China Wields New Diplomatic Skills Against Taiwan
By WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI — Undermining Taiwan’s ability to defend itself has become an art form for Chinese diplomats. Even as Taiwan and China prepared for the first direct flights July 4, both were working to influence Washington on arms sales to Taiwan.
The United States froze arms sales shortly after the March 22 presidential election when Nationalist Party (KMT) candidate Ma Ying-jeou won.
The freeze includes eight diesel submarines, 66 F-16 Block 50/52 fighter aircraft, four Patriot PAC3 fire units, 30 AH-64D Apache attack helicopters and 60 UH-60 Blackhawk utility helicopters.
Washington originally agreed to a temporary freeze at the request of KMT leaders, who feared disrupting sensitive negotiations with China for direct cross-strait flights.
Now Taipei wants to get arms sales back on track, but Beijing is pushing Washington to continue the freeze indefinitely in the hopes of making it permanent.
“They’ve gotten very clever in using a combination of quiet threats plus inducements to achieve their goals. What they are doing with arms sales is trying to create a blackout calendar,” said retired Adm. Dennis Blair, former commander of the U.S. Pacific Command.
China has become an expert at using excuses to slow sales to Taiwan, Blair said.
“It’s ‘never a good time’ to approve these arms sales,” he said. “Here we are forming these agreements with Taiwan, Bush is coming to China for the Olympics, there is an APEC Summit here, there is a conference there, and pretty soon they’ll have the whole calendar blocked out. So there is never a good time for the arms sales.”
“China’s increasingly skillful charm-offensive tactics has put Taiwan in a difficult position in conducting diplomacy in Washington,” said Alexander Huang, an associate of the Center for Strategic and International Studies who lives here.
China has coached U.S. officials on how to deal with Taiwan in a way that makes many in Taipei nervous. “Beijing has deliberately expanded its official interactions with Washington,” said Lin Chong-Pin, president of the Taipei-based Foundation on International and Cross-Strait Studies.
Lin points to the 12 times between June 2007 and February the U.S. State Department bent to Chinese pressure and issued warnings to Taiwan not to pursue a referendum to join the United Nations.
Blair said Taiwan must be strong if it is to negotiate successfully with Beijing.
“All of the Taiwan military officers and political leaders I’ve talked to know that you don’t negotiate with China successfully from a position of weakness or they will just run over you. They know they have to keep up their military capability,” said Blair, who was in Taipei in late June heading up the U.S. military delegation observing the Hankuang exercises.
“China is learning that it is going to get more from cooperation than by threat, because the military threat has pretty much been countered. So they have learned that they get a lot more with honey than they do with vinegar.”
There was a time when Beijing’s leaders would throw “temper tantrums” whenever Taipei annoyed them. In 1995 and 1996, China launched short-range ballistic missiles in an attempt to dissuade Taiwan from holding its first democratic presidential election.
Many compared China’s diplomatic skill to that of a gorilla attending a tea party.
“Now the 300-pound gorilla has put on lipstick and a nice little dress. I joke about it, but it is serious,” Blair said.
He said that as relations between China and the United States improve, there is a tendency in Washington circles to argue against provoking China with new arms sales to Taiwan. “We have to adjust and stay ahead of their diplomacy,” he said. “That’s the challenge for us. And that’s the risk you run when things are going well. And, of course, you want things to go well, but you have to keep up the deterrent.”
Lin said Washington should take advantage of the expanded SinoAmerican official exchanges by persuading Beijing to allow more official channels of communication between Washington and Taipei.
“The rationale Washington presents to Beijing is to boost the KMT administration’s domestic position vis-à-vis the pro-independence opposition, which should be in Beijing’s anti-independence interest,” said Lin, who also served as a former Taiwan deputy minister of defense.
Huang warns of a contradiction on how China and Taiwan view the future. “China does look at unification as the destiny for Taiwan. However, we see democratic harmony as the destiny for China,” he said.
That suggests fears that China will compromise Taiwan’s democratic principles as ties become closer with Beijing.
“I do not think Ma will boost Taiwan-China relations at the expense of sacrificing Taiwan’s democracy and de facto independence status,” said Arthur Ding, a cross-strait military affairs specialist at the National Chengchi University’s Institute of International Relations.