GEOGRAPHY OF POWER ACROSS TAIWAN STRAIT
Keshav Prasad Bhattarai
Answering questions at the Legislative Yuan‟s Foreign and National Defense Committee on October 21,
Taiwan‟s Minister of National Defense Ye Ming admitted that China poses the biggest security threat to
Two weeks earlier on October 8, Taiwan‟s National Defense Report had made similar observations that
stated -“With the continued arms buildup, the Chinese communists will be able to take Taiwan by force
before the end of 2020”. Thisas quoted by the Agence France- Presse (AFP) news story, has been
widely cited by many international media. According to the report as mentioned by AFP, China‟s arms
buildup over the last two decades would give it the power to invade Taiwan by 2020 even if allies
including the United States would come to the island‟s aid. The mainland‟s annual military spending
has grown on average by double-digit rates over the past 20 years or so, while on the part of Taiwan it
has continuously declined, the report has said.
The report has also stated that while China‟s military capability is growing to deter foreign
intervention, in contrast the U.S.- despite its Pacific pivot policy is stifled due to budget constraints.
Besides these capabilities, the report is said to have mentioned that China currently has 1,100 shortrange ballistic missiles aimed at Taiwan and according to some Taiwanese experts, they are more than
The report has also added that Chinese Air Force “has stationed a large number of advanced aircraft
within unrefueled range of Taiwan, providing them with a significant capability to conduct air
superiority and ground operations against Taiwan.”
On the other hand, just one day before the report was published, Chinese President Xi Jinping - at the
APEC meeting in Bali, had pleaded with the Taiwanese delegates that political impasse across the
Strait needs significant efforts to get resolved and this cannot be passed to the next and next
generation. It means he wants to settle Taiwanese issue during his term that by general Chinese
practice will last by the end of 2022. On this backdrop, what Taiwan claimed seems based on concrete
strategic thinking and preparation of the Chinese rulers.
What Xi said in Bali stands in sharp contrast to the policy what Mao and Deng has followed. In 1987,
Taiwanese president Chiang Ching –kua had abolished the long standing Martial law, legalized political
opposition – that created the basis of democratization of Taiwan and opened door to Taiwanese to visit
China and invest there. Deng welcoming the visitors from Taiwan and their business ventures observed
that the reunification was their long-term aspiration. If it is not possible in his lifetime, China can wait
for another 100 years and “if not in a century, then in a millennium”. (2)
So was the repeated comments of Mao and other senior leaders that “China was in no hurry with
respect to Taiwan” they could wait a hundred years and “for the present it is better to have Taiwan
under the care of the United States”. (3)
However, evidences have exhibited that China for some years seems hurried for the unification and so
is making huge military preparation to bring Taiwan in its fold.
A 2009-Rand Report, (4) had confirmed that Chinese military capabilities have grown rapidly over the
past decades with stockpiles of ballistic missiles, has deployed sizable numbers of advanced fighter
aircrafts, and has anticipated a cross-strait battle for air superiority by 2013.
The Rand analysis also indicated that by 2013 China‟s ability to suppress or close
Taiwan‟s Air Force bases could give China an almost overwhelming numerical advantage. That soon
may break with the rough qualitative parity that existed between the two sides. This could allow
China to attain air superiority over Taiwan and would permit the Chinese Air Force to pound Taiwan
with air-delivered precision-guided munitions in preparation for an invasion attempt or as a coercive
The Rand Scholars in the same report have also admitted that China‟s advanced air power and missiles
system also pose similar threat to the U.S. Air Force base at Kadena and the U.S. Marine Corps base at
Iwakuni on Okinawa. Combined with the lack of good bases for land-based fighters in the area around
Taiwan, the United States is unlikely to give protection or be able to compensate for the hundreds of
Taiwan‟s fighters planes “burning on their parking ramps, trapped behind cratered runways, or hiding
in underground shelters”. The danger to both Taiwanese and American Air Force operations in the
Taiwan Strait is sufficiently grave and that the air war for Taiwan could essentially be over much
before the Blue air forces have even fired a shot.
China‟s capabilities have developed to the point that it is capable of mounting very destructive attacks
against Taiwan‟s military infrastructure and suppress Taiwan‟s air defenses with increased accuracy,
warhead variety, and numbers of Chinese missiles in the early minutes of its attack. This would make
the case for United States and Taiwan increasingly difficult and soon they may find it impossible to
protect the island‟s military and civilian infrastructures, the Rand study stated.
“POWER DOES NOT ALWAYS FLOW UNIDIRECTIONALLY FROM THE STRONG TO THE
Every state invests its power to influence the behavior of other states in its favor. Generally, power
flows from the strong to the weak. However, Byung- Kook Kim in a book he edited together with
Anthony Jones has rightly, stated, “power does not always flow unidirectionally from the strong to the
weak”. (5) Kim further says that this kind of power flow is especially so in North East Asia, where
middle power countries including Taiwan maintains de facto security allies against the rival regional
power and enjoys adequate level of influence over the powerful ones by virtue of ideology, geopolitics
and transnational political ties.
Take some examples - on September 26, Taiwan‟s navy launched its premier surface-to-air missile from
the deck of a warship. The U.S.-made Standard II – with a range of some 130 kilometers, soared into
the sky over the ocean and hit a drone there. Taiwan had also made a similar successful test six years
The day before the test, United States had delivered the first of 12 P-3C submarine-hunting aircraft
capable of staying up in the air for 12 hours with a range of 4,500 nautical kilometers. It is said that
the aircraft belonging to Lockheed‟s P-3 family has powerful submarine detecting and anti ship and
anti submarine attack capabilities-, that can play a key role in safeguarding the security of Taiwan
Strait. This will help Taiwan better protect navigation safety with a fine naval edge with its highly
advanced reconnaissance, surveillance, and communications systems.
Giving reference to China‟s continued military build-up, Taiwan‟s minister of National Defense Yen
Ming, claimed that Taiwan on its part is preparing “a leaner and meaner military that can serve as a
credible deterrent to China”. (6) Mr. Yen was speaking in Taiwan‟s Legislative body- Yuan when one of
the lawmaker citing a Chinese military report indicated that China had over 7,000 armored vehicles in
2012 and that up to now has reached up to 15,400. Similar was the case with China‟s increased
strength of navy and Air Force.
Amid such adverse military situation, Taiwanese news agency, (7) referring military sources reported
that Taiwan is expected to receive numbers of latest model of Apache attack helicopters from the
United States by the end of this year and will be commissioned into the service next year. It is a
matter to note that Taiwan will be the first country other than the U.S. to deploy this kind of attack
The same news agency in its earlier report has quoted Minister of National Defense Yen Ming who in his
first administrative report to the Legislative body (8) while during the discussion, it was reported
that China's Navy now has more than 600 airplanes, while its Air Force has 3,800 compared with 2,900
Taiwan has some 145 older versions of F-16 fighter jets that it has bought in 1992 from the United
States. It has been asking the U.S. since 2006 to buy newer versions of 66 F-16s to replace the older
ones to meet the existing huge gap between the air power across the strait. According to some
estimates China has nearly 1,300 fighter aircrafts including 4th generation fighter designs with
evidently advanced striking capacity than the Chinese. Defense sources giving reference to Air Power
Australia (2011) have also stated that China operates some 40 underground aircraft hangar facilities
that would grant protection from all but the heaviest bunker buster bombs.
However, the United States with aim to avoid Chinese anger has consistently declined to sell the new
fighter to Taiwan. Rather the U.S. has decided to upgrade the older ones with some new features that
may quite meet Taiwan‟s needs.
In contrast, the United States under its Taiwan Relations Act (1979) is obliged for the security of
Taiwan against any attacks. Any U.S. administration can make some compromise between its legal
responsibility to protect Taiwan against any aggression and its highly critical political, economic, and
strategic relations with China, but cannot ignore the island‟s security.
Therefore, in January 2010, while the Obama administration agreed to sell Patriot missiles, Black Hawk
helicopters and communication equipment worth $ 6.4 billion to Taiwan, it postponed the decision of
former Bush administration to sell advanced F-16s to the island country. (10)
The Minister of National Defence Kao, Hua – Chu in the 2013 Quadrennial Defense Review released by
Taiwan in March has admitted that threat awareness among people have reduced due to the improved
relations, cultural exchanges and high interdependence between the two sides of Taiwan Strait.
However, China‟s increased annual defense budget at a double-digit rate for over a decade and its
decision at the 18th Party Congress that had vowed to continue “expanding and intensifying military
preparedness” and “building strong national defense and powerful armed forces”, has demonstrated
the fact that China‟s military threat to Taiwan have not decreased- but significantly increased.
Earlier in 2011, the year that also marked the 100th anniversary of the Republic of China, Taiwan had
released its National Defense Report that has mentioned China‟s rapidly expanding military strength
that poses direct threat to Taiwan‟s security. It is a matter to note that at times despite Taiwanese
people dismay, President Ma Ying-jeou has followed a vigorous pragmatic Mainland policy with an
ultimate aim of reducing possibility of an armed conflict across the strait after he assumed presidency
Conversely, the report has admitted, “peace must be established on strong self-defense capabilities,
and not rely on the aid or good intentions of others.” It has further asserted that as the last line of
defense of national security, the Taiwanese Armed Forces must build a “Hard ROC” defense force
against any possible enemy threat, to preserve peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and to ensure
dignity and peace of its people.
The U.S. Department of Defense Reports has also repetitively painted similar pictures concerning the
security of Taiwan. According to U.S. defense sources, China is keen on acquiring military capabilities
to achieve three objectives – to deter independence of Taiwan, to influence Taiwan settle on Beijing‟s
terms and deter and delay any possible support for Taiwan in case of conflicting situations.
The Anti-Secession Law, adopted at the Third Session of the Tenth National People's Congress of the
People's Republic of China on March 14, 2005, has defined its policy for promoting “peaceful national
reunification, maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Straits, preserving China's sovereignty and
territorial integrity, and safeguarding the fundamental interests of the Chinese nation”. The Law has
also defined some circumstances as redlines and crossing them would inevitably demand “the nonpeaceful means and other necessary measures to protect China's sovereignty and territorial integrity”.
These redlines undoubtedly include formal declaration of Taiwan‟s independence or activities leading
towards independence. According to a Pentagon report (11) Internal unrest in Taiwan, the island‟s ‟s
acquisition of nuclear weapons, indefinite delays in the resumption of cross-Strait dialogue on
unification followed by external interferences in the internal affairs of Taiwan and stationing of foreign
troops, are some other redlines. Obviously, China never wants to cross these redlines but wipe out
those efforts with its all out military powers.
CHECKERED HISTORY AND UNCHARTED FUTURE
Survival of Taiwan as a de-facto sovereign state under decades‟ long shadow of military threat from a
huge neighbor and achieving one of the most prosperous economies of the world under a vibrant
democracy is next to a miracle.
Taiwan, officially named as Republic of China or ROC, was a Portuguese colony. It went under Dutch
control in 1624. In 1662, it came under Ming rulers in China, and then in 1683, it went to Manchu
dynasty. After China was defeated into the Sino- Japanese War (1894-1895), it was ceded to Japan.
When Mao Tse-tung, led a successful war against the Government of China led by Kuomintang Party
(KMT) under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek, Chiang fled the mainland and established his rule in
Earlier,Chiang Kai-shek‟s association with allied forces during World War II against Japan had helped
China gain the permanent membership of UN Security council enjoying veto power. Later when the
United States and its allies recognized the KMT government in Taiwan as the sole government of China
for more than two decades, Taiwan represented mainland in United Nations and other international
agencies. The United States and many nations under U.S. influence had not recognized the Mao‟s
regime until 1971. For them the Kuomintang government in Taiwan was the legal government of China
Had Taiwan claimed its independence immediately after it established Kuomintang government in the
island, the course of history across the Strait might have followed a different path. Evidentally, Taiwan
did not, but instead continued its erroneous claim as the real government of mainland China and
represented the whole China in UN and other international forums. Naturally, this not only angered
China but also help it stiffened its position against Taiwan. It could find no way to reconcile with the
new emerging situation across the strait and reconcile with the real strategic situation. This made the
China claim the Kuomintang government in Taiwan as a puppet government of the United States and
hence the integration of Taiwan with the main land has remained its major state policy since that
Now China has become the world‟s major economic, political, and military power. When almost all
countries including the United Nations has recognized Taiwan as integral part of China and while both
China and Taiwan have claimed unification as their main goal, the issue remains only - only the
content and procedure of unification.
Obviously, there is equally an unusual example of Taiwan‟s existence as a state. Although in principle,
Taiwan is an integral part of China, in practice it exists as an independent state fully protected under a
US law that stands as treaty. Therefore, with any level of power China acquires, if it decides to make
use of force against the island, Taiwan- itself a strong middle power country aligned with the most
powerful country of the world – the U.S., may declare its independence. In that case United States and
its allies have no other way rather than to stand by the side of Taiwan.
China knows this and therefore peace across the strait is a major interest of China and realizes any
attempts to use force against Taiwan can become a disastrous suicidal game. This may have serious
implications into Tibet and Xinjiang already a major trouble spot for China. A country with its recorded
national history of some 4,000 years knows well and have experienced bitterly that how an unsolicited
war eats up the unity, stability, peace, and progress of a country.
Moreover, the digital age to control a territory for the time being can be an easier job, but to govern
people who have enjoyed a vibrant democracy for years, can never be an easier job than in the
Therefore, any level of force may not give China the ability to bring Taiwan under its control.
Similarly, unilateral declaration of independence or any activities that will ultimately led Taiwan‟s
independence will not only invite the rage of China but majority of people in Taiwan may not support
their government to that end. They love their democracy, their freedom, and the dream for their
children, but they know that without peace with China, they are not possible. It seems they love the
independence of their political, economic, and cultural life but without a de-jure sovereign status of
In 1995, Lee Teng-hui- considered as the father of democracy and an architect of “flexible diplomacy”
in dealing with the People‟s Republic of China, and easing restrictions on travel to the mainland visited
the United States. He delivered a speech there at Cornell University and signaled his impatience for the
independence of Taiwan (12)
China took this as a hostile activity by both Taiwan and the U.S., suspended talks with Lee government,
and began to deploy short-range missiles, launched an offensive missile test in the waters close to
Taiwan in March 1996 and began vigorous weapons acquisition, development and deployment program.
That provoked the United States to deploy two aircraft carrier battle groups to the vicinity of Taiwan
and other weapons system in Eastern Asia. (13) Tensions between China and Taiwan continued,
particularly after Lee announced in 1999 that relations between China and Taiwan should be
maintained based on state-to-state relations. China considered this as a move by Taiwan towards
closer to independence.
This drove the pro-independence movement that soared up in 2000 election and Chen Shui-bian of the
Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) ousted five and half-decade long Kuomintang rule and became the
president with pro independence agenda-with commitment to redefine of Taiwan‟s relations with
China at a state-to-state level.
A LIBERAL MODEL FOR TAIWAN: ONE COUNTRY - MANY SYSTEMS AND WITH MANY
Eight years of DPP rule witnessed stiff times for China-Taiwan relations. Similar was the case with U.S.
– China relations over Taiwan, but during the presidential election on March 22, 2008 ,The KMT‟s Ma
Ying-jeou was elected with an agenda of close relation with China and his famous - „Three No‟s‟ policy
that meant no unification, no independence and no use of force in changing status quo acquired
adequate support among Taiwanese people. His reelection in 2012 reflects the reality that majority of
Taiwanese people favor close and friendlier relations with China and do not want to change the status
quo that has offered them democratic stability and economic prosperity.
Taiwanese people highly value the economic, political, and cultural freedoms they enjoy in their
country. They want to live with the economic prosperity with nearly a trillion dollar economy that they
have acquired with growing relations with China. But, they also want to upkeep the democratic system
that contrasts with China‟s.
A Taiwanese news agency (14) claims that more than 60 percent Taiwanese back official contacts
between the two sides of the Strait. Over two thirds respondents felt that such contacts “would boost
cross-strait rapprochement and relations, and about 63 percent expressed their satisfaction over
Taiwanese official‟s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the APEC meeting in Bali early this
month. Moreover, over the news that the Taiwanese and Chinese chief of the respective offices
addressed each other with their official titles in Bali meeting - 56.5 percent Taiwanese considered this
an event that marked a new milestones in cross strait engagement. Likewise, over sixty percent
Taiwanese respondents supported a proposal that the chief of Mainland Affairs Committee in Taiwan
and Taiwan Affairs Office in the mainland visit each other countries.
It was evidentially clear that People in Taiwan want good relations with China. They know they cannot
change the legal status of their country at their will. They have also realized better trade relations
with China, has boosted their economy and that has helped them enjoy a developed country status.
Any efforts to change their legal status would put them at greater risks – both politically and
economically. Status quo, therefore, is best solution but to maintain status quo too, both China and
Taiwan have to invest huge resources that may not always be possible.
Obviously, Beijing fears Taiwan‟s permanent separation or complete independence. No government in
China in foreseeable future, could accept this situation. In addition, no power in world could help
Taiwan gain its independence – at least not until china‟s political, military, and economic power
For its internal political compulsion, in case, China decides to use force against Taiwan and occupy it,
the United States by the law is bound to defend Taiwan. This way, if China and the U.S. clash, it will
destabilize the whole region - China, North East, and South East Asia. If the world‟s most dynamic
region that controls more than one third of the global economy and also the region that is heavily
militarized – even with most advanced nuclear weapons, goes destabilized, no one can correctly
anticipates its global implications.
With Hong Kong, China adopted one country two-system formula. Hong Kong was allowed to enjoy a
high degree of autonomy with its political and economic system - a multi party pluralistic democracy
and liberal market economy except foreign affairs and defense.
China has offered similar provisions for Taiwan, but Taiwan has not agreed the Hong Kong model
seemingly for two reasons. First in case with Hong Kong, only the masters were changed. For one and
half century, British ruled over Hong Kong as its colony. The British government transferred the
sovereignty of Hong Kong to the China on July 1, 1997 with a condition that the political and economic
system will remain unchanged at least for the next 50 years.
In contrast to Hong Kong, Taiwan for over two decades was a permanent member of United Nations,
had established diplomatic relations with many countries and even today there are 23 countries in
Pacific and South America that have diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Largely, Taiwan for all these
years since 1949 has enjoyed its status as a de-facto sovereign state.
Next, after 2047 Hong Kong‟s special status may not continue and hence Taiwan cannot accept similar
provision for its political and economic system that it has defended so dearly.
Therefore, first - a treaty like agreement between Taiwan and China that addresses Taiwan‟s
independence of action in all political, economic, and cultural matters without any limitation of time
may work - while the ultimate sovereignty remains with the mainland. Next, Taiwan can be allowed to
make its constitution itself and keep its own defense forces- barring the acquisition of advanced
weapons without permission of the mainland.
Similarly, Taiwan may be allowed to enter into some political and economic agreements with other
countries except to maintain full-fledged diplomatic relations with them. Finally yet importantly, the
agreement must incorporate a provision that Taiwan will never try to become an independent country,
make any move in this direction and China will never use force against Taiwan. If some controversial
issues arise between them, a tribunal representing both sides may give decision that will be finally
acceptable to both sides. After the treaty is signed both China and Taiwan can incorporate them in
their constitutions and after a period of some 25 years the agreements and constitutional provisions
governing it can be reviewed and revised with mutual consent. But, the beginning of such
rapprochement if is started from the immediate declaration of status quo and not deploying any new
weaponries across the strait can become the most important step to reach the goal that both China and
1. Taiwan urges China to remove missiles, International The News, May 09, 2013
2. Ezra F. Vogel (2011) - Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China, The Belknap Press of Harvard
University Press, page-487,
3. Henry Kissinger (1999) Years of Renewal, Simon & Schuster, page 486-87.
4. A Question of Balance: Political Context and Military Aspects of the China-Taiwan Dispute / David
A. Shlapak, David T. Orletsky, Toy I. Reid, Murray Scot Tanner, Barry Wilson Prepared for the Smith
5. Byung- Kook Kim and Anthony Jones edited: Power and Security in North East Asia, Indian Edition,
2008) Viva Books, page 257.
6. ROC Central News Agency, October 2, 2013.
7. Taiwan to get first batch of new Apache helicopters in November, ROC Central News Agency,
October 17, 2013,
8. Taiwan's armed forces capable of deterring China: minister, ROC Central News Agency, October 2,
10. No New F-16’s for Taiwan, but U.S. to Upgrade Fleet, The New York Times, September 11, 2011,
11. Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2013,
12. Robert S. Ross: Taiwan's Fading Independence Movement, Foreign Affairs, March/April 2006.
13. Ross, Ibid.
14. The news report was published by ROC Central News Agency on October 21, 2013. It was entitled
“Majority of Taiwanese support official contact with China: poll”. The poll was conducted by
Taiwan Real Survey Company.
Eurasia Review October 24, 2013