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The Two Faces of Rising China New York Times Week in Review March 13, 2005 CHINA'S leaders announced last week at the annual National People's Congress that they will give themselves legal authority to attack Taiwan if they decide that the disputed territory has ventured too far toward independence. It was their boldest ultimatum to date, backed by China's rapidly modernizing military.

But the banner headline in the next day's China Daily, the official English-language newspaper was: "Peace Paramount in Anti-Secession Bill."

Rising China has two faces. Its leaders want - arguably need - to be viewed as managing a new kind of emerging superpower, one that will not threaten neighbors or the world. Only a gentle giant can attract $60 billion in foreign investment and rack up $160 billion annual trade surpluses with the United States, the thinking goes.

Yet the Communist Party has also concluded it would lose power if it cedes Taiwan. The bill introduced last Tuesday, and set for passage Monday, is just the latest attempt to prove that the party will pay any price, including a war that might well involve the United States, to preserve China's territorial integrity.

"Our elites know China will have difficulty rising if the world worries about a new military threat," says Jin Canrong, a foreign policy expert at People's University in Beijing. "But China also cannot rise if Taiwan breaks away. And Taiwan will break away unless the threat of force is very real."

China has no immediate ambitions to shake the world order or challenge the United States, many analysts say. Washington wants to keep it that way. But Taiwan is bringing out China's aggressive instincts, with unpredictable results.

"I don't know which side is winning - the side that wants to fight for national interests, or the side that accepts international norms," says Philip Yang, a cross-strait expert at National Taiwan University in Taipei.

China has thrived because it devotes itself to economic development while letting the United States police the region and the world. Beijing sometimes decries American hegemony, but its leaders envision Pax Americana extending well into the 21st century, at least until China becomes a middle class society and, if present trends continue, the world's largest economy.

China insists it has no fights to pick. Its evolving foreign policy maxims - principles of peaceful co-existence, peaceful orientation, peaceful rise, peaceful development - have the same emphasis.

Beijing spends far more resources on domestic projects, like bridges, steel mills and office towers, than it does on the military. Its economic strategy depends more heavily on integration with the outside world than Germany or Japan did in the years before they asserted themselves in the first half of the 20th century.

"They want to have a peaceful rise because they have to," says Robert G. Sutter, a former National Security Council official who is now an Asia specialist at Georgetown University. "They have done a cost-benefit analysis and they have found that it is much too costly to be antagonistic" to the United States, he said.

China is smoothing relations with most big countries. It recently settled border disputes with India and Russia, backed the American war on terror, soft-pedaled territorial claims in the South China Sea, lured Southeast Asian neighbors into a trade pact, even stepped up foreign aid.

Taiwan is the big exception. Cross-strait relations have deteriorated since the mid-1990's. That is largely because Taiwan's independence movement has grown in popularity. Chen Shui-bian, the independence-leaning president, won two elections. But tensions have also risen because Beijing has shown little flexibility or creativity in accommodating Taiwan's democratically expressed wariness of the mainland.

Its strategy often seems limited to reflecting the certainty of an attack if Taiwan tries creating a separate legal identity. The anti-secession bill may have been introduced precisely because it appears to tie the leadership's hands - and make war seem inevitable - if Taiwan changes its formal name or redrafts sensitive clauses in its Constitution.

In a sense this is just more saber-rattling. China has long breathed fire about Taiwanese independence, so much so that Mr. Chen and many other politicians in Taiwan have discounted Chinese threats.

Their assumption is that China will not really attack because it ultimately cares more about domestic development, playing host to the 2008 Olympics, and avoiding a conflict with the United States than it does about securing its sovereignty over Taiwan.

But Beijing's leaders have also concluded that the Communist Party needs to draw the line on Taiwan's "splittists." The party has staked its reputation on restoring the Chinese nation to its rightful place in the world.

After the return of Hong Kong to the Chinese fold in 1997, Taiwan remains the most visible reminder of the dismemberment China suffered at the hands of foreign powers at the end of the Qing dynasty (though many Taiwanese claim the island did not belong to the mainland then any more than it does today).

China treats Taiwan as sovereign territory. So it insists its belligerence should not be seen as infecting its approach to other nations. Even the draft bill introduced this week devotes three sections to peaceful overtures to Taiwan. Only the final, fourth section notes the conditions under which China would consider other means, which the bill refers to vaguely as "nonpeaceful."

Yet there are signs that China cannot easily compartmentalize Taiwan. Military spending has surged in recent years, with the official budget rising to $30 billion in 2005. Western analysts say that actual spending may be two or three times higher.

The target is Taiwan. But China's new Russian-made Su-30MKK fighters and Kilo-class attack submarines could inflict plenty of damage on the United States Pacific fleet, and the build-up has alarmed Japan.

"Taiwan is a problem for America and Japan as much as it is for China because it is the excuse China has used to build up its military," said Mr. Jin of People's University. "If there were not the Taiwan issue, China would find it harder to justify this kind of spending."

A European diplomat in Beijing said last week that the anti-secession bill, especially if it prompts a tit-for-tat response from Taiwan, could raise the risk of conflict and cause the European Union to delay the lifting of its arms embargo on China, one of Beijing's top priorities.

Relations with Japan have grown testy. Historical animosity from Japan's occupation of China has played a role. But Japan recently discovered a Chinese submarine mapping the ocean floor in Japanese territorial waters, possibly preparing for a sea battle over Taiwan or contested energy resources. And Japan joined the United States in February in a public pledge to defend Taiwan, infuriating Beijing.

In its quest for energy, China has also curried favor with Iran and Sudan, oil-rich nations that have rocky relations with the West. It has threatened to use its veto at the United Nations to prevent international sanctions to punish Iran for its nuclear program or Sudan for its alleged genocide.

"I see them as becoming less and less conciliatory on issues they consider to be vital interests," says Bonnie S. Glaser, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. She cited Japan and energy security as well as Taiwan as examples of China's more nationalist approach.

Increasingly there are two Chinas on the world stage. One has 19th century notions of sovereignty and historical destiny. The other embraces 21st century notions of global integration. The anti-secession bill looks like a victory for the atavists.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

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last updated 14 Mar 2005