Taiwan must keep up its guard: US defense analyst

By William Lowther  /  Staff reporter in WASHINGTON

Mon, May 13, 2013 - Page 3

Even though “military-to-military” relations between Washington and China have improved dramatically over the past few years, a US expert has warned that Taiwan must not let its guard down.

“While Taiwan’s larger political and economic interests are indeed served by better US-PRC [People’s Republic of China] relations, that does not mean that Taiwan can in any way reduce its vigilance or its defensive preparations,” Richard Fisher, a senior fellow on Asian military affairs at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, told the Taipei Times.

He was reacting to statements by US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia David Helvey that the Pentagon and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have turned a page and that military-to-military relations are now reaching an even keel.

The Pentagon’s top China policy official, Helvey told Foreign Policy magazine in a rare on-the-record interview that US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel had even used the hotline telephone recently for a 45-minute conversation with Chinese Minister of National Defense Chang Wanquan (常万全), a PLA general.

North Korea’s nuclear ambitions were a major part of that conversation, but Helvey said they also discussed other issues and a Pentagon source said that Taiwan was almost certainly one of them.

“We’re really looking to expand the use of this hotline just as a mechanism for direct communication between our senior leaders,” Helvey said.

A few years ago, when a senior US military official tried to call Beijing on the hotline, no one picked up the telephone. And following the announcement of major US arms deals with Taiwan, Beijing has in the past cut off all military to military contact with the US. However, relations have improved, Helvey said.

“The relationship now is probably as good as it’s been in recent memory,” Helvey said.

Asked to comment on this situation, Fisher said that the US Department of Defense had a responsibility to seek ever improving military-to-military relations with the PLA.

However, “the well-known fact of the matter is that a very small incident, or even a rhetorical clash, could serve as the umpteenth excuse for China to halt or diminish military exchanges with Washington,” he said.

Fisher said that due largely to China’s increasing aggression, there were now daily chances for such an incident to occur.

“As the PLA continues to modernize broadly and rapidly, as detailed in the latest Pentagon report, peace on the Taiwan Strait will depend even more on Taiwan’s commitment to its own defense,” he said.