Editorial: China fires missiles like it’s 1996

by Taiwan News editor

The news Thursday that China is planning to hold live-fire military maneuvers in the Taiwan Straits September 11 through 13 must be giving many people in Taiwan an eerie reminder of events 20 years ago.

In the months leading up to Taiwan’s first-ever direct democratic presidential election in March 1996, China fired real missiles which landed in the waters around the island.

Nobody was hurt, no fishing trawlers were sunk, and certainly no military targets were hit, but the main aim of the drills was not to inflict any real damage and start a war, but to scare Taiwanese voters into submission.

The message of the missiles was that if voters cast their ballot for the wrong candidate, Taiwan might face an all-out war instead of progress toward a more complete democracy.

Even though Democratic Progressive Party candidate Peng Ming-min was the most radical Taiwan Independence supporter among the contenders, the wrong candidate in Beijing’s eyes at the time was the only one seen with any chance of winning, incumbent Kuomintang Chairman Lee Teng-hui. His efforts to “Taiwanize” ruling party and government transformed him into a “closet Taiwan Independence activist” in the eyes of Beijing.

The most common point between 1996 and this year is the imminent arrival of presidential elections. While in 1996, Lee’s KMT remained in control, on January 16, 2016, Taiwan is likely to see a return to power of the DPP, and this is likely to be the main reason why China is taking a more aggressive stance.

The main element that the communist leaders in Beijing should do well to bear in mind, is that scare tactics in the past not only never worked, but each time they resulted in the opposite effect from what China tried to achieve.

Taiwanese voters are not easily intimidated, and they usually make the choice that Beijing is trying to scare them away from.

In 1996, incumbent Lee Teng-hui won more than 50 percent of the vote, and none of his opponents moved past half of that total. While it could be said that Peng lost badly, he was not the target of China’s missile tests, but Lee was.

In 2000, threats were issued, but DPP candidate Chen Shui-bian won in the first election and was re-elected four years later, by a razor-thin majority but nevertheless with slightly more than half the vote. During the Chen years, China moved to pass a so-called Anti-Secession Law to fight Taiwan Independence. The push was met with some of the most massive street demonstrations in Taiwan history, and while China of course did not take the island’s public opinion into account, the people of Taiwan certainly did not back down.

In the following years, reports in the Taiwanese media repeatedly mentioned a Chinese plan to “behead” Taiwan, with fighter jets swooping in from above the Taiwan Straits to attack the Presidential Official Building and either kidnap or kill the president.

Just within the past few months, international media revealed pictures of replicas of parts of Taiwan built by China in its remote Western regions, which would help it prepare for an actual invasion and a house-to-house fight in the streets of Taipei.

The news of the live-fire exercises in the Taiwan Straits off the coast of Fujian Province could be the latest example of China rattling its sabers now that Taiwan is looking forward to another alternation of power. DPP Chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen has been leading opinion polls for months, and with only four months left until polling day, there is hardly any prospect of either KMT candidate Hung Hsiu-chu or People First Party Chairman James Soong catching up with her.

In other words, China is highly likely to face at least four years of a Taiwanese government it considers as hostile to its interests. While Tsai has been emphasizing her respect for the status quo and said Thursday that she did not want a decrease in the number of Chinese tourists visiting Taiwan, Beijing is still highly suspicious about her intentions.

Despite her background as a trade negotiator and her subdued leadership of the Mainland Affairs Council during the Chen Administration, China also considers her vehement opposition against the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement and the trade-in-services agreement, leading it to worry about the future of negotiations about economic and other non-political issues.

Tsai of course has mostly been worrying about the excessive dependence of Taiwan’s economy on China, and the saber rattling only serves to strengthen her point. A country which wants Taiwan to open its borders for more trade and tourism should not be launching missiles in its proximity.

Xi Jinping has also developed into one of the most aggressive Chinese leaders in recent memory, with his disputes with Japan and the Philippines over uninhabited islands in waters far from China as the most obvious example.

The timing of the new round of drills hard on the heels of Taiwan’s own Han Kuang 31 exercises from September 7 through 11 also raises questions. While Taiwan’s military as usual pretended to be defending the island against a Chinese invasion, there is little doubt that the People’s Liberation Army is responding to those maneuvers by showing it is able to strike back and to fulfill its threats of using military force if Taiwan declares independence.

It should also be remembered that despite Xi’s promise to downsize PLA staff, China has no plans to remove any of the more than 1,000 missiles it has targeted at Taiwan.

The Ministry of National Defense in Taipei gave its usual response to news reports of Chinese military and espionage activities, saying it was monitoring the situation and it was aware of all developments.

The statement was a hardly reassuring stereotype since its passive stance makes it look as if the media are ahead of the game. Each time, Taiwanese media break the news, while the ministry gives a bland response. That is hardly likely to put citizens at ease about the intelligence capabilities of the government. If it knew about the Chinese military action beforehand, it should have told the public so straightaway, rather than wait for a Chinese media statement and its reporting by the local press.

Taiwan’s military needs to show it is proactive rather than passive.

China’s announcement comes as a timely message, especially after former Vice President Lien Chan’s attendance at Beijing’s military parade marking the 70th anniversary of the ending of World War II.

Japan might have been the enemy back in 1937-1945, but in 2015 China is, and the public could not have received a clearer reminder of that fact than the news about this week’s live-fire action.

Chinese-made Z-10 helicopters fly in formation during a demonstration at the Tianjin International Helicopter Expo in northern China's Tianjin Municipality Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2015. A total of 366 companies exhibited at the expo. (Chinatopix Via AP) CHINA OUT
Chinese-made Z-10 helicopters fly in formation during a demonstration at the Tianjin International Helicopter Expo in northern China’s Tianjin Municipality Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2015. A total of 366 companies exhibited at the expo. (Chinatopix Via AP) CHINA OUT
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