China Power

Taiwan Mulls Post-US Pacific

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China Power

Taiwan Mulls Post-US Pacific

Does the increased talk of the United States abandoning Taiwan reflect a decline in American power?

Last week, I came across a commentary by the US-Taiwan Business Council, an NPO that aims to boost commercial ties between the United States and Taiwan, which had some damning things to say about US policy toward the island.

Penned by Council President Rupert Hammond-Chambers, the piece argues that despite a strong start in defence ties between the two last year with the $6.4 billion US arms sale, overall there has been a ‘lackadaisical treatment of the Taiwan relationship since 2008,’ with the United States seeming ‘willing to roll the dice and let China and Taiwan get on with it, merely providing periodic rhetorical words of support.’

I asked J. Michael Cole, deputy news chief at the Taipei Times and a contributor to Jane’s Intelligence Review, for his take on the Council’s commentary. We’ve had a couple of interesting opinion pieces this week looking at the implications of the United States ‘abandoning’ Taiwan, including what this could mean for US forces in the Pacific.

So, has there really been a shift?

‘It’s obviously difficult to point to direct evidence of that “shift,” as the Council claims. However, the fact that the Obama administration has yet to make a move on the F-16C/Ds or to come up with its own arms package for Taiwan—one that reflects current defence needs rather than those from a decade ago—is part of it,’ Cole told me.

‘Delays in a classified report to US Congress on the state of Taiwan’s air power, as mandated by the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal 2010, is another example of institutional foot-dragging on an issue that, at least for Taiwan, is of great importance, as the report will serve as a “blueprint” for future US-Taiwan defence cooperation.

‘Aside from arms sales, Washington…has been largely silent on Beijing’s unwillingness to reduce its threatening posture against Taiwan—which, contrary to popular belief, isn’t limited to the Second Artillery’s 1,900 or so short- and medium-range missiles. So the US has been all carrots and no sticks.’

Cole argues that this approach is ‘irresponsible’ and simply plays into what he describes as Beijing’s ‘United Front strategy’ to achieve unification with Taiwan under a ‘silent takeover.’ He’s also dismissive (as were James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara here, and many others elsewhere) about the implication by Charles Glaser writing in Foreign Affairs this month that the United States should consider in effect ‘trading’ Taiwan for better ties with mainland China.

‘Abandoning Taiwan would at best only be a short-term solution to a very difficult problem. It’s an alluring option because it appears to be relatively risk-free, but it’s not, at least not in the long term,’ Cole said.

Is the United States really on the verge of giving up on the island? And if so, why?

Cole argues: ‘A slightly pessimistic mood appears to have descended upon the US government, as if we’ve already entered a post-American century in which the US can no longer afford to provide the security guarantees that, especially in places like Northeast Asia, ensured stability and development for decades…If it were to abandon its commitments to allies like Taiwan, South Korea and Japan, to name a few, we’d risk entering an era of unprecedented militarization in East Asia which would be detrimental to all—the US included.’

I also asked him what his sense is of how the Taiwanese public feels toward the United States right now—have they given up hope in the US as an ultimate guarantor of at least the status quo?

‘The sense among many Taiwanese also appears to be that we’re slowly entering a post-American era that, in this neighbourhood, is being precipitated by the “rise” of China. There’s a bit of panic and lots of resignation, with a lot of work behind the scenes to keep the US involved,’ he told me.

‘There’s also the recognition that the presidential election in 2012, in which President Ma Ying-jeou is expected to face a more formidable challenge by the main opposition DPP than he did back in 2008, will be a moment of great tension in the Taiwan Strait. Even if Ma wins, he’ll likely do so by a narrow margin, which could constrain him in his engagement with Beijing. Taiwan will also late this year or early next year hold legislative elections, in which the DPP is expected to make solid gains.

‘A more balanced legislature, in which the KMT currently has a majority, would add checks on the executive and likely add to Beijing’s frustrations with the lack of progress on unification. In all, this means a lot of uncertainty for the next couple of years, and Taiwan would like nothing more than to know that no matter what happens, the US umbrella will be there to ensure a certain level of protection should Beijing react badly to democratic developments here.’