Stable Taipei-Washington Relations are a Prerequisite for Stable Cross-Strait Relations
China Times editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
February 3, 2010
Washington has announced that it will sell 6.4 billion USD worth of weapons to Taipei. Taipei-Washington relations remain stable. But warning signs have appeared. This enormous arms purchase does not include conventional submarines and F-16C/Ds for preemptive defense. It falls far short of our expectations. Frankly, Washington's arms sales to Taipei are on the decline. The Ma administration must be cautious. Because without stable Taipei-Washington relations, there can be no stable cross-Strait relations.
Warming cross-Strait relations have definitely contributed to cross-Strait peace and regional stability. But the relationship remains in the stage of trade and economics and business talks. Significant political differences remain. In particular Beijing has not renounced the use of force against Taipei. The two sides have yet to formally end hostilities. Therefore stable Taipei-Washington relations remain important. This is the result of history, but it is also an objective necessity.
President Ma has reiterated that arms procurements will give Taipei an increased sense of security and self-confidence, allowing it to increase its interaction with the mainland. In other words, without substantive power, cross-Strait negotiations will overwhelmingly favor Beijing. Cross-Strait consultations under such circumstances would never yield positive results. Contrast the Republic of China government and the Hong Kong government. One of the obvious differences is that the Republic of China government has a defensive capability. This gives it a considerably stronger hand at the negotiating table.
Arms sales are a key indicator of stability in Taipei-Washington relations. This particular arms sale accounts for 69% of Taipei's annual defense budget. This may sound frightening, but it is all part of an uncompleted arms purchase from the past. It is nothing new. Washington could have approved this arms purchase immediately, but it delayed for over half a year. This is unprecedented for Taipei-Washington arms sales, and suggests a warning sign. Some people are wondering: could this be the last major arms deal between Taipei and Washington?
Such concerns cannot be completely ruled out. Barack Obama has not been in office long. His advisers are familiar with Asian-Pacific Affairs and cross-Strait affairs. They also understand the Taiwan situation. But key staffers may not share their perceptions, particularly regarding Beijing. Obama's advisers appear to have made their own calculations. This may mean new changes to the future of Taipei-Washington relations.
According to the provisions of the Taiwan Relations Act, congress did not "obligate" the executive branch to sell arms to Taipei. It merely authorized it to sell defensive weapons to Taipei. Strictly speaking, it is non-binding. The real reason Washington is willing to provide Taipei with defensive weapons has nothing to do with the act itself. It has to do with its political commitment to the island's freedom. The Taiwan Relations Act may include security provisions. But Taipei-Washington arms sales still require Washington's political commitment.
Taipei-Washington arms sales does not amount to a black and white political commitment. Its strength depends upon whether the strategic interests of Taipei and Washington coincide. It is also influenced by the rise of Mainland China. Past US administrations have maintained a balance between Taipei and Beijing. If the Obama administration regards the latter as more important than the former, the Ma administration must beware. This would not be a matter of whether Washington "sells out Taiwan." This would be the inevitable result of strategic developments on the international stage.
Recently the mainstream media in the US, including the New York Times, gave prominent coverage to Washington's commitment to selling weapons to Taipei. The sale was a backlash against Bejing's aggressiveness over the past year. This backlash however, should not inspire schadenfreude. If relations between Washington and Beijing deteriorate, cross-Strait relations will not benefit. No matter which side Taipei takes, it will be in the wrong. If Taipei-Washington relations undergo a chill, confidence on Taiwan will collapse. The resultant chaos will make peaceful cross-Strait relations impossible.
Beijing's antipathy towards Washington's arms sales to Taipei is understandable. Arms sales affect the political relationship between Washington, Bejing, and Taipei. The arms sale may not be the same as cross-Strait politics, but it is definitely a case of "shelving disputes." Since the issue of arms sales can not be resolved in the short term, why not shelve it? Doing everything possible to block arms sales between Washington and Taipei will not help cross-Strait reconciliation. It can only heighten a sense of crisis ion Taiwan.
From a military perspective, Beijing is worried that Taipei will "resist reunification by force" or "maintain the status quo in perpetuity." Actually such concerns are superfluous. Washington has never sold offensive weapons to Taipei. Taipei lacks both strategic depth and defensive autonomy. It cannot withstand long-term ideological turmoil and risk. Its armaments are limited to the minimum required for defense. With the emergence of non-traditional security issues, the ROC military is undergoing restructuring. When the earthquake struck Haiti, Republic of China C-130 transport planes crossed the Pacific to provide disaster relief. The armed forces are undergoing transformation. What threat do they constitute?
Beijing has reiterated that following cross-Strait reunification, the ROC could retain its military. If Beijing means that the ROC military will be nothing more than a police force to maintain law and order, then it is badly lacking in sincerity. Military forces are military forces because they have specialized equipment, specialized training, and specialized tasks. These come mainly from the United States. To ban arms sales between Washington and Taipei is tantamount to cutting off the military's umbilical cord. Our military forces would no longer be military forces. How can Beijing justify such a position? It can only leave the public on Taiwan the impression that Beijing is engaged in a war of reunification.
Washington-Taipei arms sales are the touchstone for stable Taipei-Washington relations. Cross-Strait relations have improved. The defensive needs of the ROC can be adjusted and its armed forces restructured accordingly. But Taipei-Washington relations must not be terminated because of threats. Experience has shown that without stable Taipei-Washington relations, there can be no stable cross-Strait relations. The Ma administration in particular needs to have a sense of proportion. It must not paint itself into a corner.