American experts are warning that China is rapidly building up its military so that it will have the capability to attack Taiwan, a separately governed island that Beijing considers part of Chinese territory. Tensions across the Taiwan Strait are hotter than usual, as Beijing increasingly sees Taipei's democratically elected government as moving the island toward independence.
China says it does not want to attack Taiwan to keep the island from declaring independence, but at the same time, Beijing has refused to renounce the use of force. And, earlier this year, China's parliament passed legislation giving the country's military a legal basis for attacking Taiwan if the island moved toward declaring independence.
Richard Fisher, with the International Assessment and Strategy Center, a Washington-based group that focuses on security issues, blames China's communist rulers for the current tensions. "This is a crisis that is being created by, in turn, the crisis of legitimacy by the government in Beijing. It is reaching a point where the democracy on Taiwan stands out increasingly as a challenge to its legitimacy," he said.
Mr. Fisher says he sees China moving in an increasingly bellicose and dangerous direction. "It (China) can reform and become more free, more open, more humane, if you will, like the government on Taiwan. Or, it can eliminate the government on Taiwan. And what we're seeing is that the government in Beijing is choosing to eliminate the democracy that it could learn so much from," he said.
The possibility of a military conflict in the Taiwan Strait is real, says University of Miami Professor June Teufel Dreyer. China, she says, is ready. "I think they (Beijing) do have the capability. And I think they will do it if they think they can get away with it," she said.
She describes Beijing's current preferred approach as trying to isolate Taiwan to the extent that the island feels that resistance to reunification is futile. "In other words, that famous story about how to cook a frog. And that is, if you dump a frog into boiling water, it will hop out. Whereas if you put the frog in tepid water and slowly raise the temperature, it will poach, slowly," she said.
Professor Dreyer says Chinese efforts to "poach" Taiwan include a vigorous campaign against diplomatic recognition by countries or international organizations.
Meanwhile, one crucial element in China's overall consideration is the 2008 Olympics, which Beijing is set to host. Professor Dreyer says if China thinks Taiwan is acting provocatively, it could, in her words, "act sharply," sooner rather than later. "I think they (Beijing) would like to get it over before the Olympics, because I think they don't want the Olympics disrupted. But they consider it the business of taking Taiwan to be more important than the Olympics. Nonetheless, if they could get it over with in, let's say, 2006 or early 2007, the heat would be off. The Olympics would take place anyway," she said.
But security expert, Mr. Fisher, says he believes it would not be so easy for China to win back the rest of the world if it did attack Taiwan. "I think the government in Beijing is deluding itself if it believes it can overcome the global reaction, a reaction that will likely include very destabilizing economic embargoes, which will last a long time and have a fantastic effect on stability and political relations that China has around the world," she said.
The key to the issue is whether Beijing thinks Washington will get involved. The United States has promised to help Taiwan defend itself if the island is attacked by China.
In Singapore recently (June 4), Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld questioned China's motives, pointing to the country's large estimated defense budget, as well as its rapidly expanding missile and military technology capabilities.
"Since no nation threatens China, one must wonder, why this growing investment? Why these continuing large and expensive arms purchases? Why these continuing robust developments?," he asked.
The Pentagon is expected to release its annual report on China any day now, after several months of delay. At issue, the two experts say, is the report's language. Some U.S. officials want tough wording regarding China and some want to be more diplomatic.