The renewed U.S. interest in the Asia-Pacific gives Taiwan a perfect chance to bolster ties and its own security. But will it seize the moment?
The United States’ strategic shift toward the Asia-Pacific is more than just rhetoric. U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told Asian defense leaders at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore earlier this month that the U.S. will “of necessity” rebalance towards the region, vowing that 60 percent of the Navy’s fleet, including six carrier battle groups, will be deployed to the region by 2020. He added that the U.S. presence would be bolstered by additional assets, while also becoming more agile, flexible and high-tech.
Such remarks have been welcomed by many in allies Australia, Japan and South Korea. On June 3, meanwhile, Panetta made a stop at a port in Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, making him the most senior U.S. official to visit the harbor since the Vietnam War ended in 1975. He stood on the deck of a U.S. ship to commemorate the 17th anniversary of the normalization of U.S.-Vietnam relations, underscoring Washington’s intention to enhance military cooperation with Hanoi.
This comes as the U.S. promotes a new strategy to forge partnerships in Southeast Asia to protect vital maritime rights for all nations in the South China Sea, even as China makes expansive territorial claims there – claims that conflict with those of Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan, among other states.
Over the past 15 years, China’s defense budget has increased by about 500 percent, and Beijing’s perceived dominance and growing belligerence appear to be strengthening U.S. efforts to rally the support of friends in the Asia-Pacific region. But all this points to one of the biggest challenges for both the U.S. and China – addressing the status of Taiwan.
The Obama administration has continued to provide defensive arms to Taiwan, as mandated by the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), moves that have prompted anger from China. In addition, U.S. officials have been keen to highlight the importance placed on relations with Taiwan. In November, for example, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Taiwan was an important security and economic partner.
China views this “protective” relationship with Taiwan as the most serious impediment to its goal of unification, and Beijing has moved to undermine ties, including by continuing to pressure Washington not to sell arms to Taiwan. Such pressure has found something of a sympathetic hearing among some senior U.S. commentators and analysts, and some prominent voices in Washington policy circles such as Adm. Bill Owens, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Adm. Joseph Prueher, former Commander of the Pacific Command, have suggested Obama needs to recognize the reality of a rising China and at least reconsider U.S. security ties with Taiwan.
But aside from diplomatic pressure, China has also eyed intimidation, including deploying an estimated more than 1,000 missiles that are aimed at Taiwan, even as it has intensified economic engagement with the island in an effort to compel President Ma Ying-jeou and his Chinese Nationalist Party to start political talks that will lead to Beijing’s preferred outcome of Taiwan’s eventual unification.
The military pressure hasn’t stopped with the deployment of missiles – the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has built up considerable “anti-access” and “area-denial” capabilities with the U.S. in mind. China’s strategy serves two purposes: to deter and defeat U.S. intervention should China use force against Taiwan while also upholding China’s position in East Asia.
Photo Credit: Office of the Taiwanese President