Tuesday, December 4, 2007

High Stakes Drama Across Taiwan Straits, U.S. in Middle

Editor’s Note: Beijing’s recent refusal to let the U.S. aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk into Hong Kong is a sign that all is not well in the Taiwan Straits. NAM contributor Dr. George Koo is an international business consultant. He has just returned from Beijing where he attended a Committee of 100 Conference, the first of its kind held on Mainland China. (First appeared in www.newamericamedia.org.)

BEIJING – If China were to engage in a military conflict with Taiwan, the United States best not interfere. This is the message China is sending to the United States in the recent drama on the high seas.

First, aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk, with its crew and escorts of some 8,000 was abruptly informed that they would not be permitted to spend Thanksgiving in Hong Kong when the ship was within two days of arrival.

By the time Beijing rescinded the order 24 hours later, Kitty Hawk had already reversed course and headed back to Japan to the disappointment of family and friends gathered in Hong Kong in anticipation of reunions over America’s favorite holiday.

No satisfactory explanation has been offered. Both Beijing and Washington, D.C., have quietly downplayed the significance of this incident.

Some observers attributed denying entry to Hong Kong as a sign of Beijing’s weariness to endless American tantrums. Whether it’s the United States honoring the Dalai Lama, or the recent Congressional Commission report demonizing China for rampant espionage, or American media’s bashing of China over tainted products such as lead paint on toys, China is tired of being the go-to piñata.

Others simply felt that the military and diplomatic sides of the Beijing hierarchy were not on the same page. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was holding naval exercise in South China Seas and did not want the Americans to get too close. They told Kitty Hawk to stay away without consulting with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on possible collateral consequences.

Some also speculated that Beijing's refusal to permit the Kitty Hawk to enter Hong Kong had to do with the United States’ decision last month to sell Taiwan an upgrade to three sets of Patriot II ground-to-air missiles, for approximately $930 million.

All the suggested explanations contain some grains of truth. However, looking at the Kitty Hawk matter in a broader context, there is a lot more at stake.

Just a week after Kitty Hawk returned to Japan – having spent Thanksgiving on the high seas – a Chinese destroyer sailed into the Tokyo Bay amidst great fanfare. The Shenzhen was the first PLA navy ship ever to dock in Japan and both countries played this as a historic and inaugural event of closer Sino-Japanese military cooperation. This is perhaps China’s gambit: suggesting that neutrality over Taiwan is in Japan’s best interest.

The Kitty Hawk was also involved in a massive exercise on the Pacific a couple of months ago. To the surprise and consternation of the U.S. Navy, in the midst of the exercise, a Chinese submarine “popped” to the surface within torpedo-hailing distance of the aircraft carrier. Though surrounded by a flotilla of American navy ships, apparently none detected the presence of the submarine.

Was this another unintentional act? Hardly. China is sending a message to Washington: In the event of a military confrontation, the damage and cost will not be one-sided. The objective is to help the Pentagon more accurately assess the burden of adding Chinese engagement in Afghanistan and Iraq.

So why send this message to Washington at this time? Because Beijing is becoming increasingly alarmed by Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian’s provocations – and frustrated by Washington’s apparent inability to appreciate the gravity of the situation.

Prosecuting on serious corruption charges is awaiting Chen once his presidential immunity expires. One way to extend his immunity is to stay in office, which Chen can do if he declares martial law and cancels the presidential election scheduled for March 2008.

Chen may be able to justify declaring martial law on Taiwan by declaring independence and hoping to provoke military reaction from Beijing.

Since Taiwan has missiles that can reach coastal cities across the straits, many Mainland Chinese now wonder if Chen might just initiate military action himself.

Chen has publicly asserted that Beijing will not take military action against Taiwan before the Olympics in August. He also assumes that the United States will come to Taiwan’s rescue.

He is wrong on both counts, but is oblivious.

Beijing is sending Washington a clear signal that the cost for Kitty Hawk or any U.S. naval ship caught in the Taiwan Straits when a military confrontation occurs might be far higher than previously imagined.

The Bush administration needs to throw away strategic ambiguity and unequivocally tell Chen to behave.

Perhaps by offering him asylum in the United States a la the late Ferdinand Marcos of Philippines (i.e., take his ill-gotten gains and get out of Taiwan), a crisis can be averted. Otherwise, tension across the straits could reach an incendiary flash point before March next year.