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    Greater China
     Apr 7, 2006
Strait talk: Washington increasingly opts out
By Craig Meer

TAIPEI - It has become an article of faith among observers of US foreign policy that US preoccupations in the Middle East and with the "war on terror" have diverted diplomatic and military activities away from Northeast Asia. Leon Sigal, a program director at the New York-based Social Science Research Council, has coined the term "hawk disengagement" to describe the Bush administration's approach to the region.

This is particularly evident in the matter of Taiwan-China relations. President George W Bush came into office as possibly the most

pro-Taiwan president in years. Early in his administration, he authorized a huge weapons deal, then priced at US$18 billion, now pared down below $15 billion. Bush stated the US would do "whatever it takes" to defend Taiwan. But the tune coming out of Washington has changed in recent years.

Particularly over the past two years, there has been perceptively less willingness in Washington to engage with either Taiwan or mainland China over the details of their convoluted relationship. Since late 2003 and Bush's now-famous call for both sides to respect the status quo in cross-strait relations, US policy has been distinctly passive, if not actually hostile to Taiwan.

But this is not because Washington's attention is focused elsewhere. US disengagement is a function of changes in Taipei and Beijing that the United States is less and less able to influence. Rather than withdrawing from the Taiwan Strait, the US is being quietly ousted. The difference between a withdrawal and an ejection is not just semantic. The former implies far more energy in US policy than the latter and places responsibility for the current state of play in cross-strait relations where it should be: in Taipei and Beijing.

Taiwan's part in this drama is complex, as the island is strongly dependent on the US for its security, and the two sides have a history of close relations. Nonetheless, Taiwan's democratic evolution is actually undermining US support, despite the rhetoric emanating from Washington about promoting and defending democracy.

Some of this was probably to be expected. As the former head of the American Institute in Taiwan, Nat Bellocchi, has noted, the framework of US-Taiwan relations was imposed unilaterally by the United States during the island's authoritarian past, and it is increasingly difficult to keep a democratic Taiwan in this foreign-policy straitjacket.

But there are aspects to this "democratic rejection" of the US that are specific to contemporary Taiwanese politics. On the one hand, there is the ongoing delay in the purchase of defensive weaponry from the US. The current package, worth $15 billion and including Patriot missiles, submarines and surveillance aircraft, has been struck down in the island's legislature consistently for more than two years. Last Tuesday, the procurement budget was voted down for the 50th time.

In the bad old days of martial law, the chiefs of staff set the defense budget and a compliant legislature produced the necessary funds. Now Taiwan has a civilian defense minister, and the government must ask for, not demand, appropriations.

Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian hails from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), while the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) and its coalition partner the People's First Party control the Legislative Yuan. The legislative "pan-blue" alliance is opposed to the arms package for a variety of reasons, but primary among these is a desire to undermine Chen's authority. Recent assurances by KMT chairman Ma Ying-jeou during his recent Washington trip that his party would back a "reasonable arms budget" in the most recent legislative review apparently fell through.

On the other hand, Taipei itself is slowly choosing to opt out of the status quo in cross-strait relations - that is, the implicit agreement among Taipei, Beijing and Washington to leave Taiwan's political status undecided, which Bush has made a hallmark of his administration's China policy.

Chen's DPP was defeated in local elections last December, and he suffers from record low approval ratings of about 18%, according to an independent poll conducted by Shih Hsin University in Taipei at the end of last month. Perversely, this has made Chen even more determined to advance his party's pro-independence platform. It was behind his decision in February to scrap the island's National Unification Council, an institution most observers agree is an integral part of the status quo and which Chen originally promised to keep intact.

China's part to play in the ejection of the US is certainly less subtle than its island sibling, but no less definitive. Since the mid-1990s, the People's Republic of China (PRC) has spent considerable time and money turning the cross-strait impasse, which at the start of the Deng Xiaoping era was a diplomatic tussle, into a military matter. This commenced with missile tests off the coast of Taiwan in 1995-96, and includes the current deployment of somewhere between 700 and 800 short to medium-range missiles targeted at the island.

The PRC's defense budget has seen annual double-digit increases for the past decade, and this year's expenditure is expected to hit $35 billion, nearly 15% higher than in 2005. A report published by the Washington-based Rand Corporation last year, however, suggests that the official Chinese figures could understate actual military expenditures by as much as 70%. The US rightly believes that the target of the bulk of this outlay is Taiwan.

The PRC leadership is genuinely concerned about a determined push in Taiwan to turn de facto independence into de jure separation from China, even though only about 20% of the population favors it. Increasingly, it sees a military solution as the only way to prevent the push from succeeding. The Anti-Secession Law passed by the National People's Congress in March 2005 codified this concern, and marked the end of a brief period in which the PRC sought US diplomatic help to "contain" Taiwan's national aspirations.

The increasing insecurity of China's current leadership adds immediacy to this realist calculation. The current generation of communist leaders, including President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, are technocrats engaged in a Herculean task of economic transformation - but devoid of any political reforms. Opposition is building: by the government's own admission, 87,000 incidents of "social unrest" were recorded in 2005, up 66% on the previous year.

The US is disengaging from the cross-strait imbroglio, but through no choice of its own. Only a serious change of heart in Taipei and Beijing will reverse the trend.

Craig Meer is a freelance journalist based in Taipei.

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