A strong Taiwan and U.S.-backed Asian democracies can counter China

Special to WorldTribune.com

By Parris H. Chang

For decades Taiwan has enjoyed the widespread bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress, no matter what the stance of the executive branch.

When President Jimmy Carter established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), de-recognized Taiwan’s Republic of China(ROC) or KMT regime, and terminated the U.S.-ROC Mutual Defense Treaty in 1979, the Congress enacted the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) — a U.S. law, over President Carter’s objection and amidst the PRC’s protest.

President Jimmy Carter and China’s Deng Xiaoping on Jan. 1, 1979.

The TRA contains provisions committing the U.S. to Taiwan’s security and restoring a semblance of sovereignty to Taiwan’s status. Specifically, it defines future U.S. commitments to Taiwan’s defense, by mandating the U.S. to provide Taiwan with “such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary” for Taiwan’s defense, by openly declaring an intention to “resist any resort of force” against the people of Taiwan, and by putting Beijing on notice that any such use of coercion directed against Taiwan would be a matter of ” grave concern to the United
States.” Observers have pointed out that the TRA is the “functional substitute” of the terminated U.S.-ROC Mutual Defense Treaty.

After President Ronald Reagan came into office in 1981, Beijing mounted an intense campaign to press the U.S. to cut off arms sales to Taiwan.

Under the guidance of U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig, the U.S. accepted the PRC’s demands in a joint communiqué in August 1982 that aimed to (1) freeze the weaponry Taiwan may purchase in quality and quantity, and (2) gradually reduce U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.

President Reagan was outraged, as the communiqué was in direct violation of the TRA and made huge concessions to the PRC, and thus dismissed Haig. Seeking to downplay the inconsistency between the communiqué and the TRA, Reagan conveyed to Taiwan’s government “six assurances,” including the pledges that the U.S. would not terminate the arms sales to Taiwan, would not change the TRA, and would not change its position regarding sovereignty over Taiwan( i.e. the U.S. will not agree to China’s claim over Taiwan).

It is regrettable that during the past decades the U.S. administrations, both Democratic and Republican, have failed to fully and faithfully implement the provisions of the TRA and “six assurances” so as to appease Beijing.

It is in this context that, during May-June 2016, both chambers of the U.S. Congress passed a “Concurrent Resolution” to reaffirm the TRA and “six assurances” are the cornerstone of U.S.-Taiwan relations. The resolution conveys a strong “sense of the Congress” on support to Taiwan as well as a rebuke to the Obama administration.

On July 18, 2016, the Republican National Convention included, for the first time, the “six assurances” in its official platform.

Calling Taiwan “a loyal friend of America,” the Republican platform also expressed support for the timely sales of defensive arms and technology to build diesel submarines and Taiwan’s full participation in the WHO, the international Civil Aviation Organization and other international institutions.

In addition to Taiwan’s geopolitical importance, members of the U.S. Congress recognize and appreciate the democratic values and support for human rights that Taiwan shares with the U.S. Hence Congressional bills such as “Taiwan Travel Act,” “Taiwan Security Act” and the 2018 “National Defense Authorization Act” mandate (1) senior military and diplomatic exchanges with Taiwan, U.S. port visits to Taiwan and Taiwan port visits to the U.S., and Taiwan’s participation in U.S. naval and air force exercises, and (2) direct the Pentagon to help Taiwan develop an indigenous undersea warfare program and recommend strengthened strategic cooperation with Taiwan.

U.S. Response to Chinese hegemony

Critics have characterized President Obama’s policy toward Taiwan as “benign neglect.”

On the other hand, the Trump administration has placed strong emphasis on the commitment to Taiwan’s defense and security. In June 2017, the U.S. announced his first package of arms sales to Taiwan, at the cost of $ 1.4 billion. During his state visit to Beijing last November, Trump told PRC Chairman Xi Jinping that “the U.S. will not terminate arms sales to Taiwan and, in accordance with the Taiwan Relations Act, the U.S. will continue to provide Taiwan with defensive weapons.”

Less than six weeks after his China trip, President Trump personally unveiled the U.S. National Security Strategy (NSS) Report on Dec. 18, 2017. For the first time since the publication of the strategic document by the executive branch in 1990, the NSS mentioned Taiwan specifically by name and clearly reaffirmed U.S. defense commitment to Taiwan that the U.S. intends to “maintain our strong ties to Taiwan in accordance with our ‘one China’ policy, including our commitments under the Taiwan Relations Act to provide for Taiwan’s legitimate defense needs and deter coercion.”

It is rather significant that Taiwan was presented in the context of the “military and security” of the “Indo Pacific” and “priority actions” sections of the NSS. The document also states that “We will maintain a forward military presence capable of deterring and, if necessary, defeating any adversary. We will strengthen our long-standing military relationship and encourage the development of a strong defense network with our allies and partners.”

Equally important, the U.S. briefed Taiwan’s DPP government led by President Tsai Ing-wen on the NSS in advance before its public announcement, apparently because the U.S. considers Taiwan a partner. In fact, President Tsai has, on several occasions, pledged that Taiwan is a dependable U.S. regional security partner. In the wake of the U.S. briefing, a Taiwan foreign ministry official expressed hope to strengthen cooperation with the U.S. on various aspects of the new strategic framework.

It is no secret that the U.S. is wary of China’s rise and its challenge to the world order guided by the U.S. (Pax Americana). U.S. officials have closely monitored China’s military expansion in the Indo-Pacific region, especially militarization of the South China Sea, “One Belt One Road” initiative to enhance China’s global economic and political influence, and Xi Jinping’s “China Dream” to build the world-class military to defeat the U.S. and supplant the U.S. as the global superpower.

The NSS and the Pentagon’s National Defense Strategy, made public in January 2018, enclose the Trump administration’s answer to China’s challenge.

The U.S. national security team has devised the Indo-Pacific regional  strategy to forge a broad alliance to contain and counterbalance China — the rising hegemony. This will be a coalition of Asian democracies, which includes the U.S., Japan, India, and Australia at the outset, it will then enlist Taiwan and concerned members of the ASEAN.

What Taiwan can and must do

President Ma Ying-jeou, during his tenure from 2008-16, steadily decreased the defense budget, well below 2 percent of Taiwan’s GDP.

U.S. officials have warned that the rapid growth and  modernization of China’s PLA is aimed at winning a high-intensity, short duration conflict on Taiwan and called for Taiwan to increase its defense budget to 3 percent of GDP to complement U.S. support. The Tsai government must heed  the U.S. advice if Taiwan truly wants to be a dependable U.S. regional security partner.

Likewise, Taiwan’s decision to move to an all-volunteer personnel system for its armed forces is unwise and wrong, as it has weakened Taiwan’s military strength and capacity to mobilize.

Experts in Taiwan and the U.S. have pointed out an all-volunteer force is more, not less expensive.

President Tsai needs a seasoned national security team to guide and shape a sound defense strategy and arms procurement policy. Taiwan must fully utilize its potent, sophisticated information technology to develop and deploy advanced cyberwar capabilities and build a high-caliber Internet army to wage a cyber-warfare. If Taiwan develops the capabilities to cripple PLA’s C4ISR systems, then Beijing is less likely to contemplate a preemptive attack on Taiwan.

In the past decade, China’s espionage offensive has seriously compromised Taiwan’s national security agencies and stolen top military secrets, including information on advanced U.S. weapons sold to Taiwan.

As former AIT director William Stanton pointed out publicly, the loss of sensitive secrets serves to undermine U.S. confidence in security cooperation with Taiwan. An aggressive and intensive counter-espionage drive to catch spies and safeguard national secrets should be the top priority of Tsai’s government.

Finally, national security experts inside and outside the governments of Asian democracies should be bold and creative in devising “track two”, “track 1.5” and/or other channels for consultation and dialogue.

Intelligence-sharing is good, and can be elevated to exchange of sensitive information and a higher level of strategic dialogue, thereby they would “compare notes” on their respective threat perception and strategic assessment. These efforts will enhance mutual understanding, confidence-building, and facilitate security cooperation among Asian democracies.

Dr. Parris Chang has served on Taiwan’s National Security Council. He is professor emeritus of political science at Penn State University and President of the Taiwan Institute for Political, Economic and Strategic Studies.