Does Beijing Intend to Use Military Means to Unify with Taiwan?

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Does Beijing intend to use military means to unify with Taiwan? Discuss the pros and cons of such a strategy.

Some sixty years ago, following its defeat in the Civil War with the Communists, the leaders and the army of the Chinese Nationalist Party withdrew to the off-shore island of Taiwan. For all of these intervening years the possibility has existed that the Communists would seek to militarily re-unify Taiwan with mainland China. This possibility has increased over the past three decades because of the growing military power of the Communists. This 'Taiwan issue' has dominated relationships not only between the Communist mainland - the People's Republic of China (PRC) - and Taiwan but also between the PRC and Taiwan's main protector, the United States of America (USA), and indeed western capitalist countries in general. It has become a key factor shaping China's overall foreign policy and, arguably, its internal political development which, in turn, affects the future of East Asia and beyond. In short, for decades, the Taiwan issue has been one of the potential flashpoints between the PRC and the West. But would the flashpoint actually ever explode? Does Beijing intend to use military force to re-unify with Taiwan? Certainly the experiences of the 1980s and of the 1990s would suggest that the answer to this question could be in the affirmative. Even the more cordial relationship between the PRC and Taiwan over the past two years should not disguise this possibility. Accordingly, this essay examines the possibilities of military unification. It discusses the range of factors and possible developments that would influence the decision of the PRC and concludes that, on balance, because it would not be to the advantage of the PRC, Beijing will not initiate military action to attempt unification with Taiwan.

The three key determinants of the likelihood of any invasion are military capacity, political will and the possible consequences of such action. Over the last decade, China's military budget has expanded at a double-digit rate almost every year. It has continually procured or developed advanced weaponry, conducted training and preparation for information warfare and, at times, specifically deployed its military might against Taiwan. For example, in a military drill conducted between March 8 and 15, 1996, China test-fired four Dongfeng 15 missiles towards Taiwan. This action triggered the so-called Taiwan Strait Missile Crisis and invoked concerns in the international community . The 1996 incident was one of the closest face-to-face confrontations between the USA and the PRC since the 1950s, when two other Taiwan Strait crises occurred . During the 1996 crisis, the United States significantly strengthened Taiwan's military forces: it provided a range of hard weaponry, such as fighter-planes and weapons, and soft, support skills such as logistics, training and strategic advice. With the help of the USA the Taiwanese military emerged from the crisis stronger and more powerful than before. Perhaps not unexpectedly, this direct USA assistance to Taiwan was subsequently regarded by the PRC as a violation of the USA commitment to the One-China policy agreed in an earlier Sino-USA Communiqué. Again not unexpectedly, Communist China commenced a build-up of its military capacity to, presumably, prepare for any direct conflict with either Taiwan or the United States. For example, the number of ballistic and cruise missiles that the PRC has deployed across the Taiwan Strait increased from around 200 in 2000 to 988 in 2006 , with the current figure likely to be well in excess of 1000. Such actions represent clear proofs of China's potential military threat and its apparent preparations to invade Taiwan.

In contrast to China's rising military budgets, now estimated to account for 4-5 per cent of its gross domestic product, Taiwan's total defence budget peaked in 1994 and thereafter declined, currently comprised of about 2.5...
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