Today is February 28th, which is the most important date in post-war Taiwanese history:

On that day, [57] years ago in 1947, an incident took place in Taipei, which led to the massive slaughter of thousands of Taiwanese at the hands of Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese troops.

The event was the beginning of 40 years of repressive martial law on the island…

Which helps explain why today was chosen for the largest mass protest in Taiwanese history:

More than a million people have linked hands the length of Taiwan in a demonstration against China.

The 500km human chain, organised by supporters of President Chen Shui-bian, was in protest at China’s deployment of missiles against Taiwan.

Michael Swaine of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has an article in Foreign Affairs arguing that Bush was right to side with China against Taiwanese democracy. While there is no doubt that current moves by Chen Sui-bian have everything to do with the upcoming elections, Swaine’s argument that the fiction of Taiwan being a part of China is necessary to preserve regional (and world) stability is highly flawed. For one thing, it is a circular argument: Anything that changes the status-quo is a threat to stability, so therefore a referendum is a threat to stability. It is amazing that this stuff gets published. But more than that, there are some very misleading use of facts in the article:

The island — ruled as a prefecture by the Manchu Qing Dynasty for more than two hundred years before becoming a Chinese province in 1887 — was forcibly seized by imperial Japan in 1895 and came under de facto U.S. protection shortly after Japan’s defeat in World War II.

This is true, but it is like saying that California is part of Mexico because it was ruled by Spain from 1769 to 1821. Not only is the PRC not the Qing Dynasty, but for most of that time Taiwan was an unruly, rebellious outpost over which the central government exerted little control. Only once it became a province in 1887 was there any serious effort to impose imperial rule. With the loss of the island to the Japanese, the task of rationalizing and modernizing the province remained for the Japanese to do. Without romanticizing the brutality of colonial rule (especially for the Aborigines who were massacred at this time), it is safe to say that it was as part of Japan, not China, that the modern Taiwanese nation-state emerged.

But even more important is the extent to which the article overstates the Chinese threat to the island:

A war with China over Taiwan would, of course, be far more dangerous than any of the United States’ post-Cold War operations. Although not a match for the United States, China is nonetheless a continental power with very large conventional ground, naval, and air forces, as well as a nuclear weapons arsenal capable of reaching any target in the United States and beyond. Taiwan’s proximity to China, the difficulty involved in interdicting Chinese attacks without directly striking the Chinese mainland, and the historical inclination of both sides to display resolve in a crisis through decisive — and sometimes rapid — military action suggest that escalation might prove extremely difficult to control.

When I was living in Taiwan I met two people who had done extensive research into China’s military capabilities. One was a specialist in foreign relations who interviewed high level military specialists in Taiwan and the United States, the other was an ex-Marine who was planning for a career in military intelligence. Both informed me that the consensus was that China did not have the capability to take over Taiwan. Yes, they had lots of big weapons, and they could easily destroy the island, but that would never be their goal. They want to integrate Taiwan into the PRC, not destroy it. It is one thing to lob missiles over the straight, it is quite another to launch an amphibious invasion. China’s troops are ill equipped and under trained for such an action. I was told that even if they started preparing for such an invasion now, it would take at least 15 years for them to get ready. And this was assuming that Taiwan was on its own, without American support.

More of my thoughts on the issue can be found in this older post, where I argue that the best way to approach the issue is in terms of the local politics on each side of the Taiwan straight, rather than grandiose international relations theorizing which all too often over simplifies complex issues. But I think that no matter how much we might disagree with the choices made by Taiwan’s leaders, we should respect their legitimacy as democratically elected officials. Does Bush think one million people (out of a population of 20 million) forming a human chain across an island the size of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined is a focus group”?

NOTE: A short history of the 2-28 incident can be found here

UPDATE: The opposition is having a blood donation rally. Giving blood vs. holding hands. Both are a lot better than gay-bashing to get votes.

UPDATE: From the Washington Post:

Although China has an estimated 500 missiles capable of hitting Taiwan, 100 miles off the mainland, foreign officials and military experts say they do not believe the Chinese military has the training to mount an invasion. The newly built or newly purchased ships and equipment have yet to be fitted and manned, a process that takes several years. The Pentagon estimates that China now has the ability to sealift only about one division, or 10,000 men.

But some of these observers have concluded that the rapid shipbuilding program, combined with other acquisitions and training, could provide China’s leaders with a limited military option — probably short of a full invasion — within several years. That would greatly strengthen Beijing’s hand when, in the eyes of Chinese leaders, the most dangerous period of the Taiwan crisis is likely to arise.