In a recent piece for The National Interest, John F Copper, a Taiwan expert and professor of International Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, made plausible how Taiwan’s role has been evolving in the context of the US’ “pivot” or “rebalancing” to Asia, a policy then-Secretary of State Clinton announced in November 2011. Titled Obama Turns Toward Taiwan, the article brings back to mind that during his first presidential election campaign, Barack Obama failed to confirm that America had an obligation to defend Taiwan, and that soon after his election, his administration offered to host talks between the militaries of China and Taiwan despite the US decades-old promise to never push Taiwan into negotiations with China. Copper argues that Obama appointed China-friendly/ Taiwan-hostile advisers and emphasizes that the American president on his first trip to China concurred that Taiwan is one of China’s “core interests”. And, in Copper’s eyes, also what followed spoke volumes: Obama’s Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Bill Owens, publicly suggested the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) was “outdated”. After that, a great many opinion pieces penned by influential US academics and former US officials ideologically close to the Obama Administration argued that Taiwan was the only real obstacle to better relations with China and should thus let go off.
But, Copper says, all this came to a relatively sudden end. In 2012 at the latest, the Obama Administration realized that it has no money to keep up US defense spending, let alone for the “pivot”, he argues. That friendly countries located around China should shoulder more of the burden in keeping the Middle Kingdom in check became a more pressing objective to the Obama Administration, so that nearness to Taiwan was again seen as a valuable asset, Copper says.
To support this thesis of his, Copper reminds us of Taiwan’s timely inclusion into the US visa waiver program, a privilege only 36 nations had; Obama’s signing of legislation supporting Taiwan’s participation in the International Civil Aviation Organization; backing to Taiwan to conclude bilateral free-trade agreements (FTAs); backing to Taiwan to aim for membership in the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP); praise for the way the Taiwanese government of President Ma Ying-jeou handled the East China Sea crisis; a conspicuous surge in Taiwan trips by US officials; and the warm reception of Ma by high-ranking US politicians on a transit stop-over in the US. Finally on Copper’s list: When Obama met China’s new president Xi Jinping earlier this year, he said Washington would continue to sell weapons to Taiwan.
When looked at Copper’s piece alone, it might seem indeed as if the Obama Administration now assesses that Taiwan ought to have a firm place in the “pivot” quite similar to the ones South Korea, India, the Philippines, Japan and Australia, among others, occupy. However, when discussions and interactions between the US and the other “pivot” partners are looked at, it becomes clear that there is an important difference in how the US sees them and Taiwan: Whereas on the one side, there is an emphasis on military-related issues, where Taiwan is concerned, it’s all about the economy and diplomacy with signs for closer ties to the US military being conspicuous by absence.
In September 2011, it was the last time the Obama Administration sold arms (an upgrade program for Taiwan’s F-16 fleet) to Taiwan. Since then no new procurement initiative has been put in the pipeline, making it the longest period on record for no arms sale. The US-Taiwan Business Council, a go-between between the US defense industry and the Taiwan military, calls this a complete hold on arms sales – a “freeze”.
On August 19, following talks between Chinese Minister of National Defense Chang Wanquan and US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Chinese Rear Admiral Guan Youfei, director of the Foreign Affairs Office of China’s Ministry of National Defense, reportedly stated that China and US are to form a task force to sort out how US arms sales to Taiwan could be ended, while in return, China would withdraw some military assets vis-à-vis Taiwan. Although the story was vehemently refuted by Taipei, and there might not be such a deal, it at least reflects that China believes that the anti-Taiwan arms sale audience in US decision-making circles is now so strong that it pays off to address them with such a message.
On August 27, Bonnie Glaser, a US scholar seen by her Taiwanese counterparts as fully authorized to speak for the Obama Administration, stated that the US supports cross-strait military confidence-building measures (CBMs), but there is no policy of actively promoting them. She acknowledged that President Ma fears that such CBMs would justify and an end to or reduction of US arms sales to Taiwan. This fear is certainly well-founded.
On September 29, at the opening of the Taiwan-US Defense Industry Conference, an event held annually to address US-Taiwan defense cooperation and the Taiwan military’s procurement plans, it first seemed as if no senior US defense and diplomatic officials showed up for the second consecutive year. It was not until after the US-Taiwan Business Council, as the organizer, made media headlines by stating that the no-show proved that US-Taiwan relations are now “fairly grim” that US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy Daniel Chiu surprisingly emerged to give a speech.
Perhaps the most concrete sign for the existence of a “freeze”, however, was the biannual Taipei Aerospace and Defense Technology Exhibition (TADTE) held in mid-August. Apparently assessing that the times of lucrative arms sales to Taiwan are gone, interest by US defense companies has declined, with Northrop Grumman and Boeing not showing up at all, while of those four who bothered setting up booths, namely Lockheed Martin, Pratt & Whitney, Sikorsky and Raytheon, only the latter promoted a new product, according to Defense News.
Weapons Made in Taiwan
One might argue that the Obama Administration cannot be blamed for scaling down US-Taiwan military ties because the Ma Administration seems indifferent and does not wish to play a military role in the “pivot”. This notion is fuelled by the matter that for years Ma has relentlessly, and at times passionately, asked the US to release new F-16s along with the upgrade program for the old ones, causing many members of US Congress to spend considerable political capital to support him. But then, last year, Ma stopped asking, with Taiwanese government officials now saying that the new F-16s aren’t good enough, so that Taiwan wants the impossible, namely F-35s. Intriguingly, what is presumably poorly received by traditional Taiwan-backers in the US does not harm the Ma Administration’s standing in Taiwan’s domestic politics. Quite on the contrary, as the US is by the Taiwanese public widely seen as “ripping Taiwan off” in weapons sales, the Ma Administration arguably gains some popularity by the increased promotion of Taiwan-made weapons.
However, these indigenous efforts alone will not be able to protect the political choices of Taiwan’s future generations, as, strategists agree, the by far most important aspect of Taiwan’s defense is the linkage to the US military. The second most important aspect might be the linkage to capable lobbyists in Washington.
Taiwan is a democracy, and the US and its allies want China to become one. As a bulwark against Chinese military power projection well into the Pacific and as a potential platform for the US’ AirSeaBattle concept, which is about taking on China’s anti-access/area denial weapon systems, Taiwan could naturally be a very valuable part of the “pivot”. On the other hand, tense Sino-US relations over Taiwan may cost the US dearly elsewhere, and Taiwan itself does not seem eager to play a military role in the “pivot”. Taken together, these factors warrant the continuation of the US’ “strategic ambiguity” policy it has been successfully employing for decades. The last-minute show of Chiu at the Taiwan-US Defense Industry Conference was a textbook example of this policy, as it signals to the Chinese side that the most crucial element in Taiwan-US military relations, the linkage, still exists. Now and then a stronger non-military hardware-related signal, such as a media leak on US observers attending a Taiwanese military exercise, would be helpful, provided it fits in the state of Sino-US relations of the day. For future arms sales the same tactic should be applied as for the F-16 upgrade program: by having Taiwan painting the new F-16s as first choice and the upgrade to the old ones as a simple repair job and then releasing only the latter, China’s face was saved, so that the deal worth a whopping US$5.2 billion went ahead without upsetting Sino-US relations.
But, while some military-related signals at the right time and the other type of encouragement as described by Copper enables the US to keep Taiwan as something of a reserve bench-warmer in its “pivot” alliance to call upon in the event of a grave deterioration in Sino-US relations, Taipei must be extremely careful with the signals it sends. It has to identify who in Washington supports Taiwan’s inclusion in the “pivot” and must move heaven and earth to give them argumentative ammunition. To that end, the Ma Administration should credibly revive its requests for US arms sales and do not unnecessarily create eye-brow raising headlines such as by implementing CBMs with China or ordering the Taiwan military to withdraw from Taiwan’s frontline islands Kinmen and Matsu. It should furthermore work harder to prevent China’s political warfare units from sabotaging the linkage between the US and Taiwan militaries. Taiwan must be aware that every time the cover is blown on someone who spies for China on systems facilitating the US-Taiwan linkage, it is not a loss, but a tremendous success for China.