Taiwan: Time to Deal From a Position of (Relative) Strength
The egg-shell walk of American diplomats over the sale of what amount to spare parts for a portion of Taiwan’s air force should put to rest any question about where the island, regarded by China as a renegade province, is heading. As recently as 2007, American carriers hovered nearby and the RAND Corporation predicted in a report that Taiwan’s status would remain unresolved for decades.
These days, that seems pretty flat-footed. The tide in the Taiwan Straits has shifted, and its not flowing toward the U.S. Seventh Fleet. The global economic crisis, combined with China’s increasing heft and local calculations among Taiwanese voters, has changed the calculus. In June 2008, as the U.S. economy came unglued and American forces remained mired in Iraq and Afghanistan, Taiwan’s voters rejected another term for the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Instead, they elected a man who campaigned for closer economic ties to the mainland, Ma Ying-jeou of the KMT, who as the current president has proceeded to hedge dependence on American power by putting economic ties to the mainland first.
What about his demands for a newer version of the F-16 in this years talks over arms sales, you ask? Of course, Ma would like the F-16 C/D variant, both because such a sale would have provided a tangible symbol of U.S. resolve toward Taiwan, which it has pledged to defend if China ever moved to retake it by force. But Ma, and the vast majority of Taiwanese, too, understand their neighborhood better than the Congressional delegation from Lockheed Martin. Unlike the situation in the Middle East, where Israel continues to make policy as though American power remains undiminished, Taiwan under Ma has wisely chosen to remove some eggs from the U.S. basket.
“President Ma has made important breakthroughs in cross-Strait reconciliation, as well as in broadening and deepening the synergistic nexus between China and Taiwan,” writes Fu S. Mai, an Asia defense analyst for a conservative U.S. think-tank, the Jamestown Foundation. “The next step for Beijing going forward is formal political dialogue, which Chinese authorities have been applying increasing pressure for the Ma administration to start. Taipei has been trying hard to stall as long as possible, because issues of sovereignty are politically sensitive in Taiwan. Moreover, perhaps Mr. Ma realizes that he has yet to assemble the bargaining chips he would need at the peace talks table.”
From the view of Jamestown and most other American security organizations, those bargaining chips included a new round of weapons purchases to bolster Taiwan’s diminishing technological lead over its giant would-be dance partner. Along those lines, the Obama administration sold Taiwan air defense missiles, upgraded communications equipment for its F-16 fighters and other arms in January 2010, a $6 billion deal that prompted China to suspend all military ties with the U.S., a high-stakes game given the importance of mutual understanding as China’s navy and other forces increasingly come in contact with the Seventh Fleet. The Taiwanese request for the F-16 C/D variants – still far inferior to later models sold to, among others, Saudi Arabia and Israel – was denied. The “upgrades” for the aging A/B models will, in practice, create aircraft capable of doing anything the new variants could do; the difference is, they’re not new: some are 20 years old, and Taiwan’s F-5s, a Vietnam-era fighter now relegated to training missions that too often end in crashes, are twice as old.
The summer-long effort to convince China that the upgrades were the “least” America could do to fulfill its obligations to Taiwan may not impress Beijing, which rarely passes up a chance to demonstrate pique when one presents itself. Admiral Mike Mullen, the outgoing chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, reflected the concern over offending China after returning from a July 2011 visit in which he rode in a Chinese submarine and watched counter-terrorism exercises. Mullen penned a realist op-ed for The New York Times that pointed out China’s increasing military capabilities cannot be wished away with angry statements and arms sales to Taiwan. It was the first U.S. high-level exchange with China’s military since the 2010 arms sale, and it followed a tour of U.S. military bases by the head of the People’s Liberation Army, Gen. Chen Bingde.
The visit, predictably, was attacked as appeasement by the right. But Mullen stood his ground: “Bluntness and honesty are exactly what’s needed to create strategic trust. And we will need more of it. Our military relations have only recently begun to thaw, but China’s government still uses them as a sort of thermostat to communicate displeasure. When they don’t like something we do, they cut off ties. That can’t be the model anymore.”
He’s right. For Taiwan, the direction of the 2011 F-16 decision is rightly viewed as an indication of just how much pain the U.S., in the second decade of the 21st Century, is willing to accept on behalf of a promise made when Harry Truman was president over half a century earlier. Already, the implied threat of angering China has scared away normally thick-skinned international competitors of Lockheed-Martin, even as Russian, Swedish, British and French firms battle to win business equipping air forces in India, Denmark and the United Arab Emirates.
But Taiwan isn’t betting everything on the U.S. answer, either. It has pumped money into a domestic arms industry that is as sophisticated as anything on the mainland, though it cannot hope to match the scale of Beijing’s buildup. More importantly, in June 2010, Ma’s government inked the landmark “China-Taiwan Free Trade Agreement,” officially opening commercial links and charting a path to future political negotiations. The deal lifted over 500 tariffs on trade between them. It also opened Taiwan’s private enterprises for the first time to Chinese investment. While Taiwan has continued to limit the stakes China can purchase, in the world of global finance, no one can be sure how much of the investment that actually pours into Taiwan each year already contains Chinese money, usually channeled via foreign investment banks. An influx of tourists from the mainland – another result of the newly warmed ties – has bolstered Taiwan’s economy, too.
This is not to say that sentiment for reunification in Taiwan is strong. Many Taiwanese have personal experience of life under their own dictatorship, plus a sophisticated view through access to Chinese media and their own tenacious journalistic outlets of the downside of life across the Taiwan Straits. A return to power of the pro-independence DPP in January 2012 elections might slow this progress. But if open political talks on reunification remain out of the question, KMT President Ma’s slogan “no unification, no independence,” has nonetheless allowed diplomats on both sides to explore the kind of halfway house the British negotiated with Beijing in 1979 when they agreed to hand back Hong Kong. That may not sound appealing to many Taiwanese: The lack of democratic guarantees in Hong Kong once China assumed control in 2004 stand as a caution against assuming that, in absorbing a free-wheeling democratic society, China itself will somehow be democratized.
But Britain’s mistake was not in trying for a negotiated solution, but rather in waiting too long. By 1979, when talks began under Margaret Thatcher, Britain had sunk to second-tier military and economic status and had no real ability to project power into Asia. The United States, as the guarantor of democratic freedoms Taiwan struggled to fashion since the end of the KMT dictatorship in the 1980s, should be seeking to move this process forward now, while the Seventh Fleet still rules the Pacific and the U.S. economy still ranks at the top of the heap. If the stalemate lasts beyond another decade, the question will not be about what guarantees the U.S. can extract for a Taiwan peaceful reunification, but rather how Taiwan would like to be digested – quickly and violently, or voluntarily, under economic and political duress.
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