Taiwan shaken by US conference confusion

For Asia Times Online www.atimes.com

By Jens Kastner

TAIPEI – Taiwan watchers are in overdrive about an ominous no-show of senior US defense and diplomatic officials at an event held annually to address US-Taiwan defense cooperation as well as to sort out the island’s arms-procurement plans.

Because this year’s Taiwan-US Defense Industry Conference in Hershey, Pennsylvania, came after a series of aggressive moves carried out by Taiwan’s political leadership and elements of the island’s armed forces against US ally Japan over its stance on the disputed Diaoyutai/Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, it is the prevailing assessment in Taiwan that the conspicuous absence of the US officials and Washington’s dissatisfaction with Taipei are connected. Observers with a very close eye on the pending US elections have a strikingly different take on the issue, however.

Militarily, the US and Taiwan are de facto allies, with the former being the latter’s sole security guarantor and meaningful supplier of weapons. In the absence of official bilateral ties, all military-related exchanges are conducted in various semi-official conferences and symposiums. Among those, there are the so-called Monterey Talks that in effect bring together the Pentagon and Taiwan’s national-security officials, and there also is the US-Taiwan Business Council’s Taiwan-US Defense Industry Conference.

Such meetings have been postponed in the past and schedules have undergone last-minute changes, but behind those there always appeared to have been reasons that were rather weighty, for example, Hurricane Katrina having struck the US in 2005 or Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to Washington in 2006. Therefore, most observers in Taiwan thought, it could not possibly have been a harmless coincidence that only two days before this year’s Taiwan-US Defense Industry Conference, Mark Lippert, US assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs, who was reportedly scheduled to deliver a keynote speech, announced that he would not come and likewise did Kin Moy, deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs.

These observers could not get over the fact that it was the first time since 2002 that no senior official from the State Department had attended that particular conference, and thus they settled for one explanation.

“We have a lot of guesses around,” Wu Yu-shan, director of the Institute of Political Science at Taiwan’s Academia Sinica, the island’s most renowned research institution, told Asia Times Online.

“But the most plausible one seems to be a US gesture of displeasure with the escort of Taiwan’s fishing boats by coast-guard vessels to the Diaoyutais and the resultant skirmish with the Japanese boats, for the US is behind Japan on this issue.”

Wu was referring to the high-profile incident in late September in which more than 50 Taiwanese fishing boats protected by coast-guard ships tried to enter disputed waters around the Diaoyutai/Senkaku Islands, which are controlled by Japan but subject to competing claims by mainland China and Taiwan, after the Japanese government bought the islands from their private owner. To stop the Taiwanese from intruding into what Japan claims as its exclusive economic zone, Japan Coast Guard ships attacked the fishing boats with water cannon, which the Taiwanese coast guard returned, in effect leading to a somewhat violent clash between the semi-military law-enforcement forces of a very close US ally on the one side and those of a de facto one on the other.

That Taipei doesn’t seem to give a hang about Washington’s sensitivities in this regard was indicated earlier. For example, in late July, during an ROC Navy drill held off Taiwan’s east coast, a rear admiral defied orders and commanded his US-made Kidd-class destroyer and a small associated fleet out of Taiwan’s air defense identification zone. The naval group surrounding one of the navy’s main surface combatants then sailed full-steam toward Japanese territorial waters. It did not intrude in these, but nonetheless alerted the militaries of Japan and the US.

As if this wasn’t enough of an irritation to the US-Japan security alliance, Taipei later decided to let the officer at the center of the mutiny off the hook virtually unpunished.

Then, in early September, Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou conducted a whirlwind tour to Pengjia, the Taiwanese island closest to the Diaoyutais. There, the notoriously Beijing-friendly president condemned the Japanese purchase of the Diaoyutais as an “invasion” of Republic of China territory and shook his fist against the Japanese while having ROC Air Force fighter jets carry out fly-bys.

And on September 18, marking the anniversary of the Mukden Incident as the beginning of the Japanese invasion of China in 1931, Taiwanese media presented footage showing the bombs of a US-made ROC Air Force F-16 sporting the inscription “The Diaoyutais are ours.”

As this coincided with the violent anti-Japan protests in mainland China that erupted after the Japanese purchased the Diaoyutais, and also because Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense did not hesitate to expressed sympathy with the pilots responsible for the F-16 graffiti, the signals sent from Taipei to Washington and Tokyo were arguably precarious.

Not surprisingly, President Ma now faces allegations by his domestic political opponents that his recent moves over the Diaoyutais challenged US interests in East Asia. They see Ma as steering directly toward unification with the mainland and claim that it is part of his master plan to cut ties with the old friends Japan and US first to pave the way.

As a sign of how seriously Ma takes such accusations, he felt compelled to deliver a counter-statement on prime-time TV.

“The meeting [the Taiwan-US Defense Industry Conference] has nothing to do with the Diaoyutai sovereignty issue. We learned about [the absence of senior US officials] beforehand … The US maintains a neutral stance on the issue,” he said.

Since then, he has received considerable support from two US moves. First, the United States’ new de facto ambassador in Taipei, American Institute in Taiwan director Christopher Marut, described the security cooperation between the US and Taiwan as “one of the strongest elements” of the overall relationship. Second, and likely more important, the Pentagon released a photograph of Taiwan’s vice-minister of national defense, Andrew Yang, who did attend the Taiwan-US Defense Industry Conference, which was taken when he visited the Pentagon on that occasion. The publication of such photographs by the US side is highly unusual, as there is a tacit agreement with Beijing not to make Washington-Taipei defense ties look official.

The view of John Copper, a professor of international studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, seems to deliver at least a good part of the explanation, if not the entire one, for the mysterious State Department no-show at the conference. According to his analysis, it is all about US President Barack Obama wanting to avoid the tedious Taiwan issue like the plague while pursuing his re-election campaign.

“A year or two ago, pro-Obama officials, media writers and scholars began to write pieces and make public statements to the effect that the US could no longer defend Taiwan, and some said [it] should not anyway. This tune changed as the US presidential election approached,” Copper said.

“The reason seems to be the size of Taiwan’s support base in the US and in Congress and the fact that any military and security issue would be a distraction from what the Obama campaign team wants to focus on.”

Copper argues that the White House in particular does not want to discuss the sale of F-16C/D aircraft to Taiwan at this time. Taipei has been requesting the new fighters for years, and Obama has refused to release them, but his Republican challenger Mitt Romney, while in the same breath criticizing Obama for kowtowing to Beijing by withholding the aircraft, has said he will give the nod to the deal if he wins the presidential race. “It is a sensitive issue and would be a distraction,” Copper said.

According to Copper, also related to the senior officials’ absence is the matter that the Obama administration in the electoral run-up does not want to be forced to defend the “Asia pivot”, which, as a concept that is half-baked at best in Copper’s eyes, provides Romney with further opportunities to discredit Obama.

“There are as yet no logistical or operational plans to accompany the Asia pivot, making it appear to be little more than a talking point a present,” Copper said. “Then there is the problem of funding. Defense spending has been cut already; there might be another huge cut and the US military will be badly hurt by it. Then the Asia pivot cannot be turned into a meaningful policy.”

Jens Kastner is a Taipei-based journalist. 

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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