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Taiwan's Turbulent Straits

Prepared by: Carin Zissis
March 7, 2007

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Taiwan and China have engaged in a new round of verbal sparring aggravated by Beijing's announcement of increased defense spending and Taipei's latest call for independence. China said it would increase military spending (LAT) by 18 percent, lifting its defense budget to $45 billion. The announcement came less than two months after a controversial anti-satellite test and coincided with a visit by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, who called for greater transparency in China's military spending. Beijing, in turn, raised opposition to Washington's plans to sell some $400 million in weapons to Taiwan. Negroponte countered that the weapons “would be for strictly defensive purposes” (IHT). But the proposed arms deal comes as Taiwan reveals it conducted a February test of a cruise missile capable of hitting mainland China (Stratfor).

It remains unclear if the tensions between Taiwan and China represent anything more than another round of strong rhetoric over Beijing's “one China” policy. The U.S. deal (Defense News) includes 218 air-to-air missiles and 236 Maverick air-to-surface missiles. Beijing opposes the sale of the Maverick missiles, citing concerns Taiwan could use them to arm its F-16 jets. The United States, Taiwan's leading ally, is bound by the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act to provide Taipei with defensive weapons to maintain a balance of power across the strait, given that China is thought to have about nine hundred missiles pointed at Taiwan. But Washington also ended diplomatic recognition of Taiwan during the Carter administration and has warned Taipei not to push for independence, a position repeated by the State Department on March 5 after Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian's recent calls for an independent Taiwan.

During a March 4 speech, Chen appealed for independence and a new constitution, suggesting his state change its official title to “Republic of China” (ROC) and saying local companies should remove “China” (Times of London) from their names.
At the end of February, the word “China” was replaced with “Taiwan” on postage stamps. Guo Boxiong, a high-ranking Chinese general, warned against Taiwanese attempts to secede, saying “we will effectively perform our glorious mission of safeguarding national sovereignty” (Xinhua) and urging People's Liberation Army soldiers to “get well-prepared for military struggle.”

Chen, who promised not to declare Taiwanese independence during his 2000 inauguration, may be attempting to regain support for his Democratic Progressive Party in advance of elections later this year, given a recent corruption scandal involving his wife and son-in-law. The Economist's analysis of the latest China-Taiwan spat predicts Taiwan will eventually rejoin mainland China peacefully and says that while Chen's remarks were strong, they were “not unexpected.” His predecessor Lee Teng-hui made similar remarks toward the end of his term.

But another pro-independence politician is looking to take power when Chen steps down. The day after the president's speech and China's declaration of increased defense spending, Chen's vice president, the pro-independence Annette Lu, declared her candidacy for 2008 presidential elections saying she hopes for “constructive engagement” (China Post) with China. During a CFR meeting in January, Lu urged the international community to “re-examine the outdated and often misleading concept of the one-China policy.”

China has blocked Taiwan's democratically elected government from becoming a UN member state and from taking part in many UN meetings. After Chiang Kai-shek fled Communist China and established the ROC government in Taipei in 1949, Taiwan held China's seat on the Security Council until 1971. Since then, a shrinking number of nations recognize the ROC government. The BBC offers an analysis of Taiwan's status.

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