Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Strait Crisis Altered China, Taiwan, U.S. Ties


Strait Crisis Altered China, Taiwan, U.S. Ties


This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Taiwan Strait missile crisis, an episode that reinvigorated Taiwan-U.S. relations and led the United States to raise its profile in the Asia-Pacific region.

From July 1995 to March 1996, China lobbed 10 Dong Feng 15 (M-9) short-range ballistic missiles at designated targets around Taiwan. Some landed as close as 20 nautical miles south of Kaohsiung Port and 18 nautical miles north of Keelung Port.

The test firing was designed as a coercive response to the U.S. decision to grant Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui a visa to visit his alma mater, Ithaca, N.Y.-based Cornell University, in 1995, and later as a sign of Beijing’s displeasure over Taiwan’s first democratic presidential election in 1996.

The United States responded to what China dubbed “military exercises” by sending two aircraft carrier groups to the area. It was the largest assembly of U.S. warships in the western Pacific region since the 1958 Quemoy Crisis in the Taiwan Strait, when China and Taiwan began artillery duels and violent aerial dogfights.

“Months before PLA’s [People’s Liberation Army’s] July 1995 exercises, there were some indications that hard-liners in Beijing were pushing for some kind of military exercises to ‘teach Taiwan a lesson,’” said Andrew Yang, secretary-general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies, here.

For China, the U.S. reaction to the exercise came as a shock.

“On the PRC side, the dispatch of two aircraft carrier groups [removed] whatever doubt in the minds of policy-makers in Beijing that operational planning would have to include an assumption of U.S. military intervention,” said Mark Stokes, who directs the U.S.-Taiwan Enterprise Foundation. “As a result, it ramped up the pace of its modernization program in a manner intended to achieve its strategic and operational objectives before the U.S. would be able to array sufficient force in the area of operations.”

Stokes in 1996 was Asia-Pacific region branch chief in the U.S. Air Force’s Directorate of Operations and Plans. He later was a major influence on U.S.-Taiwan relations as chief of the China and Taiwan Division of the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

No event over the last 20 years has shaped the U.S.-China-Taiwan relationship more than this crisis.

In the last two decades in Taiwan, a one-party dictatorship that conveniently imprisoned political dissidents, or just made them disappear, transformed itself. Former political prisoners rose to take the presidency in a peaceful transition of power.

When the United States switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, one of the justifications was that Taiwan was no more democratic and free than autocratic China. Taiwan’s one-party rulers, the Chinese Nationalist Party, then made slow but deliberate moves toward freeing political prisoners, renouncing martial law and having fair elections.

It was a painful transition. The military was badly shaken by psychological and organizational changes. Its mission to retake the mainland was reshaped into keeping the mainland from taking Taiwan, made more problematic with dwindling forces, aging equipment and slipping political power.

Taiwan-U.S. Warming Trend

The pivotal moment came with Taiwan’s first democratic presidential election in 1996 and Beijing’s bellicose response.

“It forced the U.S. to confront Taiwan’s democratic politics as a factor in the U.S.-TW-PRC triangle, which we are still doing. It forced us [by sending the carriers] to be clearer about our security commitment to Taiwan and move from strategic ambiguity to a conditional commitment,” said Richard Bush, director, Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies. He was chairman of the board and managing director of the American Institute in Taiwan from 1997-2002.

“It led to greater seriousness in the way the U.S. followed the PRC military buildup and interacted with the Taiwan armed forces. It led American policy-makers responsible for Taiwan to realize that they could no longer take peace for granted,” Bush said.

“The PRC missile exercises that were conducted in March 1996 had a significant influence over the scope and depth of U.S.-Taiwan defense relations,” said Stokes.

By the time the 1996 Taiwan Strait missile crisis occurred, the United States and Taiwan were no longer close. In fact, beyond arms sales talks, there had been almost no communication between the two militaries since 1979.

U.S. defense officials were not even sure whom to call at Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense. The older generation of officers who ran the military in 1979 had long since retired. The new officers were unfamiliar with U.S. defense officials, and many were wary of relying too much on the United States after Washington switched diplomatic relations from Taipei to Beijing.

During the Korean and Vietnam wars, Taiwan was a close and dependable ally in the Pacific. Taiwan served as a base of operations for the U.S. Air Force and for a variety of overt and covert military and intelligence operations, including the now infamous CIA-owned airline Air America.

“The two defense establishments found themselves on the brink of operating together as an ad hoc coalition, yet the two sides had lost touch with the other,” Stokes said. “As a result, U.S. policy-makers under the Clinton administration decided to broaden relations with the Taiwan military. Most important was the initiation of a series of nonhardware, or software, exchanges that were intended to permit greater interaction and ensure Taiwan’s ability to effectively utilize new weapon systems that were coming on line at the time.

“Exchanges not only included greater interaction at the operational level, but also exchanges in the areas of logistics, strategic planning, modeling and simulation and C4ISR,” he said.

As a result of the crisis, the United States began the Monterey talks, which became the highest-level security dialogue between the United States and Taiwan. The U.S. Department of Defense also established a hot line between the Office of the Secretary of Defense and Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense.

Numerous U.S. defense officials came to Taiwan, and continue to do so, to conduct evaluations and make contact with key Taiwanese military officials. Taiwan was allowed to send its best officers to attend U.S. military academies at West Point, Annapolis and Colorado Springs. In 2005, for the first time since 1979, U.S. military attach├ęs were assigned to Taiwan as active-duty military officers.

“The Monterey talks at a strategic level, the defense review at a policy level, and many institutionalized bilateral professional military exchanges have brought the U.S.-Taiwan security relationship to a much more comprehensive level, beyond that of arms sales and acquisitions,” said Alexander Huang, a senior associate of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, who lives in Taipei.