Neocons Stir China-Taiwan Conflict

The Chinese government is fully committed to working with the international community to support economic and political stability in East Asia, but would be willing to sacrifice those principles if Taiwan tried to break away from the mainland and create an independent state, according to a leading Chinese foreign affairs analyst.

“Taiwan is a big issue,” said Qin Yaqing, the vice president and a professor of international studies at China Foreign Affairs University. “It’s big trouble. And it’s always there.”

While Chinese leaders prefer peaceful means for dealing with the pro-independence course of Taiwan’s president, Chen Shui-bian, the potential for a major conflict remains high, Qin told a Washington seminar on China sponsored by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation United States this month.

That is particularly true, he added, if further Taiwanese moves toward independence are backed by U.S. neoconservatives. They view China as a potential military rival to the United States and have been pushing for greater U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.

“The big question concerns outside powers,” said Qin. “If the neoconservatives in the United States have a very strong voice” inside U.S. policy circles, “that could put pressure on the Chinese political process.”

China, he continued, believes that Taiwan’s interest in buying sophisticated U.S. weapons is related to its “strong willingness to be independent. On this issue, it’s important for China and the United States to look carefully.”

Qin spoke as U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice was in Beijing last week for high-level talks with President Hu Jintao, Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing and military chief Jiang Zemin. While much of their discussions focused on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and the six-way talks convened by China to resolve that crisis, the Chinese delegation made it clear to Rice that their number one concern was Taiwan.

China will “not sit back and watch and do nothing if the Taiwan authorities cling obstinately to their push for Taiwan independence and if foreign forces meddle and support” the island, Jiang told Rice, according to news reports.

Jiang, the former president of China, added that Taiwan is “the most important and the most sensitive key issue in Sino-U.S. relations” and warned that Beijing is “seriously concerned and unhappy with the sale of advanced weapons to Taiwan.”

Taiwan’s legislature is considering a proposal to buy $18.2 billion worth of new weapons from the United States to counter what they claim is a military buildup by China. The package, which would include anti-missile systems, eight diesel submarines and 12 P3-C anti-submarine aircraft, would be the largest arms sale to Taiwan in over a decade.

The arms deal was made in 2001 after the Bush administration lifted restrictions on high-tech weapons sales to Taiwan.

In keeping with that policy, Rice “rebuffed” China’s demands to end U.S. arms sales to Taiwan but offered to help in furthering the dialogue between Taipei and Beijing, the Washington Post reported.

In June, a group of Taiwanese legislators visited Washington to discuss the arms deal. During their visit, Wang Jin-Pyung, the president of Taiwan’s legislative yuan, met with U.S. Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, the leading neoconservative within the Bush administration and a major advocate of selling arms to Taiwan.

The meeting was the highest-level meeting between U.S. defense officials and a Taiwanese leader since the Carter administration ended formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan in 1979.

Chinese officials denounced the meeting and warned that the arms sales – particularly Taiwan’s purchase of the P3-C aircraft – could disrupt U.S.-China relations.

An editorial in People’s Daily Online, the official voice of China’s Communist Party, warned that “major improvements” would be made on the aircraft within five years. “By then, the aircraft will be capable to carry 10 kinds of weapons by wings and eight kinds by its belly, and able to launch long-distance air-to-ship missiles, cast deep-water bombs and lay mines,” the daily said.

Last week, Taiwan’s Minister of National Defense, Lee Jye, countered that the new weapons were “vital for Taiwan’s security” and necessary because China has doubled its defense budget in recent years.

Moreover, “Beijing has never backed away from its stance that it would resort to force to bring Taiwan under the wing of the mainland under certain conditions,” Lee warned. Taiwanese and U.S. officials have also raised concerns about Chinese military exercises scheduled for later in July that will involve joint sea, land and air operations on an island about 150 miles from Taiwan.

The Bush administration, however, has been extremely careful in its public statements about Taiwan. That has irritated neoconservatives, who believe that the United States should take a more direct role in backing the island state’s drive towards independence.

“Taiwan’s desirable democratic transformation has an unavoidable implication for U.S. policy on Taiwan – not to tilt against independence but toward it,” William Kristol, the chairman and co-founder of the Project for the New American Century, a key neoconservative policy group, told the U.S. Congress in April.

Citing what he said were “new realities” in China and Taiwan, Kristol urged the administration to take “practical steps” to maximize Taiwan’s international standing, such as improving U.S.-Taiwan defense cooperation. “The Pentagon has estimated that the balance of forces in the Taiwan Strait will begin to tip in Beijing’s favor, perhaps as soon as next year,” he said, “We need above all, therefore to deter any attack or coercion.”

At the Washington seminar, Michael Swaine, a China specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former analyst with the RAND Corp, said the Bush administration and its neo-conservative supporters believe that arms sales to Taiwan will keep Taiwan “free from coercion.”

“They want to ensure that Taiwan does not become dominated by China over time because that would strengthen China strategically,” he said. On the other hand, he argued, the neoconservative interest in Taiwan is tempered by their overriding focus on Iraq and the Middle East. In that area, “there’s a strong need for cooperation with China,” said Swaine.