Trouble in Taipei

Trouble in Taipei

Self-reliance is a great American virtue. Let's export it to Taiwan by selling the Taiwanese some weapons, so they can defend themselves from their "big brother" across the strait.


Of course, we all should hope that the new China-Taiwan relationship presages a peaceful settlement of their dispute over the island's status. But while détente across the Taiwan Strait is a positive development, Taiwan's new restrained attitude has only delayed rather than eliminated the threat of conflict with China. The atmospherics are good, but the underlying substantive issues remain unchanged. The PRC sees only one outcome of negotiations: Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan. Beijing's ambassador to the United States, Zhou Wenzhong, recently told the Washington Times: "We have made clear that, as long as they agree to the one-China principle, everything can be discussed," including military and diplomatic issues.

But President Ma's more conciliatory stance does not mean that he is interested in trading away Taiwanese sovereignty. The number of Taiwanese who want to be ruled from Beijing is tiny. True PRC partisans might fill a couple of phone booths in Taipei. More Taiwanese undoubtedly would accept some form of submission under extreme duress, but the goal of Taiwan's government, including the current one, is to avoid such a situation.


Which means that the essential cause of potential conflict between China and Taipei remains. Today's détente might have pushed the flashpoint down the road a few years. But Beijing's patience is not unlimited. Deng Xiaoping talked about taking a century to resolve the issue, but today's leadership has demonstrated its desire for a much quicker resolution.

Even now tensions have not fully disappeared from the relationship. The two governments argued over Taiwan's designation in the Olympics. After Beijing agreed to "Taipei Chinese" rather than "Taipei China," which implied Taiwan was part of China, the Chinese media used Taipei China (Beijing rather hilariously argued that PRC journalists were not under the government's control). Moreover, despite Taiwan's call for China to demonstrate "goodwill amid improving ties," the PRC rejected out of hand Taipei's proposal to join UN specialized agencies but not the UN itself. "There is only one China in the world, and Taiwan is part of China," said Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang.

Thus, it is critical that Taipei remain prepared for conflict. It appears to have become complacent, relying upon the United States for its protection. A decade ago Taiwan had four hundred fifty thousand men under arms; by 2012 the armed services will have only two hundred thousand personnel. Taipei says that it is professionalizing its force, but this drawdown has occurred over a decade when military outlays were anemic and little force modernization occurred. Andrew Yang opines that Taipei is "reducing expenditure on personnel and freeing up funds to upgrade high-tech systems and increase the level of professionalism across the board." But if Taiwan believes it is facing a genuine invasion threat from across the Taiwan Strait, it should both professionalize and expand its military. And Washington should help it do so.

America should adopt a two-fold policy, obvious to both Beijing and Taipei. First, the United States intends to maintain a close relationship with Taiwan. That means meeting any reasonable request from Taipei to purchase weapons that would better enable the island state to defend itself. It also means expanding non-military ties, particularly negotiating a free trade agreement-admittedly difficult in today's political environment.

Second, while Washington does not plan on intervening militarily in any conflict between China and Taiwan, it should warn the PRC that aggression would be extremely costly. The United States would have no choice to respond to a military attack on a democratic friend, and Sino-American political and economic relations would suffer. So would Beijing's ties throughout Asia and Europe. Most important, China's goal of global leadership, which requires the trust of other nations, would be set back years if not decades. It would be impossible for any of Beijing's neighbors to give credence to the PRC's oft-repeated promise of a "peaceful rise."

It is not America's purpose to serve as the world's 911 number. But the United States can help equip friendly states seeking to defend themselves. South Korea, Japan, and the Europeans all could and should take over their own security, with or without U.S. weapons. But Taiwan faces a more difficult circumstance and needs access to the American arsenal to defend itself. Helping friends help themselves while getting out of the crossfire should be the basis of America's foreign policy.


Doug Bandow is the Robert A. Taft Fellow at the American Conservative Defense Alliance. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author of Foreign Follies: America's New Global Empire (Xulon Press).