The Bush Administration has in place a freeze on arms sales to Taiwan. That’s correct: an arms freeze on democratic Taiwan. And this freeze comes at a time when Taiwan is in the delicate process of negotiating a re-engagement with undemocratic China to lessen tensions in the Taiwan Strait.
But to engage Beijing, Taiwan’s new president Ma Ying-jeou correctly believes he must negotiate from strength, and that strength must include both a robust security relationship and the vocal enthusiasm of the U.S. government. President Ma has requested the Bush Administration to approve a new tranche of arms transfers, but to his chagrin, the Bush White House has been silent. However, what was silence, now seems to be formal.
Up to now, the Bush Administration has been coy about the “freeze.” Sometimes White House or State Department officials deny the “freeze”, sometimes they say the problem is in the “process”. And on June 25, Assistant Secretary of Defense James Shinn told a congressional hearing that the Taiwan arms freeze “was driven, as far as I understand, by Taiwanese domestic politics.”
They have reason to be coy; a freeze is contrary to the law. Aside from the law – which of course, should be reason enough – it also violates an assurance given President Ronald Reagan that has become part of the U.S.-Taiwan policy canon. The second of his six assurances to then Taiwan President Chiang Ching-kuog was “the US side has not agreed to hold prior consultations with the Chinese Communists on arms sales to the Republic of China.”
In remarks to the Heritage Foundation yesterday, the commander of the United States Pacific Command, Adm. Timothy Keating, confirmed that the freeze is in place. (Watch the full speech.) While he didn’t “want to speak for the State Department or the National Security Council,” Admiral Keating explained that “we want to do nothing to destabilize the [Taiwan] straits.” Wisely not taking any credit for the decision himself, the Admiral added “the folks who make these decisions I believe have reconciled Taiwan’s current military posture, China’s current military posture and strategy. That indicates there is no pressing and compelling need for at this moment arms sales to Taiwan.”
This, despite the congressional mandate in the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, that the U.S. “will” (not “may”) “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.”
And how does one decide what arms are sufficient? The law prescribes that as well. The decision is to be “based solely upon their judgment of the needs of Taiwan,” and that judgment “shall include review by United States military authorities in connection with recommendations to the President and the Congress.”
In 1979, the Congress quite intentionally mandated that arms sales to Taiwan would be based solely on the “needs of Taiwan,” and not on the diplomatic pressure that communist China placed on whatever republican or democratic administration was in power in the White House. And the judgment of the U.S. military authorities is that Taiwan is in desperate need of new weaponry, especially missile defense arms like the Patriot PAC-3 system, and new combat fighter aircraft like the F-16C/Ds. Both of which Taiwan has formally requested.
What does the Pentagon think of these requests? For six years, the Pentagon had pressured Taiwan heavily to purchase just these systems and several more on Taiwan’s strategic list. In 2007, Taiwan’s cabinet finally overcame the opposition of the legislature and managed to pass a budget to purchase those weapons.
I do not know a single “United States military authority,” and I seriously doubt that there is anyone who has “done the math,” as Admiral Keating puts it, who thinks that Taiwan’s current arms panoply is “sufficient.” Indeed, this past March, the Pentagon’s annual report to the Congress on the “Military Power of the People’s Republic of China” said as much.
Taiwan’s new president, Ma Ying-jeou, has pledged to improve Taiwan’s relationship with China, and he is doing so – but even he understands that to deal with Beijing, he must be in a position to negotiate from strength. That strength means that Taiwan must have a credible military force, and must have a solid security relationship with the United States.
The Bush Administration is, in effect, telling democratic Taiwan that it can expect no material, or even moral support from the United States as Taiwan attempts to negotiate a new relationship with communist China. That the second administration of George W. Bush, which so famously began with an inaugural pledge to foreign peoples that “When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you,” now withholds from democratic Taiwan the military strength necessary to safely engage communist China, is a tragedy.
It is a demonstration of China’s growing power in Asia, and it will serve as a signal to many in the region that America’s influence is destined to wane.