On March 18, Taiwanese student protestors took over the Legislative Yuan assembly hall in Taipei, Taiwan, and have been camped out there ever since. On March 26, President Ma Ying-jeou agreed to meet with the protestors to attempt to end the standoff and get Taiwan’s government back to business as usual.
The protests are over a service trade pact with the People’s Republic of China, which would allow greater investment on both sides of the Formosa (or Taiwan) Strait. It would open eighty percent of China’s service sectors to Taiwan, and sixty-four percent of Taiwan’s to China. The protestors are up in arms about the fact that not only does it threaten Taiwan’s independence in their eyes, but the majority party, the Kuomintang, signed the pact without bipartisan deliberation, leaving the Democratic Progressive Party completely cut out. The students are demanding not only the rejection of the pact, but legislation governing any further agreements across the Strait.
While the protests have remained, for the most part, peaceful, the overall situation is quite similar to that in the Ukraine over the last month. Both the Kuomintang and President Yanukovych made economic agreements with foreign powers without the approval of their people, and have faced unrest and protest on account of it. Both China and Russia have been pursuing policies of economic expansionism. Ukraine belonged to the Soviet Union before independence in 1991; Taiwan separated from mainland China in 1949. Taiwan has never, in fact, declared independence–China considers it a breakaway province, and has threatened action against Taiwan if it ever officially declares independence.
So far, there has not been the sort of military saber-rattling one might expect coming from China. There has been no movement to move into Taiwan like the Russians moved into the Crimea. While accurate information coming out of China can be hard to come by, it should be noted that there are definite differences between the two situations, largely as concerns Russian and Chinese military power.
Even though drastically reduced from its height, the Russian Army and Navy have substantial professional histories. Furthermore, Russia and Ukraine share a border. Taiwan is an island, faced with a country that, for all its population, and the fact that it has, numerically, the largest standing army in the world, has no blue water navy, and has not since the Communists took over. It has been argued for years now that China lacks the amphibious lift to invade Taiwan, and if this article is accurate, that’s the least of its problems.
This is not to say that China should be discounted. The Chinese have a long history of multi-axis warfare, illustrated recently by the document Unrestricted Warfare, by two PLA Colonels in 1999. The indirect philosophy of war goes back to even before Sun Tzu.
One of the axes of attack described in Unrestricted Warfare is economic. If you look at many of China’s foreign policy actions in recent decades, they are mostly revolving around economic control and resource acquisition. Faced with an inability to conquer their “breakaway province” militarily, the Chinese appear to be pursuing economic conquest instead. They are not pursuing this course alone; two years ago, this article outlined how many of Taiwan’s wealthy are urging reunification for economic reasons, largely because they have so many holdings on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.
Just because PLA tanks rolling through Taipei isn’t likely anytime soon doesn’t make this sort of situation any less dangerous. The absorption of Taiwan into the PRC will be the loss of one more political, military, and economic ally in the Pacific, and further strengthen a country that sees itself, regardless of how the wishful thinkers on this side of the Pacific might view it, as our prime rival.