Despite the warming of cross-Strait ties over the past four years, in 2012, Taiwan and China will be occupied with political and leadership transitions, with electoral outcomes and succession arrangements potentially re-defining the cross-Strait status quo and yielding greater regional and international tension. On 14 January, Taiwan’s elections will be held for both the legislature and for the presidency. The citizens of the Republic of China (ROC or Taiwan) will cast three votes – one vote for the president, one vote for a legislator in a geographic district, and one vote for the party they prefer. In a nutshell, citizens will head to the polls to decide whether to re-elect incumbent Kuomintang (KMT) President Ma Ying-Jeou or elect the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) opposition candidate, Tsai Ing-Wen – candidates and parties with distinct policies and priorities.

President Ma Ying-Jeou campaigning (Source: flickr user *dans)

To compound this, China’s military and civilian leadership will undergo a major transition. Firstly, Vice President Xi Jinping will assume the position of General Secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) during the 18th Party Congress in fall 2012.  Secondly, it is unclear whether current President Hu Jintao will follow in the footsteps of his predecessor Jiang Zemin and remain CMC chairman for some time after relinquishing his other leadership roles. Thirdly, the uniformed Central Military Commission (CMC) membership is also expected to experience a major transition during the Congress; seven of the ten uniformed CMC members will have to retire based on age limits. Lastly, in December 2010, Defense Minister Liang highlighted the PLA’s shift towards a more rational force structure as the Navy, Air Force, and Second Artillery Corps take on a larger and more prominent place in the PLA.

As such, as Beijing and Taipei undergo domestic power shifts, the chances for misperception and misunderstanding in the military theatre will rise, with new leaders not yet tested, and new relationships fragile. On the one hand, in the past decade, the PLA has rapidly undergone modernizing its military, as well as acquiring new capabilities, including specific efforts to provide a credible range of military options in a cross-Strait contingency. According to the Pentagon’s 2011 report on the military and security developments of the PRC, in the current decade to 2020, the PLA is likely to expand these options, including those to deter, delay, or deny third party intervention. Just as any Taiwanese President – whether Ma or Tsai – is constrained by the limits of the possible within the Taiwan polity, so too are Hu, Xi and his colleagues atop the Communist hierarchy. As the goal of ‘reunification’ remains a core tenet of China’s own politics, and any movement away from it could spell trouble for any leadership in Beijing. Significantly, it has become apparent that China’s military and political leaders perceive that the balance of not only cross-Strait military forces and capabilities has shifted in their favor, but also that they have ability to overwhelm U.S. capabilities in the region as well. China’s growing military power has convinced its leaders that the mainland possesses credible options that go beyond rhetoric and economic harassment. Should another Taiwan crisis occur, Xi may be tempted to consolidate his position atop the CPC bureaucracy by flexing China’s military arm.

On the other hand, despite a sale of F16C/D aircraft being turned down in September 2011, at the end of last year, Taiwan remained one of U.S.’s four major arms buyers. Taiwan’s latest white paper, 2011 National Defense Report, for the first time credited the PLA with the ability to blockade Taiwan or capture Taiwan-held offshore islands. The MND also confirmed that China has begun operational deployment of the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile system, following a low-rate, initial production in 2010. This suggests a further significant addition to Beijing’s anti-access capability aimed at denying intervention by foreign, namely U.S., forces into the western Pacific region. The report also reiterated the shift in Taiwan’s key operational objective, amending the definition of ‘victory’ in a war with China from complete defeat of enemy forces to one centred on preventing enemy landing forces from establishing a secure foothold on the island. Recently, Ma has faced criticism for being too accommodating towards the mainland as well as his inability to fulfill his 2007 campaign commitment on defense spending. Additionally, his government’s track record on maintaining an adequate level of resources to defense has been dubious; factors which will likely lead to significant delays or even failure of a key campaign promise (all-volunteer force) could also have more direct political implications, particularly as Ma looks toward earning a second term in office.

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Sheryn Lee is currently the project officer with the joint Australian National University-Lowy Institute for International Policy 'Languages of Security in the Asia-Pacific' project, and a research assistant at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, ANU. She is currently authoring a chapter on China-Taiwan relations for the Routledge international handbook, East and Southeast Asia: International Relations and Security Perspectives. In 2011 she was the inaugural Robert O'Neill scholar to the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore and in 2010 was a T.B. Millar Scholar and Masters student in Strategy and Defence at the ANU.
Sheryn Lee has 1 post(s) on Asia Security Watch