Early in 2001, President Bush
approved the export of arms to democratic Taiwan. At the time, Bush said the
United States would do "whatever it takes" to defend its tiny,
besieged Pacific ally. That was yesterday. Today, it's looking more like Bush
was just kidding.
How else to explain the
administration's recent decision to freeze $16 billion worth of the arms deals?
Bush approved the sale of Patriot missiles, Apache helicopters, and submarines
to Taiwan more than seven years ago. Since then Taiwan has also requested 66
F-16 fighter jets to replace its aging planes. The Taiwanese legislature has
appropriated the money with which to buy the weapons. In some cases it has
already even put down payments. In return, America has given Taiwan a whole lot
On July 16, the head of Pacific
Command, Admiral Timothy Keating, told an audience at the Heritage Foundation
that the administration has concluded "there is no pressing, compelling
need for, at this moment, arms sales to Taiwan of the systems that we're talking
about." This must have been news to the Taiwanese government, which says
the weapons are needed to defend Taiwan. And it certainly must have been a
surprise to the authors of the Pentagon's annual report on Chinese military
power, who have for the past several years noted the dangerous shift in the
military balance of power between Taiwan and China.
Taiwan president Ma Ying-Jeou took
office last May, pledging to improve relations between Taiwan and China while
protecting his democracy's sovereignty. To that end, in recent months the two
countries have resumed cross-strait talks, allowed direct flights between the
mainland and Taipei, and pursued further economic integration.
Yet Ma also understands that he must
negotiate from a position of strength. For the United States to renege on its
commitments would weaken Ma's hand at a critical time. After all, his
government is only a few months old and Beijing is no doubt searching for
weaknesses. American self-doubt and lack of follow through--in effect, a lack
of American resolve and confidence in Ma's government--may lead Chinese
policymakers to think that they can act provocatively.
Beijing has already gotten away with
a lot. China is a rising autocratic power that has suffered no consequences for
its gross human rights violations and support for rogue regimes. The military
buildup on the Chinese side of the Taiwan Strait continues uninterrupted. There
are now more than a thousand Chinese missiles pointed at Taiwan. In the last
decade the Chinese have deployed more than 300 advanced aircraft across the
Strait. China has five ongoing submarine programs. A massive, underground
nuclear submarine base was recently detected on Hainan Island.
China has reasons for its buildup.
It is meant, among other things, to deter unilateral declarations of Taiwanese
independence. The authors of the Defense Department's 2008 report on Chinese
military power wrote, the "ongoing deployment of short-range ballistic
missiles, enhanced amphibious warfare capabilities, and modern, long-range
anti-air systems opposite Taiwan are reminders of Beijing's unwillingness to
renounce the use of force." The greater the military imbalance between
China and Taiwan, the more likely China is to use military force in a
cross-strait dispute. This is another reason the deal is necessary. Taiwan
requires arms to serve as a deterrent against the mainland.
Why the delay? The administration
has provided only a series of excuses. First the deal was held up because
Washington was displeased with Taiwan president Chen Shui-bian's
pro-independence rhetoric. Now Chen is gone, replaced by Ma's quietist
diplomacy. The new excuse is that fulfilling our end of the bargain would upset
China on the verge of next week's Beijing Olympics. Even if this were the case,
and it probably is not, the administration has to shoulder much of the blame.
Its foot-dragging in years past helped produce this impasse (though Taiwan's
then-opposition Kuomintang party was also a problem). And once the Olympics are
over, and the weapons still have not been exported, expect the administration
to say that it cannot fulfill its commitments to Taiwan because to do so may
jeopardize China's participation in the North Korean denuclearization talks.
All of these excuses point to the actual
reason for the delay: America's current Taiwan policy is motivated by fear. We
are afraid of upsetting China and afraid, in turn, of what an upset China might
do in response. And the consequence of this fear is a weakened position for the
United States and its East Asian allies.
On a visit to Taipei last week, former Deputy
Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told reporters that he expected the arms sales
will be approved. We hope he is right. Let's not forget, however, that the
Taiwan Relations Act also gives Congress a say in the defense assistance
provided to Taiwan. Should the White House continue to drag its feet, it will
fall to Congress to speak out in support of a democratically. And the message
Congress might deliver is simple: Who is served when America neglects her
friends in a misguided effort not to offend her rivals?