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A storm is gathering in the Strait

By Li Thian-hok 李天福
Friday, Apr 03, 2009, Page 8

‘The greatest threat to the US’ homeland security is not a terrorist attack with a dirty bomb; it is an unexpected, nuclear Pearl Harbor.’

Given the increasingly dangerous and fluid situation in the Taiwan Strait, on the 30th anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) it is important to remind US President Barack Obama and Congress to reaffirm the spirit and letter of the TRA both in word and deed.

On Dec. 15, 1978, then-US president Jimmy Carter announced his decision to normalize relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and de-recognize Taiwan. It was expected that Taiwan would then seek an accommodation with the PRC.

Congress was incensed that the administration would abandon a longtime ally without providing any security commitment, so it drafted and passed the TRA with an overwhelming majority. The act was signed into law on April 10, 1979.

The TRA declares that the preservation and enhancement of the human rights of all the people on Taiwan are objectives of the US. To continue commercial, cultural and other relations with Taiwan, the American Institute in Taiwan, a de facto embassy, was established. The Act provides for Taiwan to be treated under US laws the same as a foreign country. It covers Taiwan and Penghu only and does not apply to Kinmen and Matsu.

The security provisions in Section 2(b) of the TRA are of the utmost importance and worth reiteration:

“It is the policy of the United States ... to declare that peace and stability in the area are in the political, security, and economic interests of the United States, and are matters of international concern; to make clear that the United States’ decision to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China rests upon the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means; to consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States; to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character; and to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.”

The TRA is a unique US domestic law that governs foreign policy. It blends US interests and values. The wisdom of Congress in crafting the act 30 years ago is commendable.

Under the protective umbrella of the TRA, Taiwan was able to achieve its economic miracle. In 1979 Taiwan’s annual per capita GDP was US$1,300. That figure is now US$17,000, a 13-fold increase. Taiwan’s GDP ranks twenty-first in the world. Taiwan is the world’s largest producer of computer components and is rapidly moving into the production of telecommunications equipment. Taiwan acts as a crossroads on the global high-tech market supply chain.

With aid and encouragement from the US, Taiwan has also peacefully transformed itself from a one-party dictatorship into a democracy, holding its first popular presidential election in 1996 and peacefully transferring power in 2000 and last year. Taiwan’s democracy is a beacon to other societies seeking peaceful political liberalization.

On March 24, the House of Representatives unanimously passed a resolution reaffirming Congress’ unwavering commitment to the TRA.

Representative Howard Berman, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said: “I am confident that the Taiwan Relations Act will remain the cornerstone of our relationship with Taiwan.”

Shelley Berkley, co-chair of the Taiwan Congressional Caucus, said: “We must do everything in our power to continue protecting Taiwan and assuring its survival.”

While such show of support is gratifying, we must be mindful of adverse changes in the international environment that make faithful implementation of the TRA difficult and the preservation of Taiwan as a de facto independent democracy increasingly challenging.

Due in part to massive investment from Taiwan, China is now the world’s third-largest economy. Its trade surplus with the US is fast approaching US$300 billion per year. China is the US’ largest creditor, holding US$1 trillion worth of US Treasuries and other assets. The Obama administration is looking to China for help in addressing the global financial crisis. The US also hopes for Beijing’s assistance in dealing with the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran.

After years of double-digit increases in China’s military budget and intensive efforts to modernize the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), China now has the capacity to invade and overwhelm Taiwan in the absence of US intervention.

But the US is preoccupied with the financial crisis and the intractable wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and now Pakistan. The US military is stretched thin — especially in East Asia. The Taiwanese government, meanwhile, has been feckless in its national defense efforts for more than a decade.

China is now Taiwan’s largest export destination. Most of Taiwan’s high-tech manufacturing has moved to China. The resultant outflow of capital, technology and manpower is hollowing out Taiwan’s economy. Yet the administration of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) is determined to sign an economic cooperation framework agreement to turn Taiwan’s economy into an appendage of China’s economy. This would not only erode the standard of living in Taiwan but irreparably damage US-Taiwan relations.

James Lilley, former US ambassador to China and Taipei, has observed: “Although the Taiwanese love freedom, they love money more.”

So what are the practical implications of the above developments? While the TRA stipulates that the “President and the Congress shall determine the nature and quantity of such defense articles and services based solely upon their judgment of the needs of Taiwan,” in practice Beijing’s reaction is now one of the main considerations.

While the TRA imposes on the US a moral obligation to come to Taiwan’s aid in case of Chinese military aggression, William Murray, a professor at the US Naval War College, wrote in a celebrated paper last fall that if China attacks Taiwan, the US should hold back, observe the war’s progress and take its time in deciding whether to intervene. His reason: The US may risk a strategic failure, in other words, the US may be defeated if it tried to rescue Taiwan.

Today there is a gathering crisis in the Taiwan Strait that seems to escape the attention of much of Washington’s policy establishment. A vast majority of the people on Taiwan would reject Chinese communist rule, yet the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government is pursuing a policy of incremental capitulation by reducing the budget and size of Taiwan’s military, deepening the dependency of its economy on China and downgrading Taiwan’s international status. Economic integration measures negotiated by the Chinese Communist Party and the KMT are implemented by the Executive Yuan without public debate or approval by the Legislative Yuan. Taiwan is in danger of being delivered into Beijing’s hands by stealth.

While most observers believe there has been an easing of tension in the Taiwan Strait because of the concessions the Ma administration has made to China, China has in fact added another 100 missiles to its arsenal targeting Taiwan since Ma took office. The PLA’s preparations for war against Taiwan have not slackened.

Because of declining exports, more than 20 million migrant workers in China have lost their jobs. Ann Marie Slaughter, chief of the US State Department’s policy planning staff, has pointed out that China could launch a military venture against a neighbor (meaning Taiwan) to divert attention from growing social unrest at home.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) wants to visit Taiwan and Premier Liu Chao-shiuan (劉兆玄) has said that Wen would be welcome. Such a visit could trigger massive, bloody protests. The resulting chaos could provide the PLA with a pretext to invade Taiwan.

Taiwan is facing double jeopardy: an external military threat from China and internal subversion by the Ma government, which is dominated by radical elements in the KMT who are collaborating with Beijing to demolish Taiwan’s sovereignty and democracy as expediently as possible.

If Taiwan were to fall by PLA coercion or internal subversion, the US would suffer a geostrategic disaster. The sea lanes and air space around Taiwan are critical to the survival of Japan and South Korea. Once in control of Taiwan, China would be in position to pressure Japan and South Korea to become its vassal states. Given Japan’s unstable domestic politics and its aversion to nuclear weapons, chances are Japan would cave once the credibility of the US as keeper of peace in East Asia had been lost. With the demise of the US-Japan military alliance, the US would be forced to retreat all the way back to Hawaii.

Using coercion against Taiwan would mean that China had irreversibly forgone the path of development that would lead to a humane, democratic society in favor of keeping its authoritarian model. This would inevitably bring it into conflict with the US.

The greatest threat to the US’ homeland security is not a terrorist attack with a dirty bomb; it is an unexpected, nuclear Pearl Harbor.

The basic US national security strategy is misdirected. In order to keep the peace in East Asia and ultimately to protect homeland security, the US must continue to support democracy and uphold the Taiwanese people’s legitimate aspirations for freedom.

To keep the peace in the Taiwan Strait and to encourage China to pursue peaceful development, we urge the US president and Congress to take the following steps:

First, reaffirm the US policy that the future of Taiwan must be determined by peaceful means and that the US opposes any unilateral action to change the status quo;

Second, deploy at least two aircraft carrier task forces in the Western Pacific and secure basing rights in the Philippines and the Ryukyu Islands as part of US efforts to maintain the capacity to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion;

Third, develop a contingency plan to empower an international commission to conduct and supervise a plebiscite on Taiwan under the right circumstances to allow the Taiwanese people to exercise their basic human right to decide their future without outside pressure or internal subversion.

The US can and must continue to support Taiwan’s freedom because Taiwan’s security is ultimately vital to US homeland security.

Li Thian-hok is a freelance commentator based in Pennsylvania.


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