January 10, 2017 2:00 pm JST
Xi's Supremacy

New faces renewing old tensions in Taiwan Strait

Taiwan flexes military muscle as China dials up the pressure

KENSAKU IHARA, Nikkei staff writer, and SHUHEI YAMADA, Head of Nikkei's China Headquarters

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, left, visits an Army post in the northern city of Taoyuan on Dec. 30 to inspect troops in training.

TAIPEI/BEIJING -- Relations between Taiwan and China have returned to center stage in East Asian geopolitics, with leadership changes on the self-governing island and in Washington holding the potential to drastically alter the status quo.

Tit for tat

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen visited an Army post in the northern city of Taoyuan on Dec. 30 to inspect the troops and observe training activities, with Apache and Black Hawk helicopters procured from the U.S. featured.

This came just a week after Tsai visited an Air Force command center in the capital city of Taipei, ordering an F-16 fighter pilot by radio to step up air surveillance.

It is apparent that she toured the facilities with an eye toward showing off Taiwan's military preparedness to its people in the face of China's escalating demonstrations of its own military might.

Days before Tsai inspected the Army post, China's Liaoning aircraft career sailed through the Bashi Channel just 170km off the southern Taiwanese coast. Beijing significantly boosted its naval power by procuring the aircraft carrier, its first, from Ukraine.

The show of force was promptly followed by the reaffirmation of Beijing's claims over Taiwan in a New Year's address by President Xi Jinping. "Chinese people will not agree to whoever wants to make trouble" on China's sovereignty rights and maritime interests, Xi said, making clear that Beijing will never bend on the one-China policy defining Taiwan as a province.

A sub of its own

Taiwan is not sitting idly by under Tsai. At a shipyard in the southern port city of Kaohsiung, a project deemed crucial for Taiwan's defense -- developing its own submarine -- was just about to begin. The facility was under guard when Nikkei reporters visited Dec. 28. They were told to step away from the area by on-site staff when an attempt was made to photograph a naval vessel there. Government-affiliated shipbuilder CSBC, which operates the facility, had received an order from the Navy to develop a basic design for a submarine just six days earlier.

The Kaohsiung shipyard sits right next to the government-affiliated China Steel. Steel from the ironworks can go directly to the shipyard because the two facilities are connected in certain sections, according to an official.

"The vision that existed from the time of President Lee Teng-hui [who held the position from 1988 to 2000] will finally move toward a reality," another CSBC official said.

Submarines are a key military asset that can act as a trump card against the aircraft carrier. Updating the fleet has long been high on Taiwan's wish list, since two of its four subs are "antique" U.S. vessels built during World War II. But Chinese pressure has kept this strategically important goal out of reach.

The U.S. said in 2001 that it would provide eight diesel-powered subs to Taiwan. But it never did, apparently having had second thoughts about provoking Beijing. Sourcing submarines from elsewhere has been an impossible proposition, since the supplier would draw China's ire.

The idea of building subs was floated under Tsai's pro-Beijing predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou, but never gained traction.

Things changed dramatically once Tsai took power last May. She announced in June a decision to allocate 470 billion New Taiwan dollars ($14.6 billion) over the 2018-30 period for naval fleet upgrades, including submarines.

Game-changing Trump?

Some in Taiwan believe that the incoming American government under Donald Trump will help the island move toward building its own subs, with the president-elect having hinted that the U.S. might not necessarily uphold its long-standing position that Taiwan is part of China. It has been said that Taiwan will not be able to construct submarines without technology transfers from overseas in the areas of submarine engines and armaments.

"What was impossible under the Obama administration will become possible" with Trump in the White House, said an official of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party.

Fully aware of a potential shift in China policy under the new administration, Beijing has stepped up its rhetoric.

Beijing firmly opposes military cooperation between the U.S. and Taiwan as well as arms sales by the former to the latter, said An Fengshan, a spokesperson at the Taiwan Affairs Office of China's State Council, in a news conference Dec. 28. Taiwan is the "most sensitive and complicated issue in China-U.S. relations," An said.

Chinese newspapers, including the hawkish Global Times, have since December published items almost daily that directly warn against aspirations for Taiwanese independence. Some carry comments from retired military officers and others clearly aimed at directly applying pressure -- as if to amplify the psychological effect of the Liaoning's sail-by and break Taiwan's will. "As the pro-independence forces gather strength, the chance of a peaceful unification is just about to disappear," one article claimed. Another even went so far as to predict an inevitable military clash before 2020.

Not a few experts in China and Taiwan believe that Trump is simply using the island as a bargaining chip in trade and other negotiations with Beijing. His administration takes power Jan. 20, but much of its Asia policy remains unclear. One false move by a key player in the meantime could ratchet up Sino-Taiwanese tensions, making the Taiwan Strait a major regional powder keg again alongside the Korean Peninsula.

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