A June 25 article in the left-leaning The Nation claims to have unearthed what could only be described as a nefarious conspiracy of “secret foreign donors” involving the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO), Taiwan’s de-facto embassy in the U.S., and the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a Washington-based think tank.
At the heart of the article is the argument that at the time that AEI — “one of the Beltway’s most consistent advocates for the sale of advanced fighter jets to Taiwan” — was advocating for arms sales to the island, the Taiwanese government was showering it with US$550,000 in contributions, making Taipei its fourth-largest donor in financial year 2009. Furthermore, we are told that AEI had “never publicly acknowledged” the donations. (TECRO told The Nation that it was simply facilitating a donation that a Taiwanese University had made to AEI).
Drawing from various excerpts from articles and papers written by researchers at AEI (including some published in The Diplomat), and using techniques that, truth be told, border on guilt by association — e.g., mentioning former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz’s (the Left’s version of Lucifer) ties to the institution — the rest of the article endeavors to raise questions about the independence and integrity of the institute. “To what extent have they consulted with the Taiwanese government?” it asks.
Those are perfectly legitimate questions, and we’re all for transparency in the funding of research institutions — especially when it comes from abroad. The problem is that the article’s claims are based on two assumptions that belie a poor understanding of the think tank world and, more importantly, the maddeningly complex workings of U.S.-Taiwan relations.
On the first issue: U.S. think tanks receive funding from a plethora of governments, institutions, foundations, universities, and individuals. Some of those donors, for various reasons, choose to remain anonymous. For example, the Brookings Institution’s 2012 annual report shows one anonymous donor in the $1,000,000-$2,499,999 category, and three in the $500,000-999,999 range — the same bracket as the “problematic” TECRO identified in the article. That same year, TECRO’s donated between US$250,000-US$499,999 to Brookings, which is hardly a strident advocate of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. Like a lot of other foreign entities, the Taiwanese government funds a number of other think tanks in the U.S. There is nothing unusual, or even illegal, in this.
Moreover, while the article focuses on TECRO’s financial contributions to AEI, it makes absolutely no mention of the much more substantial — and oftentimes less transparent — donations to U.S. think tanks and academic institutions by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) government, wealthy Chinese individuals, or corporations with strong business interests in China (to that we can also add the co-optation of retired U.S. generals and government officials via highly lucrative corporate positions). Nor is it said that through those institutions, the PRC is attempting to sever U.S.-Taiwan ties, end U.S. arms sales to the island, and encourage the perception that the “re-unification” of Taiwan and China is inevitable, by force if necessary, even if this goes against the wishes of Taiwan’s 23 million people.
In short, by being so selective, the article completely omits the tremendous influence that the much stronger party in the dispute, China, has on U.S. policy on Taiwan.
The second major problem with the article is that it assumes that TECRO was using its (presumably un-kosher) influence on AEI to push for arms sales — especially 66 F-16C/Ds — at a time when, as anyone who follows U.S.-Taiwan relations closely would know, Taipei was dragging its feet on arms sales and, later on, seemed to be doing everything in its power to kill the F-16 program. In other words, rather than dictate to the researchers at AEI, Taiwan was funding analysts that were growing increasingly critical of and impatient with Taipei’s passive attitude to arms procurement — the exact opposite of what the article claims.
For ideological and strategic reasons, AEI has consistently supported U.S. arms sales to the small democracy, whose way of life is continually threatened by an authoritarian China that spends more than 10 times more than it on defense each year, and in whose favor the balance of power (thanks in part to Russian arms transfers) has irreversibly shifted in recent years. Many others, who do not receive a penny from the Taiwanese government, also favor continued U.S. assistance.
If The Nation really wants to expose conflicts of interests and possible influence peddling, it should turn to politicians whose constituencies stand to gain from such arms sales, not to people who genuinely believe in Taiwan’s right to defend itself.