Sunday, October 12, 2008

A world transformed: Why Taiwan gets its weapons

Less than a month ago, with the US Congress set to go into recess, very few but the overly optimistic would have ventured that Taiwan would get the go-ahead from Washington to buy the series of weapons it has long sought to obtain. In fact, most analysts were of the opinion that the “arms freeze” on Taiwan would soon congeal into something long-term, if not permanent.

Then, on October 3, Washington announced that it had given the green light on US$6.5 billion in weapons sales to Taiwan, including AH-64D Apache helicopters, PAC-3 air defense systems, Javelin anti-tank missile systems, submarine-launched Harpoon anti-ship missiles, as well as F-16 and E-2T parts. (Not released, however, were UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters and 66 F-16C/D aircraft.)

Washington’s decision took most by surprise, not the least Beijing, which after months of being led to believe, based on its reading of the signals coming from Washington, that the US had finally agreed to China’s interpretation of the so-called “one China” principle, lashed out in anger, threatening “grave” consequences for US-China relations. (Rather than agree with Beijing on Taiwan's status, the “arms freeze” was more the result of US unwillingness or inability to spark a new arms race in Asia, where its allies must remain weak enough military to require a permanent US military presence, as with Japan and South Korea, or over-the-horizon US capabilities, as with Taiwan. Weapons sales to Taiwan could propel the Chinese authorities into an acceleration of the already rapid modernization of their military, which in turn could force countries in the region to address their new insecurity by purchasing, developing and deploying more arms. Should such a situation obtain, to maintain hegemonic primacy, the US would have no choice but to invest heavily in its military presence in the Asia Pacific in order to retain its comparative advantage. For more on this, see “Hegemonism behind 'arms freeze,'” Taipei Times, Aug. 1.)

While Washington’s about-face may have seemed sudden and out of character for an administration that, since 2003, had shunned Taipei, it makes sense if it is taken in context, which itself has changed dramatically in the past few months. Although there were some, like US-Taiwan Business Council Chairman and former deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz, who back in July would tell journalists in Taipei that US President George W. Bush had made a promise to Taiwan and that, as a man of his word, he would deliver on that promise — comments that, in other words, hinted at foreknowledge of Washington’s true intentions — it is likelier that the volte-face was the result of a rapid world transformation over the past few months.

Though seemingly isolated from one another, the following factors are nevertheless bound to influence decision-making at the strategic level. They are as follows:

Russia’s invasion of Georgia and the beginning of a new “Cold War”: As I argued in “The wider implications of Georgia” (Taipei Times, Aug. 19), Moscow’s and Beijing’s reaction to US/NATO encirclement, and the opposition to US hegemonism they share with countries like Iran, Syria and Venezuela, is creating a new quasi Cold War, with two main blocs that are, however, less ideologically-driven than during the conflict that from 1949 until 1989 pitted the East against the West. While the divide had been apparent for some time (at the UN Security Council, for example), it took Russia’s intervention in South Ossetia in August to underscore just how wide the chasm had grown. As the world aligns itself into two camps (the West and the “objectors”), Washington is bound to seek to reinforce its regional allies, just as it did during the Cold War. In Asia, this means Japan, India (last month’s landmark nuclear deal is a clear indicator), South Korea — and yes, Taiwan.

North Korea’s change of heart on disarmament: The connection may have appeared tenuous when I raised the possibility in late September (“Beijing’s ‘North Korea’ card no ace, Taipei Times, Sept. 29), but it would now appear, as Defense News Asia chief Wendell Minnick himself pointed out on Oct. 6, that Washington felt it had been let down by Beijing in the North Korea nuclear disarmament talks. The timing is too conspicuous for there not to be a connection. After making his “whatever it takes” pledge to Taiwan in 2001, Bush’s tone changed in 2003, just as the six-party talks with Pyongyang were beginning, for which Washington needed Beijing’s help. Many, as I have, argued that the US’ snub of Taiwan had more to do with its need for Beijing to facilitate the talks than with Washington’s antipathy toward the pro-separatist and “troublemaker” Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁). With Pyongyang reneging on disarmament and reopening of the Yongbyon facility, Beijing’s influence on US decision-making may have been severely weakened, and Taiwan may no longer be useful as a bargaining chip. (It remains to be seen what impact the US decision over the weekend to remove North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism, in exchange for the resumption of nuclear inspections, will have on the regional dynamics. If past history is any indication, Pyongyang will comply for a while and then find something else to justify a new round of brinkmanship. Despite this latest development, Beijing’s influence over, and usefulness in the talks with Pyongyang appears to have diminished.)

US presidential election: Regardless of the outcome of next month’s elections, if the Bush administration had left office with an “arms freeze” in place it would have become the baseline for future relations with Beijing, whereas agreeing to the arms sale maintains the status quo and provides the next administration with more flexibility on the China-Taiwan question.

The global economic crisis: For some decision-makers and influential parties in Washington, conflict is a positive development; it distracts the population from fears of a tumbling Wall Street and fuels the defense industry. Faced with the current economic crisis, Washington would be hard pressed to explain to the military-industrial complex why it cannot deliver US$6.5 billion in weapons to its old ally Taiwan. Lobbying by Congress, the defense industry (perhaps even Mr. Wolfowitz, who remains a very influential individual) and states with major defense manufacturers must have shifted into high gear since Wall Street took a hit. At this point in time, if selling weapons to Taiwan means creating jobs and bringing money into the US, Washington will give the okay.

Sino-Taiwanese rapprochement: As the Congressional Research Service (CRS) indicated in a report last week, many in Washington are becoming wary of Taipei’s rapprochement with Beijing since President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) came into office in May. A Taiwan that becomes “Finlandized” (another reference to the Cold War, this time to Finland’s relations with the Soviet Union during the Cold War), or gets too close to Beijing, would be detrimental to US strategic positioning in the Pacific. Though the Ma Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) administration’s peace bid with China is partly of Washington’s making (through overt US favoritism during the elections in March, which put the Democratic Progressive Party at a marked disadvantage), some in the Bush administration have begun to fear that the Frankenstein monster has gotten out of control and needs to be brought back into line. Selling weapons to Taiwan could be such an instrument, as it is sure to rekindle the “status quo” (pardon the oxymoron) in the Taiwan Strait by infuriating Beijing (Ma, meanwhile, would be hard pressed to refuse the weapons at this point).

Washington’s “sudden” decision wasn’t made on a whim, nor is it illogical, however radical a departure it may seem to be from its policy in the past five years. It is, rather, a response to the new strategic realities that have emerged in succession over the past few months. It has, I fear, little to do with preserving Taiwan’s democracy, and much with a grand chessboard, to use Brzezinski’s coinage, that has been dramatically reshuffled.

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