March 1, 2004

March 1, 2004 | Commentary on Asia

Taiwan Boosts Defense, Must Do More

Samuel Johnson's aphorism, "The prospect of being hanged in a fortnight concentrates the mind wonderfully," finally seems to be taking hold in Taiwan's military establishment.

China's grave and gathering military threat and the increasing hysterics in Beijing at the pace of Taiwan's democratization have convinced Taiwanese and American military planners that more oomph has to be put into Taiwan's response.

Taiwan's strategic posture is much improved over just a year ago and the government is now trying to build an electoral consensus for bigger investments in defense. As such, much will be riding on the outcome of Taiwan's presidential elections on March 20.

A measure of how far Taiwan has already come was evident in the recent testimony of Richard Lawless, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense, before the congressionally mandated U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.

Lawless' remarks contained significant new language. For the first time, an American official has explicitly linked America's defense commitment to Taiwan not simply to the requirements of the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, but because it is "good policy" to support a fellow democracy.

"Taiwan's development into a true multiparty democracy over the past decade has strengthened America's commitment to its defense," he explained. He added, "the Bush administration's National Security Strategy calls for 'building a balance of power that favors freedom' and identifies the spread and protection of freedom and democracy as a national security objective of the United States."

This was the strongest articulation of America's commitment to Taiwan's democracy the administration has uttered since President George W. Bush declared on April 25, 2001, that he would do "whatever it takes to help Taiwan defend herself."

Lawless, however, put his finger on a key complication in the U.S. commitment to Taiwan. "As the PRC [People's Republic of China] accelerates its force modernization program, Taiwan remains isolated in the international community, especially in the area of security cooperation."

He called for other countries to support Taiwan's security, but revealed that "several states quietly collaborate with Taipei on security matters." Certainly, he has in mind Japan, Singapore and other U.S. allies in Asia as countries that could do more to resist China's pressure on the Taiwan issue, and he even called on Taiwan to enhance interoperability "with the United States and other potential security partners," no doubt meaning those potential partners whose systems are already interoperable with U.S. forces.

Nor was Lawless shy about acknowledging that America's defense support for Taiwan goes far beyond the mere provision of defense articles and services, but includes assisting Taiwan to create a modern, joint, professional and civilian-controlled defense establishment.

In addition, Lawless publicly pointed to the development of a joint U.S.-Taiwan strategy to face the threat: "The PLA's growing sophistication, including its efforts to complicate U.S. intervention calls for more consistent strategic harmonization between the U.S. and

Taiwan to improve Taiwan's ability to defend itself and reduce the danger to U.S. forces should intervention become necessary."

Press reports over the past year say Taiwan will deploy US-made low-frequency active sonar systems in the Taiwan Strait within two years, and an $850 million early warning radar with a range of nearly 2000 miles could be in place in four years.

Both of these programs would no doubt be a major strategic asset to U.S. ballistic missile defenses and submarine-tracking capabilities in the critically important "first island chain" girding the East Asian mainlandThe most significant part of Mr. Lawless's testimony, however, was the explicit condemnation of China's hostile military stance on the Taiwan Strait.

"Our deepening defense cooperation with Taiwan is a direct result of Beijing's increasingly threatening military posture," he said. Evidently, Bush's private warnings to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao last December that "if you force us to, if you try to use force or coercion against the Taiwanese, we're going to be there" have gone unheeded. China's threats continue.

Lawless's words can be seen as a firm American response, and I am told, the U.S. reaction will become more explicit at even higher levels if China so desires.

Still, for the United States to maintain its commitment, Washington expects Taipei to do even more. Lawless called on Taiwan to make significant investments in its own defense - more than just the 3.9 percent increase in 2004. Clearly, Taiwan should be focusing on a 6 percent to 7 percent growth in its defense outlays; if Taiwan is not, China surely is.

Taiwan President Chen's 10-year, $15 billion "special arms budget submission" will be part of that investment, provided Mr. Chen wins re-election March 20. If he loses, most observers in Washington say his challenger, Kuomintang Party Chairman Lien Chan, can be expected to delay the funding in the pursuit of "dialogue across the strait."

The entire structure of the U.S.-PRC relationship, as articulated in the "Three Communiques" are, in the words of former President Ronald Reagan, "conditioned absolutely upon the continued commitment of China to the peaceful solution of the Taiwan-PRC differences. It should be clearly understood that the linkage between these two matters is a permanent imperative of U.S. foreign policy."

As Beijing casts a cloud over its professed preference for a peaceful approach, it undermines the basis for stable relations and for America's One-China policy. If Beijing can no longer adopt a peaceful approach, the time may soon approach for a re-examination of the United States' entire China policy.

John Tkacik is a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, and retired officer in the U.S. Foreign Service who served in Beijing, Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Taipei.

About the Author

John J. Tkacik, Jr. Senior Research Fellow
Asian Studies Center

Appeared onDefenseNews Weekly