Taiwan’s Deputy Defense Minister
By Wendell Minnick in Taipei.
Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) continues to maintain a strong deterrence in the face of a growing Chinese military threat. The island state’s future is uncertain as the U.S. and China grow closer and Washington wavers on the sale of new F-16 fighter jets. This makes Nien-Dzu “Andrew” Yang’s role as the MND’s policy coordinator a challenge.
The stakes are high. Should China capture or confederate Taiwan, the potential is great for destabilizing the region. China, which continues to threaten to impose unification by force, has more than 1,400 short-range ballistic missiles aimed at Taiwan. The MND, meanwhile, faces budget constraints as it struggles to implement an all-volunteer force, begin an expensive streamlining program, pay for $16 billion in new U.S. arms released since 2007, and convince Washington to sell it F-16s and submarines. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced recently the decision would be made by Oct. 1.
Adding to the confusion, since 2008, China and Taiwan have signed historic economic agreements that are moving them closer together. Taiwan has just opened the floodgates for mainland Chinese visitors, prompting fears of an increase in espionage and agents of influence here.
Yang is a former secretary-general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies and adviser to the Mainland Affairs Council, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the MND.
Q. China now has unprecedented influence over the U.S. with its economic, diplomatic and military muscle. How can Taiwan expect the U.S. to continue to defend Taiwan?
A. We are certainly aware that Beijing is a very important global and regional power and has close mutual interests with the United States. High-level visits are becoming regular in intensity. Beijing is increasing their influence over Washington decisionmaking not only over Taiwan, but over other important regional and global issues. We firmly believe that Washington still plays great influence in Asia and has repeatedly made strong commitments to regional security. Taiwan is a very important factor contributing to the multilateral effort to preserve peace and stability in this region. So I do not think the United States will tip over to Beijing’s side and ignore its vested interest in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly Taiwan. The U.S. has repeatedly emphasized they will continue to honor the Taiwan Relations Act and provide adequate and necessary articles to enhance our self-defense.
Q. How has the U.S. reacted to a reduction of tension between China and Taiwan since Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou’s 2008 election?
A. The U.S. fully supports President Ma’s strategy and approaches. They consider his approach as a way to de-escalate tensions and find opportunities to enhance peace dividends and to reduce misunderstanding and miscalculation. This has, in a way, made Beijing less belligerent toward Taiwan.
Q. Has China reduced the military threat against Taiwan, or the number of missiles aimed at Taiwan?
A. No, they have not done anything yet. There has been nothing from Beijing’s top leadership on the issue. I think Beijing considers that both sides can create a new kind of status quo based on engagement. It doesn’t mean that Beijing is reducing its military preparations over Taiwan, but they have to think twice in terms of their approach. There are more mutual interests involved, not just between Taiwan and mainland China, but also multilateral interests in this region, which Beijing needs to continue to develop its economy and stabilize its society. So Beijing has to make some kind of calculation here — whether to rock the boat for the sake of pursuing Beijing’s unification policy, either by force or by other means; or work side-by-side with Taiwan and regional partners to create a more stable and prosperous environment.
Q. As the U.S. becomes economically weaker and defense budgets are slashed, many in China see the U.S. as a declining superpower. Will this encourage Chinese adventurism?
A. If you look at Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to Washington earlier this year, it seems to me that from the policymaker’s point of view, they don’t look at each other as enemies. That’s number one. They are still reaching out to each other to the best of their ability to create a win-win situation. Froma Chinese leaders’ comments, they are not taking advantage of U.S. weakness to advance Chinese strategic or national interests in this region. They still emphasize that China should work along with the U.S. to resolve many problems around the world.
Q. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said the U.S. will decide about the sale of 66 F-16C/D fighters by Oct. 1. What do you think Beijing’s reaction will be if the U.S. releases new F-16s to Taiwan? China calls it a “red line.”
A. They will be extremely unpleasant and upset, as they always are. They’ve been calling everything a red line for 30 years, ever since 1979, when the U.S. switched relations from Taipei to Beijing.
If we don’t get the F-16C/Ds to replace our vintage fighters, then we lose our leverage and immediately face the challenge of fulfilling our responsibility of preserving peace and stability in the region.
Washington sometimes does not get the right picture of Taiwan’s responsibility. That is part of the reason we want new fighters. Otherwise, the U.S. has to send its own military to replace our daily patrols in the region. China has already sent a strong warning to Washington that if such a decision is adopted, then U.S.-China relations will be damaged.
Cutting off regular military exchanges is one way to show Beijing’s animosity. But if we look at previous experiences, they will be downgraded for a while, but they have strong mutual interests binding each other together. So they have to make a decision on what will be the next step.
Q. Economic sanctions?
A. I don’t think Beijing will take drastic economic actions against the U.S., because they have a lot of investments, including huge foreign reserves in U.S. banks. If the U.S. economy suffers, Beijing suffers.
Q. The U.S. offered Taiwan eight submarines in 2001, but the deal has been stalled. What’s the status?
A. It’s a long-delayed decision by the U.S. We are constantly urging them to pay attention to our concerns because we consider submarines to be important to our selfdefense.
Q. What would happen if China took control of Taiwan and placed bases here?
A. It opens the door for Chinese military and power projection not only into the East China Sea, but also into the South China Sea. Taiwan would become an important hub and stepping stone for China to exert and expand its presence in the South China Sea, which is certainly not in the U.S. interest. It would immediately challenge U.S. strategic calculations and its security umbrella in the Asia-Pacific region. If Taiwan becomes part of China in terms of political integration in the future, then immediately the United States will lose a vital interest in this part of the world.
Q. There has been talk about beefing up Taiwan’s military presence on Taiping Island in the South China Sea.
A. We are not ruling out our options. But the current decision adopted by the National Security Council and the president is to improve and reinforce the Coast Guard’s capability on the island. So the Marines are training the Coast Guard members stationed on the island. We are also evaluating whether they can actually perform the assigned responsibilities and duties to protect the island and conduct judicial patrol over the waters.
We will never allow China to step onto the island. It is part of our territory, under our management. There is no room for compromise.
Q. Is the primary Chinese military threat amphibious invasion or missile bombardment?
A. It’s a combination. They have all sorts of options at hand. Of course, Beijing will use the minimum military option to achieve maximum political objectives. Our way of defending ourselves is to make sure they pay a high price and cannot succeed in achieving their political objectives. We have to make sure that if Beijing launches missiles against Taiwan, they cannot immediately compromise our defense and force Taiwan to come to terms with Beijing.
Q. Is the streamlining program still on schedule? You are going from conscription to an all-volunteer military force.
A. It is very much on schedule. By law, we have to implement this streamlining process starting in January. We have to implement the all-volunteer program. It’s an incremental process. We are not targeting any particular date to complete this transformation. Certainly, they are predicated on continuous sufficient resource allocation and support from the legislature.
Q. Do you worry about Beijing becoming more nationalistic, more aggressive?
A . It is always a major concern. China is a dynamic society. You have many forces inside China. People only talk about the good side of Chinese development, but not many pay great attention to the challenges and the difficulties. They are facing increasing domestic problems. We hope the Chinese government can have better management of those problems, but you never know. We worry about succession. Beijing is going to have a top leadership change next year, so who will be the official leader? What does he think about Taiwan? What will be his priorities? We don’t want to wake up to a renegade in charge of China who fires missiles over the Taiwan Strait.
Q. How good is Taiwan’s intelligence inside China?
A. We are collecting good stuff, at least from our neighborhood. We also share our intelligence during regular meetings with the United States and others. We are much better off than our counterparts, like Japan and the U.S. The U.S. has its satellite images, but we have our human intelligence, and our analysts are resourceful. We have analysts who have spent 30 years watching China.