The changing military balance, concerns about security guarantees and Taiwan’s growing strategic importance make the strait one of the most dangerous flashpoints in Asia.

In recent years tensions across the Taiwan Strait have been overshadowed by fear of war on the Korean Peninsula. Commentators have even suggested that Taiwan’s strategic relations with China have improved to the point of opening avenues for a peaceful settlement and US disengagement. This would remove a potential trigger for US–China military confrontation and could greatly improve the relationship between these two major powers.

But this view is overly optimistic. The situation in the Taiwan Strait is far from stable and might deteriorate rather than improve over the next few years. Three factors account for this danger: the changing military balance between the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Republic of China’s (ROC) Armed Forces; increased concerns in Taiwan about US security guarantees; and Taiwan’s growing importance in the strategic competition between the United States and China.

Unresolved conflicts

China continues to insist that unification is the only possible solution for the Taiwan dispute. But peaceful unification on Beijing’s terms seems ever more unrealistic, despite recent economic rapprochement and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou’s friendly approach towards the Chinese leadership. Ma’s ‘Three No’s’ policy – no unification, no independence and no use of force – reflects the reality that an overwhelming majority of Taiwanese people support the status quo.

Moreover, Taiwan’s second Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), released in March 2013, points out that greater economic interaction across the Strait has not led to greater mutual strategic trust. Beijing has not renounced the use of force to resolve the dispute and the review expresses deep concern about the PLA’s ongoing modernisation for contingencies in the Taiwan Strait. Arms sales approved by the G.W. Bush and Obama administrations to improve Taiwan’s deterrent capacity have only increased China’s ambition to achieve military dominance. For its part, the Ma government’s more conciliatory tone towards Beijing should not be mistaken as acquiescence to China’s territorial claims. In fact, the president’s autumn 2012 East China Sea Peace Initiative was a move to reassert Taiwan’s claims over islands disputed with the mainland.

Adding to Sino-Taiwanese tensions is the fact that the PLA has changed the military balance significantly in its favour. The days when ROC forces had a quantitative and qualitative advantage over the PLA are over. The 2013 defence review notes that the PLA has continued to improved its capabilities to ‘deter, block and disable’ Taiwanese forces. The accuracy of the Second Artillery Force’s cruise and ballistic missiles targeting the island has increased, the PLA has made advances towards achieving air superiority in ‘all areas west of the First Island Chain’, and better integrated maritime capabilities to enable a ‘partial blockade’ on Taiwan.

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Sheryn Lee is a PhD student in Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania.

Benjamin Schreer is Senior Analyst for Defence Strategy at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) in Canberra. He specialises in Asian and Australian strategic affairs.

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

June–July 2013

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