July 21, 2008 | Commentary on Asia
The Bush administration had blocked nearly $16 billion in U.S. arms transfers to Taiwan.
Now, the policy has become to derail sales, U.S. Pacific Commander Adm. Timothy Keating told a Heritage Foundation Forum on Wednesday. News reports quoted him as saying decision-makers "have reconciled Taiwan's current military posture, China's current military posture, and strategy that indicates there is no pressing, compelling need for at this moment arms sales to Taiwan of the systems that we're talking about."
The list of military hardware being held up includes eight diesel submarines, 66 F-16 Block 50/52 fighter aircraft, four Patriot PAC3 fire units (384 missiles), 30 Boeing-made AH-64D Apache attack helicopters and 60 UH-60 Blackhawk utility helicopters.
These are all items that the Bush administration has approved in principle for export to Taiwan - and for which Taiwan's legislature has appropriated the funds or put down payments.
And to make matters more incomprehensible, the F-16s would bring 40,000 man-years of additional employment in North Central Texas - especially Fort Worth - in Bush's home state. In a tough economy, this is not only bad policy but bad politics.
Taiwan is under new management. President Ma Ying-jeou, who took office May 20, was elected on a platform that promised to improve Taiwan's relations with China while at the same time preserving Taiwan's sovereignty.
Ma's election is credited, in some measure, to the Taiwanese electorate's sense that the Bush administration was deeply dissatisfied with Ma's predecessor, Chen Shui-bian.
It was Chen who did his utmost to maintain Taiwan's separate identity from China but, in so doing, was seen by the White House as causing unnecessary frictions with Beijing at a time when the U.S. had its hands full internationally.
Now, however, as Ma engages Beijing frontally with new initiatives across the Taiwan Strait - unlimited investment, full trade, an influx of Chinese tourists into Taiwan, arrangements for Taiwan-China currency transactions - he lacks the single most important asset needed to negotiate successfully with Beijing: a strong military defense.
Ma and his representatives in Washington have asked the Bush administration to notify Congress of the sales as a sign to Beijing that Taiwan can still count on American support should things in the Taiwan Strait turn sour. Just recently, Ma reiterated his government's desire to move forward on buying the weapons.
Taiwanese Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng plans to underscore his country's anxieties in a Washington visit next month. "No one person is capable of guaranteeing peace if we haven't enough strength to defend ourselves," he warned in recent remarks. "It is a very dangerous state of affairs. From this perspective, while we improve ties with mainland China, it is even more imperative that we strengthen ties between Taiwan and the United States and Japan [and] how to utilize the U.S.-Japan security framework to strengthen Taiwan's security is a matter that absolutely cannot be ignored."
With Taiwan willing to finance its own defense, it is very hard to see what the problem is. In fact, the Bush administration is required by law under the Taiwan Relations Act to "make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability."
There is no one in the Bush administration who believes that Taiwan's "self defense capability" is sufficient in the face of the on-going military build-up by the Chinese directly across the Taiwan Strait.
Part - if not all - of Bush's reluctance to approve military sales for Taiwan stems from his hesitation to irritate Beijing.
First, the president didn't want to give Chen any policy successes before the Taiwan elections. After that, he didn't want to approve arms because that might irritate Beijing during negotiations over North Korea's nuclear programs.
Then, Bush didn't want to upset China before his meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao at the G-8 summit in Japan. For the next few weeks, it will be too close to Bush's planned attendance at the Beijing Olympics.
As retired Adm. Dennis Blair, the former U.S. Commander in the Pacific, put it, "pretty soon they'll have the whole calendar blocked out. So there is never a good time for the arms sales."
In effect, the Bush team has increasingly allowed Beijing to exercise a veto over U.S.-Taiwan policy. Whatever short-term gains this might bring to U.S.-China relations, it bodes poorly for keeping peace in the region.
Such an approach will only fuel Beijing's own ambitions and sense of entitlement when it comes to Taiwan and, equally important, do nothing to reassure our democratic allies in the region that we have a balanced but firm approach when it comes to a rising China.
John Tkacik is senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, and Gary Schmitt is resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy, both in Washington.
First appeared in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram