Kurt Campbell on Taiwan: US stalling may have ramifications

By Kurt Campbell  / 

Fri, Oct 19, 2007 - Page 8

While US attention remains transfixed on the drama playing out in Iraq, with headlines of another senior commander referring to the war as a disaster, a few troubling developments in the Asia-Pacific region have not received the attention they clearly deserve.

China has recently promoted a handful of senior generals who have made their careers on war planning against Taiwan.

Senior Chinese think tank strategists have fanned out across Asia to warn that Beijing is serious about the "threat" posed by the nationalist rhetoric of President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and ready to consider military options.

Meanwhile, the US has chosen for the time being not to consider providing Taiwan with a substantial number of F-16 fighter planes to replenish Taipei's now overmatched Air Force in the face of substantial purchases on the part of China's military in recent years. A senior US policymaker for Asia has spoken of a new "moderation" in US decision-making when it comes to considering how best to respond to arms requests from Taiwan.

What exactly does all this mean and what can we expect in the months to come? It is no secret that US President George W. Bush and his senior team are openly frustrated with Chen and his aspirations for greater Taiwanese status and identity. Indeed, the relationship between Taiwan and the US remains strained because of disputes over the UN referendum and other controversial steps.

Still, the Bush team came to power with a "whatever it takes" attitude about defending Taiwan and a very robust set of plans and initiatives to provide greater military capabilities.

The 2001 arms package was the biggest by far in history and after several years of deadlock in Taiwan, elements of the package finally passed the legislature earlier this year. There were renewed hopes on both sides of a resumption in a more normal process of arms sales process.

But the environment has changed remarkably since the early days of the Bush presidency.

The US preoccupation away from Asia is now an apparent feature of the complex political terrain in the region and the US is loath to take further risks there, given how poorly the Iraq War has gone and the military resources tied up there.

Meanwhile, China has demonstrated a keen ability for a nuanced strategy in Asia -- on the one hand helping out substantially behind the scenes in nuclear negotiations with North Korea, and on other hand carrying on with its relentless military buildup across the Taiwan Strait with new missiles, fighter aircraft and naval assets. China has even succeeded in enlisting the US in efforts to rein in Taiwan in a number of recent tense interactions, with Washington either publicly or privately counseling restraint to senior Taiwanese leaders.

The decision on the part of the US at this stage not to provide Taiwan with the necessary pricing and operational information as an initial part of the process to buy several new squadrons of US F-16s can have several plausible explanations.

For one, the administration may be waiting until after the Taiwanese presidential election to avoid any potential area of misunderstanding with -- or undue encouragement to -- Chen. If this is the case, we can expect signs of more serious consideration of the unofficial request for the fighters next spring.

There is also the possibility that the US has quietly decided not to risk China's ire with a decision to sell the fighter planes that Taiwan so clearly needs for its defense, given the manifest increase in the the Chinese military's capabilities.

If that is the case, it is likely we will be headed for a showdown between the legislative and executive branches over the meaning of the Taiwan Relations Act, particularly the clause that requires the US to provide Taiwan with the necessary defensive military hardware.

Finally, the US government is perhaps indicating it is simply not ready to make a decision on such a potentially important issue at such a critical juncture with political transitions around the corner in Washington and Taipei, and believes the matter is better left for the next US administration.

China is indeed gearing up to take major exception to the very idea that the US should continue to provide the wherewithal for Taiwan's defense. While China has often expressed public dismay at such steps in the past, there are signs that this time they are prepared to ratchet up the tension level substantially.

By delaying this decision at the outset rather than simply treating it as a normal and perfectly reasonable request, the Bush team may have inadvertently created the context for a much bigger deal than they bargained for. In the face of China's unrelenting military buildup, and even with attention focused more on Iraq than Asia, the Bush team must soon make clear its ultimate intentions of defending Taiwan, given the growing concerns.

Kurt Campbell is the chief executive officer and cofounder of the Center for a New American Security in Washington.