Copyright The Guardian
31 March 2005
Michael Tsai points to a large map on the wall of his
office in Taiwan’s national defence ministry. It is
dotted with red symbols representing dozens of Chinese
missile, air and naval bases within easy shooting
range of the capital, Taipei, and other major
Whatever Beijing may say about its peaceful
intentions, Mr Tsai suggests, this map illustrates the
reality – and the daunting scale – of the military
threat that lurks 100 miles to the west, across the
treacherous waters of the Taiwan Strait.
As deputy defence minister, it is Mr Tsai’s job, and
that of the 300,000 members of the Taiwanese armed
forces, to monitor China’s 2.1 million-strong People’s
Liberation Army “every day, every hour”.
But with China’s military spending increasing by
double digits each year, the task of deterrence is
“If Beijing keeps building up its strength, our
analysis is that by 2008 to 2012, the balance of power
will tip towards China,” Mr Tsai said.
While Taiwan’s air force pilots and “counter-forces”
are better trained and technically equipped than their
Chinese equivalents, according to Mr Tsai, this
advantage is threatened by China’s investment in new
forms of electronic warfare.
“More than 700 ballistic missiles are deployed across
the coastal province of China. We expect that to
increase to 800 by 2006, including about 100
long-range missiles capable of delivering a warhead
more than 12,000km (7,500 miles) – capable of hitting
California or any part of the Pacific region,
including Taiwan, Korea, Japan.”
China also has about 80 submarines, nuclear and diesel
powered, many obtained from Russia, and is expanding
its military horizons. Last December, a Chinese
submarine penetrated the so-called “first island
chain” – a notional maritime defence line running
south from Japan to the Philippines – and sailed close
to the US naval base on Guam in the Pacific.
“This is one of the reasons why their leaders’ claim
that China would emerge as a peaceful power is not
matched by deeds,” Mr Tsai says. Within five to 10
years, China could overhaul Russia as the second
largest military power after the US, he adds.
Another reason is China’s new “anti-secession law”
that has empowered the PLA to use non-peaceful means
to prevent any definitive Taiwanese move towards
Beijing maintains it wants a negotiated settlement
with Taiwan, albeit on the basis of the “one China”
principle accepted by Britain in Hong Kong in 1997,
but which most Taiwanese reject.
The new Chinese law was denounced by up to 1 million
Taiwanese in a street protest last Saturday, and
condemned by the US and Japan, on whose deliberately
ambiguous support Taiwan’s policy of military
Like other Taiwanese politicians, Mr Tsai stresses the
possibly doleful international repercussions should
China attempt to subdue by force what it regards as a
“Every day 600 to 900 vessels pass through the Taiwan
Strait,” Mr Tsai says. “Most are Japanese and foreign
ships, mostly carrying oil. There are also more than
1,000 commercial flights in the zone every day.” And
Taiwan, despite its relatively small population of 24
million people, is a major global exporter, with an
economy ranked 16th in the world.
If the cold war turns hot, or if China mounts a
blockade of the island, Mr Tsai predicts, the result
could be a big international crisis, potentially
drawing in the US Pacific fleet’s carrier groups, as
happened briefly in 1996.
“We say we are all citizens of a global village. Every
citizen would be affected one way or another,
economically or politically.”
The EU’s proposal to replace its arms embargo on China
with a restrictive code of conduct is officially seen
in Taipei as sending the wrong signal to Beijing.
Privately, officials are scathing about what they
believe is the reckless pursuit of economic
self-interest by some states, notably France.
A visit this week to Tokyo by the French president,
Jacques Chirac, appears to have done little to allay
Japan’s concerns about the embargo, amid rising
For his part, Mr Tsai says, Mr Chirac is acting
“immorally” in pushing for an end to the ban,
particularly given the continuing human rights
problems in an undemocratic China.
He hopes that Britain’s EU presidency later this year
will adhere more closely to Europe’s “traditional
Given Taiwan’s predicament, it has no option but to
arm itself as best it can, Mr Tsai says. China’s
recent actions mean that a long-delayed multi-billion
dollar arms purchase from the US is now more likely to
be approved by the Taiwanese parliament.
“The US arms sale is for self-defence. We’re not going
to attack them [China]! It’s just like your neighbour
is a big robber with a knife or a gun and they point
the gun at your head. What would you do?”