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    Greater China
     May 20, 2011


US-Taiwan binds start to fray
By Jens Kastner

TAIPEI - In the United States, the notion that Beijing may take Taiwan seems to be becoming increasingly acceptable.

For the first time since Beijing severed military ties last year over a US$6.3 billion US arms sale to Taiwan, a People's Liberation Army (PLA) delegation is visiting the Untied States. Anyone who meets General Chen Bingde, the PLA chief of the general staff, on his week-long visit ending May 22 is certain to hear one thing: Washington must abandon its security commitment to the self-governed island enshrined in the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA).

If Chen's demands indeed fall on fertile ground, it's for a good part also something in which renowned US scholars and former high-ranking US officials have a hand. In a wave of recent opinion pieces and speeches, they have called on America to stop the

 
practice of ensuring Taiwan's sovereignty by providing it with weaponry.

The TRA is a US Public Law, enacted by the 96th US Congress on January 1, 1979. It was meant as an indemnification for then-president Jimmy Carter's decision to recognize the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) ruling on the mainland instead of the Kuomintang (KMT) exiled in Taipei as the legitimate government of the whole of China.

The internal law obliges US administrations to hinder any effort to determine the future of Taiwan other than by peaceful means, including boycotts or embargoes. It explicitly binds Washington to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character and also to maintain the US's capacity to come to Taiwan's help in the event the situation in the Taiwan Strait turns sour.

In regards to the law's implementation, however, lawgivers left some wiggle room. It ambiguously provides that "defense articles and defense services are made available in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability". Thus, ever since the TRA was enacted, the question of exactly how many weapons Washington should give Taipei has fueled heated debate.

The genie was out of the bottle on November 17, 2009. Bill Owens, an influential American businessman based in Hong Kong and former vice chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, in an editorial in the Financial Times called for the abrogation of the TRA and a halt to US arms sales to Taiwan. Owens described the TRA as outdated and assured its scrapping would be viewed by China "as a genuine attempt to set a new course for a relationship that can develop into openness, trust and even friendship".

Unsurprisingly, Owens suggestions were met by the emotional responses of countless scholars both in the US and Taiwan. They in turn bombarded newspaper opinion columns and academic journals, fielding numerous arguments as to why the US should not abandon Taiwan.

If the US allowed Taipei to be taken by the reds, regional security alliances crucial to US interests would go bankrupt, so went the tenor of objections.

China would never become a democracy if Taiwan ceased to be one, and also due to geostrategic reasons, the PLA should not be allowed to set foot on Taiwanese soil.

This is because if it did, Beijing, among other undertakings in this regard, would take advantage of the island's east coast to establish deep-sea harbors not only for container ships that deliver the goods that make China rich to the world but also for its navy in general and the Chinese submarine fleet in particular.

Without Taiwan, Chinese subs have to sneak through dangerously shallow waters, easily caught by Japan's and the Taiwanese navy's watchful eyes; with Taiwan, Chinese subs, by contrast, would in an instant be able to slip into the vastness of the Pacific Ocean and could therefore without hindrance project navy power far from China's own shores.

Also the sea lines of communication (SLOC) that supply the economies of Japan and South Korea - both among the US's most valuable allies - with raw materials could all too easily be cut off if the PLA used Taiwan as a base.

Last but not least, there's the human-rights issue. The Taiwanese do not have too many reasons to believe that Beijing would treat its opponents on the island, and particularly those who had once been caught on record speaking out in favor of Taiwanese independence, gingerly if it gained control, so said Owens' critics.
In recent weeks and months, however, the tide seems to have turned. Coming from an arguable illustrious group of people, there has been an unprecedented volume of talk recommending that the US end its responsibility for Taiwan's defense.

These include:
  • Chas Freeman Jr, a seasoned former diplomat and main interpreter for former US president Richard Nixon in his 1972 China visit.
  • Joseph Prueher, who held the positions of navy admiral and commander of the US Pacific Command and ambassador to China under former US presidents Bill Clinton and George W Bush.
  • Former commander-in-chief of the US Pacific Command Admiral, Timothy Keating, as well as James Shinn, the national intelligence officer for East Asia at the Central Intelligence Agency.
  • International relations theorist Charles Glaser, among other reputed members of the US scholarship.

    Their arguments are not unconvincing. They identified US arms sales to Taiwan as the principal irritant in the Sino-US relationship in an era when Washington and Beijing for the sake of the entire humankind had better work together. They say that at a time when US debt has hit US$14 trillion, and annually well over US$1 trillion is spent for the US military, it is not smart just for the sake of clinging onto the TRA to enter into a race with the PLA to see who can spend the other into the ground.

    Because the Middle Kingdom's defense budget is neither a significant strain on its economy nor likely to become one, the US is bound to end up as broke as the Soviet Union was at the end of the Cold War if it continues selling weapons to Taipei, thereby unnecessarily positioning itself as China's rival, said the TRA's critics.

    Also, ships carrying oil to Japan and South Korea could simply take an insignificant detour, while the US just as well could cut off China's own SLOCs in the straits of Malacca, Sunda and Lombok to prevent Beijing implementing a naval blockade on Seoul or Tokyo.

    Furthermore, according to those who assess Washington's security commitment to Taipei as hopelessly outdated, the concerns harbored by Taiwanese people are seen as somewhat exaggerated. According to the TRA opponents, what Beijing has all along had in mind is a purely symbolic reunification with Taiwan; it does not want to establish any political or military presence of its own on the island, they believe.

    Taipei would be offered far greater autonomy than China's Special Administrative Regions (SARs) - Hong Kong and Macau. And if Washington were to allow Beijing to symbolically fly the red flag over Taipei, China would halt its arms build-up, pull back from claiming the resource-rich and strategic waters it disputes with neighbors, and Asia-Pacific as well as the rest of the world would live happily ever after, so the TRA's opponents say.

    Developments on the American side of the Pacific indicate that the TRA's days are numbered, John Copper, a Stanley J Buckman professor of international studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, said in an interview with Asia Times Online.
    "As I see it, the TRA is being forgotten. The act was passed by congress when the Democrats were in control, and there were many Democrats who liked it and defended it in ensuring years. But those like [Ted] Kennedy, [Jacob] Javits and others are no longer around," Copper said, adding that new people in congress don't know much about the TRA and don't see it as a good issue for winning votes or building a reputation.

    "The TRA has not been mentioned by anyone in congress in the last two or three years. This suggests that not many in the US are determined to fight for Taiwan," Copper said. "President [Barack] Obama is focusing on other things; so is congress."

    As the US presidential election is going to be held in November 2012, an analysis of the preferences of the Obama administration and their still unknown Republican contenders likely holds clues for the TRA's future.

    Copper indicated why a Democrat victory could augur badly for the TRA. "Of course, there has been almost nothing said by candidates for 2012, and we do not know for sure who will be on Republican side. But generally, Republicans favor Taiwan much more [than Democrats]."

    He said Obama's focus was on China economic issues, and his administration was more likely to seek good ties with Beijing, while the Republicans wanted a stronger military to protect Taiwan.

    On the deep-seated sentiments of the US's political parties that could well shape attitudes concerning the TRA, Copper said, "Traditionally, Republicans like Asia, which is conservative; Democrats like Europe. Republicans have been closer to the navy, which plays a bigger role in Asia; Democrats are closer to the army.''

    Steve Tsang, professor at the University of Nottingham and writer of the authoritative If China Attacks Taiwan: Military strategy, politics and economics, argues that it is impossible for Beijing to keep the promise of its official Chinese policy that there would not be any need for other changes if Taiwan accepted mainland sovereignty.

    "Taiwan's democracy is genuinely vibrant and its continued consolidation would pose a basic challenge to the authority of the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] on the mainland. Since the CCP's top priority is regime survival, it cannot tolerate a democratic Taiwan within the PRC [People's Republic of China] posing as a model for the rest of the country," he said.

    Tsang believes that if Taiwan were to remain as it is while under the red flag, its democracy would not exercise the kind of self-control that has become pervasive in the Hong Kong administrations under both Tung Chee-hwa and Donald Tsang, and thus, at its best, the Hong Kong model offers no reassurance for Taiwan.

    "For those Americans who see Hong Kong as a viable model and Taiwan potentially the cause for the most serious war that the US may get involved in and cannot be sure of an easy victory, it may appear in US interests to remove the cause for such a conflict," said Tsang of the University of Nottingham.

    "But this approach is counter-productive, as it would increase the risk of miscalculation in Beijing. The Chinese government will believe that the US has lost the will to help Taiwan defend itself, and thus could be deterred from interfering, making the use of force an acceptable option."

    Tsang doubts that the US will repeal the TRA, but believes that if it did, the move would be highly controversial in the US and it would almost certainly lead to Beijing requiring Taipei to accept unification - by the threat or actual use of force.

    Tsang argues that as long as the TRA is not repealed, Washington will always have the option to decide what to do as the situation unfolds. "The better way by far is to make the US deterrence against a Chinese threat to use force credible and effective. It means giving Taiwan sufficient capabilities to hold out for long enough for US forces to interfere, should the administration of the day decide to do so. Beijing is most unlikely to use force and risk a major war that it cannot win and which threatens the very survival of the CCP establishment," said Tsang.

    Jens Kastner is a Taipei-based journalist.

    (Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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