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Tai-What? By: Don Feder
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, April 09, 2009

There’s at least one place where this administration and Congress part company – in their estimation of the importance of the Taiwan Relations Act, whose 30th. anniversary is April 10th.  

Typical of his non-foreign policy, President Obama seems to have no position on a nation whose survival is crucial to our national security – which, come to think of it, he doesn’t care much about that either.

Not so Congress, which recently went out of its way to mark the anniversary of the 1979 Act.

On March 25, by a voice vote, the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously declared that, “The Taiwan Relations Act has been instrumental in maintaining peace, stability and security in the Taiwan Straits since its enactment in 1979.”

The House then resolved that Congress “affirm its unwavering commitment to the Taiwan Relations Act as the cornerstone of relations between the United States and Taiwan.” The resolution was co-sponsored by the 150 members of the Taiwan Caucus.

A group of Senators, 30 in number, managed to trump that. Nearly one-third of the Senate sent the president a letter requesting that he commemorate the TRA’s anniversary.

The letter notes that the Taiwan Relations Act “guarantees America’s support for Taiwan’s self-defense capability, pledges to maintain the capability to resist any resort to force or coercion that would jeopardize Taiwan and reaffirms the preservation and enhancement of the human rights of all people of Taiwan.” The Senators called the TRA “unprecedented legislation (that) has helped keep peace and stability in Asia, and has allowed a highly productive relationship between our governments (Washington and Taipei) to grow and prosper.

Thus far, the White House has ignored the request. Perhaps the president is too busy wrecking the economy, pretending to do something about North Korea, and practicing bowing to medieval monarchs.

Then again, Taiwan has almost always found more support among the legislative than the executive branch, going back to the TRA’s adoption in 1979.

This followed Jimmy Carter’s announcement on December 15, 1978 that Washington would sever diplomatic ties with the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan, in favor of recognition of the hilariously misnamed People’s Republic of China, and unilaterally abrogate the 1954 U.S.-ROC Mutual Defense Treaty.  

In dealing with communists and fanatics, Carter’s policy was – appease first, ask questions later.

Coming in the midst of our humiliation at the hands of Iranian mullahs, and the advance of Soviet imperialism, from Kabul to Managua (all on Carter’s watch), this was more than Congress could stomach.

Hence the TRA, which stated that the security of Taiwan was essential “to help maintain peace, security, and stability in the Western Pacific” and committed Washington to “promote extensive, close, and friendly commercial relations between the people of the United States and the people of Taiwan” and to make it clear that Taiwan’s future must be “determined by peaceful means.”

In fulfillment of that commitment, Washington undertook “to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character” to stave off aggression, It further pledged that the United States would maintain a military force sufficient to resist “any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people of Taiwan.”

Consistent with our complicated relationship with Taiwan since 1979, the TRA is marked by what’s termed “constructive ambiguity.” The expression “arms of a defensive character” is open to interpretation. While the Act certainly suggests that the U.S. will employ force in Taiwan’s defense, it doesn’t say so explicitly.

Ambiguity aside, the Taiwan Relations Act has served two peoples well.

Though China periodically bullies and blusters, has test-fired missiles in the direction of Taiwan, and has made the ROC the object of its military buildup, it’s never gone beyond that. It hasn’t even bombarded Taiwan’s off-shore islands, as it did when Eisenhower was president.

That doesn’t mean the standoff will continue indefinitely. Mainland China is vastly richer and stronger militarily today than it was in 1979. And Beijing is far more fixated on Taiwan.

Three decades ago, China was the proverbial sleeping giant, just beginning to awaken from Maoist economic orthodoxy.

Between 2000 and 2008 alone, China’s Gross Domestic Product grew from $1.95 trillion to $4.19 trillion. Its trade surplus was an estimated $290 billion in 2008.

China’s trade surpluses have financed a 20-year shopping spree.

The PRC’s military spending has increased by at least double digits for the past 20 years. And that’s what Beijing admits to. China is notorious for understating the growth of its military budget.  

According to Beijing, military outlays increased from $27.9 billion in 2000 to $60.1 billion in 2008, the latter an 18% increase over 2007. But the Pentagon estimates that actual military spending was somewhere between $105 billion and $150 billion last year.

Congress has mandated annual Defense Department reports on Chinese military expansion. This year’s survey, “Military Power of the People’s Republic of China, 2008,” released late last month, details the rapid advances of the Middle Kingdom’s war-making ability.

Among other observations, the 74-page document notes that China “has the most active land-based ballistic missile system in the world.” Its submarine-launched ballistic missile is currently in development. When deployed on the JL-2 nuclear sub, China will have its “first credible sea-based nuclear strike capability.”

The PRC also boasts sophisticated anti-ship missiles. It continues to deploy road-mobile, solid-fueled ICBMs, including the DF-31 and DF-31A, capable of reaching any target in the continental United States.  

In 2005, General Zhu Chenghu, head of China’s National Defense University, told a group of visiting Hong Kong journalists, “If the Americans are determined to interfere (with Beijing’s plans for Taiwan)…we will be determined to respond.”  

In a potential nuclear exchange, Zhu casually noted: “We Chinese will prepare ourselves for the destruction of all cities east of Xian (Central China). Of course, the Americans will have to be prepared that hundreds (of their)... cities will be destroyed by the Chinese.”

The threat reflected China’s growing confidence in its ability to win a short-term conflict.  That potential has only increased in the last four years.

The People’s Liberation Army has top-of-the-line combat aircraft and anti-satellite missiles, a sophisticated cyber-warfare operation and (again, according to the 2009 report) a growing submarine fleet that could soon begin to challenge the United States in the South China Sea.

Taiwan has developed too, but in other directions.  

The Taiwanese economic miracle has become somewhat of a cliché. Today’s Taiwan has the 17th. largest economy in the world. It’s also the 16th. major trading nation – all with 23 million people. Its imports from the U.S. totaled $26 billion last year.

In 1979, Taiwan was ruled by Chiang Kai-shek (the loser in China’s civil war) and a mainland oligarchy. Beginning in 1987, the ROC made a swift transition to a full-fledged democracy. Freedom House regularly rates Taiwan either the freest nation in Asia or the second freest, behind Japan.

In 1990s, the Taiwanese first elected their legislature and then began the direct election of the ROC’s president. Since 2000, there have been two peaceful transfers of power between the major parties.

Despite its growing prosperity and economic prowess, the People’s Republic remains what it was three decades ago – a bloody, totalitarian state, ruled by a communist party determined to maintain a monopoly on political power, regardless of cost.

As well as the 30th anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act, 2009 also marks the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen Square. To this day, Beijing will not admit that a massacre took place there in 1989.  

China continues to shut down websites, imprison dissidents, brutally suppress rural unrest and persecute Fulong Gong practitioners. Last year, it was shooting unarmed protestors in Tibet. Its one-child-per-family population control (backed by forced abortions and sterilizations) is a human rights scandal.

When it comes to Taiwan, the communist regime loses all sense of proportion.  

Despite the fact that the island was ruled by the mainland for no more than three of the past 100 years and the Taiwanese elect their own rulers (unlike the Chinese), the PRC insists that Taiwan is part of China  -- a “province in rebellion” -- with about as much justification as its claim that China is a “People’s Republic.”

Despite the efforts of Taiwan’s new president, Ma Ying-jeou, to ease tensions between the two Chinas with confidence-building measures, Beijing military build-up is still aimed at the “reunification” of Taiwan. The PRC also continues to bend every effort to isolate Taiwan diplomatically.

Testifying before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in March, when he delivered the Annual Threat Assessment of the Intelligence Community, retired Admiral Dennis Blair observed: “Beijing has not renounced the use of force against the island, and China’s leaders see maintaining the goal of unification as vital to the regime legitimacy. Preparations for a possible Taiwan conflict continue to drive the modernization goals of (the PLA) and the Chinese defense-industrial complex.”

Confirming that assessment, the Defense Department report estimates that the PRC now has between 1,050 and 1,150 medium range missiles targeting Taiwan, a force that grows by 100 missiles a year. The newer ones feature improved ranges and accuracies and increased payloads. Half the Chinese navy is stationed in proximity to the island.

Why? Does the PRC fear invasion from Taipei, in fulfillment of Chiang’s pledge to retake the Mainland? Is it a show of force, meant only to intimidate?  

It’s difficult to gauge the intensions of totalitarians. But, as Blair noted, the drive to ingest Taiwan gives the regime popular support.

If Taiwan is taken, China’s other territorial claims will be advanced. With Taiwan as a base of operations (employing the island’s harbors and airfields), the PRC would have the ability to project its military power south and west.

It would also mark the irreversible decline of American influence in Asia, and China’s preeminence. Who would follow us after our betrayal of a people whose independence we had guaranteed for at least three decades?

That’s why congressional reaffirmation of the Taiwan Relations Act is a ray of hope in the era marked by kowtowing to rogue states and the triumph of multilateralism.  

Beijing had hoped the anniversary would go unnoticed, and squealed like a stuck pig when Congress “interfered” with its “internal affairs.”

May it continue to do so. The Taiwan Relations Act, long may it wave.

Don Feder is a former Boston Herald writer who is now a political/communications consultant. He also maintains his own website, DonFeder.com.

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