The plan for Taiwan’s first national day military parade in sixteen years is much in the news today, notably on the front page of Thursday’s Financial Times. The reason is that rumor suggests the country’s new, indigenously-developed cruise missile, capable of hitting targets as distant as Shanghai, may be displayed publicly for the first time during the parade
We may confidently expect much misinformation to follow in the media, with the most important falsehood being an assertion the development of the cruise missile and Taiwan’s increasingly capable anti-air and anti-ship weapons, are a “provocation” against China, being cynically engineered by the unpopular current President Chen Shuibian for his own political purposes. So it is important to understand that Taiwan’s quest for defense capabilities beyond ambiguous statements by the United States has deep roots.
Taiwan’s indigenous self-defense programs date back to the 1950’s, when the dictatorial Kuomintang of Chiang Kai-shek was firmly in control and current President Chen Shuibian (born 1951) was a toddler. Important steps included the foundation of the science- and engineering-focused National Tsing Hua University, in 1956, and the establishment of the Chung Shan Institute of Science and Technology, a military research center, in 1969.
Taiwan was clearly influenced by Israeli steps to ensure an indigenous defense capability. The first Taiwanese missiles are thought to have been based on the Israeli Gabriel (1962). From these steps flowed development of a carefully-considered array of defensive and counter-strike missiles as well as a nuclear program that made major advances before the United States forced its shut down in 1988.
My own view is that, judged militarily and strategically, such capabilities are essential to Taiwan. They give the country the credible ability to stop a Chinese attack on their own. I believe, moreover, that they will help stabilize the situation in the Strait by restoring some of the balance that was lost when the United States ended its military alliance in 1979.
Whether flaunting these new weapons in a politicized parade makes sense is, however, another question. (My own inclination would be to maintain a low profile and stress the country’s powerful desire for peace.) But the insistence of the 23 million Taiwanese people that they be recognized internationally is bipartisan. Furthermore, being quiet and low key (as we Americans invariably advise) has gotten them nothing, other than a steadily-building deployment of Chinese ballistic missiles targeted on them from just across the Strait, rigid exclusion from the international community, and American dithering over whether supply even of F-16’s is appropriate.
The current welling-up of national feeling in Taiwan is correctly understood not as the product of ploys by a president whose popularity has been plunging (as Washington regularly suggests). Rather it is exactly the sort of rooted and organic nationalism with which history and political scientists have long been familiar. It should tell us something that the person charged with planning the October 10th celebrations and parade is not a Chen Shuibian loyalist, but the speaker of Taiwan’s legislative branch, Wang Jin-pyng, from the opposition Kuomintang party.