It would be a “huge mistake” and “naive” for Washington to reduce arms sales to Taiwan, former US government official Randy Schriver told a conference on Thursday.
He was speaking following reports in the Chinese press that the US may form a task force with China to discuss weapons sales to Taiwan along with other issues.
The reports were based on remarks attributed to Chinese Rear Admiral Guan Youfei (關友飛), director of the Foreign Affairs Office of China’s Ministry of National Defense, following Pentagon talks on Monday between Chinese Minister of National Defense Chang Wanquan (常萬全) and US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel.
Pentagon sources told the Taipei Times on Thursday there was no new agreement to discuss arms sales to Taiwan with China, and that sales would continue under the terms of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) and the “six assurances.”
Schriver told a conference — organized by the Atlantic Council Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security — that some experts believe that Taiwan is now less of a focal point for Chinese militarization than it once had been.
Schriver served as US deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia from 2003 to 2005, and is now president and chief executive officer of the Project 2049 Institute.
For many years, Taiwan served as a “single focal point” for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), allowing it to get “very good, very quickly,” he said.
Yet, a “lot of people” were now pointing to improved cross-strait relations under President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and questioning the need for continued arms sales, he added.
However, despite the economic, diplomatic and political improvements, the PLA has not “removed a single missile, a single military unit,” he said.
“They have done nothing to reduce the posture opposite Taiwan in a way that reduces their military capability and presence,” he added.
In fact, the Chinese military buildup opposite Taiwan has “continued apace” while Taiwan’s own military budgets have fallen, Schriver said.
“Perhaps the PLA and the PRC [the People’s Republic of China] leadership is not confident in the ultimate trajectory of Taiwan,” he said. “Perhaps they understand some things that a lot of Americans miss.”
He said that based on the new agreements and improvements Taipei has negotiated with Beijing, the US had become “complacent” about the direction of Taiwan.
“But if you look at the PRC’s true strategic objective, you could argue they are further away not closer to achieving that objective — even after a term and a half of Ma Ying-jeou,” he added.
Schriver said polls showed that Taiwanese overwhelmingly support the political “status quo” and that while the proportion in favor of independence at a later date was growing, the ratio of those favoring unification with China was shrinking.
The Chinese military buildup opposite Taiwan could continue “to prevent” Taipei moving towards independence if the Democratic Progressive Party returned to power, he said.
“Having that deterrent capability to use military options against Taiwan at some point in the future, if Taiwan’s defenses continue to atrophy, may be why the buildup opposite Taiwan may continue,” Schriver said.
He said that diplomatic and economic breakthroughs with China would not lead to a major reduction in Chinese forces opposite Taiwan.
If there were to be talks between the US and China about Taiwan, they should start with discussions about the security environment in the Taiwan Strait, he said.
“Why doesn’t China recognize that the situation is changing and that the security dynamic is different, and unilaterally reduce the buildup?” Schriver asked.
Ultimately, he said, China was concerned about the political direction of Taiwan and wanted to keep a military option, not only for coercion, but for actual military operations, if, in the future they “think they need to do it.”
China’s ultimate objective for Taiwan — unification — “is not getting closer, it’s getting further away,” Schriver said.
Asked about Chinese reports of talks with Washington about arms sales to Taiwan, US Department of State spokesperson Jennifer Psaki said on Thursday that arms sales would continue consistent with US commitments under the TRA.
“We believe this long-standing policy contributes to the maintenance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, but there is no change to our ‘one China’ policy, which is based on the three joint communiques and the Taiwan Relations Act,” she said.