Far Eastern Economic Review
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This is what it takes

With the Pentagon pressing ahead with moves to boost ties and Taipei's firepower, the Bush administration is abandoning a long-standing policy on Taiwan and risking Beijing's consternation

By David Lague/HONG KONG
Issue cover-dated April 25, 2002

IT'S UNAMBIGUOUS: "Strategic ambiguity" is dead.

Any lingering suspicion that United States President George W. Bush made a slip-of-the-tongue error a year ago in promising to do "whatever it took" to defend Taiwan from a mainland attack has been clearly dispelled.

The Pentagon is pushing ahead with plans to boost Taiwan's firepower that go well beyond selling military hardware. Meanwhile, senior U.S. officials, most recently Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, have publicly renewed the presidential pledge last April to protect the island.

It's the end of a 22-year policy of strategic ambiguity, where Washington continued to sell arms to Taipei but refused to give explicit guarantees that it would defend the island.

The aim was to keep both Beijing and Taipei guessing about how the U.S. would react to conflict across the Taiwan Strait. This has been junked in favour of straight talking and a determined effort to make up for what the Pentagon sees as serious shortcomings in Taiwan's defence forces.

"I think it is a good idea to make it plain," says Hugh White, director of the Canberra-based Australian Strategic Policy Institute. "A lot of wars start when two sides misunderstand each other." White was a senior strategic analyst in the Australian Defence Department with close ties in Washington until late last year.

Understandably, China seems alarmed. But its reaction so far is restrained considering that Washington appears to have embarked on a course of action that could be interpreted in Beijing as a bid to actively and openly frustrate one of the mainland leadership's top priorities--the speedy recovery of Taiwan. Some analysts point to the muted reaction as evidence that the Bush administration, dramatically more forceful internationally since it began its war on terrorism, has succeeded in fundamentally reshaping ties with China over Taiwan.

Despite the rising tensions over Taiwan, Vice-President Hu Jintao, tipped to take over from Jiang Zemin as party chief this year and state president in 2003, is going ahead with a trip to the U.S. (see story on page 26) where he will meet Vice-President Dick Cheney on May 1, according to the White House. But any talks in Washington concerning Taiwan are likely to be tough, if Hu's pre-trip comments are any guide.

In uncharacteristically blunt comments, Hu implied on April 13 that the U.S. may be in breach of the three joint communiques that formed the basis of normalized ties between Washington and Beijing from 1972. Under these, the U.S. agreed to curb its arms sales to Taiwan.

"The development of Sino-U.S. relations over the past 30 years has proved that whenever the three Sino-U.S. joint communiques have been adhered to, the bilateral ties have witnessed smooth development," Hu said at a meeting in Beijing with former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, a major architect of normalized ties. "On the other hand, whenever the communiques have been slighted, the bilateral relationship has stagnated or even regressed."

In Beijing's view, a private speech that Wolfowitz gave on March 11 to a Florida audience including U.S. and international defence contractors and Taiwanese Defence Minister Tang Yiau-ming could probably well qualify as a "slight."

If the presence of Tang, the top-ranked Taiwanese defence official openly to visit the U.S. for high-level consultations since 1979, wasn't enough, Wolfowitz said the Pentagon could help train Taiwan's military and improve coordination between services as part of doing "whatever it takes" to defend the island.

The speech, only publicly released after a Freedom of Information Act request, was the first public indication that the Bush administration wants to do more than sell big-ticket military hardware to Taipei to maintain the military balance across the Taiwan Strait.

Wolfowitz called for a peaceful settlement of tensions between the two sides but noted that China continued to deploy missile batteries aimed at Taiwan. The Pentagon estimates there are about 350 short- and medium-range People's Liberation Army ballistic missiles deployed along the Chinese coast opposite Taiwan. This force is expected to reach a strength of 650 by 2005.

"These missiles are clearly designed to project a threatening posture and to try to intimidate the people and the democratically elected government of Taiwan," Wolfowitz said. "Taiwan needs to remain vigilant and it should commit to increasing professionalism of its military ranks and increasing jointness among its services to keep pace with potential changes in the security situation in the strait."

U.S. uneasiness about Taiwan's defence forces is no surprise. A classified Pentagon study leaked in March 2000 found a "host of problems" with the island's ability to resist a mainland attack.

What is new is that the Bush administration is ready to antagonize Beijing with extensive military assistance, a shift some analysts with tongue-in-cheek are calling "normalization" of ties with Taiwan.

White believes the Bush administration wants to avoid conflict with China through boosting Taiwan's capacity to deter attack. "That to me makes sense as long as it can be done to avoid inflaming Chinese concerns," he says. China has made it clear that any U.S. military assistance to Taiwan is a matter of huge concern.

According to senior U.S. and regional defence officials, the message to Taipei in Wolfowitz's speech is that the Bush administration wants to see the Taiwan military make serious efforts at internal reform. Doing so would allow it to take full advantage of the new weapons that Washington has agreed to supply, including eight conventional submarines, 12 P-3C Orion anti-submarine patrol aircraft and four Kidd-class air-defence destroyers.

U.S. defence officials explain to the Review that they want Taiwan to develop military "software" to go with the new hardware. This includes improved civilian direction of the military, more effective command and control, the development of joint-forces warfare doctrine, better training, the nurturing of a professional non-commissioned officer corps and better logistics.

"From the U.S. perspective, the Taiwan armed forces need effective, inter-service war-fighting coordination and upgraded military professionalism," says Yuan I, a defence analyst at Taipei's National Chengchi University. "Overall, the U.S. is suggesting that the Taiwan military pay equal attention to the software while acquiring more hardware."

Despite the renewed commitment to defending Taiwan, defence analysts say there is some frustration in Washington that the island's turf-conscious military leadership, funding shortfalls and a lack of political urgency in Taipei are frustrating efforts to upgrade firepower. "Taiwan has 'cried wolf' for 50 years," says an expert on the PLA based in Washington. "But now the wolf is really at the door, they are not seized with the emergency."


According to defence analysts, a major problem for Taiwan's military is that it has been almost totally isolated since 1979 when the U.S. cut formal ties and Taiwan lost its seat at the United Nations. Military leaders were denied opportunities to keep up with professional and technical advances. Troops were unable to hold exercises with regional powers, serve with international coalitions or go on peacekeeping operations.

On the other hand, China is seen to be making steady progress in improving its military software as it introduces modern weapons alongside its missile forces, including Russian-supplied strike aircraft, submarines and powerful warships.

There is now evidence that the U.S. is working more closely with Taiwan's military than it has for decades in a bid to correct an imbalance, which the Pentagon has said could tilt in favour of the mainland well before the end of the decade.

Meeting U.S. Undersecretary of Commerce for International Trade Grant Aldonas on April 11, President Chen Shui-bian thanked Washington for its guidance to Taipei on mounting annual military exercises to test new military command arrangements. "The United States has provided us with a lot of directives in the ongoing Hankuang 18 military drills," said Chen, according to Taiwanese television. Aldonas is the highest-ranking Bush administration official to visit Taiwan.

At the same time, the U.S. is pushing ahead with its plans to supply the submarines. A Pentagon team is expected in Taiwan as early as next month to present options for design and construction of up to eight boats. Although doubts remain about Taiwan's willingness to pay for them--the price tag could be more than $4 billion--they are widely seen as a vital new cog in the island's defence.

According to White, the submarines are needed as Taiwan's military begins to shift from what was primarily a land force aimed at repelling an invasion to a maritime force capable of countering what is now a much more likely threat--a blockade of the air and sea approaches to the island. "The U.S. is clearly prepared to support Taiwan in that," he says.

As White sees it, Washington's challenge is to strike a balance between boosting Taiwan's military deterrent and making Beijing feel it must strike before slipping too far behind. "You can end up unintentionally generating some incentive for early action," he says. "It is not without some risk."