Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou announced recently that China has dropped its objections to the self-governed island's participation as an observer in the World Health Organization (WHO). This is truly great news for Taiwan. Though it is a far cry from a full seat at the United Nations, limited participation in the WHO will afford Taiwan greater opportunities to interact with other countries and, perhaps more important, will help Taiwan to better protect itself, and the many international travelers that it hosts, from epidemics like the swine flu. As positive as this development may be, and though cross-Strait relations have warmed over the past year, Taipei should not become complacent in protecting itself against Chinese provocations. Beijing still intends to unify Taiwan with the Mainland, by force if necessary. As such, while Taipei pursues diplomatic means to ease cross-Strait tensions, it must also continue to modernize its military in order to deter more aggressive Chinese policies.
China's decision to permit Taiwan's WHO participation was not an altruistic gesture. True, Beijing faces potential costs to this course of action. Namely, it risks weakening its claim to sovereignty over the island; President Ma, however, has agreed that Taiwan will enter the WHO as "Chinese Taipei" to placate Beijing. Rather, Beijing's decision to acquiesce to Taiwanese observership was the result of a cold calculation of costs and benefits. And for China--to the detriment of American and Taiwanese interests--the long-term benefits may far outweigh the near-term costs.
Over the past year, cross-Strait relations have seen significant improvement. We've seen softer rhetoric from Beijing, as well as the start of regular, direct flights and direct mail delivery. President Ma has taken steps to ease restrictions on Chinese investment in Taiwanese companies, and the two governments have begun negotiating an Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement. Both sides benefit from these developments, as they have helped decrease cross-Strait tensions and will positively impact the global economy.
Short-term gains are mutually beneficial, but if China's efforts are successful, it will gain at Taiwan's expense over the longer term. For all of the positive steps China has taken over the past year, it has failed to renounce the right to use force to unify Taiwan with the Mainland, and has not pulled back from the eastern coast its thousands of missiles aimed at the island. Beijing continues to think of Taiwan as an integral and inseparable part of China. Make no mistake, Beijing may have dropped its objections to Taipei's participation in the WHO, but it is not about to drop its irredentist claims to the "lost province."
In its own mind, at least, China's recent policies--the resumption of direct cross-Strait flights, greater economic ties, and the donation of pandas to Taiwanese zoos--are in large part aimed at progressing towards its goal of unifying Taiwan. This "panda diplomacy" benefits China economically while, Beijing hopes, improving its image in Taiwan. A seemingly friendlier China appears to be a less threatening China. Only a year after President Ma's inauguration, there are Taiwanese already questioning the wisdom of high levels of defense spending. If China is making efforts to improve relations, they ask, isn't Taiwan's security environment improving? Given Beijing's new direction, need Taiwan continue to worry about its defense as it has for so long?
The answer, unfortunately, is yes. The maintenance of a strong defense is as important for Taiwan as it always has been. Taipei has already cut its defense budget for 2009 by 3.19 percent. Beijing, meanwhile has announced a 14.9 percent increase in 2009 defense spending. Should these trends continue, it won't be long before Taiwan finds itself in a position of weakness--not only outspent, but outgunned as well by its new-found "partner" across the Strait.
China's recent policies towards Taiwan are having a similar effect in the West. As cross-Strait relations warm, many Americans are also questioning Taiwan's need for a strong defense. U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has already announced defense cuts--namely for the Navy and Air Force--that will hamper our military's ability to come to Taiwan's aid in the event of a crisis. Early indications suggest that he will further downplay the importance of these capabilities in the upcoming Quadrennial Defense Review.
If Taiwan finds itself in a position of weakness relative to China at a time when the United States has also downgraded its Pacific Forces, its developing relationship with Beijing may cease to be mutually beneficial. If the United States cannot defend Taiwan, and if Taiwan cannot adequately defend itself, the island will be much more susceptible to coercion from the Mainland. China may use coercive means to bring Taiwan increasingly into a sphere of influence, slowly working towards its goal of eventual unification. Moreover, in this scenario, China will be more tempted to use force to settle the issue, as it need not fear an effective defense from Taiwan's military or an effective international intervention.
None of this is to say that President Ma should halt diplomatic efforts at improving ties with China. On the contrary, recent developments have benefited Taiwan and the Mainland alike, and should continue. But it is important--for decision-makers in both Taiwan and the United States--to keep China's motives in mind. Taipei should continue on its present course for as long as its dealings with Beijing are in Taiwan's interests. But it is also important for Taiwan to maintain a strong defense so that it can negotiate with China from a position of strength; the United States must do the same in order to deter China from ever using force against the island.
Taiwan's entrance into the WHO--even though only partial and under the moniker "Chinese Taipei"--is an important step both for Taiwan and for Beijing. It offers hope that Beijing may be adopting a more reasonable policy towards Taiwan, and that Taiwan might pursue increasingly normal relations with other states in the years ahead. With luck, that is the case. But until China ends its constant, if at times muted, military threat to the island and sets aside its revanchist ambitions, Taipei and Washington must remain vigilant in defending the people of Taiwan.
Michael Mazza is a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute.