Last week, Paul Wolfowitz, now chairman of the U.S.-Taiwan Business Council, predicted the Bush administration would follow through on its promises to sell Taiwan weapons included in a $11 billion arms package. The package had been approved in April 2001 but has languished for various reasons. Initially, political infighting in Taipei prevented the government from making necessary budget appropriations for the purchases. Recently, however, Washington has shown reluctance to go forward. “President Bush treats commitments as commitments,” Wolfowitz, the controversial former deputy defense secretary, said. “I would just predict these will be approved.”
Wolfowitz’s prediction comes on the heels of remarks by Admiral Timothy Keating. On July 16, the chief of the U.S. Pacific Command said that Washington had frozen sales of weapons to the island republic. The freeze appears to include not only the arms package but also advanced versions of Lockheed Martin’s F-16 fighter, which Taiwan has requested to replace its aging fleet of American fighters. Keating’s candid remarks, made at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, triggered a denial from the State Department, which affirmed American support for Taipei. Yet the denial seemed hollow because, inside the U.S. government, the State Department has been the leading opponent of arming Taiwan.
Some say that Mr. Bush is delaying the announcement of weapons sales until he returns from China, where he will attend the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. Yet this assessment looks like wishful thinking because a sale would be a reversal of Bush policy, which has sided with communist China against democratic Taiwan. Dubya somehow bought Beijing’s line that Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian, who left office in May after eight years, was a troublemaker. In what was a low point in modern American diplomacy, Mr. Bush, next to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in the Oval Office in December 2003, delivered a blunt criticism of Chen. It was, for Beijing’s communists, a day of triumph. For Mr. Bush, however, it was a moment of shame. It was simply wrong for the President to treat a dictatorship as a respectable member of the international community and a democracy as a rogue state.
There are those in Washington who, in the desire to establish an informal alliance with Beijing, would like to see China absorb Taiwan in order to remove a potential source of disagreement. As Admiral Dennis Blair said in 1999, Taiwan is “the turd in the punchbowl.” Such a view, in addition to being morally repugnant, is also strategically short-sighted. First, it is highly debatable whether it is possible for the U.S. to maintain stable relations with a communist superstate that believes it should push aside America and dominate the international system. Furthermore, the Washington-New York axis may buy into the notion of a grand alliance with Beijing, but such an arrangement would go against ingrained American values and would not survive popular opinion in the U.S.
Second, Taiwan is an important country in its own right. It is economically powerful and an important trading partner of the United States. More important, Taiwan has become an inspiring symbol of the success of representative governance and free markets. To help it fail means gutting our own values and bolstering China’s model of authoritarianism and rigged markets. Unfortunately, many in Washington don’t believe in supporting democracy. Have they forgotten every lesson of the 20th century?
Third, our Asian policy is anchored on defending Japan. As a quick glance of a map will reveal, the main island of Taiwan and its various outlying islands protect the southern approaches to our Japanese ally.
Fourth, ceding Taiwan would undoubtedly embolden a territorially hungry Beijing. China asserts sovereignty over Japanese islands and the continental shelves of five southeast Asian countries. Incredibly, it appears to maintain that the entire South China Sea is an internal Chinese lake, thereby impinging on the right of free passage on, under, and over international waters. And the United States, even though far from Asia, is now becoming China’s target: at the beginning of this week it was revealed that Beijing, in a bid to strengthen its unsupportable claims against Vietnam’s continental shelf, is bullying Exxon-Mobil to drop out of an exploration agreement with state oil company PetroVietnam.
Giving up Taiwan would only embolden China to press its claims with even more confidence and vigor. And it would bolster Beijing’s weak legal positions by inheriting Taipei’s territorial rights. So the place to stop the Chinese from pursuing their aggressive ambitions is Taiwan.
Fifth, abandoning Taiwan would send a horrible message to American allies, friends, and foes in the region. Who would ever want to help the United States in Asia — or elsewhere — in the future?
In short, America needs something it has not had in decades; a strong Taiwan policy. Instead, we have had the disgraceful equivocation of the Bush administration. Before that, Washington maintained a policy of “strategic ambiguity,” which just encouraged the Chinese to test American resolve.
Why have we not been able to develop a sound Taiwan policy when it is so important for us to do so? Largely because of our perceptions of China and our hopes for its future. We are trying to engage Beijing so that it becomes a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system. Yet over time, the Chinese, as they have become more powerful, have become more assertive. So in pursuit of an unattainable goal — making China our friend — the Bush administration is undermining its own strategic objectives and the security of the United States.
It’s time for the president to demonstrate that Wolfowitz is right and that America keeps commitments to friends. We need to do that especially at this moment because defending Taiwan is the same as defending the United States.