China Puzzle

China Puzzle

By Richard Halloran - May 10, 2009

After decades of antagonism toward Taiwan, China seems to have relented a bit to show goodwill toward the self-governing people on the island off China's coast. Beijing has agreed to have Taiwan's observers attend a World Health Assembly, permitted a state-owned enterprise to invest in Taiwan, and for the first time sent a researcher to a US military institute in Hawaii alongside colleagues from Taiwan.

At the same time, Beijing appears to have turned up its belligerence toward the US by mounting five harassing assaults on US Navy ships in international waters off China's coast in the last two months. Moreover, Beijing has declined to resume military exchanges with the US despite urging by senior US officers.

Why the Chinese have adopted this apparent carrot-and-stick approach is a puzzle that can only lead to speculation. On the Taiwan issue, maybe Chinese leaders have figured out that their continued hostility toward Taiwan has driven people there further away rather than encouraging them to join China. Nothing suggests, however, that Beijing has diluted its claim to Taiwan.

Maybe the leaders of China have sought to tamp down pro-Taiwan sentiment in the US Congress. The House of Representatives last month passed a resolution with 125 sponsors, an unusually large number, and sent it to the Senate saying Congress "reaffirms its unwavering commitment to the Taiwan Relations Act," which governs US political, economic, and military affairs with Taiwan in place of diplomatic relations.

Taiwan has sought for years to expand what its diplomats call international space but has been blocked by Beijing. The health assembly in Geneva on May 18 is scheduled to have representatives from Taiwan there without a vote. The official Chinese press said Beijing was "allowing" Taiwan to come, thus attempting to assert Chinese control over Taiwan's presence.

Bloomberg News has reported that China Mobile has agreed to buy a 12 percent share in a Taiwanese telecommunications company, the first investment by a Chinese state-owned company in Taiwan. The investment of $529 million caused the Taipei stock exchange to make its biggest gain since 1991 on speculation that more Chinese companies would invest in the island.

At the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu, where military officers and civilian officials from Asia and the US discuss non-military aspects of security, the Chinese have refused until now to take part so long as Taiwan was represented there. Currently a Chinese researcher is attending an anti-terrorist course with a naval officer and a civilian official from Taiwan.

On the down side, on May 1 two Chinese fishing vessels closed on the surveillance ship Victorious in the Yellow Sea 170 miles off the coast where China maintains a major naval base at Qingdao. The Chinese maneuvered in what a Pentagon spokesman asserted was "an unsafe manner." The Victorious crew sprayed water at the Chinese vessels with fire hoses to prevent the Chinese from boarding.

China has been building a deepwater fleet but is not yet a match for the US Navy and thus appears to be resorting to maritime guerrilla tactics, drawing on the tradition of the People's Liberation Army fight against Japanese invaders in World War II and Chinese Nationalists in the civil war that followed.

To preclude escalation, US officials such as Jeffrey Bader, a specialist on Asia in the National Security Council staff, Admiral Gary Roughead, chief of naval operations, and Admiral Timothy Keating, head of Pacific Command, have urged China to resume military exchanges they broke off last October after the US announced a $5.6 billion arms sale to Taiwan.

A staff officer at Pacific Command here said: "This latest confrontation is another example of why communication between both sides is imperative."


Richard Halloran, a free lance writer in Honolulu, was a military correspondent for The New York Times for ten years. He can be reached at
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