US Ties with Taiwan Questioned

While some experts call for a halt to U.S. arms sales in a bid to forge better ties with China, others view this as shallow thinking.
By Parameswaran Ponnudurai
Taiwanese soldiers check US-made Hawk missiles during a livefire drill, Jan. 18, 2011.

U.S.-Taiwan relations have come under new focus as several retired military chiefs, business executives, and scholars call on Washington to review its security commitment to the island in the interest of boosting ties with China.

While analysts do not expect the call to result in any revamp of policy in President Barack Obama's administration, it still has triggered debate on Washington's longstanding ties with the self-ruled island that China deems an illegitimate breakaway province. 

In the latest recommendation, two former retired admirals who had commanded troops in the Asia-Pacific and seven other scholars and business experts wanted "serious, official steps be taken to break the vicious circle" of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.

The recommendation, among five steps proposed for a more productive U.S.-China relationship, were made by Admiral Joseph Prueher, former U.S. ambassador to China and former commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, Timothy J. Keating, another retired admiral, and the others following a conference at the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs.

"We should take a fresh look at Taiwan," they said in the report released this week. "The United States takes a somewhat protectionist stance with Taiwan historically. However, Taiwan is now an economically successful democratic institution that is slowly tending towards greater alignment with the Mainland.

"Our involvement with Taiwan is a frequent point of contention with the Chinese, particularly in respect to arms sales, and one that should be re-examined. The complex relationship is political and should be re-examined outside of a military context," they said.

Part of a new strategy, the report said, should be a review of U.S. security commitments contained in a three-decade old U.S. legislation called the Taiwan Relations Act, which requires Washington to help the island defend itself.

“Unfortunately, U.S. arms sales to Taiwan are part of a vicious circle, leading to the Taiwan issue that is clearly political, and increasingly economic, being always discussed in military terms,” the report said.

As the “Taiwan issue” is not a military one, the report said, talks should be “elevated from a mostly military to a politico-economic dialogue” addressing the economy, politics, and culture.

Rise of China

The recommendation came just a couple of weeks after another expert, Charles Glaser, a professor of political science at George Washington University, argued in a report that the U.S. “should consider backing away from its commitment to Taiwan.”

He argued that the rise of China will be “the most important international relations story of the 21st century” and made the case for a “nuanced version of realism” that would avoid unnecessary competition—and perhaps armed conflict—between the U.S. and China.

“A crisis over Taiwan could fairly easily escalate to nuclear war,” Glaser wrote, adding that regardless of the origin of conflict, the U.S. would “find itself under pressure to protect Taiwan against any sort of attack.”

By abandoning its commitments to Taiwan, Washington would “remove the most obvious and contentious flash point between the United States and China and smooth the way for better relations ... in the decades to come,” he said.

But Robert Hathaway, an Asian expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said that Taiwan is just one of the contentious issues between the U.S. and China.

"There are dozens of contentious issues, so it's simply not right to say that were we to abandon our friends in Taipei, this would remove most of the obstacles to a closer Sino-American relationship," he said in an interview. 

Aside from Taiwan, the world's two biggest economies often battle over human rights, Tibet, the gaping U.S. trade deficit with China, and  Beijing's massive 'nontransparent" military build-up.

Hathaway does not think Washington will revamp its security ties with Taiwan. 

"To the contrary, I think, if anything, I detect greater support for maintaining our close ties with Taiwan and in many circles for new arm sales, particularly of not simply the F-16A/Bs but more advanced F-16C/Ds."

"This is in part, I think, linked to old ties of friendship with Taiwan, but it also reflects to some extent a new anxiety among some people in Washington about where China is heading and whether or not China is going to flex its muscles more vigorously and pursue a more assertive and, some might even say, aggressive policy," he said.

"There is frequently a gap between the policy world and the scholarly world. But it seems to me that in the policy world, a very few people are saying, 'Now is a good time to reduce our ties with Taipei,'" said Hathaway, who had served 12 years as foreign policy advisor in the U.S. Congress.

'Stricken friends'

James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara, strategy experts at the U.S. Naval War College, also defended the U.S. security links with Taiwan, saying in a joint report that "sympathy for stricken friends is not the only thing at stake for the United States."

"It’s far from clear that trading the island away would stabilize broader Sino-U.S. relations or Asian security," they said.

They emphasized that bartering Taiwan for better ties with China would be "a mistake," pointing out that "ambitious powers see such concessions as an appetizer, not dessert."

The U.S. is the leading arms supplier to Taiwan, despite switching diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979.

Early last year, Beijing reacted furiously and suspended military exchanges with Washington after the Obama administration unveiled a weapons package for Taiwan that included Patriot missiles, Black Hawk helicopters, and equipment for Taiwan's F-16A/B fleet, but no submarines or new fighter aircraft.

Relations at risk

While Taiwan-China ties have improved markedly since Beijing-friendly Ma Ying-jeou became Taiwan's president in 2008, Beijing continues to emphasize that the U.S. will put improved relations with China at risk if it does not stop selling arms to Taiwan.

"We urge the United States to ... stop selling arms to Taiwan and take concrete actions to support the peaceful development of cross-Strait relations. This is very important in upholding the overall interests of China-U.S. relations," Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi told a news conference in early March.

Taiwan has made repeated requests for purchases of F-16C/D aircraft from the U.S., saying the fighters are necessary to ensure balance in the Taiwan Strait following reports of China’s development and testing of fourth and fifth-generation fighter aircraft, including the Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter.

Taipei believes China is aiming 1,900 missiles at the island across the Taiwan Strait.

For a long time, the U.S. has been committed to providing Taiwan with arms so that Taipei would have confidence to negotiate with China to ensure their peaceful development, said Randy Schriver, a former senior State Department official in charge of East Asian relations.

“After years, it seems to me [this is] happening. Why would we change our approach when it seems to be paying dividends?,” said Shriver, now chief executive of the Washington-based Project 2049 Institute, focused on public policy in the Asia-Pacific region.


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