Sunday, March 27, 2005

The dangers of the Taiwan security guarantee 

Taiwan is behaving recklessly. It is making a huge bet with America's blank check. It is time we told President Chen that the American security guarantee will vaporize if Taiwan declares "independence."

Todd Crowell, who writes the blog Asia Cable, has published a syndicated op-ed piece that neatly underscores the risk in the posturing that is going on between China and Taiwan. He is worried that recent "anti-secession" legislation in China, the requirements of democratic politics in Taiwan, and the American "security guarantee" will conspire to drive the three countries into a dangerous standoff that is entirely unnecessary.
Taipei is likely to respond with mirror-image legislation. President Chen Shui-bian is already talking about presenting Taiwan's legislature with some kind of "anti-annexation" law to counter Beijing's "anti-secession" law, or perhaps make it a ballot item in a national referendum.

Meantime, the United States has a long-standing Taiwan Relations Act, passed soon after Washington recognized Beijing in 1979 and severed diplomatic relations with Taipei. It does not formally commit us to defend Taiwan in the event of an attack, but does mandate that we supply arms necessary for Taiwan to defend itself.

Before long, there may be what historian Barbara Tuchman once described as a "Guns of August" quality to this situation, where the three main parties, China, Taiwan and the United States, feel themselves legally bound to take actions they may not want to take, much the way the great European powers felt compelled to go to war in the summer of 1914 because of agreements and treaties they had made.

Taiwan has it within its means to diffuse the crisis, according to Crowell, by acting rather than posturing. The United States has offered to sell Taiwan $18 billion in arms that could strengthen its ability to deter a Chinese attack, but Taiwan is haggling over the price.
Three years ago, to Beijing's great annoyance, the Bush administration approved an arms sale to Taiwan worth $18 billion. The money would be used to buy eight diesel-powered submarines, three Patriot anti-missile batteries and a small fleet of anti-submarine planes. Taiwan's defense minister has said that this package could maintain the balance of power in the Strait for 30 years. Without it, China might have the capacity to overrun Taiwan in two or three years.

Nevertheless, the opposition-controlled legislature has decided to haggle, demanding that the cost of the arms package be cut in half, that the submarines be built in Taiwan, that in return for the favor of buying weapons needed for its own defense the United States specifically must promise to defend Taiwan in the event of an attack. It is hardly surprising that even a conservative U.S. administration has less and less patience with Taipei.

Taiwan lives in a kind of dream world. It is reacting angrily to Beijing's move. And, being a democracy, it assumes that the United States and other democracies will come to its aid if China attacks, no matter what Taipei might do to provoke such an attack, so it is unworried about its own self-defense. Beijing's anti-secession law may be the necessary wakeup call.

One of the reasons why Taiwan acts as if the American security guarantee is a blank check is that it has achieved nearly totemic significance on the American right wing. Taipei's confidence in abiding American support -- at least during Republican administrations -- may inspire its leaders to play a reckless game with China that runs the risk of dangerously destabilizing relations between the two, er, countries. Thomas P. M. Barnett, blogger and author of The Pentagon's New Map, argued in the February issue of Esquire
that the United States should back away from its Cold War security guarantee.
The far Right is still gunning for China, and precious Taiwan is its San Juan Hill. Nixon burned Taiwan's ass back in the early seventies when he effectively switched official recognition from Taipei to the mainland, so the price it demanded was the continued "defense guarantee" that said we'd always arm Taiwan to the teeth and rush to its rescue whenever China unleashed its million-man swim of an invasion.

That promise is still on the books, like some blue law from a bygone era. Does anyone seriously think we'd sacrifice tens of thousands of American troops to stop China from reabsorbing Taiwan?

I know, I know. China's still "communist" (like I still have a full head of hair if the lighting's just so), whereas Taiwan is a lonely bastion of democracy in an -otherwise...uh... increasingly democratic Asia....

Here's the weirdest part: China's been clearly signaling for years that it's perfectly willing to accept the status quo, basically guaranteeing Taiwan's continued existence, so long as Taipei's government maintains the appearance of remaining open to the possibility of rejoining the mainland someday.

Now I know people say you don't read books, Mr. President, but being a Southerner, you know something about the Civil War. Imagine if Jefferson Davis and the leftovers of the Confederacy had slipped away to Cuba in 1865 to set up their alternative, nose-thumbing version of America on that island. Then fast-forward to, say, 1905 and imagine how much the U.S. would have tolerated some distant, imperial power like England telling us what we could or could not do vis-á-vis this loser sitting just off our shore. Imagine where old Teddy Roosevelt would have told the Brits they could shove their defense guarantee....

This may seem a back-burner issue, but there's credible talk of Taipei doing something provocative like adding the word Taiwan in parentheses behind its official name, the Republic of China. That may not seem like much to us, but Beijing's reluctant hand may be forced by this act. Seems crazy, doesn't it?

Again, how much of the global economy—how many American lives—are you prepared to sacrifice on your watch just so Taiwan can rejoice in this moment of self-actualization?

I vote for zero. Zip. Nada.

Take America's defense guarantee to Taiwan off the table and do it now, before some irrational politician in Taipei decides he's ready to start a war between two nuclear powers. Trust me, you'd be doing Taiwan a favor, because it's my guess that our defense guarantee would evaporate the moment any Taiwan Straits crisis actually boiled over, leaving Taipei severely embarrassed and Beijing feeling excessively emboldened.

Since this article was published in January, President Chen has behaved essentially as Barnett predicted. He has been pushing for "independence" -- purely symbolic, but deeply offensive to the PRC -- for years because it gets votes in Taiwan. This posturing is forcing Beijing's hand. If Taiwan pushes too hard for independence, Beijing will have to escalate or suffer a massive loss of credibility on an issue over which it has been absolutely clear. We need to tell Chen through a back channel that we will not underwrite the defense of Taiwan in a war triggered by Taiwan's own push for a symbolic independence. Otherwise, we will find ourselves in Germany's position during August 1914, when it wrote a similar blank check to Austria-Hungary in its rising conflict with Serbia and Russia. The rest is history.


By Blogger james82, at Mon Mar 28, 11:14:00 AM:

No! - Stand by Taiwan and honor our long-standing commitment to guarantee their rights and security. Have a vote in Taiwan about their joining the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The result would be 90% against Taiwan joining the PRC. Taiwan is the remnant of Nationalist forces that we supported since the 1930s, has been independent since 1949, and the US has pledged to defend Taiwan from the PRC. The PRC needs a reality check.

China has some shame-based culture that I don’t understand, but I think is necessary to weigh. The PRC has verbalized for 50 years their intent to totally defeat Nationalist forces and form one China - damn reasoning, best interest, and compromise. To not do so “loses face.” I also think it is the intent of the PRC and most Chinese to hit the West back in some way some day for what they consider to be 300 years of colonization and injustice, while the PRC is itself engaged in colonization and injustice upon Tibet, the non-Han western provinces of China, and the saber rattling over Taiwan.

It is misguided to be inclined toward accommodating the PRC. Calls for accommodating the PRC lay in the belief that our interests are vested in chumming up the PRC: by chumming up to the PRC they will end up rich in the process, or it’s the same liberal mentality of hugging the world and they’ll love us back. It is the policy of the PRC not to give us a dime. Don’t forget the massive espionage and stolen nuclear secrets that occurred at the DOE under Clinton’s nose. Do you think the PRC’s putting a person in orbit last year was a homegrown effort? That technology was stolen from us; that’s how the PRC does business. Think of all the technology the PRC gets its hands on, reverse-engineers, and sells as its own. Nor forget the massive espionage and stolen nuclear secrets that occurred at the DOE under the Clinton administration’s nose. Boy, what campaign contributions will buy!

The PRC needs to get over it, or we need to help them get over it by competing with them - stand firm with Taiwan. Of course, the PRC won't act until Hillary is elected president, and then they'll have a free hand to do all as they wish.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Mon Mar 28, 10:28:00 PM:

I love you like a brother, James82, but I respectfully suggest that you side-stepped my point. The question is not whether we should appease China. We should not. However, we must also not let President Chen of Taiwan assume that the United States has written him a blank check. He is playing dangerous electoral politics in at least two ways. First, as I pointed out in the post, he is increasingly beating the drum in support of Taiwanese independence, which is not U.S. policy. He does this knowing that it gets him votes at home and that with a Republican in the White House he is at little risk of embarrassment. The result, though, is that we are letting him expand the contours of the security guarantee. If we let him run too far, he will destabilize the region and we will be at risk of direct conflict with China. Second, Taiwan has been cutting defense spending, notwithstanding all the sabre rattling. It is using this peace dividend to pay for welfare programs, secure in warm blanket of the American security guarantee. Again, Chen is taking us for a ride. My point is that we need to make it clear to Chen that there are limits. This should be done via a back channel so as not to humiliate him, but it needs to be done or he will drag us into an entirely avoidable conflict.  

By Blogger Final Historian, at Thu Mar 31, 12:08:00 AM:

Barnett is entirely too much of a Sinophile for my taste, but I do agree that the US needs to have a heart-to-heart with Taiwan's leaders. We need to make it clear that we will support them if, and ONLY if, China is the aggressor. If Taiwan decides to play games with "independence", then they should be the ones to pay the price. The leadership of the PRC will only attack if Taiwan declares independence (at this point in time, anyways), but they HAVE to attack should Taiwan formally declare themselves separate from China. The challenge to the CCP would be too great to ignore.  

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By Blogger Michael Turton, at Wed Oct 19, 09:54:00 PM:

With respect, you have badly misunderstood what is going on in Taiwan, and fallen for a mainlander propaganda line that many US analysts have also swallowed.

Chen is not the problem, and he does not believe the US has written him a "blank check." The DPP knows perfectly well that Taiwan cannot win a fight with China and has always behaved circumspectly -- so far it is the KMT that has attempted to call down Chinese intervention. It is the KMT and PFP, the pro-China parties in the legistlature, who currently have a majority, that are blocking the weapons purchase -- 33 times as of yesterday.

The fact is that the DPP supports the weapons purchase, and Chen has urged the legislature to accept it -- hence your idea that Chen thinks he has a blank check is absurd.

The weapons package is mostly useless -- the good stuff has already been purchased. The ASW aircraft are useless without control of the air, which Taiwan will not have, and the subs are being sold at three times the going world rate, arriving over ten years. They are also useless in a fight, outnumbered roughly 8-1 by the Chinese in subs alone. Only the Patriots are useful, and there are not enough of those. The head of the US pacific fleet has already stated that the subs should be dropped in favor of stuff aimed at repelling an invasion.

I support the purchase, as protection money, which is what it is, and not because it is militarily useful -- it is not. I've been blogging like crazy on this topic and related ones -- you might want to stop by my blog. The idea that Chen is some madman who will provoke China is strictly a fantasy put out by the mainlanders to subvert dispassionate analysis of the island's complex politics. See especially...

US Pacific Command Drops Sub Request

Corruption in Taiwan's Military

The Problems of Analysts

But especially...

Taiwan, Athens, Sparta and Chen as Madman Thesis

And my recent letter in the Taipei Times:

Letter on Pan Blues and US analysts

For your enjoyment...

China takes Taiwan

Finally, it is not Chen who believes in the blank check, but President Bush who issued it to him...as I said above

"And I note once again, it was the US President who issued a very public and very blank check to Taiwan -- "whatever it takes" -- that had no connection to reality, a comment for which there is no evidence the Taiwan President actually believes."

The blank check madman is actually that fruitcake in the White House, and not the crafty human rights lawyer and competent administrator who occupies the Presidential Palace in Taipei.


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