China and the guns of August
By Todd Crowell
Global Beat Syndicate
SEATTLE--Normally, few people except professional China-watchers pay much attention to China's nominal parliament, the National People's Congress. It meets each March for about a week, and its 3,000 hand-picked, un-elected delegates pass laws and ratify--usually by acclamation--government appointments such as president or premier.
This year's meeting had a special edge to it that drew international attention. The NPC passed a law making it state policy to use force as a "last resort" to defend China's sovereignty and territorial integrity. This law is, of course, aimed specifically at Taiwan, which has been politically separated from mainland China since it was first annexed by Japan in 1895. It was again separated after the Kuomintang, defeated in the Chinese Civil War, found refuge there in 1949.
In some respects, the law seems superfluous. Beijing has never renounced using force against Taiwan if it formally declares itself an independent country. The new law also says force would be used only "when all our efforts for a peaceful reunification should prove futile."
Moreover, Beijing has never needed a special law to send its armies into battle: no law was passed when it intervened in the Korean War in 1950, counterattacked India in 1962 or invaded Vietnam in 1979. Why should this legislation make things more dangerous than before?
For one thing, Taipei is likely to respond with mirror-image legislation. President Chen Shui-bian is already talking about presenting Taiwan's legislature with some kind of "anti-annexation" law to counter Beijing's "anti-secession" law, or perhaps make it a ballot item in a national referendum.
Meantime, the United States has a long-standing Taiwan Relations Act, passed soon after Washington recognized Beijing in 1979 and severed diplomatic relations with Taipei. It does not formally commit us to defend Taiwan in the event of an attack, but does mandate that we supply arms necessary for Taiwan to defend itself.
Before long, there may be what historian Barbara Tuchman once described as a "Guns of August" quality to this situation, where the three main parties, China, Taiwan and the United States, feel themselves legally bound to take actions they may not want to take, much the way the great European powers felt compelled to go to war in the summer of 1914 because of agreements and treaties they had made.
The better response would be for Taiwan's Legislature to stop posturing and to quickly pass the $18 billion arms purchase bill to buy weapons needed to maintain a balance of power across the Strait. Unlike China's congress, Taiwan's legislature is genuinely democratic, and it has been doing what democratic assemblies are wont to do: haggle, procrastinate, roll the pork.
Three years ago, to Beijing's great annoyance, the Bush administration approved an arms sale to Taiwan worth $18 billion. The money would be used to buy eight diesel-powered submarines, three Patriot anti-missile batteries and a small fleet of anti-submarine planes. Taiwan's defense minister has said that this package could maintain the balance of power in the Strait for 30 years. Without it, China might have the capacity to overrun Taiwan in two or three years.
Nevertheless, the opposition-controlled legislature has decided to haggle, demanding that the cost of the arms package be cut in half, that the submarines be built in Taiwan, that in return for the favor of buying weapons needed for its own defense the United States specifically must promise to defend Taiwan in the event of an attack. It is hardly surprising that even a conservative U.S. administration has less and less patience with Taipei.
Anxious to get Taiwan to do something to defend itself, Washington is even outsourcing re-supply of the U.S. army's ammunition to Taiwan. In exchange for shipping 400 harpoon air-to-ground missiles to the Taiwan Air Force, the Pentagon plans to obtain 300 million rounds of rifle ammunition from a munitions plant in Kaohsiung, replacing bullets expended in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The barter deal accomplishes two things. It gets more missiles in the hands of the armed forces, presumably without having to get an appropriations bill through the stingy Taiwan legislature. And it keeps open production lines on Taiwan's main armory that might otherwise have to shut down due to lack of demand from Taiwan's own army.
Taiwan lives in a kind of dream world. It is reacting angrily to Beijing's move. And, being a democracy, it assumes that the United States and other democracies will come to its aid if China attacks, no matter what Taipei might do to provoke such an attack, so it is unworried about its own self-defense. Beijing's anti- secession law may be the necessary wakeup call.