US policies drive nation's isolation

By Dan Blumenthal  / 

Tue, Jan 09, 2007 - Page 8

US policy toward Taiwan is riddled with peculiarities. Taiwan is a liberal democracy with a prosperous, free-market economy and is the very model of the kind of "responsible stakeholder" Washington hopes China will be in the future.

Despite its exclusion from donor conferences, Taipei has provided material support to the war on terrorism and reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In addition, it has supported US counter-proliferation efforts such as the Proliferation Security Initiative. If Taiwan is a model of freedom at home and responsibility abroad, why is Washington's attitude toward Taipei so sour?

It wasn't supposed to be this way.

The administration of US President George W. Bush came to power determined to change the perceived Beijing tilt of former US president Bill Clinton. Bush offered Taiwan a generous arms package and made Taiwan a "normal" security partner, allowing Taipei to make arms requests according to its own timeline as it sought to fill its defense needs.

The president said that the US would "do whatever it takes" to help Taiwan defend itself.

Moreover, after Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the US, Bush formulated a "freedom agenda" to advance freedom worldwide. In that spirit, he has supported Georgia, Ukraine and other countries formerly under Soviet control, despite Russian protests.

Given the thrust of Bush's policies, it is indeed odd that Washington treats Taiwan as a virtual pariah: humiliating Taipei by micromanaging transit stops by its president and publicly warning that "independence means war," as if any responsible leader in Taiwan were pushing for formal independence. The US has also denied Taiwan a Free Trade Agreement, despite granting them to less economically capable countries such as Morocco, Jordan and Oman.

The truth is that there is practically no positive agenda between Taipei and Washington. The US engages in only half-hearted efforts to help Taiwan gain oberver status in the World Health Assembly. It has denied Taiwan requests for upgraded F-16s despite a clear need for them.

There has been little effort to include Taiwan in the "freedom agenda" or the global community of democracies that the Bush administration has touted. Including countries like Egypt and excluding Taiwan from that community damages the very idea it is built on.

Despite a growing need for Washington and Taipei to coordinate their military plans, the security relationship has not fared much better. Military relations are still governed by restrictions on visits by US general officers that began during the administration of former US president Jimmy Carter.

The defense relationship largely rests on decisions made in the late years of the Clinton administration -- when US Department of Defense officials woke up to the reality of China's increased military power.

Washington's weak support for Taiwan will have serious consequences, especially as Beijing actively undermines Taiwan's de facto independent status. As China works to isolate Taiwan internationally and intimidate it militarily, Taiwan's options are dwindling. Either it will lash out or it will "Finlandize," that is, become a China-compliant neutral power.

Neither option serves US interests. The former could provoke China into starting a war, while the latter would result in a second South Korea-like democracy, which is no longer willing to support US policy in Asia.

Why did the Bush administration change its attitude toward Taiwan? One can venture that perhaps Washington has convinced itself that the price of China's cooperation on North Korea is a freeze in US-Taiwan relations.

Unlike president Bush's meetings with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, no high level government official has met President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁). Taipei's policies are thus provided to the president and his top advisers through the interpretive lenses of sometimes hostile bureaucrats.

Another explanation reflects pure anxiety -- China's military threat to Taiwan is indeed formidable. Should China take military action against Taiwan, the costs of US intervention would be several times higher than they would have been a decade ago.

It is true that the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has had its share of difficulties as it grows into its role as the governing party. But how different has the DPP's experience been from that of parties in Hungary or Romania?

There is a generic set of experiences that formerly dissident parties such as the DPP undergo as they transform into governing parties. The freedom agenda of the US should include an understanding that democratic transformation is an unruly process.

It is convenient to blame Taiwan for the weakened tie. If only it would be quiet about its aspirations for a greater international personality, the thinking goes, the problem would go away.

Yet the problem lies in Beijing's growing military threat to Taiwan. China's latest white paper justifies its military build-up as a means to "deter" the "separatist forces" in Taiwan.

Really? Just how many hun-dreds of missiles and attack aircraft, dozens of submarines, and destroyers are needed to deter an unlikely "threat?" It is next to impossible for Taiwan to declare independence: two thirds of the legislature would have to vote for it before it was put before the public in a referendum.

The fact is that China's military policy is simply a convenient rhetorical device to continue its military expansion.

Every year that China grows stronger is a lost opportunity for Washington to make clear that the Taiwan issue will be settled by mutual consent, not by coercion.

Until China's Taiwan policy conforms to 21st century norms of negotiation informed by consent of the governed, Washington would be wise to help end Taiwan's isolation.

Taipei has much to offer in the realm of regional and international security.

As Chen recently stated in his new year's address, Taiwan is prepared to share its experiences and soothe the growing pains of other new democracies.

Washington behaved admirably toward the new democracies in Ukraine and Georgia despite Russia's resurgent strength.

The US can still do the same with Taiwan.

Dan Blumenthal is a resident fellow in Asian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.