Would China invade Taiwan?

Retired Chinese generals have urged military action well ahead of 2008 Olympics.

Since the reelection of President Chen Shui-bian in Taiwan last March, it has been difficult for Chinese planners to argue convincingly that the island can be peacefully reunified with the mainland anytime soon.

The situation has created new tensions. Chinese diplomats recently leaked information that retired generals urged military head Jiang Zemin to take swift action against Taiwan - to settle the cross-straits issue well ahead of the 2008 Olympics to be held in Beijing.

It is a conundrum for China's leaders. Some circles here argue that to not force changes on Taiwan will undermine party legitimacy. After Tiananmen Square the deal China made with its upper-middle-class elites was to forge a great nation, and that this dream could not be delivered without Taiwan.

Other circles argue the consequences of aggression are far too unpredictable: that an attack could irrevocably harm China's rise as an economic superpower, destroy the fragile unity of the party leadership should it go badly, and set the rest of Asia against Beijing.

Few analysts feel Beijing will attack the island of 23 million. However, dozens of arguments and schools of thought exist about why China might or might not take the fateful leap. After two weeks of discussions with academics and diplomats in Hong Kong, Taipei, and Beijing, several themes emerged.

Why an attack is unlikely

China has slowly developed currency as a mainstream state - for the first time ever. Should Beijing use military action against Taiwan without a horrible provocation it may well lose that image.

If a fracas with Taiwan got ugly, China's more than $50 billion a year in direct investment could dry up, jeopardizing its booming east coast manufacturing infrastructure. Its trade surplus with the US, between $60 and $100 billion a year, would likely suffer as well. New interest groups inside China - in banking, manufacturing - could begin a major grumbling campaign if money stops arriving, sources say.

"For political and economic reasons [a military solution to Taiwan] is a big loser for them," says Derek Mitchell, Asia specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "China wants to focus on internal development, peace, and stability. They don't want to signal that they solve problems with a gun."

Military action could also destabilize Asia. China would force small regional states to choose between the US and China - something few want to do.

More significantly, cross-straits violence could waken a deeply contentious undercurrent between Japan and China. Should China attack Taiwan, nationalist factions in Tokyo could have "every excuse they need," one Japanese scholar says, to develop the nuclear-weapons capability that many in Tokyo are already hinting about.

The consequences could bring a changed Japanese economic strategy: The Japanese would do everything they could, a Tokyo source in a Taiwan trading house states, to redirect the markets of Asia, including its own, away from China. "We will lose money" to restructure east Asian markets and "change the future," the source says.

Nor would Moscow ignore an attack on Taiwan. On the contrary, a foreign diplomat here argues that military action across the straits could provide Moscow an excuse to sell oil exclusively to Japan. Russia is not desirous of China developing quickly into a superpower; it can use oil as a stick, not a carrot, in the relationship. An aggressive China "presses a lot of old historical buttons," for Russia says one diplomat. A pipeline across Siberia that may well branch off to both China and Japan could be scrapped - leaving Japan the sole beneficiary. Oil is a highly sensitive question in Beijing: China reportedly has only a 20-day reserve, and is now 75 percent reliant on the Middle East.

Finally, China has no desire to destroy its relationship with the US.

Why an attack might happen

Time is not on Beijing's side. A few years ago party brain-trusts argued that economic integration would force Taiwan into the fold. Yet, politically, Taiwan is becoming more, not less, self- contained and democratic. Taiwan is planning to amend its constitution and restructure its government. Such plans are viewed askance in a communist party structure not known for adaptability or negotiating questions that can be solved by power. China's military states it is "nearly ready" for a strike.

Some China watchers say the internal dynamics at the top are forcing Beijing to take action. In this speculative argument, China's leaders cannot agree deeply on much except the need to acquire Taiwan. Internal factional struggles, it is argued, are forcing decisions based on patriotism - even if privately leaders are opposed to military action.

"Taiwan is one of the two pillars of Beijing's legitimacy. Regaining Taiwan brings an end to historical humiliation," says Mr. Mitchell of CSIS. "For the Chinese psyche, the unity of the nation is equated to national greatness."

Another case: China can launch its forces because the Americans did so in Iraq. This view is popular on the street.

The argument meshes with one heard in more elite circles: The US is too busy in Iraq to get involved over a small Pacific island. Yan Xuetong, Tsinghua University professor and top advocate for military action, argues that a military venture that brings Taiwan to the negotiating table would get limited international attention, "something like Israeli-Palestinian conflict."

The inverse of this argument is also getting play. It suggests the world will react badly to an aggression on Taiwan but that soon enough "everyone will get over it," as one expert stated. Pro-military thinkers bank heavily on this point.

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