US Congress needs to act on TRA

By Peter Mattis  / 

Wed, Jun 22, 2011 - Page 8

On Thursday last week, the US House Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing called “Why Taiwan Matters” to vent Congressional concerns that the administration of US President Barack Obama is failing to provide enough support to Taiwan. While the Republican majority may have welcomed the opportunity to score political points against the administration and voice support for Taiwanese democracy, the panelists raised a much more important question: Is the US honoring its commitments under the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA)?

The hearing marks rising concern in the US Congress about the administration letting US commitments to Taiwan silently default through inaction. Last month, 45 US senators petitioned the US Department of State to act on arms sales to Taiwan. In April, Senator Richard Lugar sent a letter to US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton urging her to move the Department of State on Taiwan’s outstanding letter of request for F-16s, lest Taiwan’s air force lose all credibility.

Testifying before the committee, Randall Shriver, a former Defense and State Department official, said that the US response to China’s military buildup across the Taiwan Strait was “insufficient,” leading him to question “if the TRA is honored.”

The US Congress passed the TRA in 1979 to ensure that Washington maintained ties with Taipei irrespective of normalizing relations with Beijing. The TRA requires the US to “make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services” as Taiwan requires to “maintain sufficient self-defense capability.” As Chinese military modernization continues apace and more missiles are placed across from Taiwan, Shriver’s question is not an idle one.

In addition to the TRA, the administration of former US president Ronald Reagan clarified US commitments to Taiwan after the Third Joint Communique seemingly committed Washington to ending arms sales gradually at China’s request. Then-assistant secretary of state John Holdridge told Congress that future sales to Taiwan would depend on Beijing’s “fundamental peaceful policy for seeking resolution to the Taiwan question.” If Beijing committed to peace and did not threaten Taiwan, only then would the US reduce sales.

US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently made the situation worse, despite his rhetoric of a stable US security commitment to Asia. Gates said Washington tries to balance its TRA commitments with “Chinese sensitivities,” contravening past US commitments to Taiwan. The panelists frequently cited Gates’ remarks, even though defense officials have since tried to walk them back.

Shriver and his fellow panelists testified that the US’ declining concern for Taiwan goes back at least to the administration of former US president Bill Clinton and cannot be laid on Obama. However, the problem is that the US’ ability to support its commitments to Taiwan may be approaching a point of no return.

For example, on arms sales, president of the US-Taiwan Business Council Rupert -Hammond-Chambers testified that if the F-16 sales do not go through by the end of this year, then the required lead time for manufacture plus the projected closing of the F-16 production line could add further delays to delivery. He further suggested the current delays have stopped the US arms sales process for Taiwan, killing whatever institutional routine could help press future weapons sales forward.

If the US is unwilling or unable to sell F-16s to Taiwan, what hope is there that the US would provide F-35s to Taiwan? Given the steadily rising costs of the F-35 program, could Taiwan afford to buy the F-35s in sufficient numbers to replace its rapidly aging fighter aircraft?

The answer almost certainly is “no.” US concerns that Beijing may walk away from any one, if not all, of the upcoming discussions or official visits with the US suggest Taiwan policy is sublimated to the concerns of the US-China relationship. Taiwan, simply put, is treated as another issue to be managed, not as a relationship of its own.

The ever busier schedule of US-China relations puts pressure on US diplomats to play nice with Beijing to ensure the next meeting goes forward, but with the schedule so full, there can never be a good time to sell weapons to Taiwan — a point Shriver called the “tyranny of the schedule.”

Without an institutionalized process for the arms sales to Taiwan with its own bureaucratic momentum, future sales, like the ones languishing today, will depend on the whims of the sitting US administration to find a good time. Similarly, a routine process would either acclimatize Beijing to US policy or perhaps slow the buildup of forces across the Taiwan Strait to reduce US arms sales.

To combat this lethargy in the US’ Taiwan policy, panelist Nancy Bernkopf Tucker recommended more active and aggressive Congressional oversight of the US’ Taiwan policy, comparable with the early years of the Reagan administration. However, many Congressional members present at the hearing said that the administration failed to appear to justify apparent inaction in the US-Taiwan relationship. If oversight is to become more active, then Congress must do more than complain.

Compelling foreign policy action from Congress is difficult and often requires a political high-wire act, but nothing less will do for Taiwan.

Peter Mattis is a graduate of the security studies program at Georgetown University with experience on China-related issues.