By Richard Halloran
Behind the controversial US$5.85 billion US arms sale to Taiwan announced last month rages a heated argument over whether the US should abandon the country to be absorbed by China or should defend it from Chinese conquest.
The sale provides Taiwan with new radar, weapons and structural improvements for its current fleet of 145 F-16A/B aircraft plus a five-year extension of pilot training at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona and a supply of spare parts. Left open was the possibility of selling advanced F-16C/Ds later.
An unnamed US Department of State official in a press briefing asserted that the sale reflected “the longstanding bipartisan commitment in the United States to the security of Taiwan.” He said it was part of efforts by US President Barack Obama’s administration to strengthen ties with Taiwan in trade, people exchanges and energy research.
Chinese officials immediately objected to the sale and said China would retaliate by reducing military exchanges with the US. China claims Taiwan, to which Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) forces fled after their defeat in the Chinese Civil War in 1949, is an integral part of China and “unification” is a core national interest.
A large majority of the people in Taiwan, however, have shown in polls that they prefer to remain separate from China. A mid-level Taiwanese government official, whose grandparents had come from China in 1949, was asked if she considered herself Chinese or Taiwanese.
“I am Chinese by culture,” she said, “but Taiwan is my home.”
Americans who say the Taiwan issue is the most likely cause of war — potentially nuclear war — between the US and China argue that Washington should accommodate Beijing to preclude that war. They say the US should recognize China as a major power.
A former US diplomat, Charles Freeman, advocates accommodation: “For Americans, the Taiwan issue presents an unwelcome choice between potential long-term military antagonism with China and the perpetuation, despite rapid cross-Strait economic and social integration, of Taiwan’s de facto political separation from the mainland.”
Now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, Freeman, who speaks fluent Chinese, deplores US support for Taiwan: “Given the huge stakes for the United States in our strategic interaction with China, this choice might well strike someone looking afresh at the situation as oddly misguided.”
Those who argue for defending Taiwan point to the Taiwan Relations Act, a law adopted by the US Congress in 1979 to protest then-US president Jimmy Carter’s decision to switch US diplomatic relations from Taipei to Beijing. It provides for a US commitment to Taiwan just short of ironclad.
Those supporting Taiwan say the US would be morally wrong to abandon the democracy that Taiwan has become. They say other nations in Asia, notably Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Thailand, which have security treaties with Washington, would lose confidence in the US.
Geographically, Taiwan sits astride the northern entrance to the South China Sea through which more shipping passes each year than through the Panama and Suez canals combined. Control of Taiwan would give China a potential check over that vital waterway.
Another former diplomat, Alan Romberg, of the Stimson Center think tank in Washington, wrote in a paper that Taiwan’s security is important to the US for at least four reasons:
A long history of US support for Taiwan’s security.
“One does not readily turn away from that,” he said.
‧ Democracy and economic progress favor “protecting the island against forced surrender to the Mainland [sic] rather than abandoning it.”
‧ Chinese use of military force “would be destabilizing and harmful to American political, economic and security concerns.” Deterring that would be “very much a US strategic interest.”
‧ Refusing to stand up to force would set off tremors throughout Asia and would raise doubts about US nuclear deterrence and might cause Tokyo, Seoul or Taipei to develop nuclear weapons.
While the US would accept an agreement on Taiwan-China relations that was negotiated peacefully, US economic stakes in Taiwan are high. Trade with China is ballooning, but that with Taiwan is respectable for a nation of 23 million people.
Long ago, former British prime minister Neville Chamberlain sought to appease Adolf Hitler by declining to oppose his invasion of Czechoslovakia. Chamberlain said the British need not enter a war “because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.”
To which Winston Churchill was reported to have muttered: “The government had to choose between shame and war. They chose shame and they will get war.”
Richard Halloran is a commentator based in Hawaii.