Just after assuming office, US Secretary of State John Kerry reaffirmed the US’ commitments to Taiwan under the Taiwan Relations Act and also indicated support for Taiwan’s participation in international bodies, such as the International Civil Aviation Organization.
In response to questions from US senators on Washington’s adherence to the act and former US president Ronald Reagan’s “six assurances,” Kerry reiterated that the US would supply Taiwan with weapons to maintain adequate defense capability.
It is good that US commitments have been reiterated by the new secretary of state, but while a number of sales have been initiated over the past few years, little movement has occurred on the all-important sale of F-16C/Ds which has been under discussion for years.
The balance of air power across the Taiwan Strait has been tilting heavily against Taipei: Beijing has been building up its fleet, continuously adding advanced fighters, while on the Taiwanese side the fleet consists of a motley collection of aging fighters, some dating back to the Vietnam War.
The only modernization of the Taiwanese fleet being prepared is that of the existing F-16A/Bs, but to implement this upgrade, a significant number of aircraft have to be taken out of operation, further reducing the operational capabilities of the nation’s air defense. A US decision on the F-16C/Ds is in order.
On the Taiwan side, a firmer commitment to its own defense is needed. US Senator John Cornyn of Texas recently expressed his disappointment that Taiwan’s government has not pushed harder for the sale, saying there was a “puzzling sense of complacency in Taipei.”
Then there are the mixed signals given off by Taipei over the past months about the disputed Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台), which Taiwan claims sovereignty over, along with Japan, which calls them the Senkakus, and China.
Former US deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Randy Schriver hit the nail on the head when he said recently that Taiwan should play a more constructive role in the dispute and “… avoid the appearance of collusion with China,” saying that such a move would “be viewed unfavorably” by the US.
Japan is a key security partner for Taiwan. Taipei should ensure that relations with Tokyo improve instead of following a downward drift, as was the case last year.
In his speech at the Heritage Foundation on Feb. 8, Schriver also pointed out: “Japan is arguably Taiwan’s second-most important security partner. If Taiwan undertakes activities that cause problems with Tokyo, that will cause problems with the United States and that should be avoided.” There are others who argue that Taiwan should do more to help itself.
James Holmes of the Naval War College spoke on the issue at a seminar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars on Feb. 26. Holmes said that China’s primary strategy seems to be to deter Washington from intervening on Taiwan’s behalf through an array of anti-access measures, such as its new anti-ship missiles. He added that Taipei should rededicate itself to its defense by helping the US counter these measures.
Holmes added that Taiwan needs to “pivot to its own defense” by raising defense spending to 3 percent of its GDP and by enhancing its defense capabilities in coordination with its allies Japan and the US.
The best guarantee for Taiwan’s existence as a free, democratic nation is its alliance with its democratic friends and allies, not a dalliance with a repressive and undemocratic neighbor.
Nat Bellocchi served as a US deputy assistant secretary of state and US ambassador and is a former chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan. The views expressed in this article are his own.