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A Strange Calculus

August 21, 2006

Gary Schmitt and Dan Blumenthal, American Enterprise Institute (AEI)

After nearly five years of the global war on terror, you'd think the Bush administration would understand the importance of military preparedness. But apparently some lessons are harder to learn than others. U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld last month wrote to the U.S. Congress opposing a measure calling for upgraded military exchanges with Taiwan. Mr. Rumsfeld argued it would interfere with the "President's authority to conduct diplomatic, intelligence, and military activities."

The measure in question ought not to be contentious. Included in the U.S. House of Representatives' version of the 2007 Defense Authorization Bill, it simply seeks to lift the self-imposed ban on U.S. generals and admirals visiting the island, which has been in place since 1979. It also calls for a program of senior military exchanges with Taiwan.

This is very much in the U.S.'s best interests--and could help save American lives in the event of a conflict. Washington has a vital interest in encouraging Taiwan to improve its defensive capabilities, both as a deterrent to Chinese aggression and, should that fail, to ensure the Taiwanese military can defend the island until American forces arrive. The U.S. military needs to be ready to work closely with the Taiwanese military in the event of a cross-Strait conflict.

The present situation, under which only more junior military officers, such as colonels and captains, are allowed to visit Taiwan, doesn't work. Only generals and admirals command joint land, sea and air operations, have experience in comprehensive military planning and the bureaucratic authority within the Pentagon to push through new initiatives to help Taiwan.

It is negligent to prohibit American officers with this essential knowledge from familiarizing themselves with the military they may be fighting alongside and the island they may be asked to help protect. Regular visits by senior U.S. military officers would allow them to work with the island to improve its capabilities in threat analysis, force planning, logistics, and operational tactics and procedures.

Should a conflict erupt in the Taiwan Strait, the U.S. would need to forge a military coalition--with Taiwan at the tip of the spear--to fend off the Chinese military. The last time Washington tried this on a significant scale, during the 1999 war in Kosovo in 1999, it was a nightmare. Try this without proper planning in a high-intensity conflict against an adversary that is superior in numbers and capabilities to Slobodan Milosevic's Serbia, and you have a recipe for military disaster.

Neither international law nor any agreement with China requires this ban, which was first imposed through "guidelines" issued by the U.S. State Department after then-President Jimmy Carter switched formal diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979. Moreover, it is a restriction that runs contrary to the logic of the Taiwan Relations Act, which mandates the U.S. to enable Taiwan to "maintain a sufficient self-defense capability," and with the exception of formal diplomatic ties, treat the island as a state in virtually every other respect.

Mr. Rumsfeld's July 24 letter to Congress, opposing ending these restrictions, contradicts the spirit of President Bush's April 2001 statement that his administration would "do whatever it takes to help Taiwan defend itself." Given that the U.S. Defense Department publishes reports on China's growing military power annually, it is inexplicable that the Pentagon opposes removing an unnecessary and harmful restriction on military ties with Taiwan.

It is a strange calculus that drives the U.S. relationship with Taiwan today. In spite of the fact that the island is a fully fledged democracy, a valued player in the global economy, and a partner in the war on terrorism, America treats it with less diplomatic decorum than a country like Syria--all in the name of placating Beijing.

But the U.S. "one China" policy is premised on the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait differences. Tying America's hands behind its back by not allowing generals and admirals to visit Taiwan only serves to sow doubts in both Taiwan and China about the effectiveness of U.S. contingency planning and the credibility of its commitments.

From his letter, it appears Mr. Rumsfeld would prefer that the first time a senior U.S. military officer sees Taiwan is after war breaks out. That would be comic, if it weren't so tragic--and unnecessary.

Dan Blumenthal is a resident fellow and Gary J. Schmitt is a resident scholar at AEI.