Features | Security | East Asia

Can Taiwan Be a “Worthy” U.S. Ally?

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?

By Parris H. Chang for

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.

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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.

So, how is the U.S. responding to these realities? In January, the Obama administration issued its latest U.S. Defense Strategic Guidance in response to forthcoming challenges the United States faces. The document suggests a heightened commitment to security in Asia and maps out a comprehensive plan for strengthening political, economic, and military cooperation with allies.

Clearly, terrorism, nuclear proliferation and other threats require a coordinated response. But with the Pentagon facing potentially hundreds of billions in budget cuts over the next 10 years, will U.S. allies such as Taiwan be willing to share the burden?  Certainly, when the U.S. and allied forces moved into Afghanistan in October 2001 to fight al-Qaeda and the Taliban, Taiwan’s government, then led by the Democratic Progressive Party, lost no time in delivering military trucks to assist the coalition, while pumping tens of millions of dollars into logistics and humanitarian relief operations.

With this in mind, will Taiwan’s KMT regime decide to engage with the new U.S. strategy? And if so, will Ma’s government provide regional host support or other forms of burden-sharing to sustain and bolster the U.S. security presence in East Asia?  The latter question is particularly interesting given the criticism that Ma has received for tilting too far toward the mainland.

To be a worthy ally, Taiwan should strengthen anti-proliferation and other security measures by forestalling exports of precision instruments and dual-use, high-tech components to Iran. Such items can be used for research into, and the production of, nuclear arms and their delivery systems.  Likewise, Taiwan should work to halt, or at least substantially reduce, imports of Iranian crude as Japan and South Korea are doing.

But U.S.-Taiwan co-operation needn’t revolve simply around military issues. In December, Rajiv Shah, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), was in Taiwan to solicit the government’s help in U.S. global development aid programs. President Ma and his government would do well to take up the USAID invitation and actively participate in such global partnerships aimed at promoting social and economic development in other countries. In addition, it should also halt moves towards cutting its foreign aid budget. In 2010, for example, Taiwan spent $380 million in foreign aid, or only 0.1 percent of its GNI – well below the U.N. goal of 0.7 percent. Despite this shortcoming, the Ma government indicated last year that it planned to cut foreign aid by 13 percent.

Ultimately, Taiwan’s overdependence on its cross-strait neighbor is dangerous, even setting aside the political implications. In 2010, China was the destination for 42 percent of Taiwan’s exports and 84 percent of Taiwan’s outward investments. In 2011, the export and investment figures were similarly 40 percent and 79 percent. To redress the imbalance, Taiwan must work hard to diversify its target export markets by enhancing trade and investment connections with the U.S., Japan and India, among others.

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And there’s one more thing; Taiwan should safeguard its claims over disputed areas in the South China Sea by fostering security cooperation with the U.S., Japan and others, rather than working with the mainland as influential Beijing-affiliated scholars have called for. It’s imperative for an island nation like Taiwan to work closely with the United States and other democratic friends in the region to ensure security and freedom of navigation.

As a member of the international community, Taiwan must make its position clear that territorial disputes in East Asia and the South China Sea should be settled through peaceful means, in a multilateral forum, and on the basis of international law. Doing so will not only help Taiwan ensure stability and growth in the Asia-Pacific, but also bolster its own democratic government.

Parris H. Chang is professor emeritus of political science at Pennsylvania State University and chief executive of the Taiwan Institute of Political, Economic and Strategic Studies. He is a former deputy secretary general of Taiwan’s National Security Council.