriers and warships that would ostensibly come to Taiwan's defense in the event of an attack. However, by most estimates, the PLA is currently not likely to win a military engagement over Taiwan and would be unable to mount an invasion of anything more than several Taiwanese islands close to the mainland. The PLA considers this inability to effectively respond to Taiwan's push for independence as an embarrassment. The PLA realizes that they cannot invade and win – they can threaten and deter, but not prevent Taiwan's independence moves, which leads to frustration.
In the event that the PLA perceives a lack of political will in Beijing, tensions over Taiwan opens the door for the PLA to insert itself into politics. The PLA has always placed pressure on civilian leaders, but major events in Taiwan could increase the PLA's influence in the decision-making process. In the event of a significant failure to "unify the motherland," either from poor policy-making which leads to a Taiwanese declaration of independence or the failure to adequately respond politically or militarily, the PLA would squarely place the blame on civilian leaders and weigh in on any post-independence or post-conflict rectification scenario. Perhaps the greatest disaster would occur from a failed military action. While it is impossible to predict how the PLA would react to the loss of Taiwan and a military defeat, some are concerned that the military could exert its will over the civilian leadership. Needless to say, this would be a major setback for China's reform and development efforts, and would not be beneficial for regional stability. A politicized military could cause a return to isolation and curtail hopes for peace in the western pacific. The irony is that the Taiwan issue presented an excuse for ex-president Jiang Zemin to hold on to power and resist relinquishing the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission until last month's plenum meeting. While he has formally relinquished his post, the possibility remains that he will seek to retain influence behind the scenes, potentially encouraging the PLA to press for greater political influence in foreign affairs and the Taiwan issue.
In order to understand the Chinese leadership's absorption with the eventual reunification of Taiwan with China, it is necessary to appreciate the ramifications that the loss of Taiwan would have to China, both domestically and internationally. As the Communist Party strives to maintain its relevance in a globalizing China, encouraging Chinese nationalism helps bolster its legitimacy. By making unification with Taiwan a core goal of the party, Beijing has effectively linked Taiwan with the party's legitimacy. A failure to bring about reunification would certainly present a home-grown challenge to the Party's continued rule. Additionally, a failure would create a permanent "humiliation," opposite of the one resolved by the hand over of Hong Kong in 1997.
The perceived foreign intervention in Taiwan is at the core of the split, making it even more deeply felt. Chinese elites hold a deep-seated culture against "defecting," particularly to a foreign, or "outside" forces. The concept of "traitorous Chinese" makes the Taiwan issue particularly galling for many on the Mainland. Reflecting the almost sacrilegious nature of the civil war, Chiang Kaishek during the Second World War once referred to the Communists as a "disease of the heart," compared to the invading Japanese army who were a disease of the skin.
Following Jiang Zemin's retirement at the Fourth Plenum of the 16th party congress in September, the new generation of Chinese leaders have the opportunity to shape an innovative strategy that can ultimately result in the peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue.
Professor Zhu Feng is the director of the International Security Program at the School of International Relations at Peking University. He was formerly a visiting fellow at the Freeman Chair in China Studies, Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.
Drew Thompson is a researcher at the Freeman Chair in China Studies, Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC. Thompson lived and worked in Beijing, Nanjing and Shanghai for 7 years in the 1990s, and studied at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center in 1992.
This article appears on AFAR with permission from China Brief, Jamestown Foundation.
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