Recent weeks Have seen a lot of ink spilled on the US arms “freeze” on Taiwan. Yet Washington not only has failed to provide a clear answer on the matter, but its diverse agencies have also sent contradictory messages.
While the US Department of State denies there is a freeze in place, others — such as the commander of US Pacific Command, Admiral Timothy Keating — for all intents and purposes have confirmed the existence of the policy. There were even rumors, later discarded, that it was the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) that had requested the freeze, lest the conclusion of the arms transaction scuttle its plans to improve relations across the Taiwan Strait.
Members of the US Congress, meanwhile, have drafted letters to US President George W. Bush, pressing him to provide Taiwan with the weapons included in the package, while former deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz said in Taipei recently that Bush is a man who keeps his commitments and that he would deliver before his term ends.
While the region waits to see how this plays out, academics have sought to determine the rationale behind the freeze — if such is indeed Washington’s policy. Some have argued that the Bush administration implemented the policy to give the KMT and its counterparts in Beijing enough space to move toward a diplomatic rapprochement, while others have stated that the US is waiting for the Beijing Olympic Games to end before finalizing the agreement.
Fingers have been pointed at the former Democratic Progressive Party government for “alienating” Washington and at the KMT-dominated legislature for blocking the appropriations bill for so long that by the time the budget was unlocked, Washington may have changed its mind.
In reality, however, an arms freeze could have less to do with diplomatic idiosyncrasies and more with the US’ grand strategy in the Asia-Pacific region. By looking at how, since before the end of World War II, Washington has sought to prevent the emergence of multipolarity and, as a corollary, created the need for a US military presence in core and outlying areas of strategic interest, Washington’s decision could begin to make more sense.
As Christopher Layne writes in The Illusion of Peace: “If any of the major powers in Europe and East Asia acquire the military capabilities to defend themselves unaided by the United States, their neighbors will feel threatened, latent ‘security dilemmas’ will resurface, and a cycle of rising tensions and arms races (possibly including nuclear proliferation) will be triggered.”
In light of China’s ongoing modernization of its military forces — with a budget estimated at anywhere between US$50 billion and US$79 billion and a 17.6 percent increase this year — added to acquisitions that, if they continue apace, could soon make area denial a reality and thus threaten US military forces in the region, Washington may be loath to feed Layne’s “security dilemma” by providing Taiwan with more modern military technology, which could only encourage Beijing to spend even more on its armed forces.
And what goes on in Asia cannot be decoupled from what is going on elsewhere.
There is every indication, regardless of who wins the US presidential election in November, that the Middle East will continue to tie up the core of US military forces for years to come. Consequently, the US has little advantage in enacting policies — such as arms sales to Taiwan — that would spark an arms race in East Asia and make it likelier that China or Japan will become increasingly nationalistic and emerge as regional poles, as this would put US military strength at a relative disadvantage unless it were committed and could afford to bolster its forces in East Asia and the Middle East simultaneously.
Many academics suspect that the US is committed to a policy of hegemonism in East Asia, one that, as articulated in the National Security Strategy (2002), is part of an overarching goal of preventing the emergence of a military capable enough to challenge US forces (known in some circles as the “Wolfowitz doctrine,” though the strategy predates Wolfowitz’s Defense Planning Guidance, written in 1992, by at least 45 years).
In Europe after World War II, the US prevented the emergence (or re-emergence, in Germany’s case) of strong states capable of ensuring their own security and, by extension, threatening their neighbors. Washington used a two-pronged approach to accomplish this, by (a) maintaining a strong US military presence on the continent to act as a stabilizing force, and (b) compelling European states to subsume their defenses into NATO, which fell under US command.
Given US security guarantees, the need for strong national military forces was obviated, while no state could act outside the NATO chain of command.
Despite its strong military presence in South Korea and Japan, the US has been somewhat less successful in preventing the emergence of poles in Asia, especially in the power vacuum created following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Washington’s intensifying focus on the Middle East, its invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the global “war on terror” and Iran’s nuclear ambitions, with Israel/Palestine and Lebanon on the periphery.
While security guarantees have been successful in preventing the emergence of South Korea as a regional power and the re-emergence of Japan, the US does not have a regional security agglomeration equivalent to NATO in Asia, which has allowed China to build up its strength with little opposition, aside from calls by Washington for more transparency.
These limitations notwithstanding, the US has not abandoned its hegemonistic ambitions in Asia, which have a better chance of succeeding if China is not prompted to accelerate the modernization of its military by arms sales to Taiwan.
Another variable in the US balancing act could explain the freeze. Again, Layne: “To stymie multipolar tendencies, U.S. grand strategy aims to ‘reassure’ its European and East Asian allies that they do not have to worry about taking care of their own security.”
These reassurances — like the Taiwan Relations Act — create the necessity for a permanent US presence in the region or defense agreements with countries like Taiwan. By hiding hegemonistic designs behind security guarantees (Taiwan need not worry, the US will come to its aid), the US can therefore perpetuate its grand strategy of unipolarity while avoiding criticism that it engages in imperialism.
The present arms package cannot ensure that Taiwan can defend itself on its own against a Chinese attack. However, by blocking it, the US has created a win-win situation for itself, as it may prevent accelerated modernization of the Chinese military and makes it easier to justify a strong US military presence in the Asia-Pacific generally by making it indispensable to guarantee the security of states like Taiwan.
J. Michael Cole is a writer based in Taipei.
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