First, drop the gun

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 August, 2010, 12:00am

At long last, a mainland official has spoken publicly about the missiles along the coast facing Taiwan and has acknowledged the island's desire to be rid of them. Despite the great improvement in cross-strait relations since Ma Ying-jeou became president more than two years ago, the mainland has continued to build up its missiles in Fujian province, across from Taiwan.

In late 2007, when the virulently pro-independence Chen Shui-bian was president, the Pentagon estimated that Beijing had deployed about 1,000 short-range missiles opposite Taiwan and was increasing the number by more than 100 missiles a year.

Instead of ceasing such deployments after Ma's inauguration, the mainland appears to have accelerated the build-up. Military experts now say the People's Liberation Army has over 1,600 missiles targeting Taiwan.

Senior Colonel Geng Yansheng , the new spokesman for the Chinese military, said last week that 'issues relating to cross-strait military deployments' could be included in future talks on confidence-building measures as long as Taiwan accepted the 'one China' principle.

Taiwan's defence ministry responded by saying: 'We would like to see China remove the missiles on its own initiative and let the Taiwan people feel Beijing's goodwill.' Quite right.

While Colonel Geng did not go into detail, it is evident that Beijing wants to engage Taiwan in talks before dismantling its missiles. This is akin to a gunman who has a weapon pointed at another man's head saying that the two can negotiate over terms for the removal of the gun. It is blackmail, plain and simple.

If Beijing really wants to win the hearts and minds of its 'compatriots' in Taiwan, it does not need to negotiate. Their permission was not sought before the missiles were installed so there is no need to get them to agree to terms before their removal.

Of course, asking for negotiations before the unilaterally installed missiles are removed is not entirely the same thing as asking the victim to hand over his wallet before the threatening gun is put away. It is worse. Many 'compatriots' in Taiwan may well feel that they will be asked to surrender something infinitely more precious - their autonomy.

The only way for Beijing to extricate itself from this situation with its honour more or less intact is if the missiles are withdrawn unilaterally, too. Asking Taiwan to pay a price - any price - is playing the bully.

This may well be the work of the military, not the civilian leadership. But, if so, Beijing should be aware that it is allowing the generals to tarnish China's image at a time when other parts of the government are working hard to improve China's reputation.

For example, with the signing of the Economic Co-operation Framework Agreement, Beijing is making it clear that it will no longer be an obstacle when Taiwan seeks to negotiate agreements with its trading partners.

Last week, in a major breakthrough, Taiwan and Singapore announced their intention to explore the signing of a trade pact before the end of the year. Beijing's response was mild. The foreign ministry urged 'relevant countries' to handle the issue 'cautiously' while the State Council's Taiwan Affairs Office said it believed Singapore would abide by the 'one China' principle.

The words amounted to a green light for the two to go ahead. Taiwan is also looking at possible trade accords with Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand. Agreements with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, India and Japan may follow.

Previously isolated Taiwan now sees that economic marginalisation is no longer necessarily its fate in a region where its major trading partners are negotiating accords with one another. This is largely because Beijing was far-sighted enough not to put up obstacles.

If only the PLA generals could be as far-sighted, there might be less hostility towards the mainland on the part of the 23 million people in Taiwan.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator