Sunday, October 12, 2008

Taiwan, China and the missiles

America's missile diplomacy
The US arms sale to Taiwan has simply upset China instead of serving as a catalyst to settle the dispute over the island's status

* Ian Williams

o Thursday October 09 2008 21.00 BST

On Friday, Taiwan will celebrate its national day, which is actually the 97th anniversary of Sun Yat Sen's declaration of the old, non-communist Republic of China, whose flag is still the official banner of the island. Beijing gets very upset if Taiwan drops its claim to represent all of China and instead opts to go its own way officially, the way it has done in practice for 50 years.

The Taiwan Relations Act mandates the White House to ensure that the island has the means of self-defence. In fact, it says that "the United States decision to establish diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China rests upon the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means," which one could consider somewhat negated by all those threats and missiles in the mainland.

The Bush administration has refused to sell the F16s that it had earlier promised to Taiwan but never delivered in order to punish Chen Shui Bian, the former president, and his party for wanting to declare independence from China. The majority of Taiwanese no more want to come under Beijing than the Kosovars want to go under Belgrade, but the Bush arms freeze had left Beijing to assume, and no one from the administration has contradicted it, that the US agreed with the PRC's own rigid definition of the One China Policy.

Indeed, Admiral Timothy Keating, the commander of the US Pacific Command, admitted this summer that they had consulted with Beijing about arms for Taiwan, and the state department recently sent out a kow-towing memo to its embassies abroad on how to avoid upsetting the Chinese this Friday by keeping a very low profile at the ROC national day receptions around the world. No wonder the commissars for the Middle Kingdom had become used to accepting obeisance and tribute from the foreign ghosts.

However, now, to reward Taiwan's new president, Ma Ying-jeou, who has been trying to kiss and make up with Beijing, Bush has agreed to deliver half of what the Taiwanese wanted, included the much touted but seriously wonky Patriot missile system, but not the submarines and F16s that the Taiwanese had ordered.

The gesture was a little like being half-pregnant as far as the Chinese were concerned. They summoned the American chargé d'affaires to tell him they regarded it as a broken promise and were cutting off military and diplomatic cooperation.

Ma is from the KMT, the old Chinese nationalist party, whose diehards agree with Beijing on one-China, but disagree with the communists about who represents it, and this national day will be more Republic of China, and less Taiwan. Ma has managed some serious political acrobatics. Without disavowing the old nationalists in his party, he had to persuade the electorate that he would stroke the mainland by eschewing showy gestures, while still maintaining effective independence.

The KMT would like the ROC to join the UN as well, without declaring independence, but Beijing's gratitude only goes so far. It slapped down the new government's conciliatory attempt to shelve the UN question by going for representation at the World Health Organisation instead. And since it really does not get this democracy and self-determination thing, Beijing has not foresworn the use of force or moved the batteries of hundreds of missiles pointed threateningly at the hearts and minds of the Taiwanese, who have no ambition whatsoever to invade the mainland.

Of course, with all this electoral rhetoric about supporting democracy, one wonders about the degree of American cooperation with one of the least democratic regimes outside Riyadh, not least when contrasted with the lack of support for a democratically elected government in Taiwan.

We did see democracy at work in Washington, where John McCain supported the full arms package going to Taiwan, but one has to wonder how principled a stand it was when his neocon adviser Randy Scheunemann had had in his lobbyist's portfolio not only Georgia, but also Taiwan and Lockheed Martin, purveyors of the Patriot missiles and F16s. Will the policy change if Beijing makes an offer?

In fact, the Taiwan government has not been pushing as hard as it could on arms sales, not least because they consciously strove to limit the arms budget in order to spend more on things like education and health, which is a good lesson for both presidential candidates in the US. Taiwan really should cancel on those dud Patriots.

A stronger, saner US might be able to parlay possible arms supplies to Taiwan against a Chinese pledge not to use military force to settle the dispute, and to remove all those missiles. But an administration dependent on the Peoples Bank of China to pay for the Wall Street bail-out and lobbyists for framing policy is neither strong nor sane. And neither McCain nor Barack Obama has suggested cutting the defence budget in favour of healthcare and education, which would really be the sanity clause for Marxists and normal humans.

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