The Taiwanese Disconnect
By Philip Bowring
11 October 2011
A glaring disconnect is emerging between America's policy toward Taiwan and its efforts to strengthen military ties with Southeast Asian countries that dispute China's claims to the South China Sea. One might imagine that Taiwan was on another continent, when it should be an integral component of any policy concerned with preventing these waters from becoming a Chinese lake.
The recently announced U.S. arms deal for Taiwan consisted of refurbishing its existing fleet of fighters, but more significantly rejecting its request for new planes to bolster its defenses against the mainland. Beijing may have reacted angrily to this, but that doesn't hide the fact that the deal was in fact a victory for China. It has been warning Washington, both publicly and behind closed doors, that selling Taipei new planes would strain ties.
There are certainly U.S. diplomats, businessmen and academics who view Taiwan as a liability. The island democracy sours U.S.-China relations, provides Beijing with bargaining chips on other issues, and at worst could lead the two into a war. While it's true Washington must put its own interests first, those interests aren't served by helping turn Taiwan into a de facto garrison for the People's Liberation Army.
There is a tendency among American policy makers to see Taiwan simply in the context of cross-Strait relations. Hence Washington supports the re-election next year of Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, who has accelerated economic and cultural engagement with the mainland, over Democratic Progressive Party candidate Tsai Ing-wen. But that tack is not respectful to Taiwan's democratic process. It's also based on the past -- the U.S. resented the disruptive rhetoric of former President Chen Shui-bian, also from the DPP -- instead of the island's future political development.
More broadly, though, Washington should realize Taiwan has great import across Asia. Reunification would give Beijing control not just of the Taiwan Strait but also of the Luzon Strait between Taiwan and the Philippines, which is the access point for most shipping between Japan and Korea on one side and South East Asia, the Middle East and Europe on the other. If Washington is truly concerned about Chinese threats to the freedom of navigation in Asia -- as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been voicing for the past year -- it cannot afford to ignore what Taiwan means for commerce and navigability in the region.
And Washington's kowtow to Beijing ignores the broader strategic picture in the region where the interests of the non-Chinese players in East Asia figure. To start with, South Korea and Russia will not be happy with greater Chinese dominance in the region. They may not say it out loud for fear of offending China but they have every interest in the status quo where Taiwan is independent and continues to defend itself.
Then there are the concerns of those nations in the South China Sea. The Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia are all opposed to China's claims to the sea and its islands. Vietnam has already opened its port facilities to U.S. naval vessels, while Indonesia and Singapore have strengthened their defense ties. What's more, Manila and Hanoi have become especially outspoken in defense of their territorial claims in the past few months.
A visit to Japan last week by Philippine President Benigno Aquino ended with a communique strongly supporting a multilateral approach to the sea issue, compliance with freedom of navigation and a "legally binding code of conduct consistent with established international law." This was a none-too-veiled attack on China's claims and Beijing's insistence on bilateral negotiations to solve disputes in the region. Beijing, not surprisingly, reacted strongly; it warned Manila and Tokyo to be careful of exacerbating tensions.
In this light, Washington's Taiwan deal leaves these Southeast Asian nations in a quandary. Vietnam or the Philippines don't boast the kind of navy Japan or India do, and would like to rely on the U.S. to balance China's not-so-peaceful rise. They were encouraged when Mrs. Clinton's last year spoke sternly about Beijing's expansive maritime policy. And as the South China Sea became a flashpoint this summer, they lobbied Washington for greater involvement. For having taken the risk of offending China and courting the U.S., they are now rewarded with the U.S. itself acquiescing to China.
Some in the region may see the U.S. accommodation over Taiwan as a reasonable trade-off so long as the U.S. continues to take a firm stance on broader South China Sea issues. However, many will surely suspect that Washington is a fair-weather friend who lacks the resources and will to stand up to China in the western Pacific. They will question their partnership or alliance with America.
Washington's long-term interest is to maintain a peaceful and stable Asia, where guaranteed security can allow all to pursue prosperity. The Taiwan arms issue suggests these strategic interests are being sacrificed -- not for the first time -- for short-term gains with Beijing.