Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Nelson Report on Adm Owens

The Nelson Report, the Washington insider report, carries news of that awful piece by Admiral Bill Owens in the Financial Times I blogged on a few days ago. Onward....


"PERSPECTIVE" noted in the Summary, a Financial Times OpEd last week by retired Amb. Bill Owens caused some heartburn throughout the China/Taiwan watching community, timed as it was to coincide with President Obama's trip to Asia.

Many in Taipei, and here, wondered if the former Vice Chief of the Joint Chiefs' recommendation to scrap the Taiwan Relations Act in favor of something more suited to his view of current US-PRC relations might be a "covert" message of some kind from DOD, the White House, or perhaps both.

As we read it, the gist of Owens' argument is that because the PRC's military build-up is already so overwhelming, continuing US arms sales to Taiwan in effect feeds an already pointless arms race.

Here's a key section:

It is often politically expedient to paint China as an adversary, or worse, a future enemy. Our national security apparatus is aiming to continue the present level of defence spending and emphasising 30-year-old legislation that is doing more harm than good.

The Taiwan Relations Act was passed in 1979 after the establishment of relations with the People's Republic of China and the breaking of relations with the Republic of China. It is the basis on which we continue to sell arms to Taiwan, an act that is not in our best interest.

A thoughtful review of this outdated legislation is warranted and would be viewed by China as a genuine attempt to set a new course for a relationship that can develop into openness, trust and even friendship.

The first step to halting arms sales might be to observe that the Chinese have stopped the short range missile build-up across the Taiwan Straits (I believe this is true). The US could then stop selling arms to Taiwan unless that build-up was renewed. We must always protect the democracy and freedoms Taiwan has developed - but weapons sales do not do this.

We must consider the facts. China will continue to grow four to five times faster than the US. In less than 30 years China's GDP will equal that of the US and we will live in a world of two great and equal powers. Importantly, if China funds its military at a global standard of 3-4 per cent of GDP, it will have the capacity for a military equal to or greater than that of the US (they get more from the yuan than we from the dollar, manpower costs are less, and production is cheaper because of its scale).

At that time, friends and allies such as Japan, Korea, India and Indonesia will be faced with a difficult choice (and yes, it will be a choice) between China, a rapidly growing and influential regional power, which is continuing to grow and trade in much larger quantities, or stick with the US (a 12-hour flight away). Is that the scenario we would set for the future? I believe not.

The solution is to approach the US/China relationship not with hedging, competition or watchfulness, but with co-operation, openness and trust.


In fact, Owens' piece horrified former colleagues we contacted, on several grounds, including a concern that his long-standing affiliation with a PRC-sponsored talk-shop might be clouding both his political and strategic judgment. [MT: this is probably a reference to the Sanya Initiative held at CSIS last year, which basically resembled the dinner party in The Remains of the Day, with the Chinese for Nazis and retired US military officers for their British sympathizers. See the anonymous comment on my previous post on this topic.]

Our checks make it emphatically clear that Owen's OpEd of Nov. 17 was poorly received for substantive reasons, including his incomprehensible decision not to reference the very deep concerns still unresolved over the USS Impeccable incident earlier this year.

So we asked Loyal Reader and regular adult supervisor on all such matters, Rear Admiral Eric McVadon (Ret.) for his commentary on the Owen's suggerstions...

Commentary for The Nelson Report by Eric McVadon

Admiral Bill Owens has boldly suggested stopping arms sales to Taiwan and embracing China. Yes, the U.S. and China should be better friends, just as Admiral Owens suggests. They are, of course, friendly to a far greater degree than they were for much of the last half of the last century. Indeed, I advocate a goal of partnership in the first half of this century--a path the two countries have arguably taken with respect to North Korea, the global economic crisis, maybe global warming, etc. Progress has been made even with respect to Taiwan, but caution is warranted in what is arguably the most complex problem of this sort that the world faces today--including the Taiwan Relations Act, which addresses U.S. support of Taiwan's defensive capability.

As to specifics, I hope Admiral Owens is right about a cessation of the Chinese ballistic missile buildup against Taiwan. Even if so, there are already deployed against Taiwan roughly a thousand short- and medium-range ballistic missiles (many very accurate) and probably hundreds of land-attack cruise missiles (very accurate)--an unprecedented, overwhelming missile threat against which there is no effective defense. Beijing's saying it has stopped now is not very comforting to the mother's of Taiwan.

Moreover, China has made no move toward renouncing the use of force against Taiwan--and it has built an impressive and modernized military capability focused on the "Taiwan problem." A minor part of this is the amphibious and airborne capabilities that could cap a campaign by missiles and air that had driven Taiwan to its knees. China has modern, capable, and numerous aircraft, ships, submarines, anti-ship cruise missiles, anti-C4ISR systems, fifth column and special forces, and much more that, if used effectively, could defeat Taiwan and that stand a chance of deterring, slowing, and complicating timely and effective U.S. intervention. Tensions across the Taiwan Strait have recently eased; an attack is highly unlikely. Nevertheless, Taiwan needs to have some role in deterring China from using this force and in defending itself, if things go the wrong way in the future.

Taiwan does not need offensive weapons to attack China. Those would be pin pricks to a dragon, which has overwhelming military superiority, favorable geography, strategic depth, vast comprehensive national power, sense of purpose, and obsessive motivation.

Taiwan does need weapons to deter an attack by making Beijing realize that the outcome would be uncertain, an attack would be costly, and that Taiwan would not be immediately defenseless and helpless--forced to accept Beijing's terms. Taiwan cannot defend itself against today's China and PLA without U.S. intervention. The Chinese will attempt to deter or delay a U.S. response with military, technical, and political means. Taiwan needs weapon systems that will help it hold on until the Americans can achieve effective intervention. Beijing must recognize that factor, or it will be emboldened or tempted to use military force in some arising crisis, perceived or real, concerning Taiwan's future direction.

It is, therefore, premature to abandon the Taiwan Relations Act. It is not premature to build greater trust and confidence with China. We need the right balance of engagement and cooperation on the one hand and U.S. and Taiwan military readiness on the other. Neither of these goals is easily achieved. Much intellectual energy and sound thinking and leadership are required. There could soon come a day when Beijing will take a more enlightened position (there are hopeful hints of that) or that a solution is achieved otherwise (probably based on economic interdependence). But, for the moment, a bold stroke to fell the TRA won't do the trick.

Eric A. McVadon
Rear Admiral, U.S. Navy (Retired)
Consultant on East Asia Security Affairs
Director, Asia-Pacific Studies, Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis


Owen must have known how poorly his strategically shortsighted and ethically challenged opinion on the TRA would be received in Washington. It's pretty clear who it was written to please.

Nelson, a former Dem staffer who was in on the drafting of the Taiwan Relations Act, also refers to the USS Impeccable incident, in which Chinese boats hassled a US surveillance vessel going about its lawful business in local waters. He says that deep issues regarding that incident remain unresolved. Readers may want to reflect on that: of all the US government arms that do business with China, the Navy has gone out of its way to work with Beijing more than most.
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jerome said...


jerome said...

I'd like to return to my pithy comment and add that the US executive, the ROC, the PROC and the international community have been well aware of the fact that the "Taiwan international and legal status" question remains in the hands of an elusive USMG since the end of WWII, 64 years ago.

An informed guess leads us to conclude that all concerned know that Taiwan is merely a geographical entity under USMG trusteeship.

What could the wise leaders at Zhongnanhai do about it, except blur the red lines embedded into the SFPT? I am asking you. Sleep well on that, Michael.

Yours always

Don said...

Anyone for whom the wellbeing of the people of Taiwan is an end in itself, rather than a means to someone else's policy objectives (this certainly excludes Adm Owen) has to advocate consolidation of the TRA at this point, including continued arms sales.


Because this is the one thing that Beijing wants more than anything to halt. It's no bluff. The CCP consistently and purposefully works to bring about an end to US arms sales and the implied defense partnership with Taiwan.


The most obvious explanation: because US weaponry raises the cost for China of launching a violent attack on Taiwan, and correspondingly reduces the credibility of China's destabilizing and provocative threats against the people of Taiwan.

On the other hand, ending arms sales (and the implied loss of US interest in the future of a free Taiwan) dramatically increases the credibility of China's threats, undermining morale in Taiwan and advancing China's endgame.

Anything wrong with that?

Actually, no, not if you and your business banquet buddies consider yourselves "friends of China" and would rather stick up for the aggressor in Beijing than buy precious time for people in democratic Taiwan.

Anonymous said...

Owens... he definitely drank the potion. Any Sino-specialist will tell you, what Owens did, is he fell victim to typical Chicom trickery. If you read the entire Sanya Initiative it is full of how the Chicom system brings in its target, gives them many gifts, beautiful accommodations, big banquets, and wonderful events. During all events each former US General/Admiral gets isolated -- each one is given a "handler" -- each handler goes over the "victimization" speech of China -- talks about the obstacles to friendship -- talks about mutual respect. It ends up all being "smoke and mirrors". What is sad is these generals/admirals did not know is they all got "duked" by the masters of deception. If any of these generals/admirals ever truly studied "Sun Tzu the Art of War" they would understand the Chapter 6, Chapter 8 and Chapter 13; and they would have understood what trap they were walking into. Overall, Owens became the "tool" that China will use to slowly chip away at the United States and other western powers. What a shame that one of the former Vice Chairmans of the Joint Chiefs of Staff got fooled. He should have known better...

Oh, if one believes in "signs"; during the Sanya Initiative, they all went out fishing on a tour boat (former Chinese generals and former US general/admiral), they caught nothing... hopefully this is a sign that "nothing" happens as a result of the Sanya Initiative.

Anonymous said...

Pardon, this is not related to your post, but I think you should check out this piece on the Atlantic Monthly Web site:

It refers to Taiwan as a province of China.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Anon (6:21). Owens is a perfect example of how an incredibly smart man can do stupid things.

It's really hard to say what goes on in his mind. But one reading is that he, like so many other active or retired senior uniformed military, has a "white knight in shining armor" complex. Like Roman consuls before, these four stars think they are uniquely qualified to save the world. Only they can talk man-to- man with the enemy and make them see the light.

These modern day knights seek to establish personal relationships with their military counterparts (active or retired), develop lasting friendships, and enjoy open channels of communication. It is incredibly naive, and these guys fall into traps time and time again. It happened in the Cold War with the Soviet Union, and has been going on with China since the 1980s.

There has never been a psychological or other study on this tendency. But Congress and former SecDef Rumsfeld certainly have understood it well. The inability of four stars to control their passion for the PLA directly resulted in Congress restricting DoD relations with the Chinese military (Section 1201, National Defense Authorization Act of 2000).

Going beyond this, Rumsfeld established and enforced a policy in which four stars, or anyone in DoD, had to ask his permission to engage a counterpart in the PLA. The uniformed military, especially the Pacific Command commander, squealed bloody murder. President Bush finally forced Rumsfeld to relax his restrictions, but only after a major Chinese, NSC Staff, and uniformed military campaign to get Bush to come down on Rumsfeld.

But as Anon says, the Chinese run circles around these naive four stars. They play to vanity. They say the things these four stars want to hear. They will flat out lie to win the hearts of these four stars. One of the Chinese goals is to manage the perceptions of influential players, and four stars are often the most vulnerable to manipulation.

However, what makes Owens different today is that he is now mixing his innate vanity and "white knight in shining armor" complex together with business interests. He will swear up and down that there is no connection.

But give me a break. Clients and partners of AEA Investors (e.g., Kissinger, Hank Greenberg, and Vincent Mai) look to Owens for access and influence. That's why they hired him -- to lead the way on key investments, mergers, and acquistions, especially those in the military and high tech domains. Is it only coincidental that Owens is leading the charge for AEA Investors and C.V. Starr to convince the PLA-affiliated Huawei to pick his consortium as the winner to own its huge handset business? Owens has had a Huawei fetish since his failed days at Nortel. A final decision on the Huawei handset procurement is pending. If the PLA, government authorities in Beijing, and Huawei do pick Owens' AEA Investors and their partners (C.V. Starr, former AIG founder Hank Greenberg's private company), then get ready for Huawei to enter the U.S. telecommunications market in a big way.

Enough rambling...

Άλισον said...

To the first Anon:

I did read that piece about China's 9 nations a few days back before it was mentioned here, the piece was inspired by another book that was written in 1981, nearly 30 years ago, about N. America.

While the thoughts contained in the "9 nations of America" are quite outdated and American-centered as many big cities in Canada have outgrown their American counterparts; the "9 nations of China" has noticed at the end of the article that Fujian and Taiwan are pushed apart by identity and ideology.

So, I don't know what's so significant about one man's dream map of China?

And, I wonder if Anon read the whole piece or just looked at the map before referring the readers.

Anonymous said...

They should replace Owens with Retired ADM Fallon, another senior officer convinced he was able to establish a relationship with senior Chinese leaders.