Building Trust Across the Taiwan Strait

A Role for Military Confidence-building Measures

In the 18 months since Ma Ying-jeou’s inauguration, Taiwan’s relations with mainland China have improved at a rapid pace. The resumption of quasi-official talks between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait has led to a series of landmark agreements. Among other promising results, the commencement of direct flights, shipping, and postal services have been important steps toward reconciliation. Nevertheless, officials and scholars on both sides of the strait recognize that progress has thus far been limited to relatively easy issues and that addressing such delicate, yet critical, topics as sovereignty and military deployments will require a prolonged period of time and greater political trust.

One such sensitive area is cross-strait military confidence-building measures (CBMs), that is, efforts to improve military-to-military relations in ways that reduce fears of attack and the potential for military miscalculation. Examples of CBMs include hotlines—direct telephone links between heads of state, military leaders, or commanders—and other activities intended to increase transparency, such as publishing defense white papers or providing pre-notification of military exercises. In relationships characterized by mistrust and military tension, such as the one that has historically existed between the authorities on mainland China and Taiwan, CBMs may play a helpful role in building trust and preventing unintended conflict.

To better understand how officials and experts on both sides of the strait are thinking about pursuing military CBMs and creating appropriate conditions for cross-strait discussions of CBMs, a Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)–led delegation visited Taipei and Beijing from August 24 to 28, 2009. This report is based in part on the views shared with us during that visit.

In principle, both sides of the strait agree on the need for bilateral military CBMs, although Beijing is interested in CBMs primarily as a means to build political trust, while Taipei seeks CBMs to avoid accidents and create a more predictable security environment. More importantly, for Taiwan, CBMs should aid in preserving the status quo, whereas the mainland hopes that CBMs will promote reunification.

In addition to differing priorities and objectives, there are other obstacles to an agreement on a cross-strait CBM agenda. In Taiwan, domestic politics impose a serious constraint on progress. Although a majority of Taiwan’s people supports President Ma’s overall approach to the mainland, there is still sharp disagreement within Taiwan over his specific policies. Ma’s general lack of popularity, due in part to other perceived shortcomings of his presidency, has complicated his efforts to build better relations with the mainland. Further complicating the issue is the belief that talks with Beijing on military CBMs cannot begin without visible support from the United States, which many in Taiwan see as necessary to reduce Taiwan’s sense of vulnerability and counter the impression domestically that Ma is tilting toward mainland China. On this note, scholars and officials from Taiwan insist that U.S. arms sales to Taiwan should continue and should not be affected by negotiations over cross-strait military CBMs, if such talks get under way.

There are also differences between the mainland and Taiwan over whether preconditions must be met before CBM talks can commence. President Ma has suggested that military CBMs could be negotiated as part of a cross-strait peace accord, but he insists that Beijing first remove the approximately 1,500 missiles that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has deployed against Taiwan. Many on the mainland, however, are loathe to offer such concessions, insisting that any adjustments in military deployments must be reciprocal and the result of bilateral negotiation.

From Taipei’s perspective, it is premature to initiate talks on CBMs, including authorized discussions between scholars. Officials emphasize that greater cross-strait political trust must be achieved, a domestic consensus must be forged, and ties with the United States must be strengthened before any discussions can begin. Taipei prefers to adhere to the already agreed upon approach of tackling economic issues before political and security issues, and easy problems before harder ones. Although the People’s Republic of China (PRC) agrees with this approach in principle, there is a palpable sense of urgency among many Chinese researchers to move forward with informal talks on military CBMs as well as political issues. They worry about Ma Yingjeou’s persistent low rating in public opinion polls and the possibility that the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which continues to advocate independence and would not likely respect the current agreement with the Kuomintang (KMT) to set aside the dispute over sovereignty, could return to power in 2012 or 2016. There is also concern that if discussion of political and security issues is postponed too long, obstacles to further cooperation in the economic sphere may emerge.

U.S. support for cross-strait military CBMs is consistent with the long-standing U.S. position that differences between the two sides of the strait should be settled peacefully through negotiations. A central reason that the United States has backed cross-strait CBMs is that a PRC-Taiwan military conflict, even if triggered by an accident or miscalculation, would likely result in U.S. involvement. U.S. government officials do not expect to participate directly in talks on crossstrait CBMs or seek to influence the agenda or the pace of discussions between the mainland and Taiwan. The mainland hopes that the United States will encourage Taiwan to negotiate crossstrait CBMs but will not get involved in those discussions. Many in Taiwan favor a bigger role for the United States, perhaps as guarantor of an agreement.

Despite the challenges, there is great potential for implementing military CBMs between the two sides of the strait. Although the deeply held suspicions between the mainland and Taiwan endure, some political trust has been accumulated during Ma Ying-jeou’s presidency, laying the groundwork for closer cooperation and increased confidence that both parties are working toward mutually beneficial outcomes. Maintaining this momentum will require good-faith efforts by mainland China, Taiwan, and the United States. The mainland needs to be patient and focus efforts on creating conditions that are conducive to beginning talks with Taiwan on military CBMs. This includes signaling its goodwill through unilateral steps of greater transparency, modifications of military exercises, and adjustments in deployments of missiles opposite Taiwan. For Taiwan, furthering the cause of military CBMs depends on the ability of its domestic leadership to bridge the political divide while also taking into account China’s interests and sensitivities. The United States should continue to express its firm support for the ongoing process of easing cross-strait tensions and trust building and take reasonable steps to bolster Taipei’s sense of security and confidence in the U.S.-Taiwan relationship.

Ralph A. Cossa

Bonnie S. Glaser