Pundits have busied themselves in the past week trying to determine whether a decision by Taipei to renegotiate US beef imports with Washington will have implications on US security commitments to Taiwan. Already, an unexpected delay in US President Barack Obama’s weapons sale notification to Congress — which had been expected soon after Obama returned from climate talks in Copenhagen last month — had prompted speculation that Washington may be tying economic matters to political ones and retaliating for the about-face.
Not only is it too soon to tell, but 60 years of US-Taiwan ties have shown that Washington, at least in Taiwan’s case, is capable of treating economics and politics as separate matters — as they should be. Likelier explanations for the delay are the conflicting interests of the State Department, the Department of Defense and the White House, as well as Obama’s balancing act with Taipei and Beijing and efforts to avoid derailing cross-strait rapprochement.
Washington handles diplomacy in multi-track fashion in that it usually rewards and punishes within related sectors. As such, it retaliates on trade with trade, and on military matters with military matters, with little cross-pollination.
Failure by Taipei to demonstrate that it takes its own defense seriously, as opposed to freeloading on US security guarantees, would be one way to invite US retaliation on arms sales. Lack of participation in non-proliferation efforts, which were somewhat undermined last month when British intelligence linked Taiwanese private firms to the sale of sensitive equipment to Iran, would be another. US beef, however, isn’t a deal-breaker on defense issues — however strongly some US policymakers feel about the matter.
The US also expects its allies to share the security burden. Nowhere has this been clearer than in Afghanistan, where US generals have made plea after plea on NATO and non-NATO allies to do more. After nine years of counterinsurgency, not only are most Western countries threatening to pull their troops, but the country remains on the brink of collapse. Facing this, the US — which is sending substantial reinforcements this year — will likely turn to those who have yet to play a role in the war-torn country to do their part.
It comes as no surprise, therefore, that Washington would ask Taiwan to play a role in Afghanistan. Last week, a source in the Ministry of Defense told the media that the US wants Taiwan to provide medical or engineering assistance to troops there. This request is not unprecedented: During the Gulf War in 1991, Taipei offered US$300 million toward the war effort, which Washington turned down after pressure from Beijing. More recently, Taiwan has provided medical assistance in Iraq.
Afghanistan is the story of our time, as its future direction will have a direct impact on international security. No country, however isolated, will be unaffected if the US-led alliance fails to avert Afghanistan’s implosion — not even Taiwan. As a wealthy country that has profited from the US umbrella for decades and as the world’s 20th largest military by spending, Taiwan must contribute to global stability, which would not go unnoticed in Washington.
By answering the call, Taiwan would also gain precious combat experience; in Afghanistan, there is no such thing as a non-combat position. With the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration cutting down on military exercises, combat experience would provide invaluable training — the type of training that could make a difference if Taiwan were attacked one day.