Taiwan in From the Cold
Kurt M. Campbell
April 25, 2001, The Washington Post
significance of the decision to provide Taiwan with a sophisticated
array of largely naval platforms and weaponry is not so
much what was provided by the Bush administration -- submarines,
naval patrol craft and refurbished destroyers -- as the
way in which the decision was communicated. Lost in the
public churning over will they or won't they sell Aegis
class destroyers (a decision that the new team chose to
defer) was the very public style in which Taiwan Strait
security issues were handled. The higher profile given to
the changing security situation and the subtle reestablishment
of contacts with the Taiwan military are likely to have
much more profound long-term implications than any weapons
system agreed upon today.
beneath the fold on the list of glistening weapon systems
and sophisticated technology handed over to the visiting
Taiwanese military delegation are a series of somewhat innocuous
sounding "briefings" and "technical surveys."
The reality is that these steps calling for greater interaction
and communication between Taiwan and the United States --
often referred to as "software" initiatives --
are in many ways more important and possibly more sensitive
diplomatically than the "hardware" systems that
have to date received all the attention. Beijing has long
feared and loudly warned that renewed interactions of this
kind would not be well received. It remains to be seen what
the reaction will be to the U.S. decision to bring Taiwan's
military further in from the cold.
United States abrogated its security treaty with Taiwan
in 1979 as part of the establishment of formal diplomatic
relations with China. As a result, the United States and
most other major states in Asia have had little contact
with Taiwan's security apparatus for more than a generation.
Indeed, in the past 20 years, no military establishment
in the world has experienced the kind of sustained international
isolation that is a daily reality for Taiwan -- not Iraq
or even North Korea. This seems somewhat incongruous given
the proliferation of all kinds of commercial and cultural
contacts between the island and the United States during
the same period.
only significant interaction for a number of years occurred
at the quiet annual meetings in Washington between mid-level
officers on both sides to discuss Taiwan's defense needs
as stipulated by the landmark Taiwan Relations Act of 1979.
Most years the Taiwan team sneaked in and out of town with
barely a notice, even when significant decisions were made.
In contrast, this week's meeting has received enormous public
attention and has been a sensitive date on the diplomatic
calendar of Asia for months.
new profile given to these forgotten warriors from Taiwan
reflects new security realities on the ground, in the air
and in the surrounding seas of the Taiwan Strait. For a
host of complex reasons, the People's Republic of China
has set about trying to develop and acquire military capabilities
designed to coerce Taiwan to the bargaining table. Yet the
military systems that Beijing has fielded during the past
half-decade -- including medium-range missiles, submarines
and fighter aircraft -- look less and less like heavily
armored bargaining chips and more and more like true military
capabilities with potential battlefield implications and
the provocative missile tests off Taiwan's shores in 1995-96,
one of the biggest areas of uncertainty for Pentagon planners
and intelligence specialists was the question of what Taiwan's
military would do in a security crisis with China. The recognition
that a potential blind spot for the United States in a tense
situation was the possible actions of our erstwhile ally
led to a substantial increase in unofficial and behind-the-scenes
contacts with the Taiwan military during the Clinton years.
Bush team has taken these initial steps to the next logical
level, calling for more unofficial interaction between the
armed forces of the United States and Taiwan. There are
several reason why this is important.
the Taiwan military is an important actor in national security
situations across the Strait, and it is in the strongest
interests of the United States to have better contacts and
understanding of Taiwan's uniformed professionals.
to make this new hardware that we have just provided Taiwan
work will require more training and interaction if the sales
are to truly bolster Taiwan's fragile security.
knowing how Taiwan will behave in a crisis helps U.S. forces
and contingency planning in innumerable ways and is a prudent
step, given the military buildup taking place across the
more contact with the militaries on both sides may help
promote a degree of military confidence-building -- a distant
prospect now, with visas and spy planes flying fast and
furious, but something to earnestly work toward once the
initial dust from this Taiwan arms sales package settles
writer is senior vice president of the Center for Strategic
and International Studies.