Mixed Messages From China on Taiwan
Image Credit: J. Michael Cole (photo is a screenshot of actual video)

Mixed Messages From China on Taiwan

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Here’s a lesson on how not to win an opponent’s hearts and minds, courtesy of the Chinese. While showcasing a ground strike package during the China International Aviation & Aerospace Exhibition in Guangdong (better known as the Zhuhai Air Show) last week, the Chinese sought to win over foreign clients with a promotional video showing aircraft being blown to bits at an airbase in a country with which Beijing hopes to “reunify.”

For a country that prides itself on cultivating skilled diplomats for 5,000 years, China has an uncanny ability to shoot itself in the foot, which makes one wonder whether its dreaded “united front” tactics should not instead be called “disunited.” There’s probably no better example of this than Beijing’s approach to Taiwan, the country of 23 million “brothers” and “sisters” it regards as a breakaway province that must be reunited with the Motherland, by force if necessary.

As Hu Jintao was stepping down as Chinese Communist Party chairman and head of the powerful Central Military Commission last week, few critics could fault him with how he handled the Taiwan “question” — at least not those who support unification (though some have accused him of showing too much patience on the issue). Under his watch, Taiwan has become increasingly reliant on China’s economy, with the two sides signing a cross-strait Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA), dramatically increasing tourism, and signing more than a dozen agreements on a variety of issues, from crime fighting to investment protection. Undeniably, as relations improved, especially following the election of President Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang (KMT) in 2008, China continued to send mixed signals through a variety of carrots and sticks. But overall, Beijing made it possible for the Ma administration to argue that a better relationship was not only possible, but also desirable. Consequently, the benefits of engagement seemed to outweigh the occasional reflex in Beijing to block Taiwan from joining global organizations, such as the U.N., or to participate in international events, from film festivals to military competitions, under the name “Taiwan.” Although such incidents make the news in Taiwan, they rarely outlive the news cycle and are quickly forgotten. Meanwhile, the starkest contradiction — China’s continued military buildup targeting Taiwan despite improving relations — has become a fact of life in Taiwan, an abstract that, aside from academics and a handful of government officials in the U.S., does not keep anyone awake at night. All in all, the relationship is, from Beijing’s perspective at least, “on track,” and continued efforts to further improve relations have received the blessing of world capitals, whose leaders hope to see this potential tinderbox resolved once and for all.

And yet, Chinese animosity towards Taiwan was certainly no abstract at a certain booth during the Nov. 13-18 Zhuhai Air Show, which used a realistic video to promote an integrated strike package that included M20 surface-to-surface tactical ballistic missiles (reportedly a Chinese version of the Russian 9K720 “Iskander”), new A200 long-range guided rockets, A100 MLRS, unmanned aerial vehicles and LY-60 air defense systems. Although the platforms were already well known to the defense community, this was the first time they were made available as a package providing the capability to launch preemptive strikes against a variety of targets, including radar sites, ports and airports, power plants, and command centers.

Taiwanese who were present at the show could hardly mask their horror when the video showed a series of F-16 aircraft on the tarmac of what was unmistakably Hualien Air Force base on the east coast of Taiwan. Seconds later, one of the aircraft (tail no. 6657) exploded in a huge ball of flames after being hit by a M20.

So much for winning the hearts and minds of Taiwanese “compatriots” (though to be fair, during the Taipei Aerospace and Defense Technology Exhibition in August 2011, Taiwan’s military showcased its Hsiung Feng III “Brave Wind” anti-ship missile with a large display showing the “carrier killer” hitting an aircraft carrier that looked very much like China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning).

Unsurprisingly, the incident made headlines in Taiwan’s media, with one of the major dailies, the Liberty Times, making it the lead on its front page (state-run Central News Agency also had a story in both its Chinese and English-language services). For his part, Chen Kuo-ming, a senior editor at Defence International, a Taiwan-based magazine, said the demonstration was a reminder that Taiwan needed to take the threat of long-range missiles from China very seriously.

The irony, of course, is that the Chinese defense industry was using this year’s show to position itself as a major (and cheaper) competitor to traditional Western arms manufacturers. Images such as those seen in the promotional video will surely have left some of the about 100,000 visitors at the show — which is endorsed by the Chinese government — with the impression that relations between Taiwan and China might not be all that rosy after all. Admittedly, the video may have been the product of overexcited officials eager to display their nationalism, CGI skills and the capabilities of the weapons systems they are trying to sell (most of which with Russian or Ukrainian roots). However, a more alarming alternative is that the video highlights a dangerous disconnect between what the civilian leaders in the CCP are trying to accomplish with Taiwan on the one hand, and how the more conservative elements within the PLA regard the longstanding conflict on the other. Whatever the cause, one thing is certain: Taiwanese, along with their allies in the U.S. who continue to push for arms sales to the island, will have noticed this not-too-subtle faux pas

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