US President Barack Obama’s new Cabinet choices indicate that he will continue to be extremely cautious with policies toward Taiwan.
On Monday, he nominated former Republican senator Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense and last month he chose Democratic Senator John Kerry to be secretary of state.
These are the key anchor positions of enormous importance to Taiwan.
While Kerry, 69, is thought certain to sail through US Senate confirmation hearings, Hagel, 66, faces very tough opposition, although Obama is determined to fight hard for him.
Some Washington analysts believe that Hagel’s views may be at least partly responsible for the Obama administration’s failure to sell F-16C/D aircraft to Taiwan.
“Hagel has often cited his experience as a soldier in Vietnam as having shaped his foreign policy perspective, which has tended to stress caution when considering future military commitments,” said Rick Fisher, senior fellow in Asian military affairs at the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
He said that Hagel had “mused” about the dangers of being dragged into a war with China over Taiwan, “a concern that was later much reflected by the [former US president] George W. Bush administration.”
“Such concerns in part led the Bush and Obama administrations to ‘decline whether to decide’ to sell Taiwan new F-16 fighters despite accumulating threats from China,” Fisher said.
While still in the Senate, Hagel said that he was worried about “some of the talk” regarding China and Taiwan.
“When we say we’re going to defend Taiwan, what are we saying there?” he said. “Are we saying that if the Chinese send a missile over, we’re at war with China? It’s a big thing to say. I think we’re rather careless.”
More recently, Hagel said that the US should welcome China as it emerges and grows.
“Everything that we have to have in our country to prosper, so do the Chinese,” Hagel said.
“They’ve made tremendous strides,” he said. “They are a great power today, and they are going to continue to be a great power — and that’s okay.”
Hagel served two terms in the Senate, ending in 2009.
He opposed bills to impose unilateral sanctions on Iran and his nomination to head the Pentagon has drawn criticism from fellow Republicans who have questioned his commitment to Israel’s security.
Kerry has also been extremely cautious in the past when speaking on Taiwan issues.
“The cornerstone of our approach to policy toward China and Taiwan has been the so-called ‘one China’ policy: There is but one China; Taiwan is part of China and the question of Taiwan’s future must be settled peacefully,” he said on the Senate floor.
“We have been deliberately vague about what the circumstances might be under which we would come to Taiwan’s defense, not only to discourage Taiwan from drawing us in by declaring independence, but also to deter a Chinese attack by keeping Beijing guessing as to what the response might be,” he said.
Kerry has said that the Taiwan Relations Act does not commit the US to come to the defense of Taiwan in the event of an attack.
“The Taiwan Relations Act commits us to provide Taiwan with the necessary military equipment to meet its legitimate self-defense needs,” Kerry said.
“It may be the case that we would send American forces ultimately to Taiwan’s defense if there were an attack, but that decision should not be made by an American president in advance,” he said.
“A decision of this magnitude, which holds the potential for risking the lives of American military men and women, should be made in response to the circumstances at the moment, on the ground, in the air, and, most importantly, in consultation with the Congress,” Kerry said.