Opinion

Obama forfeits respect in Asia by letting Taiwan down – hard

Vice President Biden is expected to apprise China of the US decision to deny F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan. The dire implications of this should not be played down. It leaves Taiwan vulnerable and the US underpowered in Asia, as Washington looks to be walking away from democratic values.

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Over the past three decades, Taiwan has been in many tight spots in mounting a credible defense against the People’s Republic of China. Yet none has been as uncomfortable as now.

The island republic is staring into a very near future when it can no longer defend its own airspace, and when deterrence across the Taiwan Strait morphs into military dominance by China.

The trends would be less worrying if the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 were taken more seriously in Washington. But the US role as guarantor of Taiwan’s ability to defend itself under the law is under steady assault, both from within the American bureaucracy and foreign policy community and from furious lobbying by Beijing.

For its part, Taipei has gone public in recent months as it became more doubtful that the Obama administration would accept their most urgent arms request, the purchase of new F-16 C/D jet fighters.

But its pleas are being ignored, despite the backing of the US Congress. Each house of Congress has sent letters to President Obama signed by nearly half of the elected representatives from both political parties. The letters urge him to follow through with the weapons sale.

The crisis has been long in coming. Taiwan has been trying to acquire the newer C/D version of the F-16 since 2006, along with upgrades to its older F-16 A/B models and more sophisticated radar systems. The new fighters would replace its remaining operational F-5s, which are scheduled for retirement in 2014, and French Mirage fighters.

But for the past five years, according to press reports, the State department under two administrations has quietly prohibited Taiwan’s representatives from even submitting a letter of request that would initiate the lengthy process of agency reviews, essentially freezing the transaction before it could begin.

So the news this week that the Obama administration has decided against selling the new F-16s was not unexpected. It still came as a shock. American officials claim that no decision has been made and promise an announcement by Oct. 1. But the telltale signs are apparent, say knowledgeable sources. They include Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Beijing this week where he is expected to apprise his hosts of President Obama’s “compromise” – to sell upgrades for Taiwan’s existing F-16s and advanced radar, but no new aircraft.

Dire consequences

The dire implications of this concession should not be played down. So far, no one has identified a trade-off for the accommodation, other than the banalities of continuing “business as usual” with a China that has inserted itself commercially and diplomatically into nearly every corner of the globe as a fiscal and economic powerhouse.

For Taiwan, the decision must be confusing and dispiriting. “We are behaving in self-contradictory ways toward Taiwan,” says China historian Arthur Waldron, Lauder Professor of International Relations at the University of Pennsylvania. ”The explanation would appear to be that either we don’t want them to resist [China], or that we don’t think they will be attacked.”

The conspicuous inadequacy of Washington’s compromise to Taiwan’s security needs could also be destabilizing.

Taipei needs “regular, strong, visible signs of US support,” wrote a security expert at the The Taiwan Link, an anonymous blog, after blasting the decision as a “failing policy” toward an historic ally. “Insecurity created by even the perception of waning US support has historically resulted in radical policies in Taiwan,” wrote the commentator with an insider’s knowledge of the Asia policy establishment in Washington.

For now, the Taiwanese are trying to cope with the shock. “We are so disappointed in the United States,” an exasperated Taiwanese defense official told the Taipei Times on hearing news of the decision, which was first reported by Wendell Minnick in Defense News.

If the decision stands, “disappointment” would be an understatement. The failure to make plans for replacing Taiwan’s obsolescent air force with advanced aircraft would be a turning point across the Taiwan Strait, even as Chinese naval and missile threats are poorly deterred. Until now, China has had the quantitative superiority in air power, but Taiwan’s qualitative edge has made the difference. Meanwhile, China is modernizing its air force at warp speed with more advanced fighters coming into production.

If Taiwan does not keep up, the impact will be felt across East Asia, especially by Japan. In pleading his government’s case, Andrew Yang, Taiwan’s vice-minister of defense for policy, told Defense News recently that the island’s security interests are closely linked with those of its oldest ally, the US.
“If we don’t get the F-16 C/Ds to replace our vintage fighters, then we lose our leverage and immediately face the challenge of fulfilling our responsibility of preserving peace and stability in the region,” Mr. Yang said. That would increase Washington’s burdens, he added.

Move could cost the US

Yang’s working assumption that Taiwan still has a role in US security policy in East Asia is correct, though it is sometimes disputed. And it points to why the denial of an effective air defense could ultimately be costly for the US. With shrinking resources across the vast US Pacific Command and geographically limited locations for its bases, the US military requires the full complement of Taiwan’s air patrols, intelligence gathering, and air combat capabilities.

This lethal combination of strategic confusion and accommodationist politics gives the appearance of Washington turning away from a fellow democracy as it drifts into the orbit of a hostile authoritarian state. That is not a reassuring message to our Asian allies and friends, old or new.

Regardless of how prosperous and newly influential China may be, the long history of US relations with Taiwan celebrates values that Beijing cannot deny. They include democratic institutions and a free society based on universal human rights and the rule of law. These place the island-nation among the most valuable members of the international community.

To throw away these values in favor of business-as-usual with Beijing is neither good policy nor smart diplomacy. And it is no way for the US to re-engage as a Pacific nation and win respect.

Julian Baum is a journalist formerly based in both Taipei and Beijing.

Editor's note: An earlier version incorrectly identified the name of the anonymous Taiwan blog.

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