Taiwan a weak link in US chain

By Emerson Chang 張子揚  / 

Mon, Nov 06, 2006 - Page 8

American Institute in Taiwan Director Stephen Young put the cat among the pigeons last Thursday when he held a press conference to talk frankly about Taiwan's arms procurement bill.

He was criticized for forcing Taiwan to accept the US-proposed arms sales and interfering in Taiwan's domestic affairs.

However, such arguments are beneath this country's dignity, and will not further our national interests. Why?

First, talk about interference in Taiwan's domestic affairs is far-fetched. What Young was interfering with is in fact the longstanding habit of Taiwanese politicians to monopolize US information channels.

Very familiar with Taiwan's political situation, Young knew that his comments ran the risk of being distorted if he discussed the matter with Taiwanese politicians in closed-door meetings.

This was why from the beginning of the press conference he made it clear that he was conveying a direct message from the US through Taiwan's media outlets as a show of respect for the people of Taiwan.

Furthermore, Young held the conference in the American Cultural Center in Taipei, which is US property, saying that Taiwan's interests and security are connected to the US. This is no different from a US Department of State spokesman holding a routine press conference to talk about the Taiwan issue at the US Department of State, and does not constitute interference with Taiwan's domestic affairs.

His point of departure was the interests of Taiwan, and although this also involves US interests, at least it formally met the requirement of diplomatic reciprocity and equality.

There has been much speculation about Young's motives. In my opinion, Young's urgency was prompted by the Bush administration's readjustment of its China policy.

That is, the US has decided to strategically contain China and is already taking certain actions to achieve that goal. Young could not broach this subject in his press conference lest he provoke China or encourage Taiwanese independence.

Beginning this year, the US has shifted the focus of national security from ensuring its oil supply chain to preventing China from dominating the Asia-Pacific region, and it has also begun to adjust strategic deployments in the Asian region.

This is evident from the US Defense Department's 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review published in February, in which China was for the first time treated as the US' greatest potential military opponent. This report is particularly noteworthy when compared with the report released in 2001, in which China wasn't even mentioned.

In March, the US government took three actions directed at China.

First, the White House stressed in its National Security Strategy report that the US would not sit idly by if China were to make the wrong strategic choice.

Second, during her trip to Indonesia, Australia and Japan, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warned that China could become a "negative force" in the Asia-Pacific region and urged Australia, Japan and the US to formulate a common stance on China.

Third, US President George W. Bush visited India for the first time during his term of office, signing a cooperation agreement for civil nuclear technology. The US also offered India very advantageous conditions in the hope of establishing a US-Indian strategic partnership to contain China's military expansion.

This all occurred prior to the summit between Bush and Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) in Washington in April. In May, hot on the heels of the Bush-Hu summit, the US Department of Defense released its 2006 Annual Report on the Military Power of the People's Republic of China, expounding the potential threat of China's continuous military buildup and the fact that Taiwan plays a decisive role in whether or not China will be able to break through the first island chain and weaken US power in the Asia-Pacific region.

Washington does not believe in a gradually growing military imbalance in the Taiwan Strait, but rather that the military balance is already stacked in China's favor.

That is, the US is deeply concerned about Taiwan's short-term defense capabilities should war actually break out across the Taiwan Strait.

These concerns imply that the US is now becoming increasingly uncertain whether it should protect Taiwan and whether the chain of islands that the US linked together during the Cold War once again will be able to effectively contain China.

At present, Japan is the most cooperative of the nations in this chain of islands, while the others -- South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore, Brunei, Australia and New Zealand -- have their own interest and political concerns. Not all of these island states support US containment of China, and there are particularly glaring disagreements on the issue of defending Taiwan. As a result, the US has not been able to make any major progress despite its active efforts.

Faced with the turmoil and political standstill in Taiwan and the North Korean nuclear test, the US, eager to mend its West Pacific island chain, had to let Young make an appeal to the Taiwanese public to force the government and opposition to cooperate on the arms procurement bill. Taiwan, however, seems to be one of the more corroded links in this island chain. If the US wants to polish it, I'm afraid it will have to make a greater effort.

Emerson Chang is director of the department of international studies at Nan Hua University.

Translated by Daniel Cheng