Interesting Times: The People’s Liberation Army and Taiwan

This text is a supplement to Interesting Times: China, America, and the Shifting Balance of Prestige, by Chas W. Freeman, Jr., published by Just World Books in January 2013. Other texts offered in this series can be accessed here.

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The People’s Liberation Army and Taiwan

Remarks by Chas Freeman to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, December 6, 1998, Washington, D.C.

There is no reason to doubt Chinese sincerity in seeking a “peaceful international environment” so that China can continue its economic reconstruction. To that end, China has settled its territorial disputes with Russia and is forging a broad partnership with it. It has developed mutually beneficial economic cooperation and security dialogue with Japan and Western European nations. China would like a similarly stable relationship with the United States. Many of its regional objectives are congruent with those of the United States. Beijing has sought to avoid chaos or war on the Korean Peninsula, to preserve Pakistan as a counter to Indian hegemony in South Asia, and to promote amicable relations with Southeast Asian nations. China’s military objectives remain modest and—in its view—limited to the defense of Chinese sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The PLA was established by the Chinese Communist Party, which used it to establish the People’s Republic of China—the Chinese state. It differs from all other modern forces in that it remains subordinate to the party, which also commands the state. Its raison d’être is the defense of the state it helped establish and the party that created it. The missions assigned to the PLA are:

  • defense of the borders and territories currently controlled by China against further efforts by foreign nations to alter or detach them;
  • backing for Chinese diplomatic efforts to avoid permanent separation of territories wrested from China by great power intervention—the European seizures of Hong Kong and Macao, the Japanese annexation of Taiwan and the Senkaku (Diaoyu) archipelago, and U.S. Cold War efforts to foster a rival Chinese regime on Taiwan—and to achieve the ultimate incorporation of these territories under the sovereignty of the People’s Republic of China;
  • establishment of secure and recognized maritime boundaries for the Chinese state where longstanding Chinese claims are now subject to challenge, as in the case of post-independence claims by the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Vietnam to islets and reefs in the South China Sea and by the Koreas and Indonesia to continental-shelf and other seabed resources;
  • retaking Taiwan by force, should Chinese diplomacy fail (unlike Hong Kong and Macao, where it succeeded);
  • the protection of other borders, should these be subjected to military challenge (e.g., by Russia, India, Vietnam, or other member states of ASEAN);
  • guaranteeing the Chinese state against external intervention, coercion, or dictation by other great powers; and
  • backing China’s ultimate emergence as a world power with “comprehensive strength.”

Notably absent from this list are many of the aspirations and objectives that made the rise of other great powers, such as the United States, Germany, Japan, and the Soviet Union, so disruptive of international peace and security. China asserts no doctrine of “manifest destiny” or hemispheric exclusion. It has no ideology of Lebensraum to motivate territorial expansion. Its revanchism does not extend to areas inhabited and claimed by non-Chinese. China does not seek to bring additional minority (non-Han) peoples within its borders. The CCP now has no universal set of values and beliefs it can explain to its own people, still less an ideology it seeks to impose on others.

China appears to believe that access to distant resources is best guaranteed by an open international trading system rather than by power projection.[1] It has no colonies or satellites and no apparent impulse to establish them. China stations no troops beyond its own borders, as it defines them. It vehemently denies its desire to establish an East Asian order similar to that of the pre-Western colonial era, when Beijing’s power overawed China’s neighbors.

However limited Chinese objectives may be, however, some of them directly affect the interests of the United States and its allies, especially Japan. Ultimately, China’s aspirations conflict with the understandable American desire to remain unchallenged as the single global power and to continue to be primus inter pares in the Asia-Pacific arena.

The principal issue between the United States and China arises, however, from China’s ambition to undo its dismemberment by past foreign intervention: specifically, to reincorporate Taiwan, if only symbolically, under a single Chinese sovereignty. This imperative is at the very heart of modern Chinese nationalism. Despite Beijing’s patient preference for a political solution of the problem of Taiwan’s relationship to the rest of China,[2] there can be no doubt about its willingness to use force against Taiwan if it must. Beijing has made it clear that it will intervene militarily if the island’s politics, aided and abetted by American or other forces (e.g., Japanese sympathy for Taiwanese separatism), seem to be taking Taiwan toward independence or otherwise foreclosing the possibility of Taiwan’s ultimate reassociation with “China” under a single sovereignty.

That is, unfortunately, precisely where Beijing believes Taipei is now[3] headed. The need to deter Taiwanese separatism and possible American military backing for it has given Chinese military modernization the sense of urgency and focus it had previously lacked. Beijing has long had the capability to intimidate Taiwan through military measures short of war, as it showed from July 1995 through March 1996. The PLA’s post–March 1996 obsession with building the capability to conquer Taiwan, and with being able to sink American aircraft carriers, if it must, to do so, will not produce a credible invasion capability for a decade or so. Eventually, however, it will.

[1] “Power projection”” is taught in Chinese military academies as part of the course on foreign military doctrines. China seeks to join existing international organizations on as favorable terms as possible, rather than to overthrow or displace such institutions.

[2] Unlike India, which seized Goa by force, or Indonesia, which did the same with Irian Jaya and East Timor, China was willing to wait for negotiated solutions of both the Hong Kong and Macao issues. Beijing’s opening reunification proposal to Taiwan concedes that the island’s economic and political systems would remain unchanged by reunification, that Taiwan could keep its armed forces, and that no civilian or military officials from the mainland would be stationed in Taiwan after reunification. Taiwan would thus enjoy an enhanced version of the “one country, two systems” scheme to be applied in Hong Kong and Macao. Taipei is naturally skeptical about the sincerity and reliability of these PRC positions, which would symbolically subordinate Taiwan to Beijing.

[3] 1998–99.


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