Tipping the Scale

Published date01 August 2014
Date01 August 2014
Subject MatterArticles
Tipping the Scale: PRC’s
Military Modernization
and Cross-Taiwan Straits
Alexander C. Tan*
As long as China considers Taiwan as part of its sovereign territory, China will
always be the primary security threat to Taiwan. The modernization of the
People’s Liberation Army (PLA) over the last two decades is certainly a threat
to Taiwan’s security. Yet, cross-Straits relation since 2008 has been relatively
peaceful and less confrontational. In this article, I suggest that while Taiwan’s mili-
tary establishment has warned of the dangers and threats of China’s increasingly
modernized military capabilities, the dynamics of the Taiwanese domestic politics
as well as the burgeoning economic and trade ties between China and Taiwan
have jointly served to shift Taiwan’s focus from the military to the political and
economic aspect of its security. Resulting from this shift away from the military
dimension of cross-Straits relation, then, China–Taiwan relationship while con-
tentious has been decidedly less confrontational and more predictable.
China, Taiwan, cross-Taiwan Straits relations, PLA modernization, military
As China’s economy continues to grow at a brisk pace, its military has benefitted
tremendously from a growing defence budget. As of 2012, China’s defence
expenditure is second only to the United States. The rapid modernization of the
People’s Liberation Army (PLA) provides China with military and defence capa-
bilities that it previously did not possess. It is without a doubt that the growing
Journal of Asian Security
and International Affairs
1(2) 127–144
2014 SAGE Publications India
Private Limited
SAGE Publications
Los Angeles, London,
New Delhi, Singapore,
Washington DC
DOI: 10.1177/2347797014536642
*Alexander C. Tan is a Professor of Political Science in the Department of Political
Science at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. He can be contacted at: alex.
Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs, 1, 2 (2014): 127–144
128 Alexander C. Tan
PLA capabilities have made China more assertive in territorial claims in the
region (e.g., Spratleys, Diaoyutai/Senkaku).
The reverberations of these growing capabilities are felt both near and afar.
Already, the United States has announced its ‘rebalancing’ to Asia and the uneasy
neighbours of China are also upgrading their own defence capabilities in
response. Of China’s neighbours, Taiwan is in the most precarious and most
vulnerable position as it is directly claimed by China as an integral part of its
national territory. Unlike other neighbours, Taiwan is not recognized by most
states in the region. Apart from the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, promulgated
by the United States Congress, Taiwan does not have formal defence treaties
with other countries and has limited ability to buy arms. In fact, while the Taiwan
Relations Act commits the United States to the defence of Taiwan in the case of
an attack from China, the United States has been strategically ambiguous on that
Although, recent cross-Straits relations has improved, the fact of the matter is
the political issue of unification with the mainland is still on the table and the
PRC has not renounced the use of force to unify Taiwan to the mainland. In rec-
ognition of these twin realities—China’s political aspirations for reunification
and its military modernization—Taiwan’s 2013 National Defence Report warns
that military threat from China is increasing and that by 2020 China’s combat
capabilities will be at a point where it will be able to mount a full attack on
Taiwan. As China improves militarily, the qualitative edge that Taiwan’s military
had in the past has slowly diminished (Murray, 2013; Roy, 2003). How does the
increasing tipping of the scale in favour of China impact on cross-Strait relations?
In this article, I argue that the military modernization of the PLA, while being
perceived as a security threat by Taiwan’s defence establishment (especially the
military), has not been very prominent in the domestic politics of Taiwan as threat
perception of the elites and the public is focuses more on the political and the
In the next section, I present a brief discussion of the China’s military moderni-
zation and highlighting some of the changes in China’s navy and air force as the
developments of these two forces is of direct importance to Taiwan. Following
this discussion, I relate the modernization of the PLA to the recent assertiveness
of China pertaining its sovereignty and territorial claims in the East and South
China Seas. I suggest that while China has become more assertive, probably
emboldened by its modernized military, China’s assertiveness is selective and
since 2008 cross-Strait relations is more peaceful and significantly less confron-
tational. I, then, examine the reasons why China’s military modernization has not
necessarily translated to a confrontational cross-Strait relation by suggesting that
the dynamics of Taiwan’s domestic politics and public opinion as well as the bur-
geoning economic ties have served as a restraint and constraint creating a plat-
form for a more predictable and less confrontational cross-Strait relations since
2008, despite significant modernization of the PLA and the increasing asymmetry
of the military capabilities.

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