There is a gathering crisis in the Taiwan Strait. This is the message of a long-time, careful observer of cross-strait relations and its relevance to US security.
The book America’s Security and Taiwan’s Freedom by Li Thian-hok (李天福) — a compilation of speeches, op-eds and journal articles, many of which have been published in distinguished journals — is both a labor of love and a cry of warning on the part of the author.
It is fitting that the author, a distinguished son of Taiwan who also goes by Jay T. Loo, is based in Philadelphia, the birthplace of the US Constitution and home to the famed Liberty Bell.
Indeed, the book begins with an address at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia on the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Taiwan Relations Act.
Among those in the audience were Taiwanese and Taiwanese-Americans who were about to begin a 222km trek to Capitol Hill to commemorate the anniversary and to call Washington’s attention to the looming crisis in the Strait.
This crisis, Li says, seems to have escaped the attention of much of Washington’s policymaking elite. Several events that occurred subsequent to the publication of the volume underscore his point.
Articles have appeared in publications read by many academics and policymakers advocating that the US reduce its support for Taiwan to improve its relations with China.
One well-regarded military analyst has even said that if China were to attack Taiwan, the US should hold back, observe the progress of the war and take its time in deciding whether to intervene.
The US is burdened by huge debts and a sluggish economy, with Beijing holding a substantial portion of those debts.
It is also embroiled in a financially draining and protracted war against terrorism.
Even the death of the iconic terrorist leader Osama bin Laden does not appear to have diminished the threat from Islamic militants.
Some commentaries have said the US would be unable to resolve any major international problem without China’s cooperation and reason that acceding to Beijing’s oft-repeated demand for unification would incline the Chinese leadership toward working with Washington to solve these problems.
Also worrisome are developments in Taiwan.
As the governing party, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) has pursued a policy of incremental capitulationism to China.
It has reduced both the size and the budget of the military, deepened the dependence of Taiwan’s economy on China’s through such arrangements as the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA), allowed Chinese investment in Taiwan’s real-estate market and encouraged tourism from China.
Some of the visitors may not be what they seem — the Taiwanese military and intelligence services have suffered from embarrassing breaches of security.
Although the KMT government defends these appeasement measures by saying they will reduce the threat to Taiwan and enhance the country’s international living space, this has not been the case.
China pressured the WHO to refer to Taiwan as a “province of China,” with President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) failing to deal with the issue until the matter became public knowledge.
To calm a firestorm of criticism, he made a stern speech about safeguarding the country’s sovereignty — but, meanwhile, former KMT chairman Wu Poh-hsiung (吳伯雄), visiting Beijing, apparently said nothing about the matter in his conversation with Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤).
Taiwan’s hard-won democratic freedoms have been constrained under Chinese pressure, as indicated by the downgrading of the nation’s status by international rating agencies such as Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders.
Moreover, even as Ma has progressively reduced the size and capabilities of the Taiwanese military, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has continued to receive double-digit increases each year, much of which goes to enhancing its ability to invade Taiwan.
There has been no reduction in the 1,500 short-range missiles pointed at Taiwan.
It is, as Li points out, idle to say that the possibility of China invading Taiwan has been reduced by the Ma administration’s policies when the real reason for the reduction in tension is that they are slowly eroding the country’s sovereignty — essentially giving Taiwan to China in the guise of creating better cross-strait ties.
This might be acceptable were it to conform to the wishes of the population, but opinion survey after opinion survey indicates that this is not the case.
According to an April poll, 69.6 percent of respondents were opposed to the eventual unification of Taiwan and China, while only 15.7 percent favored it; 49.3 percent supported the ultimate independence of Taiwan with 34.7 demurring.
The apparent erosion of Washington’s support for the Taiwan Relations Act is dangerous not only to Taiwan, but to the US as well, Li says.
Taiwan lies astride important sea lanes that are critical to international commerce and of special importance to US allies such as Japan.
Were Taiwan’s territorial waters to become part of China’s, they would come uncomfortably close to Japan’s home islands.
If the US abandons its support for Taiwan, its allies will conclude that Washington would not protect them either, and would seek to ensure their security in other ways — such as an arms buildup or closer relationships with Beijing.
Li cites late US representative Gerald Solomon’s words that a nation that does not support its allies will have no allies.
In this sense, Taiwan’s security is ultimately the US’ security as well.
Make no mistake, Li says, China does not intend to stop with absorbing Taiwan: He cites former head of the US Pacific Command Admiral Keating’s testimony that, during a conversation with PLA officers, they repeatedly brought up the idea of US and China co-managing the Pacific Ocean with Hawaii as the line of demarcation.
Note that this would limit the US to areas already part of its territory, whereas China’s sphere would be increased by tens of thousands of kilometers.
Li urges the million-strong Taiwanese community in the US to explain Taiwan’s domestic politics and Chinese statecraft to their policymakers so they may choose courses of action that would truly serve the US’ interest in bolstering the young democracies in Asia, while at the same time ensuring the security of the US homeland.
June Teufel Dreyer is a political science professor at the University of Miami, Florida.
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