Given the recent tensions between President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and US President George W. Bush and the US State Department's vociferous opposition to Taiwan's referendums on joining the UN, it does not come as a surprise that Washington would welcome the win on Saturday by Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) candidate Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), who has been portrayed as less of a "troublemaker" than Chen or Democratic Progressive Party candidate Frank Hsieh (謝長廷).
But no sooner had the last ballot been counted than a handful of US conservatives were raising the specter of some rapprochement between Taipei and Beijing (an "unhealthy `pro-China' stance," one called it). Among them and responsible for the above quote was Dan Blumenthal, a former Pentagon official, who questioned what the KMT win would mean to the US-Taiwan alliance. He recommended that Bush's legacy to Taiwan be ensuring that Taiwan receive the F-16 fighter aircraft it has been prevented from buying, as well as diesel submarines, among other items.
What this shows us, less than 24 hours after the vote, is that the conservatives in Washington do not see the prospect of less tension in the Taiwan Strait favorably, as this could threaten: one, the US alliance with Taiwan, in which the latter is increasingly starting to look (at least from Beijing's perspective) like it is part of the master plan to contain and encircle China to ensure that it does not reach regional, if not global, primacy; and two,those in the US defense establishment who stand to profit from continued weapons sales to Taiwan.
I have been ebullient in my criticism of that clique on the periphery of the US government, those purported "friends" of Taiwan, mostly because of their tendency to militarize developments in the Taiwan Strait and to do so under the guise of defending democracy and freedom. Their shouts of alarm at the weekend, however, show us that first on their mind isn't democracy, freedom or even the well-being of Taiwanese, but rather keeping alive the steady flow of weapons to the region, which serves the two purposes outlined above.
Blumenthal and others may not be wrong in their assessment that a Ma presidency is unlikely to change much in the Taiwan Strait conflict -- I agree with that position -- but their immediate reflex to worry about arms sales even before attempts at some form of peace talks have been made shows where their true priorities lie.
For them, there is nothing better than the "status quo" in the Taiwan Strait, one that allows them to keep selling weapons to one of the top-three recipients of US conventional weapons in the world. Anything that threatens that "status quo" -- sudden calls for democracy or, conversely, peace overtures -- is viewed with suspicion.
Meanwhile, the other two items on Blumenthal's priority list -- signing a free-trade agreement (FTA) between the US and Taiwan and "normalizing cross-strait relations" -- either do not affect the flow of weapons (the FTA) or go against its logic (if "normalization is the end goal, why sell Taiwan weapons?).
What this means is that armament/disarmament in the Taiwan Strait is becoming increasingly intertwined with the greater dynamics of the regional arms race pitting the US and its allies in Northeast Asia against China. The more Taiwan is seen to be part of the encirclement of China (much as the "new democracy" Kosovo, which, now that Washington will be selling it weapons, will be part of the encirclement of Russia), the more difficult it will be to resolve the question of Taiwan peacefully, regardless of who is in office in Taipei.
J. Michael Cole is a writer based in Taipei.
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