COURTESY OF BILL SHARP
China recently announced its 19th double-digit hike in military spending, adding to persistent concerns about Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan. Above, Taiwan's military on parade at a recent National Day celebration.
Repairing U.S.-Taiwan alliance hinges, in part, on the elections of 2 presidents
Should the U.S.-Taiwan relationship be managed as an appendage of U.S.-China relations? Or should it be managed as a separate bilateral relationship?
The report, "Strengthen Freedom in Asia: A Twenty-First Century Agenda for the U.S.-Taiwan Partnership," written by the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research and Armitage International, supports the latter approach, reflecting the view of Washington's "pan-Asian faction" that U.S.-Asian policy is strengthened by emphasizing alliances. The so-called "old China hands" faction advocates that all U.S. relations in Asia be worked out through the U.S.-China relationship.
The AEI-Armitage Report sees Taiwan as a free, democratic, prosperous, strong society which is in the U.S. interest to see continue. In less than 60 years, it has gone from rags to riches and dictatorship to democracy.
America's fundamental foreign policy goal in East Asia is to preserve stability. China's military build up and positioning of more than 1,000 missiles, 400,000 troops opposite Taiwan in Fujian Province and maintaining more than 500 combat aircraft that can reach the island, presents a growing potential to alter the military balance of power which has preserved both peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.
The PRC seeks to internationally isolate Taiwan and has prevailed upon the U.S. government to limit its official contacts with the island, not support its admission to the United Nations and halt arms sales. China has also used its influence with large U.S. multinational corporations investing in China to urge the U.S. government to distance itself from Taiwan. And to some degree has conditioned its pivotal role in the Six-Party Talks for flexibility in the U.S. position on Taiwan. The result has been for Taiwan to feel abandoned and to increase the shrill of its call for independence that only elicits threats of Chinese military force.
The continuation of such a pattern isn't in U.S. interests and a more positive dialog needs to be immediately started with Taiwan that leads to a more meaningful relationship leading to Taiwan's participation in regional and international organizations such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the World Health Organization. Taiwan has plenty of lessons and resources that it can share in economic and democratic development, providing international aid, and promoting higher global heath standards. But to make such contributions, Taiwan has to be able to more actively participate in international affairs.
As the AEI and Armitage International see it, their proposal would stabilize the Taiwan Strait and help to secure American interests in a prosperous, stable Asia while not compromising standing U.S. policy. U.S. policy seeks to create a level playing field free of coercion that will facilitate dialog between the PRC and Taiwan.
Taiwan has definite economic credentials. Its economy surpasses that of Hong Kong and Singapore. The island plays a crucial role in the world high-tech market being the largest manufacturer of computer parts that supplies such U.S. computer companies as Apple, Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Qualcomm. Astride the Taiwan Strait, a major sea lane, the port of Kaohsiung, in southern Taiwan, handles more containers than any one port in Japan or South Korea.
Taiwan elections are open and fair; moreover, civil and political liberties are zealously protected as attested to by the U.S. Department of State. As such, Taiwan is a model for other developing countries that are pursuing the establishment of democracy. A onetime beneficiary of U.S. foreign aid, Taiwan now is a provider of assistance in the South Pacific, Central America, South America, and Africa.
Taiwan also has been a solid player in countering the flow of narcotics, infectious disease, nuclear proliferation and providing disaster relief.
Taiwan is a "responsible stakeholder," a term coined by former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick to describe a role he suggested China play along with the United States and other nations in promoting a peaceful, stable international system.
Any one-sided, coerced "settlement" by the PRC to alter Taiwan's status would hurt U.S. strategic regional and international interests. American credibility would be severely tarnished, and its ability to play a leading role in East Asia as a stabilizing force would be seriously impaired. Moreover, PRC control of Taiwan would also give it a stage to further extend its influence into the Western Pacific, again at the expense of the United States.
The AEI-Armitage Report comes in the midst of the final run-up to the Taiwan presidential election March 22, the U.S. presidential election further down the road, and the opening of China's annual National People's Congress last week. Both Taiwan presidential candidates realize that Taiwan's relations with the United States have suffered and require immediate repair. U.S. presidential candidates are primarily concerned with the Middle East and need to present a broader world view. Hard-hitting statements about Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan are common fare in the NPC and foster a sense of unity among representatives while eliciting uniformly deafening applause.
This year, Communist Party General Secretary and Chinese President Hu Jintao might have gone a step further by offering Taiwan the opportunity to engage in peace talks with the mainland on an equal basis if it acknowledged Chinese sovereignty based on the "one nation, two systems" notion. Taiwan rejected the offer given the condition, as it has consistently done in the past. At the same time China was offering peace talks, it announced a double-digit increase in military spending for the 19th time; this time at the clip of 18 percent, bringing the total officially acknowledged budget to $59 billion.
With their eyes on China, the winners of both presidential elections will be the decisive factors in determining the course of U.S.-Taiwan relations.
Bill Sharp teaches classes about the domestic and international politics of East Asia at Hawaii Pacific University. He writes a monthly commentary for the Star-Bulletin. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org