Beijing flexes its muscle

China has used celebrations for the 80th anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on August 1 to send a belligerent message to the pro-independent government of Taiwan that Beijing will not tolerate the island’s increasingly bold steps to gain formal independence. Showcasing China’s growing confidence as a military power, nationwide celebrations this week brought a stark reminder that preventing the move by Taiwan toward independence remains the PLA’s priority.

China’s PLA has “the determination and the ability”, and is prepared “to stop Taiwan independence and serious incidents which Taiwan independence may bring”, Defence Minister Cao Gangchuan was quoted as saying by the state media. Bolstering Cao’s pledges, President Hu Jintao, who is also China’s top military commander, promised more money for military modernisation to include greater use of technology and the upgrading of defence-related science and weaponry.”

China’s demonstration of military strength comes as Taiwan’s ruling pro-independent party, the Democratic Progressive Party, is intensifying its campaign to consolidate Taiwan’s self-identity and sovereignty. President Chen Shui-bian has vowed to press ahead with a controversial referendum on whether the self-ruled island should apply for UN membership under the name Taiwan.

The island has been called the Republic of China since Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces fled there after suffering defeat by the Communist guerrilla armies of Mao Zedong in 1949. Beijing claims sovereignty over Taiwan despite nearly six decades of separate rule. Chen’s latest moves to bolster the pro-independence cause include advocating a referendum on the island for joining the UN in the name of Taiwan and sending two letters to the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon applying for Taiwan’s membership.

Taiwan was expelled from the UN in 1971 when its seat was given to the Beijing-based government of China. Since then Taiwan has fought fierce competition with China for international recognition. Over the years, the number of countries recognising mainland China has risen to 169 while Taiwan’s score has declined to 24. For the past 14 years Taiwan has also sought to re-join the UN using its official title, but failed at each attempt. Last month, another application was made using the title “Taiwan”.

The new bid however, suffered a defeat too. The UN rejected the application, citing a 1971 resolution that it adheres to the “one China” policy and recognises only the government in Beijing. Despite its failure, Chen’s UN bid has infuriated Beijing, which sees the referendum on the application as a prelude to holding an even more sensitive vote on Taiwanese independence.

A Pentagon report in May said China was rapidly modernising its military in view of future conflict across the Taiwan Strait. The build-up of other forces, such as air force and navy, has also seen marked acceleration. “China is prioritising measures to deter or counter third-party intervention,” the report said. Under the Taiwan relations Act of 1979, the US is bound to help defend Taiwan against attack by China. But Washington has been unhappy about Chen Shui-bian’s plans to hold a referendum because it fears it will intensify the tensions across the Taiwan Strait. — IPS