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Taiwan-China Economic Ties Boom, Military Tensions Remain


Longtime political foes Taiwan and China have seen their economic ties improve dramatically since Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou stepped into office last year. But even as that relationship flourishes, China's tough military stance toward the island remains the same.

President Ma Ying-jeou was elected in part on a promise that he would improve relations with China.

And he has done that. Taiwan and China have begun holding regular talks and opened up direct flights and cargo shipments.

China has even made it possible for Taiwan to participate in the annual World Health Assembly.

The China threat has seemingly faded from the public's mind. Even President Ma in the wake of the devastating Typhoon Morakot this month said nature is now more of a threat than China.

Others, however, disagree.

Military tensions

Richard Fisher, a senior fellow and China military analyst at the International Assessment and Strategy Center in the eastern U.S. state of Virginia says little has changed.

"The military relationship has only gotten worse," he said. "China continues to build up and modernize its armed forces near Taiwan or capable of being used against Taiwan at the same pace as before the election of Ma Ying-jeou. This simply has not changed."

Over the past two years, the U.S. Department of Defense has reported that China has increased the number of its short- and medium-range missiles, which can target Taiwan, to more 1,100.

Richard Bush, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute in Washington, says it is unclear why China continues to build up equipment that puts Taiwan at risk.

Bush says the buildup could be related to the rigidity of Chinese budget planning and suggests that perhaps when its current five-year plan ends this year, the situation could change.

He also says it is possible Chinese officials do not trust Mr. Ma, or that there are differences between China's civilian and military leaders.

"The danger is that if this trend continues, even after the beginning of the next five-year plan, it will suggest to at least some in Taiwan that Ma's promise that his policy approach would make Taiwan more secure has turned out to be false," said Bush.

Economic ties and security

Antonio Chiang, a former national security official for Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian, says that improvements between Taiwan and China in the economic field have stifled the island's security policy.

"That is the weakest point of Ma's government, not many people in his government or in the security council talk about security," he said.

China regards self-ruled Taiwan as a part of its territory, and threatens to use force against the island if it seeks formal independence.

Taiwan and China split during a civil war in 1949 and Beijing strongly opposes United States support for the island's military.

Military analysts say the perception of improved relations with China has slowed Taiwan's military purchases from the United States.

They also say it is making Taiwan's military more passive.

But there are some on the island who suggest Taiwan does not even need an army.

Lin Chong-pin, a former vice defense minister and senior official at Taiwan's top China policy-making body says that idea is a bit extreme.

"Even if we are going to engage in negotiations with Beijing, we still need an army, it is a bargaining chip, otherwise we will be dictated to 100 percent by Beijing," he said.

Lin notes that neutral countries like Switzerland and Sweden have standing armies, and the military is very useful when it comes to natural disasters.

He adds that Taiwan's military helps counter any mainland officials who might be more inclined to use force against the island.

"If we don't have any defense, then the hawks in Beijing will say, 'O.K., let's do it, let's snap Taiwan militarily," said Lin.

Security analysts say that while there is talk that Taipei and Beijing have begun the process of achieving a peace agreement and improving military to military ties that does not mean China's military will abandon its long-held goal.

Richard Fisher at the International Assessment and Strategy Center shares that concern.

"For China, Taiwan sits on the map like the nose sits on the face," he said. "And that's how the PLA [People's Liberation Army] views Taiwan, as long as it doesn't control Taiwan, it doesn't control its own face."

Fisher adds that control over Taiwan is also crucial for China because it would help Beijing extend its reach out into the Pacific Ocean and over the South China Sea.

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