China Leadership Monitor

The PLA, Chen Shui-Bian, and the Referenda: The War Dogs That Didn't Bark

Friday, April 30, 2004

In the fall of 2003, Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian put forward a series of controversial proposals, including calls for referenda on various sensitive issues and reform of the 1947 constitution. This program sent immediate shock waves through the Taiwan presidential election campaign and roiled the policy establishments in Beijing and Washington. On the Chinese side, strongly worded condemnations of Chen's behavior came almost exclusively from civilian government and party channels, while senior military officials and the military propaganda apparatus were notably silent. The relative silence of authoritative military statements, complemented by the lack of evidence in open sources of troop movements, exercises, or other escalatory behavior, signals important changes in strategy and tactics with respect to Taiwan. This new posture contrasts starkly with the 1995–96 and even 2000 crises, when People's Liberation Army (PLA) voices were among the most aggressive and threatening. This subtler, nuanced strategy tracks with broader evidence of China's "new diplomacy" in the region, which seeks to achieve security goals with a more indirect approach. It is also consistent with Chinese strategy since the 2000 presidential election that has emphasized the twin pillars of economic inducement and a united front with the opposition while avoiding public displays of military coercion in favor of the quiet, serious preparation of military hedging options.