Mandarin Mixed Bag
Arms Sales and Democracy in Taiwan
By WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI — Defense observers in Taipei and Washington are complaining that Beijing is dictating U.S. policy on arms sales to Taiwan.
U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency officials announced Sept. 12 that they had notified Congress of their intent to sell to Taiwan 12 P-3C Orions for an estimated $1.96 billion and 144 SM-2 Block 3A air defense missiles for $272 million. But Taiwan is also looking to buy fighter jets, and there is growing concern in Taipei that its legislature’s June passage of a token $450 million to begin buying 66 F-16 fighters will be denied by U.S. officials.
“We are supposed to be assessing the F-16s on the basis of Taiwan defense needs — now we are politicizing the process to our own detriment,” said Dan Blumenthal, a resident fellow with the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute.
Blumenthal served as senior director for China, Taiwan and Mongolia in the U.S. defense secretary’s international security |office.
“In order to gain their cooperation on North Korea and other reasons, there is a burning desire to humor China, even if it means ignoring obligations under the Taiwan Relations Act,” said John Tkacik, senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation, Washington. “It is very sad to see the U.S. administration pressure a democratic friend at the encouragement of a communist dictatorship without the slightest acknowledgment of the real problem.”
One Taiwanese defense insider said the U.S. government’s position on the F-16 sale was “silly.” U.S. officials are refusing to accept a formal Taiwanese request for price and availability data on the F-16s — and then claiming that there is no such request, the insider said.
“The U.S. government has released P-3s, and the two sides are working out details on the letter of offer and acceptance [LOA],” the insider said. “The P-3s, as well as Patriot upgrades and a range of other countries’ programs, didn’t make the cut in terms of congressional notification before the last session ended. LOAs have to be concluded before end of year, and have to have the notification first before the LOAs can be signed.”
Lin Chong-Pin, president of the Foundation on International and Cross-Strait Studies here and Taiwan’s former deputy defense minister, argues that Washington has a choice: approve the F-16 sale or prepare for the consequences of a weakened Taiwan against a formidable enemy. China has acquired new Su-27 fighters from Russia and is developing new indigenous fighters.
“The qualitative cross-strait balance between the two air forces is rapidly tilting against Taiwan, which has enjoyed supremacy for the past decades,” Lin said. “If Taiwan’s air supremacy is gone, Washington must ponder whether to confront the PLA directly or to let go the first island chain and eventually the western Pacific — too distasteful a prospect for the Republican administration to mull over. After Chen Shui-bian leaves the presidency in May 2008, the window for Washington to grant Taiwan’s requests on strengthening its air defense may open. If the Democrats move into the White House in early 2009, the window may close.”
Sources say U.S. officials are also pressuring Taiwanese President Chen to back off plans to hold a national referendum on applying for membership in the United |Nations.
Tkacik said Washington has a history of misreading the tea leaves floating in the Taiwan Strait.
“The administration gravely misunderstands the dynamics in Taiwan and China if it believes the Taiwanese referendum is the core problem,” he said. “China’s insistent threats to war are the core problem.”
Tkacik said no one argues that the United States has any philosophical or legal reason to oppose Taiwan’s desire to be legitimated by U.N. membership.
“So, why we should object to a democratic referendum on Taiwan to resolve the issue, when we ourselves have not taken a formal position or ‘made any determination’ about it, and instead permit the Chinese communists to define the issue, is a mystery,” he said. “It is plain to see that the main concern the United States has is about China’s threats of war. A more rational policy approach would, at the very least, temper U.S. confrontation on Taiwan’s referendum push with a public rebuke of China’s threats to war.”
Dennis Wilder, the senior director for Asia on the U.S. National Security Council, told reporters Aug. 30 that Taiwan, legally, is not a country.
“Membership in the United Nations requires statehood,” he said. “Taiwan, or the Republic of China, is not at this point a state in the international community. The position of the United States government is that the ROC, Republic of China, is an issue undecided, and it has been left undecided, as you know, for many, many years. So we find the attempts by the DPP [Democratic Progressive Party] Party in Taiwan to call for a referendum of this subject a little bit perplexing. It only adds a degree of tension to cross-strait relations that we deem unnecessary.”
China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Jiang Yu, told reporters Sept. 4 that “recently, the Taiwan authorities’ series of attempts for U.N. membership is the splittist activity to separate Taiwan from China. We are firmly opposed to that and following closely the development of the situation.
“To oppose and curb ‘Taiwan independence’ is of vital significance to safeguard peace and stability across the straits and in the Asia-Pacific, and it is also in the mutual interest of China and the U.S.,” she said. “We hope the U.S. can stick to the one-China principle, the three Sino-U.S. Joint Communiqués, and its commitment to opposing |Taiwan independence so as to make joint efforts with China to safeguard peace and stability across the straits and the large picture of China-U.S. relations.”
But critics say there are problems with China’s subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle threats that providing Taiwan with arms or any change in the status quo could cause a war in the Taiwan Strait. Taiwan and Beijing have virtually no open negotiations or discussions on any topic of importance. When Taipei enrages Beijing, it is the U.S. State Department that receives a reprimand.
“At the same time, PRC [People’s Republic of China] Director of the Taiwanese Affairs Office of the State Council Chen Yunlin has been visiting Washington at least once a year since 2003,” Lin said. “Chen has been warning his American audience what Taipei is up to in terms of the so-called ‘challenging the cross-strait status quo’ with some accuracy. These days Chen would evoke the Anti-Session Law passed in March 2005 by saying to the effect that if the U.S. does not endeavor to contain Taipei, Beijing will resort to measures necessary, and by then Washington should stay out of the picture.
“This, of course, has put tremendous pressure on the U.S. State [Department], and explains Washington’s quick responses to Taipei’s pro-independence ‘pro-vocations’ lately. By acting this way, Washington has preserved its ‘right’ vis-à-vis Beijing to help or defend Taiwan if threatened militarily,” he said.
Richard Bush, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution in Washington, said Taipei’s relationship with Washington is complex, frustrating and always politicized.
“But these actions always take place in a political atmosphere. The deputy secretary of state has just said that the U.S. government opposes the U.N. referendum because it sees it as a step towards a declaration of independence of Taiwan and towards an alteration of the status quo,” said Bush, who was managing director of the American Institute of Taiwan from 1997-2002. “To take positive actions on arms sales in that negative context would send a very mixed message, something the administration probably doesn’t wish to do. There may be other factors at play as well: disagreement with Taiwan over the wisdom of counterstrike capabilities and an awareness that the Seventeenth Party Congress of the CCP is looming.”