For some time, officials from Taiwan’s two major political parties, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), have argued they are better qualified to guard Taiwan’s sovereignty (which, of course, is challenged by China). It is currently a hot issue in the campaigns for the presidential and legislative elections in January.
DPP stalwarts say that its efforts to create a separate or independent Taiwan equates to protecting Taiwan’s sovereignty. They also suggest that the DPP is the party that promotes democracy, which means the international community will support Taiwan’s efforts to remain sovereign.
The KMT has a different take on the problem: that Taiwan’s economy must be healthy to survive in a world of globalism, that it has reduced corruption (a blight on Taiwan’s global image that reduced support abroad) and that it manages foreign affairs better than the DPP.
Some opinion polls in Taiwan indicate the public perceives the DPP is better able to do the job. However, KMT leaders argue that protecting Taiwan’s sovereignty by promoting independence has little to no support outside Taiwan and is counterproductive.
Who then is better at protecting Taiwan’s sovereignty? The answer is: neither.
The relevant issue is that Taiwan cannot defend itself. Its military capabilities are small and are fast diminishing relative to China’s. Witness computer simulations and various studies that indicate how long Taiwan would be able to hold off an attack from the People’s Liberation Army (mainly its air force and navy). It is reckoned to be anywhere from two hours to a week or so, but is growing shorter month by month.
Taiwan’s military strategy is to fight, doing its best until the US comes to the rescue. However, ultimately it cannot win.
If the US does not act, Taiwan would have to surrender, after which it would no longer be sovereign. In other words, whether or not Taiwan remains sovereign is in the hands of the US, not the DPP or the KMT. Unfortunately, it will not be decided by the Taiwanese.
This brings us to the matter of the US commitment to Taiwan. The crux of the question is: Is it being eroded?
In the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), passed into law in 1979, the US pledged to provide Taiwan with defensive weapons to meet its needs and promised to keep US troops in East Asia (ostensibly to protect Taiwan, while the weapons sales ensure Taiwan is able to maintain a successful defense until more US forces can arrive on the scene). In ensuing years, Congress was vigilant in ensuring the TRA’s guarantees remained solid.
However, recently serious doubts have been raised about the US commitment to defend Taiwan.
In late 2009, US President Barack Obama visited China and in a joint statement there pledged to uphold the communiques signed with China (all of which are favorable to China and unfavorable to Taiwan). He did not mention the Taiwan Relations Act.
Obama never mentions Taiwan’s democracy or its strong human rights record in any meaningful context. He has never sent a top official involved in making US Asia policy to Taiwan. Hopes for a US-Taiwan free-trade agreement have languished under the Obama administration.
The Obama administration has promised weapons sales to Taiwan, but at a level a little more than one-third the amount former US president George W. Bush promised in 2001, and it has not delivered on important parts of the deal. The delivery of F-16C/D fighter planes has been put on hold and will probably not happen. The number of submarines has been scaled back. Anyway, the US does not make the kind of submarine promised and may not be able to, or even want to, persuade anyone else to sell them.
Obama has cut US defense spending dramatically with more to come, without making any provision for bolstering the US’ capabilities or presence in Asia, where it is needed most and where it would protect Taiwan. This brings into serious doubt whether the US could or would defend Taiwan if necessary.
Pro-Obama academics have suggested the US abandon Taiwan, calling it the only serious point of friction with China. Obama’s top officials have said in public that the US desperately needs China’s money and the US must be willing to make concessions to that end.
China’s media has called for the US and China to conclude another communique to confirm the US promises made in the 1982 Sinio-US communique to end arms sales to Taiwan and that alternatively, Washington should take measures to terminate the TRA.
There are reports that Obama could be listening. He certainly has indicated that he does not like Taiwan (some say he despises or even hates Taiwan) and would like to rid himself of the “Taiwan matter.”
The US Congress espouses quite a different view on Taiwan. Although focused on economic issues, with many new members who know little about Taiwan or related US commitments, it has called for arms sales to go ahead. Recently, 45 senators and 181 members of the US House of Representatives have spoken out in support of the sale of ---F-16C/Ds to Taiwan.
They contend that Taiwan needs and deserves the planes. China’s continuing missile buildup across the Taiwan Strait is cited. They also justify the sale as good for business and job creation in the US. They say that the US$8 billion sale would save Lockheed Martin from closing a plant.
US Senator John Cornyn has been especially vocal in support of the sale. He has even promised to link it as an amendment to the coming defense appropriations bill.
House of Representatives Foreign Relations Committee Chairperson Ileana Ros-Lehtinen has called for the TRA to be enhanced or even for a new law to be written that would strengthen the US’ commitment to Taiwan and its obligation to sell Taiwan arms.
Clearly, there is concern about Taiwan’s future in Congress and support has been growing. This in part reflects doubt about Obama’s ability to manage the economy, which has caused his popularity to fall dramatically and doubts about the president’s management of foreign policy, specifically his stance on Taiwan.
Some members of Congress have said that Obama’s policy effectively means withdrawing from Asia.
However, among the US public, and this is palpable in Congress, the view is quite widespread that two main factions dominate Taiwan politically: The DPP, which would not mind drawing the US into a war with China to suit its own whims and partisan interests and the KMT, led by President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), which wants to sell out Taiwan and make it part of China.
Neither of these views holds water. The perception of the DPP wanting to provoke a US-China war characterized former president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) administration; it is not the view of DPP Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) or the DPP rank and file. Ma would hardly want to give up his position of president for the promise of a lower position in China.
Part of the reason for the US misperception of Taiwan is the nature of Taiwan’s partisan politics. Democracy breeds public feuds, but some differences should be contained.
Taiwan’s two main political parties need to stop depicting each other in ways that create a bad impression in the US and be honest about the fact that Taiwan’s sovereignty will continue to be guaranteed by the US.
They need to cooperate in winning US support — lest Taiwan lose it for good.
John Copper is the Stanley J. Buckman professor of international studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee.
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