Taiwan Prepares for Shift in U.S. Relations
BY WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI — Even before Ma Ying-jeou is sworn in as Taiwan’s president May 20, he is working to assuage concerns that a friendlier attitude toward China will fray ties with the United States.
The first KMT, or Chinese Nationalist Party, president in eight years brings a mandate for warmer relations with the mainland, thanks to victories in this year’s legislative and presidential elections. KMT officials have been quick to act in the wake of Ma’s March triumph. Several senior party officials have flown to China for meetings.
And on April 24, Wu Yu-sheng, KMT caucus deputy secretary-general, complained to reporters that U.S. government officials attended Taiwan’s annual Yushan military exercise. Wu called the U.S. presence “inappropriate,” although U.S. observation teams have regularly attended major defense exercises. However, Wu appears to be speaking unilaterally. A KMT source stated Wu was “ultra-right wing” and did not represent Ma’s administration.
In the next few years, Ma’s policies will likely bring a welcome decrease in cross-strait tension, “but in the long-run, unease,” said Lin Chong-pin, president of the Taipei based Foundation on International and Cross-Strait Studies. During his campaign, Ma proposed direct flights, economic agreements, confidence-building measures (CBM) and a peace accord with China.
Some U.S. officials worry that Beijing will agree to economic and security accords — but only on the condition that Taipei’s government discontinue joint U.S.-Taiwan intelligence sharing and expel U.S. defense officials.
“The U.S. does have doubts regarding Ma’s commitment to the security cooperation between Taiwan and the U.S. Especially when Ma puts the status of cross-Strait relations as the guiding principle for Taiwan’s external engagement,” said Lai I-Chung, executive member of Taipei-based Taiwan think tank.
The U.S. National Security Agency and Taiwan’s National Security Bureau run a signals intelligence facility on Yangmingshan Mountain just north of Taipei, and an electronic support measures facility in Taichung that collects the radar signatures of warships passing through the Strait.
China has for several years pressed U.S. and now KMT officials to discontinue arms deals, but for now, the KMT is not expected to withdraw requests to buy F-16s, Aegis-equipped warships and other U.S. arms.
“Ma has repeatedly stated that in dealing with China, we have to deal with them from a position of strength,” the KMT source said. “Ma has said if you [China] want to talk about a peace accord you have to first remove your missiles.” China has more than 1,000 short-range ballistic missiles aimed at Taiwan.
“Taiwan’s need for new air platforms is here and now,” said Bonnie Glaser, a senior associate at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. “I doubt it will be affected by concerns about what might or might not occur in relations between Taiwan and the Mainland in the future.” Taiwan is moving ahead with a broad rearmament program that includes Patriot Advanced Capability 3 missile defense systems, P-3C Orion maritime patrol planes and diesel attack submarines. Taipei and Washington are negotiating the final details of an Apache deal, along with an estimated $600 million Foreign Military Sales deal for 60 Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters. The two governments are also talking about sales of M1 Abrams tanks and 66 F-16C/D Block 50/52 fighters.
CBMs Could Marginalize America
Observers said Ma is unlikely to soon win agreements for confidence-building measures and a peace accord.
“CBMs and a peace accord are long-range goals. We first must establish economic and diplomatic agreements. After economic normalcy has been established, Ma will pursue security issues,” a KMT source said.
“For military CBMs to proceed, Beijing will first have concluded that it trusts Ma Ying-jeou and that it serves China’s interests for Taiwan to feel more secure, rather than insecure,” Glaser said.
The first step would likely be limited contacts between retired military officers and discussions.
But under the radar screen, she said, “there might be better informal cooperation between coast guards to deal with problems such as drug and human smuggling and helping fisherman in distress.” Richard Bush, who directs the Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies at Washington’s Brookings Institution, said Chinese agreement to CBMs will depend on whether Beijing wants to make Taipei feel more confident or vulnerable.
“I would argue that Beijing, after having lived with its own sense of vulnerability concerning Taiwan’s political initiatives, might see the mutual benefits that would flow from CBMs,” Bush said.
Lai said CBM talks between Taiwan and China would likely bypass U.S. officials and disrupt orders of U.S. arms.
“Unless the U.S. forces its way into the cross-strait CBM talks by demanding that the cross-strait CBM should include U.S.-China CBMs as well, the U.S. will find itself marginalized,” he said. “Sadly and ironically enough, the U.S. is encouraging cross-strait CBMs without a firm foundation of Taiwan U.S. security cooperation. If the U.S. finds itself marginalized … the U.S. only has itself to blame.”
Economy and Society
Glaser said real improvements in security would likely come only after a few years of economic gestures. “Direct flights, tourists from the mainland, currency convertibility, lifting the investment caps, etc. There may be some gestures by the mainland side — politically symbolic only — on the security front, but I don’t expect any serious steps to reduce the threat of force against Taiwan,” she said.
Direct flights are expected to begin slowly with charter flights on the weekends beginning in July, but are expected to expand to daily regular flights within a year. However, there are concerns over handling the influx of Chinese visitors. Local media pundits have compared it to a human tsunami sweeping over the island. Concerns include an increase of mainland intelligence officers and agents of influence.
But Lin believes cross-Strait travel, economic interchange and continued high-level dialogues could usher in a new era for China, one that does not necessarily spell gloom and doom for Taiwan’s democracy.
“During the process, Taiwan will impress the mainland visitors with freedom, which has occurred already based on my personal survey. The seeds of democracy will be sown far and wide on the mainland. In time, those on the mainland will ask ‘if Taiwanese can vote, why can’t we?’”