Revisiting US’ Asia pivot
In 2011, US President Barack Obama redirected Washington’s focus by “pivoting” to Asia. The articulation of this policy saw the US announce that it would station troops in northern Australia and strengthen military ties with Vietnam.
To the dismay of China, who favors limiting regional issues within the ASEAN bloc, and to mitigate them through bilateral talks with concerned parties, the US intends to put the issues on the global level and engage in multilateral talks.
US ally Japan has echoed this policy. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pursuing an aggressive foreign policy agenda by moving swiftly to mend ties with its neighbors.
Japanese Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Taro Aso visited Myanmar and presented a generous loan to the recently unisolated state. Japan’s foreign minister followed with visits to Singapore and the Philippines.
Abe has also embarked on a tour of three nations in Southeast Asia.
These calculated trips to selected states aim to cultivate closer ties in an attempt to balance, and potentially contain, China’s growing influence in the region.
Given its geographical proximity, Taiwan is a critical player in the region. While other players have military ties or bilateral pacts –– such as the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the US and Japan –– Taiwan stands out as being of key importance.
Despite stipulations contained in the US’ Taiwan Relations Act, a strict reading of the text does not guarantee US involvement should the nation come under attack.
Given this, Taiwan needs to address the military imbalance that is shifting significantly and irreversibly in China’s favor.
Although engaging in an arms race is unfeasible and ill-advised, Taipei desperately needs to modernize the military while enhancing security dialogues with Tokyo and Washington. These moves would not compromise the nation’s improving ties with China.
For example, the 1992 Ku-Wang Talk took place despite Taiwan’s prior procurement of F-16A/Bs from the US.
Likewise, the negotiations for and signing of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement occurred against the backdrop of Obama approving arms sales to Taiwan. Importantly, these sales gave Taiwan greater leverage over China at the negotiating table.
The arms procurements are significant in both tangible and intangible ways. Upgrading Taiwan’s military equipment provides a stronger deterrence, while the US approving the sales symbolizes Washington’s renewed security commitment to Taipei.
Taiwan cannot be complacent about, nor dependent on China’s goodwill. A recent paper written by former American Institute in Taiwan chairman Richard Bush titled Uncharted Strait recommends that Taiwan strengthen itself by increasing its confidence to bargain with China.
Amid building tensions over the disputed Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) –– called the Senkakus in Japan –– Taiwan requires a pro-active strategy, exuding both firmness and flexibility. Taking the initiative to propose solutions to the territorial dispute with China and Japan seeking military upgrades and utilizing track-two security dialogues in absence of high-level talks will be crucial for the nation’s security.