US-Taiwan relations are booming, American Institute in Taiwan Chairman Raymond Burghardt said on Thursday, dismissing the notion that US support for Taiwan is slipping.
“I don’t share the abandonment theory; I see things quite differently,” he told a day-long Washington conference on the prospects and challenges of cross-strait relations.
Burghardt appeared to be personally angry at the perception — promoted by some academics — that the relationship has deteriorated and insisted that it has “multiple dimensions.”
“It is not just political and cultural and economic — it’s military, it’s people-to-people, it’s all kinds of things,” he said.
Burghardt said ties between Washington and Taipei had gotten healthier and recalled that Taiwan was once considered little more than “a pain that we had to deal with all the time when we talked with China.”
“Gradually, over the years, we started dealing with Taiwan as an important relationship,” he said.
“We started to deal with it in its own right, as a vibrant democracy with a vibrant economy,” he added.
He told the conference, organized by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, that US President Barack Obama’s administration had made special efforts to treat Taiwan as “important in and of itself.”
“We now have regular consultations at senior levels between both civilian and military representatives,” Burghardt said.
“But you don’t read about this. Part of the price we pay for conducting the relationship with Taiwan discreetly is that you give people a reason to write that you are abandoning them,” he said.
“The fact is that we are having high-level meetings with Taiwan leaders,” he said.
He added that when the US talked with China about issues that involved Taiwan, Taipei was briefed “right away.”
The military relationship, he said, was “very strong and very good.”
“There is intelligence exchange; there are mutual assessments of defense needs; there is training that goes on. We don’t talk about this stuff. Again, discretion is our biggest enemy. Maybe we should talk about it more,” he said.
“The military relationship is so much more than arms sales,” he said.
In a thinly veiled dig at China, Burghardt said: “No one in Taiwan is trying to force US companies to give up their technology. Taiwan government organizations haven’t been hacking into US government agencies, and it’s decades since we had to raise human rights issues with Taiwan,” he said.
“It’s a good relationship and it has been strengthened a lot with more channels, more issues to work on, and more plans for collaboration,” Burghardt said.
Answering questions, the AIT chairman said it was important for the US to meet Taiwan’s own perceived needs for a “deterrent capability.”
“How do you dispel a perception that we are less interested in Taiwan?” he asked.
Burghardt said that the US needed to make some of its help to Taiwan more visible — “some of the interaction, some of the military cooperation that doesn’t take the form of selling large pieces of equipment.”
Robert Sutter, a professor of international affairs at George Washington University and one of those who has questioned US commitments to Taiwan, reiterated his argument that support for Taiwan in the US was eroding.
“It’s clear that Taiwan is moving in a direction that is getting closer to China — China’s influence over Taiwan is growing as we speak,” he said.
In a paper presented at the conference, Sutter said there was a continuing low level of US public support for US military conflict with China over Taiwan.
“The US ability to intervene militarily in Taiwan contingencies remains strong, but the reluctance of US leaders to do so grows, in part because China has developed capabilities increasing significantly the cost of US intervention,” Sutter said in the paper.
“Close examination shows that public support given by the [US President] Barack Obama government for Ma’s cross-strait policies fails to hide the reduced overall US backing for Taiwan, especially for actions that risk complicating US-China relations for the sake of shoring up support for Taiwan,” he said, referring to President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九).
Bonnie Glaser, a senior fellow in China studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that some of the papers presented at the conference had given a “bleak picture” of the US-Taiwan relationship.
“This was quite a contrast with what we heard from Ray Burghardt,” she said.
Glaser said the US was willing to pay a price in relations with China to continue fulfilling its commitments to Taiwan.
She said that arms sales provided Taiwan with confidence to continue its dialogue with China and she thought Washington would continue to sell arms to Taiwan.
“I personally believe that if Taiwan is threatened militarily, without provoking a strike, a US president will not stand idly by,” she said.
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