Fri, Nov 16, 2007 - Page 8 News List

Randall Schriver on Taiwan: The real value in Gates' Asia trip

By Randall Schriver

US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates completed a six-day visit to Asia on Friday that included stops in China, South Korea and Japan.

If one were to examine the comments made by government officials in Taipei, or scan the Taiwan press coverage of the visits, one might be left with the impression that all eyes in Taiwan were focused on the Gates visit to China alone.

Did he take further steps toward "co-management" of the Taiwan issue with China? Did Gates or anyone on his delegation brief the traveling press that US policy was based on a "sincere desire to see reunification done in a peaceful manner?" Did Gates tip his hand one way or another regarding US decisions on pending arms sales requests from Taiwan?

While this attention among Taiwanese to Gates' visit to Beijing is quite understandable, it may also lead people in Taiwan to miss the real significance of the Asia visit.

In fact, Gates' visit to China was his least important stop in Asia by a long stretch -- not only from the standpoint of US interests, but for Taiwan's as well.

In case it has gone unnoticed (and I fear this is all too common in Washington), the US' alliances in Asia are increasingly stressed and troubled.

This is true with respect to ties with the Philippines and Thailand, but it is also true in Northeast Asia, where the vast majority of forward-deployed US forces are stationed. Downturns in the US alliances with South Korea and especially Japan will have a direct impact on Taiwan.

There are a number of reasons for the negative trends with our alliances.

This would certainly include the concerns cited by our friends that the US is suffering from a strategic preoccupation with another region of the world.

Our engagement with Asia is seen as episodic and often lacks senior-level involvement.

Increasingly, the US is viewed as inconsistent, lacking basic competence and potentially unreliable in the event of future conflict.

Other reasons have less to do with us and more to do with internal politics in each of these countries.

This is perhaps most true in South Korea, where many observers identify generational change in leadership as a major factor in South Koreans' evolving view of the US. While it is true the US-South Korean alliance was formed in blood and shared sacrifice, it is also true that very few of South Korea's leaders have personal memories of the battles where we stood shoulder-to-shoulder facing extraordinary hardship and violence.

More reasons still for stress on the alliances can be found in policy choices.

Leaders in both Seoul and Tokyo see direct missteps on the part of senior US policymakers that have contributed to troubles in the alliances.

Many South Koreans believe the US exacerbated tensions in the Korean Peninsula by refusing to speak directly with North Korea, while at the same time contributing to Pyongyang's fears and insecurities by designating them a member of the "axis of evil," then attacking a co-member of that same club for suspected weapons of mass destruction programs.

Many in South Korea also believe the US has issued repeated statements of no-confidence in Seoul's ability to manage intra-Korean affairs, and to creatively and effectively engage the North.

How bad have things become in our alliance? Recent polls suggest that more South Koreans cite the US as a threat to their security than North Korea.

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