TCS Daily

A Farewell to Arms Embargo

By Jeremy Slater - March 16, 2005 12:00 AM

A brief period of relative stability earlier this year between China and Taiwan is clearly over. Recent events in Beijing suggest that a new and more aggressive policy is being formulated as to how the mainland deals with its island neighbor.

The passing of the anti-secession law last Monday (March 14) will allow China to use any means, including trade blockades and military muscle, to stop Taiwan from asserting its independence. The original vote was postponed twice, first from the opening day of the National People's Congress on Saturday, March 5 then to the Tuesday after.

To some Beijing watchers this suggests that within the top echelons of the Communist Party there were some doubts about whether to go ahead with the law as it is currently phrased or not. However, the law was still passed meaning that the hawks won the argument.

Beijing is also lobbying hard to persuade the European Union to drop its arms embargo and is likely to get its way. Both moves threaten the continuing existence of Taiwan as a democratic state and destabilize the Pacific region. Both Washington and Tokyo have expressed serious concerns with these policies. The issue produced one of the few moments of discord during the otherwise harmonious visit to Europe in February of US President George W Bush.

However, it seems at the moment that Europe and China are willing to brush aside these concerns. At the opening of the annual meeting of National People's Congress on March 5 Premier Wen Jiabao is reported to have said that he will "never allow secessionist[s]... to separate Taiwan from China".

The anti-secession law makes it virtually impossible for Taiwan to make itself independent from China without the consent of the mainland -- something Beijing's current political masters are not going to countenance.

It is a severe blow to Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian plans for the island's independence, for which he forcefully campaigned in the run-up to elections last year. Beijing strongly supported President Chen's opponents and its tactics were largely successful in denting his popularity. Therefore, Chen did not win a mandate strong enough to allow him to change the constitution in 2008 and has had to tone down his plans for a breakaway state. This change in policy led three of his most pro-independence advisors to resign in late February. The passing of anti-secession law will give President Chen even fewer options

Tensions between Beijing and Taipei are only going to increase. Taiwan is feeling jittery at the moment about China's growing military muscle. Just prior to the NPC meeting Beijing announced an agreed 12 percent increase in defense spending, although the actual amount is believed to be higher. Also Taipei nervously notes that the annual increase in the number of ballistic missiles, currently more than 700, being pointed at the island from across the Taiwan Strait is around 100.

Add this to the fact that the EU is proposing to lift its 16-year arms embargo with China, imposed after the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, and you can understand why Chen's administration in Taipei is feeling very friendless at the moment. The embargo could be gone by June and that could encourage many Taiwanese to believe that they had lost a chance of improving relations with any of Europe's major powers in the near future. The Vatican is the only European government that officially recognizes Taiwan.

In an attempt to win allies in Europe, Chen took part in a videoconference in early March with lawmakers in the European Parliament. The Taiwanese president said the anti-secession vote would pose a serious threat to the existence of Taiwan as a separate entity and as a functioning liberal democracy. He added that democracy was a hard-won fruit of the Taiwanese people and that a vote for the proposed law would seriously destabilize relations across the strait and throughout the Pacific region.

Despite being given a friendly and supportive hearing by lawmakers in the Parliament the reality is that Taiwan has very few official friends around the world. Recently Japan and US held talks with Taiwan, but China has warned Washington and Tokyo against any idea of creating a security alliance with the Taiwanese.

The fear of an increasing military threat can only be increased by the EU's lack of a tough negotiating strategy with Beijing over the likely lifting of the arms embargo. To Taipei and many other observers the EU seems to have offered China a deal without making any demands in return, such as over human rights or democracy. Taiwan feels that many European administrations are more interested in financial gain when dealing with China rather than standing up for the rights that have strongly established democratic rule throughout the continent.

The EU decided to introduce the arms embargo because of a violation of human rights, said Chen. "Over the past decade, we have not seen much improvement with regards to such rights and democracy," he added.

Chen called on European leaders to uphold the common human values that they say they so cherish otherwise China will become cynical about Europe's desire to do business at, apparently, any costs and lack of interest in discussing more difficult political issues.

It is clear that the lifting of the arms embargo will do nothing to improve world peace and may destabilize relations around the Pacific rim. At sometime in the near future Europe's leaders may rue the day they did not ask for anything in return from Beijing.


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