The public acknowledgement may have been accidental, but the revelation on March 4 that Singaporean soldiers in Taiwan would participate in joint live-fire exercises with their Taiwanese counterparts according to reports shouldn’t come as a surprise. As worries increase over China’s recent assertiveness, Taiwan is silently carving out a role for itself as a possible component within the region's growing security architecture.
Given its precarious situation, the island nation’s emerging role necessitates a delicate balancing act, the result of both President Ma Ying-jeou’s efforts to improve relations with Beijing and of other countries’ fear of angering China by being seen as cooperating too closely with Taipei.
The subtle shift in Taiwan’s situation occurred about two years ago. Not entirely by coincidence, this took place around the same time the U.S. was announcing its “strategic shift,” or “pivot,” to Asia as a counterweight to China. As China flexes its diplomatic and military muscles, threatening its neighbors over disputes in the East China Sea and the South China Sea, capitals in the Asia-Pacific have begun revisiting their assumptions of China’s so-called “peaceful rise.” The process, which among many decisions includes Australia’s move to allow the basing of U.S. Marines in Darwin and the eventual basing of four U.S. littoral combat ships on a rotational basis in Singapore, has also forced regional countries to take a second look at Taiwan’s role within the region and how they can cooperate with it on security matters.
As this was happening, Taipei was slowly realizing — too slowly, perhaps — that President Ma’s “goodwill” notwithstanding, Beijing has continued to threaten the island with more than 1,600 short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, and refuses to take the military option off the table as a means of bringing about “reunification.” Despite the diplomatic truce, Beijing has relentlessly prevented Taiwan from playing the role that a modern, democratic country of 23 million people should be entitled to play within the international community. And despite closer cultural and economic ties and the Ma administration’s emphasis on common Chinese “roots,” a majority of Taiwanese continues to oppose unification with China, which makes the outcome of rapprochement all the more uncertain.
Unsurprisingly, under the veneer of closer cross-strait ties, Taiwan’s military has adapted to continued Chinese belligerence by embarking on a controversial offensive missile program with the mass production, and recent deployment, of the Hsiung Feng IIE, a land-attack cruise missile with a range of approximately 650km, and plans to develop a surface-to-surface missile with a range of 1,500km — hardly the kind of signaling that a country on the brink of surrender would send.
Perhaps more significantly, Taiwan’s security apparatus, cognizant of the need to hedge against China, has become more amenable to engaging the region. This combination of regional apprehension over China and growing Taiwanese insecurity — a sentiment likely compounded by fears of U.S. abandonment — has created more space for Taiwan, and Taipei has not stood still.
Given its precarious position and Ma’s determination to improve relations with China, Taipei has understandably been careful not to alienate Beijing and has engaged the region in quiet, and often times unofficial, ways. But engage the region it has.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a senior foreign official based in Taiwan told the author last month that with a frequency unseen in recent years, Cabinet-level Taiwanese officials involved in national security issues, including the island’s top intelligence chief, have been invited to visit countries within the region, where they have engaged in dialogue with senior counterparts.
Communication on security issues between Taipei and Tokyo, meanwhile, remains healthy, despite the dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyutai Islands, a Japanese official based in Taipei also told the author.
At the same time, a powerful long-range early warning radar system, built by U.S.-based Raytheon Corp and with a price tag of $1.3 billion, began operations in Hsinchu, central Taiwan, in early February.
Though long based in Taiwan for lack of training grounds in the city-state, Singaporean soldiers have officially always trained separately from their Taiwanese counterparts. Although it has yet to be known whether the Singaporean Ministry of Defense went ahead with the decision to hold a joint exercise, like other countries within the region, Singapore may have become more willing to take some calculated risks by working more closely with Taiwan.
Beijing was best able to isolate Taiwan when its behavior was perceived as not threatening other countries in the region. Its belligerent attitude in the past two years, which may have been the direct result of China’s success in neutralizing the “Taiwan question,” is now having the counterproductive effect of making Taiwan more, rather than less, important for the region.