Leadership means people are depending on you. Taiwan has only one friend in the world it can truly depend on to safeguard its security: the United States of America. It is a mission that was enshrined in American law in 1979. Honestly, the Bush Administration wasn’t great about living up to its obligations in this regard, but the Obama Administration is worse – because the situation is more dire.
Standing still is just not an option. Taiwan’s place in the world and its relationship with China (PRC) continues to evolve. Last year, the Obama Administration approved the second half of a $13 billion arms package that dates back to 2001. It should be commended for that. But 2001 was a long time ago—especially in Asia, where China’s military modernization continues to roar ahead, and the preponderance of its military planning, training, and acquisition remains targeted on Taiwan.
There are so many other things that the U.S. can do to move the relationship with Taiwan forward and give it confidence that the guarantor of its security is in the game to stay. First and foremost, Taiwan needs new fighter aircraft. They have been asking for F-16C/Ds since 2006, with the result that the U.S. has refused to even entertain the request. The F-16s will replace its F-5s. It is difficult to imagine any air force in the world still relies on a plane designed in the 1950s. But Taiwan has 89 of them.
How about including Taiwan in the U.S. Visa Waiver Program? The EU has now done it. In fact, close to 100 countries in the world offer Taiwan visa waivers.
Here’s another one. The U.S. is the host of the APEC Leaders Meeting this year. Taiwan (Chinese Taipei) has been a member of APEC since 1991. In those early years (1991-1994), it actually sent a government official. And that government official, then Minister of Economic Affairs and Minister of the Council for Economic Planning and Development, is now Taiwan’s Vice President, Vincent Siew. Likewise, in the years 1998-2000, Taiwan also sent a government official. Since then, Taiwan, whether governed by the KMT or DPP, has been constrained to send an unofficial representative.
This is a perfect example of the low-hanging fruit in this relationship. The U.S. should invite President Ma Ying-jeou to APEC in Honolulu this November. Taiwan is a member of APEC; it should, like all other members, be permitted to send its head of state (or specifically, in the APEC context, the head of its “economy”). Its special circumstances were accounted for when it was admitted, so allow it to fully participate.
Standing still can easily slip to backing away—especially in the case of the F-16s, where the lack of action constrains future choices. The military balance across the Taiwan Strait can deteriorate to the point that the prevailing argument against selling them becomes “they won’t make a difference anyway.” At that point, friends of China will present a choice between damaging U.S.-China relations to no advantage or accommodating Chinese demands on Taiwan. If left to stagnate without making critical decisions, U.S. policy on Taiwan will simply drift into accommodation. Sensing the drift, there are already prominent voices urging the U.S. to “back away from its commitments.”
The Obama Administration has to find something—almost anything—that needs action in the U.S.-Taiwan relationship, pick it up and move on it. Visa Waiver: good. Resuming Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) talks: good. Extradition treaty: good. F-16C/Ds and upgrades to F-16A/B: absolutely necessary. Stop the drift toward accommodation with China.