An Obama TPR: Too little, too late?

April 29, 2009
Taipei Times

While reports of an imminent Taiwan Policy Review (TPR) are premature, it would be a useful exercise as part of a global strategic review of China’s emerging pre-eminence.

China is now the second-most powerful nation on earth. Its economy has already surpassed Japan and Germany in terms of industrial output. It has massive financial clout with which it has bought incredible political patronage across the map. It has a rapidly modernizing military — as the celebrations last week of the Chinese navy’s 60th anniversary demonstrated.

There is no wisdom in confronting China head-on in Asia, and a TPR by the administration of US President Barack Obama must take this into account. But if the US is to balance China’s looming rise with a coalition of Asian democracies, Taiwan must be a key policy element.

With Kurt Campbell’s nomination as Obama’s — and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s — assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, Obama’s national security appointments offer a prospect that his administration might actually salvage some of the Asia policy wreckage of the administration under former president George W. Bush. Campbell understands the looming crisis in Asia policy — the challenge of China’s rise — as does his fellow nominee at the Pentagon, retired Marine Lieutenant General Wallace “Chip” Gregson, for assistant secretary for Asian and Pacific security affairs, and his deputy, Derek Mitchell.

Unfortunately, “geostrategic considerations,” when it comes to Taiwan (or China, for that matter) have long been absent in Washington policy circles. Former intelligence officer and White House Asia expert Robert Suettinger, in his book Beyond Tiananmen, admits that “the notion that American policy [toward China] is directly driven by strategic considerations ... is grossly inaccurate.” It had been driven instead by business pressures — if not by sheer intellectual inertia — long after the US’ strategic imperatives with proudly authoritarian China evaporated in the 1992 collapse of the Soviet Union and the 1989 reversal of China’s political reforms at Tiananmen.

Former president Bill Clinton’s China policy quietly changed in August 1999 after spectacular increases in Chinese missile deployments and jet fighter sorties in the Taiwan Strait. Clinton’s defense department secretly began to build up military cooperation with Taiwan — a momentum that continued without publicity through the Bush years — and Campbell was at the center of that initiative. He was an advocate of strong alliances with Japan and Australia — alliances that Bush minimized in an unhealthy reliance on Beijing’s influence in Asia.

The cascade of Asia policy disasters in the last four Bush years stemmed from the president’s preoccupation with Iraq and Afghanistan and his chronic inattention to geopolitics or strategy anywhere else. The erosion of the US-Japan alliance; permitting North Korea to drive the US’ Asia policy; complete neglect of Southeast Asia; inattention to a strategic partnership with India; abandoning democratic Taiwan in the face of war threats from undemocratic Beijing — that was the Bush Asia policy.

All of these failures sprang from the miscalculation that China was an active, responsible stakeholder in East Asian security, trade, humanitarian relief, the environment and so on. The Bush administration also persuaded itself that Taiwan was of such existential urgency to Beijing that China’s viciousness was excusable. Beijing therefore was permitted to alter the “status quo” with its missile deployments and its 2005 “Anti-Secession Law,” but Taiwan could never react.

When it came to Japan’s security and its panic over China’s vast military buildup, Bush rebuffed Tokyo’s appeal for F-22s, fearing (it is said) it would “alter the strategic balance.” The default mode for Bush’s Asia policy was China-centric to the exclusion of all other considerations. It was a common affliction in Washington, one that author Jim Mann famously dubbed “the China Fantasy.”

“Fantasy” indeed. As my friend Yuan Peng, a think tank researcher for China’s intelligence services, has written: “In the world today, virtually all of America’s adversaries are China’s friends.” You name them: North Korea, Burma, Iran, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Syria, Hamas (through Syria) and Hezbollah, have I missed any? China gives them both weapons they use in the field and diplomatic cover they need in the UN. Why? As China’s foremost US expert, professor Wang Jisi (王緝思), has said: “Facts prove that it is beneficial for [China’s] international environment to have the United States — both militarily and diplomatically — deeply and inextricably sunk in the Middle East.” This has nothing to do with Taiwan, and everything to do with China’s freedom of action in Asia.

Even today, China’s poor record on issues of greatest concern to the US — nonproliferation, territorial pressures on US friends and allies (Japan, India and Taiwan, to name a few), supplying arms (via Iran and Syria) to insurgents in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Levant, consumer product safety, global warming, environmental despoliation, intellectual property, currency manipulation, locking up oil and mineral resources, dumping and cybersecurity, not to mention human rights and political freedoms — is embraced with a “what-me-worry” insouciance among Washington’s foreign policy, business and financial elites.

Taiwan’s significance in Asia is eclipsed in this China fantasy. Taiwanese now feel they have nowhere left to go but China. The rest of Asia watches US-Taiwan trends to see if the US might draw some line with China. All Asian governments understand Taiwan’s strategic importance to the US. I say this despite the comments of my good friend and former Chinese-language classmate, American Institute in Taiwan Chairman Ray Burghardt, who said on March 19 that “a geostrategic character to American policy toward Taiwan ... isn’t really there.”

Taiwan’s strategic value was not discussed in the Condoleezza Rice State Department or in the Bush White House. However, Taiwan’s significance to US security is not dismissed by defense and intelligence officials who observe China’s expanding military power: They must plan for weapons systems 20 years into the future and China’s military, naval, missile and cyberspace modernization keeps them awake. Taiwan’s geographic location in Asia and its geopolitical disposition are essential to monitoring these developments.

Whether State Department or White House Asia policy aides often think of these things is beside the point. They are facts: Taiwan is positioned astride sea lanes plied by vast fleets of Asian shipping; Taiwan’s lofty mountains provide phased-array radar coverage of missile and aerospace activity 1,930km into continental East Asia; submarines moving from the East Asian coast into the Western Pacific go through Taiwan’s waters to avoid Japan’s extensive anti-submarine acoustic detection; Taiwan occupies the two largest islands in the South China Sea, Taiping and Pratas.

More important, Taiwan is the US’ poster-child for democracy in Asia; the US’ 10th-largest export market; and the world’s fourth-largest foreign exchange reserves holder. Taiwan’s GDP is bigger than any in Southeast Asia. Taiwan’s population is bigger than Australia’s. In short, US equanimity at the prospect of democratic Taiwan’s absorption by communist China is a clear signal to the rest of Asia that the US has bought on to the “Beijing Consensus” — Asia may as well go along, too.

Sooner or later there will be an Obama “Taiwan Policy Review.” But it won’t amount to much. An Obama TPR will judge that the powerful momentum in cross-strait dynamics is pushing Taiwan rapidly into full economic dependence on China. It will conclude that Taiwan’s inextricable economic dependence on China — absent counterbalancing action — will quickly drive the country beyond its “tipping point” toward political and, ultimately, security dependence on Beijing. At that point, Obama can dust off his hands and say: “Oh well, I really wanted to help Taiwan, but it was too late.” Some will say, “It’s not so bad, look at Hong Kong.” Others will say, “Oh well, it was Bush’s fault.”

It may already be too late. For, despite China’s resolute disruption of US “hegemonistic” human rights and nonproliferation goals in Asia (and Africa, too, for that matter), key Bush White House aides believed China was one of “Washington’s New Comrades” and foresaw (in the words of former White House Asia expert Victor Cha) a new Northeast Asian “regional architecture” in which “Washington looks forward to China assuming a major role as a real problem solver in the region.”

Obama is unlikely to be confrontational with China or anyone else. But democratic Asia needs US leadership if it is to balance China, and the test of the Obama administration’s Asia policy will be to provide that leadership. A Taiwan Policy Review will only be a small subset of that calculation. Now that Campbell has been nominated, Obama has an outline of an “Asia Team” that can begin to reassess the US’ erosion in the Western Pacific. If Campbell can’t stop the collapse of the US’ Asian interests in Taiwan, it’s hard to see where he can do it.

John Tkacik is a retired US foreign service officer who had postings in Taipei, Beijing, Hong Kong and Guangzhou. He was chief of China intelligence at the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research in the first Clinton administration.


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