Wednesday 15 July 2009

Will 2012 be the deadly date?

[Cross-posted from Accumulating Periperals]

"Deadly date" here doesn't mean "a nice little tete-a-tete that goes tragically wrong when you get a humongous fish-bone stuck in your throat and end up getting rushed to the hospital", although this has happened to me (twice - nowadays I stick to the salad). Instead it's the predicted date for Communist China's attempted annexation of Taiwan, at least according to former Canadian intelligence operative and current Taipei Times columnist J. Michael Cole. His reasoning?

". . . . after more than a decade of major investment in its military and new weapons systems, such as second-generation nuclear submarines and anti-ship ballistic missiles, Beijing is in a much better position to intimidate not only Taiwan but also the US, should it feel compelled to dispatch carrier battle groups to or near the Strait amid tensions.

During the presidential election campaign in 2011 and early 2012 the KMT could also exploit public fears of renewed tensions with Beijing to its advantage and accuse its opponents of risking war. A divided polity will by that time face a choice between irreversible political annexation or military attack.

Another factor that makes 2012 such a dangerous time in the Strait — especially if there is a possibility of the KMT suffering defeat — is Beijing’s awareness that time is not on its side, and that the longer Taiwan remains separate from China, the further Taiwanese identity will consolidate and more so under a pro-independence government.

Just as dangerous would be Beijing sensing that it had come close to realizing its dream of annexation only to see the chance slip as the result of a democratic process. Chances are that rather than admit defeat, it would use force to complete its agenda, an option all the more attractive given the cuts the Ma administration has made to the defence establishment."

Let us be under no misimpressions here: China's Communists have not abandoned their threat of 'reunification
through non-peaceful means', in fact this remains enshrined in the mind-bendingly bad-faith "Anti-Secession Law". Nor has China's program of military expansion slackened: official 2009 spending is set to increase by 14.9% (about twice the predicted rate of economic growth) to US$70 Billion, an official figure exceeding that of any country bordering the PRC, and the real figure may be far higher.

In the meantime, whilst official Taiwanese defence spending as a proportion of GDP is slightly higher than the PRC's (2.2% as compared to 1.7%), in real terms it is about 1/7th of China's outlay, and is unlikely to increase in the next few years.

My big problem with Cole's analysis is not his description of China's military growth, but his assumption that the CCP would wish to do a replay of its failed 1996 intimidation campaign, which instead of helping pro-reunification figures on the island actually led to a backlash in favour of the pro-independence KMT candidate Lee Teng-Hui. The more muted warnings of 2000 and 2004 also helped pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party Chen Shui Bian win, in fact, if anything could have saved the DPP from defeat in 2008, an aggressive PRC proclamation would have been it.

I understand also that Cole here is attempting to counter some of the excessively laudatory commentary from Washington-based analysts who were always more comfortable with the old KMT, but I think he goes too far when he drags out the often-referenced but never substantiated allegation of a KMT-CCP deal. Furthermore, whilst the risk of invasion increases as Chinese military strength increases, there is no substantial proof is offered of any reason beyond this as to why 2012 is a year of danger. At current rates of growth, Chinese official military spending will be roughly US$110 billion in 2012, and even taking the highest estimate of current spending (US$ 150 billion) is unlikely to amount to more than a third of the spending of the United States - Taiwan's principle guarantor, nor is the Chinese government likely to be less distracted by internal unrest or external dispute away from the strait than it is now.

Finally, it must be said how often these kind of predictions have been made in the past decade without actually coming to pass, you need only think of Lee Teng-Hui's warning about 2008, or the warnings of trouble ahead of each of the elections since '96, to see how often they are proved wrong. I know Mr. Cole won't like me making this comparison, but this is all rather reminiscent of the on-going crisis surrounding the Iranian nuclear program, where pundits feel free to make regular predictions of the inevitability of military action against Iran, and never seem to learn from the failure of their predictions to come true. Just as with Iran, the most likely outcome is that in three years time we will be roughly where we are now.


2012 Fever seems to have been doing the rounds of late. (H/T Michael Turton)

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