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Cross-Strait Situation Changing

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In offices in the Pentagon and the State Department, China-Taiwan experts are scrutinizing the latest reports from the Far East of the changing relationship between China -- officially the People's Republic of China -- and Taiwan, the offshore island "state." For more than a half century the United States has anticipated a possible Chinese assault on Taiwan. But the situation is changing rapidly.

Taiwan became the Republic of China after 1949. Communist armies had overrun most of China and the surviving Nationalist troops, led by Chang Kai-shek, fled to the island, then known by its Japanese name of Formosa.

There followed several decades of intense animosity between the "two Chinas." Initially, there was concern in the West that the Nationalist armies, rested and rearmed, could invade the mainland, some 100 miles away. Subsequently, there was concern for several decades that Chinese armies would cross the Taiwan Strait to invade Taiwan.

During the latter period the United States gave considerable military assistance to Taiwan in anticipation of a Chinese assault across the strait. And, U.S. war plans called for defending Taiwan against such an invasion, although the difficulties of such an amphibious operation should have been obvious to all parties.

Indeed, China did not build a massive amphibious fleet or a large airborne assault force. Further, China's marines -- currently two brigades in strength -- are assigned to the South Sea Fleet rather than to the East Sea Fleet, which faces the Taiwan Strait. While detailed data are not publicly available, it appears that the East Sea Fleet is the smallest of China's three fleets.

While strong words are still voiced by some leaders of both China and Taiwan, there has been a remarkable rapprochement between the two entities during the past few years. There is now direct postal service, commercial air transport, and, most recently, shipping between China and Taiwan. Also, Taiwan businessmen are investing in China.

And, in early January the China News Agency announced that representatives of China and Taiwan were are expected to meet after the Chinese New Year holidays to hammer out the technical details of several agreements to be signed during the third round of high-level, cross-Taiwan Strait talks. According to Straits Exchange Foundation Chairman Chiang Pin-kung, the new set of agreements will address issues such as cooperation on financial supervision and regulation, prevention of double taxation, intellectual property rights protection, and cooperation on combating crime.

These "semi-official" talks have seen unprecedented agreements between China and Taiwan, certainly a means of "defusing" the previous, danger-fraught relations between the two. Thus, there is increased reason for optimism that conflict in the Taiwan Strait is increasingly unlikely.

At the same time the Chinese armed forces, and especially the Navy, are undergoing an extensive modernization and -- to a limited extent -- expansion. It is becoming increasingly obvious that the naval modernization, with the largely unsubstantiated reports that China is preparing to construct aircraft carriers, is intended for missions other than a cross-strait assault. These missions are undoubtedly to insure access to offshore oil resources in the South China Sea, the safe passage of Chinese merchant ships through the various world straits, support to overseas Chinese economic and political interests (especially in South America and Africa), and, most recently, supporting anti-piracy operations.

This rapidly changing situation is causing U.S. government experts on Far Eastern issues to reevaluate official views and plans related to the Taiwan Strait.

-- Norman Polmar

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