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Friday, August 27, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Guest columnist
Taiwan's summer of threat

By Todd Crowell
Special to The Times

Todd Crowell
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Shortly after George W. Bush became president, he promised that America would do "whatever it takes to help Taiwan defend itself." That was then.

It hardly needs elaborating that the last thing Washington wants now is another far-off conflict. With the Iraq war burning on, with terrorism bulletins dominating the nightly news, Americans have enough to worry about.

Yet, to the people who follow events in Asia closely, it has become almost an axiom that war, one that America would inevitably be drawn into, could break out between China and Taiwan sometime during the tenure of the next U.S. president.

This was a hot summer in the Taiwan Strait with all three parties — China, Taiwan and the U.S. — conducting high-profile military exercises. At the same time, there were less-heralded yet ominous events such as revelations that Taipei had for the first time installed radar and missile batteries on islands just off China's Fujian Province coastline.

For decades, Taiwan's defense has rested on two assumptions: first, that Taiwan could, with America's help, maintain military superiority in its own waters and prevent a Normandy-style Chinese invasion; second, that the U.S. would come to its defense, even if Taipei provoked the attack by unilaterally declaring independence from China.

The first assumption is rapidly disappearing. Analysts say China could achieve military superiority over Taiwan beginning in 2005, the first year of the next president's term of office. Meanwhile, Taipei has been agonizingly slow in spending any of the $18 billion it agreed to pay to buy sophisticated weapons approved by the Bush administration, over China's strenuous objections, three years ago.

Just as the U.S. armed forces have been downsized and transformed, so, too, the Chinese army has undergone its own transformation, dropping its doctrine of massed "people's warfare" and embracing technology. No general staff in the world paid closer attention to nor learned more from America's recent wars, from the first Gulf War through the Kosovo campaign, and now Iraq.

Of course, China is still not in America's class. But to the best of its ability, given its limited resources, lagging technological skills and weapons embargoes, China has been incorporating the lessons it learned from the U.S.'s wars and concentrating its limited resources on a relatively narrow band of military capabilities, such as ballistic missiles, aimed at winning a fight with Taiwan and forestalling an anticipated American counterthrust.

No longer does one hear about troops storming the beaches. The latest buzzword is "decapitation." Under such a scenario, airborne commandos would drop into Taipei to capture and kill the leadership, airfields would be rendered useless by ballistic missiles, and ships sunk by submarines, all aimed at making the takeover an accomplished fact before the U.S. could respond.

Of course, it is argued that China has too much to lose from such an adventure. In one instant, it would set back all the progress it has made in the past 25 years to forge a strong, modern nation and lift its 1.3 billion people out of poverty. In one instant, the billions in foreign capital that fuels its modernization would disappear. In one instant, it would become an international pariah.

And yet ...

The danger of the Taiwan issue comes from the fact that peace is based on one ambiguity piled on top of another. One ambiguity is that there is only "one China," with Taiwan as a part of it, and that all parties buy into that fiction. In fact, Taipei abandoned the idea years ago.

Another one is whether the U.S.,wearied from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, its armed forces stretched, really would risk war with China even if Taiwan provokes an attack, contrary to Washington's wishes, by declaring independence. Yet more than half of Taiwan's population, polls show, complacently believe the U.S. will defend the island no matter what.

And, of course, there is the biggest question mark of all, and that is the uncertainty whether China's leaders really mean it when they say they are willing to sacrifice everything they have achieved in the way of modernization, prosperity, the Olympic Games, the economic future of their people, all for the symbolic sake of national unity.

Someday, historians may look back on these jittery months of the summer of 2004, and describe them as another summer of threat, but that nobody is running around with their hair on fire. At least not yet.

Todd Crowell spent 14 years with Asiaweek Magazine in Hong Kong. He is a Seattle-based columnist for Apple Daily, Hong Kong's leading Chinese newspaper.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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