"PERSPECTIVE"...as 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A thoughtful review of this outdated legislation is warranted and would be viewed by China as a genuine attempt to set a new course for a relationship that can develop into openness, trust and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...
ON IMPROVING US-PRC RELATIONS AND SCRAPPING THE TRA
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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