Strengthen ties, sell jets, study urges

By William Lowther  /  Staff Reporter in Washington

Sat, Sep 10, 2011 - Page 1

The US should bolster its relationship with Taiwan and sell Taipei the 66 F-16C/D aircraft it has requested, a major new academic study concludes.

“However frightening or seductive China is, appeasing it by sacrificing Taiwan would not be good policy,” said Nancy Bernkopf Tucker, a professor at Georgetown University, and Bonnie Glaser, a senior fellow and China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

Their joint paper, titled Should the United States Abandon Taiwan?, has just been published by the CSIS journal, the Washington Quarterly.

It comes as the administration of US President Barack Obama is nearing a decision on the sale of the fighters.

US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has said that the decision will be announced by Oct. 1.

“The US should neither abandon nor reduce its commitments to Taiwan, but strengthen them,” the authors wrote.

“A decision to jettison Taiwan, or even cut back significantly on US support, would prove to an increasingly confident China that Washington has become weak, vacillating and unreliable,” they said.

At least in part, the study is in response to a growing chorus of critics in Washington who have called on the White House to stop supporting Taiwan to better promote relations with Beijing.

The study is also critical of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), saying that he has pursued cross-strait cooperation with energy and determination, while “neglecting competing priorities such as defense, domestic development, and relations with the US.”

“Ma has failed to meet the goals he set for Taiwan’s defense, whether the reason be to protect cross-Strait talks, economic necessity or local politics. His defense budget has repeatedly fallen short of the three percent of GDP he pledged in 2008, and actual spending has dropped,” they said.

“US officials have privately questioned Taiwan’s commitment to self-defense. Some believe Ma doesn’t really want to buy large orders of expensive equipment, even though he has regularly asked that sales be made,” they wrote.

Abandoning Taiwan could simplify and improve US-China relations temporarily, but in the longer run Beijing would conclude that a weaker US, lacking vision and ambition, could be pressured and manipulated, they said.

“Both friends and rivals regionally and globally would decide that the US was not to be trusted,” they said.

Tucker and Glaser urged Obama to “stop equivocating” and move forward with arms sales now because “there will never be a good time.”

“Upgrading existing aircraft would be welcome, but Taiwan’s aging and shrinking air force also needs new planes. Were the US to wait and the F-16C/D production line to close, Taiwan would have no other source,” they said.

“Washington might well be faced with the complicated dilemma of whether to sell even more advanced F-35s,” they said.

The academics said that in the absence of US backing, Taipei would likely be too insecure and Taiwan’s leaders too vulnerable politically to negotiate with China.

“Arms sales, therefore, facilitate cross-Strait compromise and should not be anathema to Beijing,” they said.

At the same time, Tucker and Glaser called for increased US-Taiwan trade and progress on Taipei’s requests to join the US’ visa-waiver program, as well as concluding a bilateral extradition agreement.

“Higher-level contact between US and Taiwan officials ought to occur routinely. Even if presidential meetings are not possible, dialogue between leaders should be facilitated by video conferences and regular correspondence. Cabinet-level visits to Taiwan could quickly be resumed,” they wrote.

“Taiwan’s representatives also should be granted better access to US officials in Washington and not be barred from buildings such as the Department of State,” they said.

However, Washington needs to simultaneously find ways to convince Beijing that the US does not seek to prevent an accommodation between Taiwan and China.

“The US does not secretly promote independence or block progress in cross-Strait relations. Rather, US policy aims at sustaining peaceful conditions in which Taiwan and China can reach a long-term modus vivendi by themselves,” they said.