Chen's calculated act of deterrence

By Ho Wei Jiang 何偉強 and Lo Chih-cheng 羅致政

   Taiwan's latest act of assertiveness has gotten many up in arms, with angry assertions that President Chen Shui-bian's ( 陳水扁 ) remarks were unnecessarily incendiary and provocative. Beijing has reacted furiously to Chen's comments on cross-strait relations with its standard cliche-ridden diatribe. Chen must have known that his move would have inevitably incited such a fierce response from China. However, there may be more than meets the eye. Though reckless at first glance, Chen's latest move may be a calculated response to recent political trends based on deterrence, contrary to the rash verbal offensive that many make it out to be.

   The timing of Chen's remarks appears to lend color to the interpretation that his move was reactive rather than proactive.

   First, his remarks came at a time when Beijing's tactic of diplomatic strangulation seemed to be tipping the balance in China's favor: China not only managed to hamper Taiwan's bid for membership in the WHO, but also secured the switch of recognition from Nauru on the very same day that Chen assumed the DPP chair-manship. Any further shrinking of Taiwan's international breathing space would have been unbearable to the Chen administration. The above reading of Chen's move is supported by comments made by Mainland Affairs Council Chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) during a special news conference to clarify Chen's remarks, where she mentioned the government's displeasure with Chinese interference in Taiwan's diplomatic activities.

   Secondly, Chen's remarks followed recent military buildup across the Strait. In its Annual Report on the Military Power of the PRC released last month, the Pentagon expressed concern over a disturbing emphasis on military modernization within China's armed forces, which casts a cloud over Beijing's declared preference for resolving differences with Taiwan through peaceful means. Especially disconcerting is the buildup of short-range ballistic missiles within range of Taiwan (at a rate of nearly 50 new missiles per year). Beijing has made clear its interest in seeking credible military options for the use of force against potential targets.

   Both China's ability and intent to take military action are increasing. The gradual shift of the status quo in Beijing's favor on the military, economic and diplomatic fronts has prompted an instinctive reaction from Taiwan. By clarifying Taipei's standpoint on cross-strait relations, Chen hopes to re-level the playing field and prevent Beijing from exploiting the fuzziness of the one-China policy.

   Chen may also have chosen this time knowing that political uncertainty shrouds China at the moment. Despite earlier reports in international media that the leadership transition in the 16th Chinese Communist Party Congress later this year would proceed smoothly, it now appears increasingly likely that the power transfer will be more confused, either because Chinese President Jiang Zemim ( 江澤民 ) retains some top posts or because he may try to exert influence behind the scenes. Given such uncertainty, Chen might have expected Chinese leaders to exercise much self-restraint in their response to Chen.

   Not only may Chen's move be viewed as a calculated reaction to recent events rather than a verbal offensive; it can further be interpreted as an act of defense. Just as Beijing uses the threat of military action against Taiwan as a deterrent (by possible punishment) against any act of self-determination on the island, Taipei itself realizes that a referendum law can serve as a deterrent (by denial) against any military action that Beijing plans to undertake.

   As DPP legislator and fervent advocate of a referendum law Trong Chai ( 蔡同榮 ) remarked on Wednesday, "the unwillingness of Taiwan's people to become vassals of China" could counter China's intimidation tactics and undermine Beijing's legitimacy if it makes a false move. Chen has reportedly told Trong to take it easy, revealing that the former intends to use a public referendum primarily as a deterrent, not as an offensive weapon to force a showdown.

   Far from being unusually aggressive, Chen's latest move corresponds to the DPP's stand and has been repeated many times on different occasions, and so should not surprise anyone. For example, the "one-country-on-each-side" comment is very consistent with the "five no's" policy expressed by Chen at his May 2000 inauguration, as well as the DPP's 1999 "Resolution on Taiwan's Future" ( 台灣前途決議文 ), which stipulates that Taiwan is an independent state whose name is the ROC, and that any change regarding this status quo must be collectively determined through a public referendum. On July 30, Chen announced that the above resolution would be the party's guiding principle in dealing with cross-strait issues. The announcement sought to put aside the party's platform formulated in 1991, which aims to establish an independent Taiwan republic and enact a new Constitution.

   Chen's recent remarks also have a similar ring to speeches he has made recently since he assumed the DPP chairmanship on July 21. In these speeches, Chen suggested Taiwan would have to "take its own path" if China refuses to reciprocate Taiwan's goodwill.

   As such, one should not fault Chen too hurriedly for brazenness or indiscretion: his recent remarks may just as well be interpreted as a logical reaction to the shift of the status quo in Beijing's favor, aimed at reminding China that Taiwan possesses a deterrent of its own, in the form of a referendum on the nation's future. Moreover, Chen's statement simply made more explicit what his party has long believed. It was a reiteration, not an alteration, of Taiwan's policy towards China.


Ho Wei Jiang is a Singaporean Stanford-in-Government (SIG) visiting fellow at the Institute for National Policy Research. Lo Chih-cheng is executive director of the institute.