The United States and Taiwan have enjoyed a de facto alliance for nearly sixty years. President George W. Bush once threatened to intervene militarily against China in any conflict with Taiwan.
Of late, however, his administration has adopted appeasement as its preferred strategy towards Beijing, putting arms sales to Taiwan on hold. The policy is intended to pacify the People's Republic of China (PRC), but failing to equip Taipei with the weapons necessary for its defense is provocative and dangerous. The less able Taiwan is to deter Beijing from attempting to forcibly unify the two states, the more likely the United States will end up in conflict with the PRC.
The saga of the so-called Republic of China runs back more than a century and is tied up with the 1949 communist revolution. The last two Taiwanese presidents, Lee Teng-hui and Chen Sui-bian, moved away from the claim that Taipei represented one China towards the claim that Taiwan was independent. Beijing responded belligerently and Washington distanced itself from Taipei, viewing President Chen, in particular, as needlessly provocative.
Earlier this year Taiwanese voters gave Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang Party (KMT) back the presidency along with an overwhelming legislative majority. Taiwan's new president, Ma Ying-jeou, inaugurated in May, has promoted détente with China, and Beijing dropped its policy of isolation, adopted during Chen's presidency.
The two governments have been busy over the last four months. They have held direct talks and initiated direct and charter flights between China and Taiwan. Taipei has ended its ban on Chinese tourists, relaxed its restrictions on Taiwanese investment in China and its ban on Chinese investment in Taiwanese companies. Taipei also has retreated from its aggressive diplomatic campaign of seeking independent recognition.
"We are very happy we have a new direction," said Chang Liang-jen, deputy minister of the Mainland Affairs Council, in charge of Taipei's relations with China: "We are developing a détente, and loosening relations between the two sides." Liang Guanglie, China's defense minister, dropped his government's usual bellicosity and observed: "The Taiwan situation has undergone positive changes. The development of relations between the two sides faces a rare historical opportunity."
There is more to come. The two states are discussing direct shipping links and cross-strait banking, as well as "fly-beyond" rights, which would allow Taiwanese airlines to fly to China and then to another country, rather than back to Taiwan. Political talks are possible.
Taipei is using the improved atmosphere across the Taiwan Strait to better relations with the United States. His nation is no longer a "troublemaker" engaging in "provocative" behavior, says Jason Yuan, head of the Taiwan Economic and Cultural Representative Office (the island state's de facto ambassador to the United States). Yuan explained that President Ma "feels [China and Taiwan] should not challenge each other." Charles Freeman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies speaks of a "sea change in the warmth of relations between Washington and Taipei."
Although the Bush administration began in Taiwan's corner-in early 2001 President George W. Bush essentially promised that the United States would defend the island state from Chinese attack-the administration shifted toward Beijing after 9/11. Washington wanted the PRC's assistance in dealing with terrorism, waging war against Afghanistan and Iraq, and ending Iran's and North Korea's nuclear programs. The Chen government's drive for quasi-independence caused the Bush administration to put Taipei relations into deep freeze, even returning to Clinton administration policies of restricting transit visas for Taiwan's president when he sought to fly to Latin America via America.
Ironically, while Washington is now friendlier to Taipei, the underlying improvement in U.S.-China relations appears to have made the Bush administration more reluctant to provide Taiwan with arms. In 2001, the administration offered a $12 billion weapons package, including command, control, and communications systems, Patriot missile defense batteries, anti-tank missiles, diesel-electric submarines, Kidd-class destroyers, Apache and Black Hawk helicopters, and P3C anti-submarine warfare aircraft. The KMT-dominated legislature blocked most of the purchases as part of internecine political combat against the Chen government, approving the money only last year. Around the same time Taipei requested sixty-six F-16 C/D fighters for $4.9 billion.
However, fulfillment of the original arms package has stalled, while the Bush administration has refused to even accept the formal paperwork necessary for the F-16 sales. It is widely thought that the Bush administration has frozen arms sales to Taiwan. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack denied it, unpersuasively citing an ongoing "interagency process" which has yet to achieve "the final decision" as the reason for the delay. Admiral Timothy Keating, head of the United States Pacific Command, said "we are committed to the defense of Taiwan," but "there is no pressing, compelling need for, at this moment, arms sales to Taiwan of the systems that we're talking about." He said he was far more comfortable than last year "that it is very, very, very unlikely that there will be conflict across the straight."
At least the United States has agreed to sell Taipei $90 million worth of Harpoon air-launch anti-ship missiles. Andrew Yang of Taiwan's China Council of Advanced Policy Studies called this step "a good sign, a positive gesture that the United States. is taking some actions in regard to Taiwan's defense requests." Alas, these are but a tiny fraction of the weapons Taipei needs. Unfortunately, Taiwan's budget authority expires at the end of the year and time is running out to fulfill the United States legal requirement to notify Congress. Finally, no one knows what the next American administration will do.
Failing to sell Taipei the requested arms is extraordinarily short-sighted. Washington should pursue good relations with China, but the United States should not be obsequious about defending other interests in East Asia. One of them is America's relationship with Taiwan. Taipei, an important trading partner, has created a liberal, democratic and capitalistic state in a difficult neighborhood. It deserves America's best wishes and even support.
That doesn't mean a blank check, of course. The United States should not go to war to defend Taiwan. Assuming that Beijing, which has far more at stake in Taipei's future than does America, would back down in a crisis is a wild gamble. And a real war would be extremely costly: China, a nuclear-armed power with growing conventional capabilities, is not Serbia or Iraq. Risking Los Angeles for Taipei would be no deal for America. War should be reserved for defending truly vital interests which are not present in this case.
But the United States should provide Taiwan with the tools to defend itself. The PRC has been steadily improving its military forces, and particularly amphibious, naval and missile capabilities, all useful in threatening Taiwan. Over the last eight years, argues Ed Ross, a defense consultant, "Taiwan's relative air, missile defense and antisubmarine warfare capabilities fell further behind as important Taiwan's military acquisitions were postponed. China, however, purchased advanced weapons from the Soviet Union and increased funding for its own military research and development programs." Since 2001 Beijing has increased the number of missiles aimed at Taiwan from four hundred to some 1250. While China has eased its rhetoric since Ma's election, it has not changed its military deployments.
Taipei need not match the military of a country with sixty-times its population and a larger economy. But Taiwan should develop a deterrent capability which would cause Beijing to pause before attempting military action or coercion. That means possessing the capability to impose a high cost on Chinese adventurism and create a meaningful risk of failure of any attack. Taiwanese Lieutenant General Chiu Kuo-cheng defended Taiwan's July war games, noting: "Even if relations are warming, we will not relax in our war preparedness." President Ma reiterated his government's support for the weapons purchases, stating: "Our stance will definitely not change just because we have improved relations with the mainland." Although the PRC is an economic opportunity, he added, it "remains the biggest threat to Taiwan's security." With "more than a thousand Chinese missiles pointing at us, we need to be well-prepared to defend ourselves."
Such a Taiwanese force is important not just to deter an attack. By foreclosing China's military option, Taipei gains a better negotiating position with China. John Tkacik of the Heritage Foundation notes that President Ma "has pledged to improve Taiwan's relations with China, but even he understands that to deal with Beijing, he must be in a position to negotiate from strength."
While the United States should not be the defender of last resort, much of East Asia looks at it in this way. Denying Taiwan the wherewithal to defend itself-unfortunately, few other high-tech military producers are willing to buck China and sell arms to Taipei-would make it harder for the United States to stay out of any conflict which its policies thereby made more likely.
J. Peter Pham of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs warns: "At a time when the capabilities of the People's Liberation Army are rapidly expanding, the delicate cross-strait balance is being jeopardized. Not only will the effective suspension of arms sales undermine the balance of power, it will also increase the burden on the United States, because Washington must make up for the gap in the security capacity of the East Asian democracies, which depend on an overstretched U.S. military. Most ominously, should American forces ever have to intervene in a cross-strait ‘unification' scenario, they will be at a disadvantage."