“Taiwan should not be so defenseless that it feels it has to do everything that China says … China cannot be so overwhelming that it can bully Taiwan.”
These words, uttered by US National Intelligence Director Admiral Dennis Blair at a US Senate committee hearing on Thursday, are intriguing.
This is partly because of Blair’s cautiousness at the expense of coherence: There cannot be degrees of defenselessness, nor degrees of overwhelming power.
But by implying that Taiwan is at risk of defenselessness and that China seeks unmatchable power in the region, Blair — and his hard-nosed intelligence apparatus — represents the “bad cop” of US President Barack Obama’s fledgling China policy against the “good cop” of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the traditionally more congenial State Department.
Blair’s immediate support for closing the growing gap in cross-strait military capability and his identification of Chinese military strategy as an ongoing and unequivocal “threat” to Taiwan is a very welcome tonic after years of obfuscation and scapegoating under former president George W. Bush.
Blair’s statement can only irritate China, though it is likely that Beijing will hold its collective tongue until its officials meet Clinton on Chinese soil next week.
Blair’s comments also offer a degree of relief to the Taiwanese military and opposition politicians who fear that cross-strait detente would jeopardize military ties with the US and hurt future arms sales.
The perception that a Taiwanese government leaning toward Beijing would compromise military secrets and eventually hand weapons to the Chinese military seems to have weakened, at least for the moment.
The development also represents a mixed bag for President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九).
On the one hand, with the US government sketching a rough line in the sand, Ma will find the going slightly more difficult as China demands further pragmatic evidence that his government can stay on its unificationist track.
On the other hand, Ma can use this renewed expression of support and possible commitment to more arms sales from the US as a domestic weapon against the Democratic Progressive Party, arguing that the Ma government best serves the defense interests of all Taiwanese.
Some people in the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) — those who negotiate with China, in particular — will be greatly irritated at Blair’s unequivocal assessment of Chinese intentions and capabilities.
But for most, Washington’s regrouping on cross-strait military matters will provide a boost in confidence.
The “status quo” that so many people place faith in was looking quite ragged there for a while. Now, with election season over and Washington looking to fortify policy over the next four years, this strange slogan has had some life breathed into it at a time of considerable symbolic value.
That support for Taiwan has been expressed by the head of the US intelligence apparatus rather than by a president speaking off the cuff and apparently without institutional backup — as Bush did in his first term — bodes well for Taiwan’s immediate future.