The government must do a better job of explaining that its policy of engaging with China does not eliminate the need to provide the nation with an effective defense, American Enterprise Institute (AEI) executive Michael Mazza said.
“Given China’s assertive actions in the East and South China seas and the more forceful and ambitious leadership of China’s new president, Xi Jinping [習近平], addressing this shortcoming is more urgent than ever,” Mazza said in a 16-page study published by AEI this week.
The specialist in Asia-Pacific defense policy said that to please Washington and to claim success in managing cross-strait relations, the administration of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) must show that those relations are better than they have ever been.
“However, [that] has not lessened the actual military threat posed by mainland China to Taiwan,” he added.
Mazza says that under the administration of US President Barack Obama, US-China ties have become — at the expense of Taiwan’s defensive needs — an increasingly central factor in decisions on US arms sales to the nation.
“The Obama administration’s decision to upgrade Taiwan’s F-16s, while refusing to discuss new jets, reflected a ‘split-the-baby’ calculus,” Mazza said.
“Washington would do the minimum for Taiwan while keeping China happy — and this sets a troubling precedent for future arms sales,” he added.
Not only has the arms sales process “largely broken down,” but Taiwanese and US defense establishments also disagree over the optimal strategy for Taipei to pursue, and thus over what arms the nation needs most, Mazza said.
He said that the US Department of Defense has “apparently endorsed” a strategy that calls for Taiwan to abandon expensive conventional capabilities, such as fighters and submarines, in favor of a ground-based, survivable, relatively inexpensive defensive force.
This force would focus on repelling an invasion and concentrate on homeland defense. It would not launch any attacks of its own and would achieve deterrence by demonstrating to China that Taiwan would be a “bitter pill to swallow,” Mazza said.
“What Taiwan requires is a highly skilled, innovative, high-tech force, but it is questionable whether Taiwan can successfully create this defense force given resource and manpower constraints and shortcomings in US-Taiwan defense cooperation,” Mazza said.
He said that although Ma has consistently claimed a need for Taiwan to maintain a strong defense, his cross-strait policies make it difficult to sustain public support for more defense spending.
“Ma has been eager to tout the successes of his policies, but a side effect has been for his administration to underemphasize those aspects of Beijing’s policies that continue to threaten Taiwan,” he said.
By telling Taiwanese that all is “going swimmingly” in cross-strait relations, Ma may well be weakening his own calls for a strong military deterrent, Mazza said.
At the same time, Mazza said, China’s East China Sea air defense identification zone and its behavior in the South China Sea amount to “an outright challenge to freedom of navigation through the seas and skies on which Taiwan depends for its economic vitality.”
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