Surviving China: A Game Plan for Taiwan’s Next Leader

For democratic Taiwan to survive, the next leader will have to raise the cost of aggression to levels that Beijing would find unbearable

People who despair of Taiwan’s future would do well to consider the example of late 1950s and early 1960s Singapore. Surrounded by a sea of hostile Malays, and beset by internal malaise — rampant corruption, economic backwardness and communist insurrection — the ethnic Chinese-dominated city-state seemed a good candidate to be swept into the dustbin of history. But Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew (in many other respects a vengeful autocrat) knew what to do to guarantee the survival of his island home and launch it on the road to prosperity. Leveraging the considerable entrepot advantages of one of the world’s best located ports, he began fashioning a robust Singapore identity out of a fractious mélange of Chinese, Malays and Indians, and with the aid of foreign help transformed his nation’s once flaccid military into a modern, credible force.

In many ways, Taiwan’s situation now seems just as precarious as Singapore’s did 50 or 60 years ago. A fearsome combination of Chinese power, U.S. indifference and strong pro-unification sentiment among influential sections of the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and Taiwan’s big business community is threatening to render the island’s de facto independence null and void, and make it part of China.

Complicating the situation further, many Taiwanese seem either unaware of the dangers they face, or are otherwise convinced that some deus ex machina — a political meltdown in China for example, or an emboldened U.S. Seventh Fleet — will save them from perdition. The recent success of the Sunflower Movement in awakening millions of Taiwanese from their extended political torpor has admittedly done much to arrest this noxious combination of defeatism and Pollyannaish denial, which are Beijing’s greatest allies.

But in and of itself, the movement cannot hope to prevail against the massive Chinese forces arrayed against it. For democratic Taiwan to survive, the island’s next leader must leverage all the advantages that he or she is heir to — first and foremost the overwhelming national consensus in favor of an open-ended continuation of the status quo — and through a combination of guile, intelligence and determination create a set of circumstances that raises the cost of aggression to such a high level that Beijing has no choice but to suspend its designs on Taiwan’s sovereignty for many years to come.

Needless to say this will not be easy. Despite the Sunflower Movement’s successes, Taiwan’s new leader will inherit a pretty poor hand when he or she takes office in May of 2016. Much of this weakness reflects the massive growth in Chinese economic power that has occurred over the past 15 years and the political influence it has brought to Beijing. Even as recently as three years ago most people would have laughed out loud if you told them that a major international news organization would soon be pulling its punches on its China coverage to secure commercial advantages. But that is exactly what New York-based Bloomberg News did earlier this year after Beijing stopped buying its parent company’s financial terminals to protest a hard hitting investigation on the wealth of supreme leader Xi Jinping’s (習近平) family. Nor is this an isolated example — not by a long shot. From Norwegian snubs of the visiting Dalai Lama to Hollywood’s excisions of “problematic” content from its films, China’s ability to leverage its economic power to achieve political ends has now become so routine that most people don’t even notice it anymore. It’s a basic part of the landscape.

No state is paying a heavier price for this phenomenon than Taiwan. As humiliating as the island’s diplomatic isolation ultimately is (only 22 remaining allies and counting down), it is really only a sideshow. Much more important for Taiwan’s future is the refusal of its once steadfast American partner to regard it with even a modicum of seriousness. Eighteen years ago Washington sent two carrier battle groups to waters off Taiwan’s east coast in response to provocative Chinese missile launches close to the island’s territory. Can anyone imagine a similar response to a similar provocation today? The question answers itself.

To get a sense of just how bad things really are one need only look at the Obama administration’s deliberate exclusion of Taiwan from its highly vaunted Pacific pivot (this despite its uber-strategic location at the geographical center of the first island chain), its studied refusal to provide the Taiwanese military with anything resembling a state of the art weapons system (lest the Chinese embark on another one of their carefully syncopated conniption fits), and its continuing opposition to Taiwan’s early inclusion in the potentially game-changing Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade initiative. Taken together these and other slights suggest that Washington’s dream scenario for Taiwan is for the island to disappear seamlessly into the geopolitical ether so it can start getting on with the real business at hand: further developing its already robust China ties to secure new markets for American products and enlist China’s help in addressing a crucial welter of vexing international problems — Iranian and North Korean nuclear proliferation for example, or global warming. Never mind that Chinese cooperation in these areas has so far been honored more in the breach than the observance, and that little of substance has been achieved. Hope frequently triumphs over experience precisely because hope is more seductive.

In Taiwan’s case hope also triumphs over experience because so many influential Taiwanese want it that way. No aspect of President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) six years in office has been more conspicuous than his China tilt, not only commercially, but also strategically and culturally, the two areas most likely to provide the real ballast for his legacy. Egged on by a powerful cabal of China-oriented Taiwanese business people, and a well-placed coterie of pro-China activists in his own party, Ma has engineered a basic reorientation of the island’s foreign policy away from the U.S., and quietly tightened Taiwan’s communal identification with the mainland to a degree not seen since the early 1980s. From annual obeisance to the Yellow Emperor to continuing support for the “One China” principle, Ma has made it clear that while it is possible to love Taiwan, loving China is a far more sensible course for his island’s 23 million people, regardless of their origins or beliefs.

Inevitably, Ma’s China tilt has had a profound impact on local morale. Notwithstanding the Sunflower Movement awakening, many Taiwanese still cling to a defeatist attitude, believing that China is unstoppable, and that political union with Beijing is only a matter of time. Thus, for example, public opinion surveys show that a plurality of young people would not take up arms to defend their homeland in the event of a Chinese attack, if only because they see such action as futile. Within the once powerful military/security community, this attitude is reflected in a number of troubling ways. Defections of senior personnel to China have now become so routine that few people notice them anymore. Moreover, amid painfully truncated budgets, questionable leadership, and a failed effort to transition from a conscripted force to an all-volunteer military, the Taiwanese esprit de corps has gone the way of the dinosaur, replaced by a what’s-in-it-for-me mindset that has no conceivable place in a demonstrably imperiled democracy. Little wonder then that in a much ballyhooed 2013 speech former American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) head William Stanton raised strong doubts about the willingness of the American military to cooperate with their Taiwanese counterparts, so sieve-like and so defeatist has Taiwan’s security community become. His warnings echo today.

Given the totality of these problems, it would not be surprising if Taiwan’s new leader simply renounced all hope, and proclaiming that discretion was the better part of valor, established a timetable for negotiating a political union with China. After all, the leader’s logic would presumably be, How can democratic Taiwan possibly prevail against a combination of implacable Chinese will, growing international isolation and powerful fifth columnists? How can its system survive?

But such defeatism would be wildly inappropriate — and not only because the vast majority of Taiwan’s 23 million people reject political union with China out of hand. Abetted by the empowering spirit of the Sunflower Movement, the new leader will have at his or her disposal all the tools necessary to reverse the considerable rot of Ma years and put Taiwan’s democracy on a sustainable course toward survival. The key to this approach lies in understanding that for all its bluster and threats, China is ultimately a rational actor, which will raise or lower its Taiwan profile in direct proportion to the diplomatic, political and economic price its unification enterprise exacts from it. Make that price high enough and it will put the enterprise on the far back burner. Lower it to the point of painlessness and it will move it aggressively forward. It’s really as simple as that.

So how can the new leader best go about encouraging the first scenario while suborning the second? The first step is to recognize the obvious: That Taiwan’s democracy is mired in an existential crisis, and that no further delay in moving to save it is possible. Once this principle is accepted, three interdependent areas lend themselves to concrete action by a Taiwanese leader committed to preserving the political status quo. Taken together, they offer Taiwan its only real hope of keeping China at bay, particularly if the new leader acts conscientiously to deny China the opportunity to label his or her approach provocative. This will require precisely the sort of subtlety that former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) so conspicuously lacked when he tried to carry out his in-your-face China diplomacy in 2006 and 2007. More than anything else, Chen’s failure teaches that while bombast is nice in the circus, it doesn’t work in the Taiwan Strait, particularly when you’re facing down the world’s second largest economy and an emboldened People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Guile is a much better bet.

With all this in mind, the first major task awaiting Taiwan’s new leader is to repair the island’s fractured military deterrent, and so convince China (in the words of the defense ministry’s justification for its planned transition to an all-volunteer armed force) “that in war Taiwan is a hard nut to crack.” There is obviously a lot of work to do here. While Ma’s China tilt has clearly exacerbated the degradation of Taiwan’s deterrent, the rot goes back much further than 2008, and accordingly, will be that much harder to reverse.

But it is by no means impossible to do this, particularly if, as a first step, Taiwan’s new leader commits him or herself to increasing of the defense budget to a minimum of three percent of GDP. By providing this funding, the leader will have gone a long ways to securing the loyalty of powerful armed forces chieftains, who in the recent past have tended to treat the senior political echelon with barely disguised contempt. The importance of securing this loyalty cannot be overstated.

But where and how should this new money be spent? A detailed plan for disbursing it would likely require an equally detailed analysis, possibly involving input from foreign experts. But hewing to the new leader’s putative “increased cost for China” imperative, a few broad strokes are already clear. One of the clearest of all is that the lion’s share of the funding would best be applied to the development of a credible land force to harass any Chinese troops that tried to gain a foothold on the island, rather than to more traditional consumers, in the Air Force and Navy. The logic here is that the mere thought of entering into a protracted guerrilla struggle on the Taiwanese mainland is so anathema to the Chinese leadership that they might be dissuaded from even considering it once it a threat seemed real.

That having been said, this approach will never work unless the new leader superintends the creation of a robust reserve force to supplement regular troops. This in turn would require annual or semi-annual training sessions for a large part of the male population — not an easy sale in a place like Taiwan, where anti-military sentiment is high. But given China’s designs on the island’s sovereignty, there clearly isn’t a choice. If Taiwanese are really committed to maintaining the political status quo, they will have to understand that it doesn’t come for free. One of the main tasks of the island’s new leader will be to convince them that the price demanded is worth it.

Beyond increasing the defense budget and creating a credible land force, Taiwan’s new leader will also have to stop the wholesale diffusion of classified military and security information from Taiwan to China. Over the past eight years or so this has reached truly epidemic proportions. To reverse the trend the armed forces will first of all need to tighten up field security in a way that recognizes that China is intent on taking the island over — a mindset that at present it unaccountably seems to lack. Even small steps like protecting the identity of pilots (who require more training time and more financial resources than any other military personnel) would not be out of place. After all, there is a high likelihood that Chinese military intelligence is already feasting on TV news broadcasts and pilot Facebook pages to pinpoint the pilots’ locations, with a view to neutralizing them once a conflict looks imminent. Why should Taiwan make it so easy for them? The answer is that it shouldn’t. It should make it as hard as it can.

Besides working to enhance armed forces field security, Taiwan’s new leader will also have to take concrete steps to safeguard the inviolability of classified information, and prevent its diffusion to China. At a bare minimum, this will require new protocols for granting security clearances in the military and in the security services and new rules that limit the ability of recently demobilized security clearance holders from working and living in China — as many do today. At the same time at least a partial re-thinking of Taiwan’s China-related counter-intelligence doctrine may also be necessary to help the island cope with the vastly increased pace of cross-strait exchanges now taking place. As in the case of defense spending, it may be useful to bring in foreign experts to help this process proceed. This reflects the essential conservatism of the security community and its likely resistance to at least some of the changes that now need to be implemented.

In parallel with his or her work in the military/security sector, Taiwan’s new leader will also have to move decisively to enhance national unity. The key here is energizing the overwhelming section of the population that covets an open-ended continuation of the political status quo. There is no shorter route to achieving this goal than moving beyond Taiwan’s traditional green-blue divide, and replacing it with a fault line featuring acceptance or rejection of the status quo approach. To be sure, not everyone in the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the KMT will be prepared to make the necessary concessions here, which on the one side will require at least a temporary renunciation of the (formal) independence option, and on the other at least a temporary refutation of the notion that Taiwan is part of China. But given the overwhelming popular support for the status quo approach, it is likely that a majority of them will, particularly when they see that hewing to their traditional positions costs them politically. Once again, Taiwan’s new leader will have to move insistently to help deliver the message.

Taiwan’s new leader should also act — almost certainly indirectly — to deepen the public’s understanding of the terrible cost involved in the loss of Taiwan’s democracy. Fortunately, China is already doing a lot of the heavy lifting here — this through its progressive erosion of civil rights in Hong Kong, its wretched excesses in fields like domestic human rights and consumer safety, and its aggressive foreign posture. Even so, Taiwan’s new leader will still need to have a clear plan of action to ensure that China’s negative characteristics remain front and center in the Taiwanese public’s mindset. The obvious focus here is the communications sector, which is presently dominated by a group of TV stations providing fluffy feel-good news and platitudinous scandal-mongering. Quite rightly, Taiwan’s democracy prohibits its leaders’ direct intervention in the selection and diffusion of news and entertainment content. But that doesn’t mean that institutions like the National Communications Commission and sympathetic and influential media moguls cannot be encouraged to promote content that highlights the virtues of democracy and shines a light on the dark nature of the Chinese communist regime. The bottom line here is that the more Taiwanese understand what Chinese rule will mean, the more they will struggle to against it, and the more they will like what they have. Acting intelligently behind the scenes — always behind the scenes — Taiwan’s new leader has the ability to make a big impact here. He or she should use it.

Finally, Taiwan’s new leader should also make a maximum effort to increase the island’s value to the international community, and so help it win the friends it needs to help deflect Chinese efforts to bring it under its sway. No one should really expect a magic bullet here, particularly in the vital area of the global information technology chain, where Taiwan’s indispensability was once taken for granted, but where it has now been supplanted by suppler, more innovative rivals in places like South Korea and Singapore.

That having been said, there is still at least one crucial area where Taiwan holds a huge advantage on almost everyone else, and which fortunately, also lends itself to useful exploitation by the one country Taiwan most needs to have on its side — the U.S. This is the area of political, military and economic intelligence on China — intelligence that can best be generated by people who speak the local language and know the local landscape — in other words by Taiwanese spies. As part of his pro-China tilt, President Ma announced fairly early on in his first term that he was instructing these spies to desist from offensive intelligence operations against Beijing, lest they gum up his program of friendlier cross-strait relations. Assuming he meant what he said, this was an absolutely stunning abrogation of one of Taiwan’s greatest strengths. It was the functional equivalent of amputating fingers from the hand of an All-Star pitcher about to face a squad of .300 hitters, something you should never consider if you’re really serious about maneuvering yourself into the strongest possible position vis à vis a potentially valuable friend, and protecting your interests over the long term.

With all this in mind, Taiwan’s new leader should reverse Ma’s spy edict at the earliest possible juncture, and instruct Taiwan’s intelligence community to make every possible effort to step up its intelligence gathering efforts in China, with a view to cultivating just those sources who can provide the kind of granular information that America’s intelligence community most acutely needs. While it is true that many Washington bureaucracies are so heavily invested in China that nothing can convince them to act in Taiwan’s favor (think the Department of the Treasury for example), the U.S. security community is much more sympathetic to Taiwan’s cause. By providing that community with the kind of high grade information it needs Taiwan’s new leader could go a long way toward reversing its degraded relations with Washington, and maneuvering itself into a position that significantly raises the price of Chinese aggression against it. Combined with parallel progress in enhancing its military deterrent and deepening national unity this is exactly the sort of step Taiwan requires to help secure the political status quo for many years to come. The new leader needs to approve it.

Peter Enav was head of The Associated Press bureau in Taiwan from April 2005 to April 2014.

6 Responses to “Surviving China: A Game Plan for Taiwan’s Next Leader”

July 09, 2014 at 6:39 am, Rahel said:

I think there are enough doubt for the believed widespread support for the status quo approach. First of all it has been the most convenient persuation (the everlasting ‘otherwise we will be attacked by China’) for the KMT to stabilize and remain in power from the beginning, and also to stabilize the KMT apparatus ‘the Republic of China’ to prolong it’s unbelievable life. I think they even persuaded the A-Bian administration and all over the world to render the Taiwanese their origin being from China/Taiwan. This status quo approach is really a big KMT victory in our foreign affairs. Don’t forget how hardworkingly and constantly persuading all the KMT propagandists like TV Soong and maybe almost all of them are to make simple people feel hard to reject. And no matter how Mr. Chen, Shui-bian supported the status quo approach, he received null recognition and sole attack from China. China may still ‘believe’ till today the only acceptable position of the Taiwanese for them is to give up our sovereignty. So even today with China’s diplomatic truce with the Ma administration, we have no chance to celebrate it at all, for it is so scary to hear that ‘the wholesale diffusion of classified military and security information from Taiwan to China. Over the past eight years or so this has reached truly epidemic proportions.’ I personally would rather say nothing about the status quo approach if possible.

‘…But in and of itself, the movement cannot hope to prevail against the massive Chinese forces arrayed against it.’
I can only say I think the Chinese actually still does’nt find a real way to make very good use of it’s massive forces. They are good at wording and positioning. That’s true.


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